Rescuing Devotional Babies from the Bathwater…

Over at the Patheos Book Club, there’s an interesting selection being discussed, a slim volume simply entitled Catholic Spiritual Practices, Edited by Colleen M. Griffith and Thomas H. Groome.

I’m going to confess right now, I did not get to read this book, but that wasn’t due to lack of interest. In tidying up for Thanksgiving the thing was accidentally donated to my parish along with a slew of other books — but I figure that was the Holy Spirit getting into hands that needed it. I was happy to see the book, and most especially to see who was involved in this collection of essays recommending traditional Catholic spiritual practices. I think it’s a book that is greatly needed right now, mostly for the very reasons Joanne McPortland lays out:

Catholics of a traditional bent [will get their first surprise] on scanning the list of authors whose brief reflections on spiritual practices old and new editors Griffith and Groome have collected. Danger, Will Robinson! With a few exceptions, this could be the speaker’s roster for an LCWR annual meeting [...]

So here’s the second big surprise, not only for trads but for the progressive-if-elderly cohort of the authors, who might have been expecting DIY rituals based on generic Native American creation myths with a side of Wicca. These really are Catholic spiritual practices, presented for the most part quite traditionally and with a deep note of respect that’s been missing since many of the babies of tradition got thrown out with the Vatican II baptismal water. Divided into three sections—Practices of Prayer, Practices of Care, and Practices of Spiritual Growth—Catholic Spiritual Practices contains short essays on everything from the Rosary to Eucharistic Adoration (this essay from Brian Daley, SJ, is an eloquent tribute to the revival of this practice among young Catholics, which so impressed me on my reversion), with stops along the way for the Ignatian Examen, Retreats, Spiritual Direction, Stations of the Cross, Fasting, and Praying with Images, along with many more.

Intrigued yet? I was. I actually ordered Catholic Spiritual Practices for a friend of mine who is a boomer Catholic having her head turned by classes in “mindfulness” because she seems unaware that there is a Catholic equivalent, ancient and contemplative.

Kathy Schiffer, who was doubtful about the book when she received it, ended up calling it “a tool kit for prayer”:

The reader is introduced to rote prayers: the Lord’s Prayer, the Angelus, the Rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours; and to the spiritual disciplines such as Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina. We enter more deeply into the life of the spirit through Fasting and the Ignatian Examen. Thomas Groome leads us to walk with the suffering Christ in the Stations of the Cross.

And then, we are invited to recognize moments in our own lives as a kind of prayer: to see how the practice of Forgiveness or of Hospitality or our Care for the Environment, even the everyday struggles of Family Life, can be a form of prayer, leading us to greater holiness.

For someone who wants a better understanding of prayer in Catholic life, this book—with its 26 short, well-crafted chapters on 26 different kinds of prayer—is a great starting point. Catholic Spiritual Practices is a tool kit, loaded with different ways to touch the ineffable, to encounter the Divine Mystery.

Mikey, she liked it! So did Leah Libresco, who called it “a stub”:

This book alone would not be enough to get you engaged in any form of spiritual praxis, but you might end up with a Catholic Spiritual Practices-shelf, full of books you got after having your attention caught by one of the brief essays. The editors of the collection did a nice job recruiting priests, religious, and laypeople to introduce these practices. In the space allotted, some authors share their personal experiences with a prayer tradition, and others talk about the way a particular discipline has emerged through and shaped Church history. Not all of the essayists are Catholic, since some of these traditions are widely appreciated across Christendom, so, sometimes the way that a practice fits into a specifically Catholic theology is left as an exercise to the reader.

You know why I’m excited about this book? Because it is a reconsideration of some arguments against traditional devotions and practices — like Richard McBrien’s denigration of Eucharistic Adoration — that have grown stale and are now hurting, rather than helping the church find its Post Vatican II equilibrium. People want and need spiritual practices, disciplines, habits. If they can’t find them in Catholicism, they’ll look elsewhere and as Groome says in the video linked below, our church is rich in devotions and practices that truly enrich.

I am so very heartened by Joanne’s observation that some of the “too smart for this stuff” set are sort of given permission, with this book, to re-embrace things they may not even realize they’ve missed. As she shares from Colleen Griffith’s intro:

A spirituality that is disconnected from religious tradition is bereft of both community and history; it has no recourse to the benefits of a larger body of discourse and practice, and it lacks accountability. Such spirituality quickly becomes privatized and rootless, something directly opposite to the Christian understanding of “life in the Spirit.” (p. 3)

And, considering my essay today over at First Things, Catholic Spiritual Practices pretty much makes my point for me: this book needed to be written by recognized (and so-called) Catholic “progressives”, because we are so sadly divided as a church right now that were it written by so-called “conservatives” or even “moderates” (how I hate these miserable labels) the “progressives” would have rolled their eyes and discredited it as just another reactionary RadTrad gloop of piety, and that would be a shame and a loss. With these authors, there is now credible permission to stop being so darn cool and re-embrace the stuff that brought us real consolation, once upon a time, and can do so, again.

This is the Holy Spirit moving things. Love it.

There’s a very nice interview with Griffith and Groome and more to be found at the Book Club and scroll down here to watch a very winning video of Groome discussing the book.

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  • Peggy m

    ” this book needed to be written by recognized (and so-called) Catholic “progressives…”

    Only Nixon could go to China, eh? True dat.

    When I was in high school in the 1979s, I remember a classmate telling our religion teacher that she and her friends had a lot of questions about our religion. The girl seemed uncomfortable and awkward, and I (and the teacher, judging by body language) thought, oh, boy, here we go. Her first question was, “what is a novena?”. There followed questions about the meaning and purpose of spiritual bouquets, May processions and queens, nocturnal adoration, sodalities, First Fridays, etc., etc.

    It all seemed part of a richer and more-encompassing religious experience.

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  • suburbanbanshee

    I think, after a long time of distrusting individual devotional practices and trying to shove everything plus the kitchen sink into Mass, people are finally starting to see that unity in the Mass is aided by individuality in devotion. Understanding the Gospel? Individual devotion helps. Having a personal relationship with God? Individual devotion can wake you up to it. And of course, if people know more about the Church’s diversity of little traditions, it can help them find out what God wants them to do — and that there is more than one way to be a saint.

    Catholic tradition is a treasury full of riches. And God wants us to use our keys.


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