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Avoid Universalizing Private Devotions And Cultural Traditions

Avoid Universalizing Private Devotions And Cultural Traditions October 24, 2021

Juni: The Rosary / Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes, we get so used to our particular traditions of piety we try to universalize them, expecting others to follow what we do, judging them if they do not. An example of this is the way some people treat the rosary; it can be a good spiritual tool for those who choose to use it, if they engage it with their heart and not do so only to appear pious and holy in front of others. Nonetheless, it is optional. Many pious people don’t pray it. The rosary is a private devotion with its own particular history; there was a time when no one prayed it, and there continue to be many great spiritual traditions which do not use it. While many Eastern Catholics, due to Latinizations, got used to praying the rosary, it is not a part of the Eastern Christian tradition; thus, many Eastern Catholics do not ordinarily pray the rosary as a part of their own private devotions. This does not mean they love Jesus or Mary less than those who pray the rosary, it means they have a different means by which they use to express that love. An example of that is through the use of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.” This is a good devotion, but it, too, is a private devotion, and as such, it is not for everyone. There is a large variety of spiritual traditions in the church, each developing from its own particular time and place in history; each culture can and does have its traditions, some which can be significant for them and their walk with God, but it would be wrong for any culture to universalize their experience and expect others to follow them and be just like him.

Christians had to learn this lesson almost as soon as the church was established. This is because most early believers were Jews, but almost immediately after the resurrection, the Christian faith took on a universal mission, embracing people of a variety of cultures. Did Gentiles have to follow all the practices of the Jews? Should Christianity be reduced to one cultural form? St. Paul held the highest esteem for the Jewish tradition and its teachings, as they continued to influence him even after he believed in Christ. His answer as to how Christianity should deal with the Gentiles embraced the more culturally sensitive aspect of the Jewish tradition which  suggested that Gentiles had their own traditions and cultural  ways in which they could and would walk with God. The Mosaic Law was for the people of Israel; though there were elements of it which were of universal value, many of the details were meant exclusively for the people of Israel. Gentiles were not expected to follow the Mosaic Laws. This is why Paul would oppose those Christians who tried to force Gentile converts into following Jewish customs such as circumcision; it was not because he rejected his own Jewish upbringings, but rather, he followed it by enhancing one of the theological traditions found within it. Thus, believers in Christ should not compel Gentiles to follow all Jewish customs and practices; indeed, he saw many of those who did this did so for the wrong reason, that is, they believed that by acting like Jews, it would make people greater than those who did not:

It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh. But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation (Gal. 6:12-15 RSV).

Paul emphasized that the way to be great was to embrace Christ. We must Christ to transform us, to make us a new creation. It is in and with the cross we find our glory; we are to die to the self, to crucify ourselves, to avoid all pursuit of vainglory. It is only when we give up the pursuit of such vanity do we find treat greatness. When we die to the self and incorporate ourselves in Christ, we will experience the glory of the kingdom of God; we will find ourselves a part of it, not because of the particular spiritual practice and devotion which we used, but because of grace; devotions, when used properly, help us be receptive of that grace, but when abused, they can make us so self-absorbed we glorify ourselves, and when we do that, we find ourselves far from true glory. It is not outward appearances but the inner spiritual life which matters.

Jesus exemplified this with the story of Dives, the rich man, and Lazarus. Dives, with all his riches, would have appeared to many to have been approved by God and to be filled with glory. Lazarus, on the other hand, a man begging on the streets, suffering with all kinds of pain and sorrow, would appear to be one cursed by God. Lazarus, some might have said, suffered as a result of his sloth; he should not have expected any handouts and Dives was right to pass him by. Yet, Jesus made it clear, if we think like this, we think wrongly; we have given our approval to the wrong person. In the end, Dives found all his wealth and privilege was worthless, for he did not use it properly. He should have seen the opportunity he had been given to help those in need, but instead, he hoarded it all up and used it all for himself and his pleasure. He did not help his neighbor, and so, as a result, he suffered the consequences of his actions: “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom” (Lk. 16:22-23 RSV).

Lazarus, who seemed to be without glory, received blessings from God and through them attained true glory, while the rich man, who appeared to many to have been glorified by God, found all he had was as nothing. We should learn from this that we must judge by appearances; the poor we meet can be blessed by God, while the rich we meet, though seemingly robed in glory, could be as far from such glory as is possible. Similarly, those who practice forms of piety in front of us, those who follow particular spiritual practices so as to appear rich in faith and worthy of our respect could be far from such glory themselves if all they do is seek after the appearance of glory and not true glory itself, even as those who do not follow such private devotions and customs which we expect from them might have a far greater spiritual practice which they engage, giving them far greater glory than they appear to possess.

We must not judge people based upon external appearances. This is what Paul told the Galatians. It is not circumcision nor lack of circumcision, praying the rosary or not praying the rosary, which makes the difference – it is how someone opens up to grace and allows  it to transform them so as to truly become a partaker of the kingdom of God which matters. Private devotions and cultural practices can help us with this, if we engage them properly, but if we abuse them, far from helping us, we can find then hindering our spiritual progression as they encourage us to think pridefully of ourselves. We must engage our devotions with the proper spirit if we want the aid which they can offer. We must recognize their relative value. They can help us, but if we absolutize them and try to force them upon others, we turn away from that good and risk losing the good which we could have had by practicing them. We must always remember it is grace which is at the forefront of our spiritual progression, and all we do, should help us cooperate with grace. What works for us might not work for others. What works for others might not work for us. God has given as a variety of ways to engage grace, God allows for a variety of spiritual practices, for this very reason.

 

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