Bare Bones

There’s something about this time of year that can be downright off-putting, at least in the northeastern section of the U.S. Summer fades, the days grow shorter, the winds blow chill, and the brilliant autumn colors find their eventual rest in the gutters, leaving sternly bare tree limbs behind. I can see why the custom of putting up light displays in our yards has developed – anything to bring a little cheer to the drear! I walked my dog last night, and those tree limbs silhouetted against the dark November sky seemed almost menacing. Stripped of their autumnal decoration, those trees didn’t look friendly at all. All limbs and no leaves can border on the intimidating.

I wrote a post a few months ago about why my life is a shapeless blob, explaining that I am an aspiring Marian Catechist, but that the expectations for our devotional lives seemed somewhat daunting: daily Mass, daily Rosary, daily Way of the Cross, spiritual reading, meditation…. It seemed overwhelming, but I compared it to the human skeleton – your devotional life is the framework of your day; without a devotional framework, your life is a shapeless blob. What was interesting was that the feedback I got on that post centered not around people’s lack of a devotional life, but around the opposite: “devotional creep,” that phenomenon which causes us otherwise-sane Catholics to add the Chaplet of St. Michael to the Litany of Humility and the Devotion of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin, all before we get out of bed in the morning….

This seems related to a problem I saw a lot of in Protestantism, the folk belief that a life lived outside the realm of “full-time Christian service” (as a pastor or a missionary) is a wasted effort. I taught English in Taiwan for 6 years, and during that time I met several American Evangelicals who had been rejected by one or more mission boards and had felt “led” to move to Taiwan as an “independent” missionary because, in their view, it was impossible to serve God as a grocery store manager or an insurance salesman back in the States. Aren’t we supposed to give everything we have and are to God??

The answer is, of course, YES – but the perspective is skewed. Surrender to God is non-negotiable, but the prevailing Evangelical assumption tends to be that if I am fully surrendered to God then I WILL be called into full-time Christian service. That assumption is incorrect. Discerning one’s vocation, as any Catholic will tell you, is something everyone needs to do. With the help of the Holy Spirit, Catholics determine whether or not they are called to religious life. If they are called, then further discernment is required regarding the capacity in which they can best serve God. If they are not called to religious life, then they must proceed to glorify God in their vocation to life in this world but not of it. It goes without saying that it is NOT impossible to serve God as a grocery store manager or an insurance salesman; on the contrary, those avenues of employment are full of possibilities for growth in holiness. Since “evangelization” is the be-all and end-all of the Evangelical experience (rather than holiness), Evangelicals find it difficult to recognize the Heaven-sent opportunities for sanctification inherent in daily secular life.

But Catholics can have trouble of a different kind. While we may not succumb to the “fulltime Christian service” fallacy, in our devotion to Jesus we fall for a different error – one that says “I love Jesus! Because He is EVERYTHING, I must give myself to as many devotional activities as a human being can fit into one 24-hour period in order to show Him the honor He deserves.”

Yes, Christ is EVERYTHING – that much is certainly true. What we are leaving out of the conclusion is the fact that when we give everything we have and are in response to Him, we as finite beings are only giving our tiny drop in the bucket. Christ is EVERYTHING – I am most certainly not. I as one single, solitary human being could never show Him the honor He deserves. I have been created with built-in limits. It behooves me to remember that I am not the body of Christ; I am a member of that body. As a member I have an essential role to play, but my role is limited by my finite humanity. I must give everything that I have and am to God – but I cannot BE everything. I must find my role, my place of membership within His body, and then fulfill my role to the greatest extent possible. A cell of heart tissue that struggles to be lung tissue as well as stomach tissue and lymphatic tissue is setting itself up for inevitable heartbreak.

That’s the allure of devotions – they’re all so worthwhile. We want to spend time in Adoration. We want to participate in the Liturgy of the Hours. We want to meditate upon the life of Christ through the mysteries of the Holy Rosary, to remember Jesus’ passion at the 3 o’clock hour in the Stations of the Cross, to plead for mankind through the Divine Mercy chaplet – which one are you going to leave out? And there are more, all every bit as worthy….

That’s where the Catholic concept of “vocation” kicks in again. Catholics tend to think of vocation in terms of a call to religious life, but the term “vocation” has a much deeper and more basic meaning. As Servant of God Fr. John Hardon defined it in his Modern Catholic Encyclopedia, a vocation is

A call from God to a distinctive state of life, in which the person can reach holiness.

So, let’s say that you are a single woman who makes her living as a veterinarian, a married man who supports his family by hauling freight, a widower who’s long since retired from teaching but who has taken a job at a convenience store to make a little extra cash, a woman on disability who watches her grandchildren while their mom goes to work. You aren’t called to religious life. You are called to devote your life to God, however, so familiarizing yourself with the discernment process of a religious may help you “discern your call” to devotions.

Imagine a man or woman who feels called to life as a religious. A multitude of possibilities awaits them, and it isn’t simply a matter of choosing which part of the country they’d like to live in, or whether they want to serve God in an active order or in a contemplative order, or whether they think they’d look better in a brown habit rather than in a black habit. Each order has a spiritual emphasis, and understanding this emphasis helps with discernment. Carmelites, for example, preoccupy themselves with “meditating night and day on the Law of the Lord.” Benedictines have traditionally devoted themselves to the principle of “desiring God alone.” Dominicans “contemplate, and give to others the fruits of contemplation.” Franciscans investigate and pursue the ideal of spiritual poverty. Jesuits place emphasis on learning to discern how the individual might best use created things to lead him to God.

Just as a cell of heart tissue can’t simultaneously be skin tissue or kidney tissue, a Dominican isn’t at the same time a Jesuit or a Carmelite. Someone who enters religious life has to discern his or her calling, and that calling will then narrow things down, determining the devotional life he or she is called to lead. Secular Catholics need to put the same kind of discernment process to work.

That’s why there are public associations of the faithful like the Marian Catechist Apostolate and the Legion of Mary. That’s why there are secular Benedictine Oblates and third-order Franciscans – not that everyone is called to live as a tertiary or to join a sodality, but everyone does need some process for discerning the devotions to which he or she is called, with the understanding of our own place in the Body and our own limitations. Heart tissue does heart work, brain tissue does brain work, muscle tissue does muscle work. Otherwise we risk ending up like Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, getting up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before we go to bed, just to get all our devotions in. Our devotions have then become a heaping pile of disconnected bones, rather than a skeleton or framework upon which to base our lives. Rather than being a thing of beauty, our devotional life takes on an unnatural air.

That’s why I’m hoping that following the devotions of the Marian Catechists will provide that framework for me. Everyone’s life needs a framework. To anyone afflicted with “devotional creep” I would recommend investigating the devotions of various spiritual communities and associations, finding a plan that you feel called to, and then sticking with that plan. Piling devotion on top of devotion on top of devotion does not make for a healthier spiritual life any more than packing more bones into your body would make you more physically fit. The bones are the framework of the body; they are the means to an end. A well-selected “skeleton” of devotions will serve God’s purpose in your life as it orders your day.


On the memorial of St. Andrew

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. Right. We had to do our devotions to Sts Mezrop and Krotegang on piles of broken glass on our knees in the snow, wearing only tattered hainshirts, BEFORE we’d be allowed to drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us and dance about on our graves singing Hallelujah.

    And kids these days – they won’t believe you! Or something. What were we talking about? Oh, yea, devotions. While I certainly recognize the problem of multiplication of devotions until they get in the way (I asked my oldest son to promise me not to join anything or make any vows in his freshman year, because, given his personality, I could see him going WAY overboard) yet – if only this were a more general problem! Too much devotional fervor? Common enough, perhaps, among the people we hang with, but in the church in general?

    Of course, one tends to make light of temptations one is not particularly subject to. Rosaries, daily Mass and weekly adoration has been enough for me. I suppose I’m a major slacker here, which would hardly be unprecedented.

    Clearly, I don’t know what I’m talking about – also not unprecedented.

    • “Right. We had to do our devotions to Sts Mezrop and Krotegang on piles of broken glass on our knees in the snow, wearing only tattered hairshirts, BEFORE we’d be allowed to drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us and dance about on our graves singing Hallelujah.”

      You had hairshirts?? We DREAMED of having hairshirts!!

      I am officially proclaiming this the “Comment of the Year.” 🙂

      A general problem this is obviously not – the average Catholic would be really put out if you asked her to incorporate a daily recitation of the Rosary into her schedule. But several readers did make comments along the lines of “Man, I just don’t seem to be able to stop myself!” when I first wrote on the subject of devotions. Going way overboard can eventually end up being as unprofitable as being a total slacker – which you are, of course, not. I would say daily Mass automatically disqualifies you. Please pray that God will provide daily Masses that I can attend, or this Marian Catechist attempt is never going to get off the ground!

      • When I say hairshirt, all I mean is that we had a few strands of rusty wire held together with twine – but it was a hairshirt to us!

        Hope you find a daily Mass that works. Daily Mass is something that seems to have pursued me, rather than the other way around. I hear it’s a lot bigger challenge in many areas of this country.

        At Catholic schools, there was always a morning Mass (even if, by the ’70s, I might be the only student there). At college, there was a Carmelite monastary a mile down the arroyo; Then, when we lived in San Francisco, there were workable morning Masses at several parishes near by; same when we moved down the penennsula. Only once we got to the East Bay, did finding a morning Mass become a challenge. Now, with 4 parishes within 5 miles, only one has daily Mass early enough – and that’s only 3 days a week, with Mon and Fri communion services.

        BUT: Simbang gabi! starting the 16th and running through Christmas, the Filipino communities will start their Advent 5:30 a.m. Masses, followed by Filipino breakfast. It’s way early, but way cool. We’re some of the few white European looking types there, but the people have been very welcoming and kind. And mostly it’s in English – starting to get the hang os some of those tagalog hymns, too.

        Whenever getting to a daily mass has been hard, I’m pretty likely to have slacked off. No seeker of cilices, I.


        • We’re kind of short on arroyos and peninsulas in this area, though we do have many slopes and inclines in a pathetic attempt to make up for our lack of geographic sparkle. No Simbang gabi, either, despite the presence of a small Filipino community (glad you can participate, though – it sounds fun!) Kind of short on parishes as well – two in the area, though I shouldn’t complain; this is Baptist territory. I am very blessed that there is a 5:15 Mass on Wednesdays at which I can assist after work. The other Masses during the week start at 9 a.m. or noon. I’m praying that we’ll get more Mass opportunities.

          Cheer up – Santa might have a cilice in his bag for you this Christmas! You’ve been good!!

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