A Devotion to Harmony and Balance
Sep 11, 2023

A Devotion to Harmony and Balance

By September, kids are back in school. The year ahead of them—we hope and expect—will provide a well-rounded education in many disciplines: from math and science, to language and literature, to physical and social health. In short, parents and society desire that the educational system, whether public or private, produce mature, healthy, and competent citizens—and of course in the case of Catholic schools, this means forming citizens for the Heavenly Jerusalem (i.e., saints).

For those of us whose school days are long past, the late summer can still teach us a thing or two, especially about education and formation in prayer. Many (myself included) may feel like mere adolescents in the spiritual life—indeed, many struggle to mature in the life of prayer. Despite the lack of space in this editorial slot, as well as my own ineptitude (or is it “ineptness”?), let us consider two primary courses in maturing in the prayer life and becoming blessed citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem: liturgical prayer and devotional (or private) prayer.

These two principal prayer forms have long been at odds with each other—at least on the surface. Pastors of a century ago lamented that popular devotions were so, well, “popular” that a majority of the praying faithful preferred them over participation in the liturgy. In a presentation to fellow clergy in 1929, one priest (who admittedly “exaggerated a little to bring out [his] point”) described various moments of prayer at Mass:

“After the Offertory we turn to the people and ask them, ‘Orate, fratres, ut meum ac vestrum sacrificium, etc.’ (Pray Brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God). But the ‘brethren’ without looking up continue in their May devotions. After Consecration we say: ‘Unde…nos servi tui sed et plebs tua sancta offerimus’ (Wherefore, O Lord, we Thy servants, and likewise Thy holy people…offer). But the ‘holy people’ is busily engaged in another Novena to the Little Flower. At the same time the choir in the loft is trying to sing: ‘Mother dear, O pray for me’” (in “The Liturgical Movement,” The Liturgical Press, 1930, p. 8).

While not downplaying the place of devotions in a Catholic’s prayer life, this priest was urging a return to a proper balance between devotional and liturgical prayer. When “the treasures of Christ’s redemption are opened” in the liturgy of the sacraments, he goes on to say, why are we limiting ourselves to lesser forms of prayer?

The Second Vatican Council sought this same balance. Early in Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), the Council Fathers say that “Popular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly commended…. But these devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them” (13).

The interpretation and implementation of this directive, though, was not always faithful. Devotions and devotional prayer seemed to be quickly discouraged and abandoned in the name of an exclusively liturgical spirituality. In many cases, the Mass—now apparently purified of unnecessary duplications and restored to its pristine form of the Fathers (SC, 50)—nevertheless took on a “devotional spirituality,” where its words, music, architecture, and ministerial style sought to respond to the sentiments of postconciliar Mass-goers.

In short: these two prayer forms—the liturgical and devotional—continued to remain at practical odds well after the Council, with neither form fully actualized, and neither functioning according to its own nature.

What, then, is the nature of liturgical prayer and of devotional prayer? And why are both necessary for a mature Catholic prayer life?

First, liturgical prayer (and liturgical spirituality) originates from the heart of the Trinity and descends toward man. And while the divine life and its condescension in the Incarnation adapts itself to our human nature, liturgical prayer emphasizes the objective, universal, and transcendent nature of God. Romano Guardini describes the liturgy’s style this way, writing in 1918: “The fortuitous element—determined by place and time, with its significance restricted to certain specific people—is superseded by that which is essentially, or at least more essentially, intended for many times, places, and people. The particular is to a great degree absorbed by the universal and ideal” (The Spirit of the Liturgy. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2018. 306). The universal and objective character of liturgical prayer allows all individuals—young and old, East and West, clergy and laity—to participate fully in its mystery.

Second, devotional prayer (popular piety, private prayer, or devotional spirituality) originates as it were from the ground up. While seeking and terminating in the one God, its inspiration is the individual—be it a single person, a particular culture, or a unique circumstance. An individual’s prayer ought to be as unique as he is. A 52-year-old father of eight, living in Wisconsin, editing a liturgical journal has spiritual requirements that are different from those of a 24-year-old Carmelite nun in late 19th century northern France—even if both of us participate in essentially the same celebration of the Mass.

Both liturgical and devotional prayer are necessary features of a fully formed spiritual life. Guardini summarizes their relationship in The Spirit of the Liturgy, when each prayer form was in practice ignorant of the other, with devotional prayer winning the hearts of believers. “Both methods of prayer must co-operate,” he says. “They stand together in a vital and reciprocal relationship. The one derives its light and fruitfulness from the other. In the liturgy the soul learns to move about the wider and more spacious spiritual world. It assimilates…that freedom and dignified restraint which in human intercourse is acquired by the man who frequents good society, and who limits his self-indulgence by the discipline of time-honored social usage; the soul expands and develops in that width of feeling and clearness of form which together constitute the liturgy…. On the other hand, as the Church herself reminds us…, side by side with the liturgy there must continue to exist that private devotion which provides for the personal requirements of the individual, and to which the soul surrenders itself according to its particular circumstances. From the latter liturgical prayer in its turn derives warmth and local color” (315).

That both liturgical prayer and devotion prayer are essential for an integral spiritual life should not surprise us. Did not Christ himself embody a similar harmony and balance in his incarnate life: the divine element hypostatically united to our human nature in a single person? And, if we desire to grow into his likeness, ought not our own prayer life rest firmly on the divine nature of the liturgy as well as the human elements expressed in private and devotional prayer?

So, as our kids and grandkids head back to school and mature into adulthood, let us take a closer look at the Church’s own “school of prayer” and how her perennial wisdom conforms us to Christ by forming us into saints. Let us not deform ourselves—being only partial images of Christ—by neglecting one prayer form over the other. Rather, let us “be transformed by the renewal of our minds, that we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.