27 August 2010


Under Oath and Then Some

An old friend of mine once asked me what "Amen" means and I told her that we can translate it as, "So be it." I can't say what she thought of that, but it was obviously not what she expected to hear. I think I understand: something like "So be it" sounds like a fist pounding a tabletop in emphasis, and people don't usually associate prayer with pounding.

Well, how about a seal pressing gently into hot wax? That works, too.

Did you know that the English word devotion comes from a Latin word meaning to consecrate oneself with a vow? That came home to me as I read the posts of other people tagged for the Five Favourite Devotions meme. A devotion is a kind of prayer that demands commitment. A "favourite" devotion can't simply be something you really like--and if you don't believe me, ask someone who has flagellated himself in the street every Holy Week for the past thirty years. Or just trust me when I say he doesn't "like" it.

This is why I like the Filipino word panata more than even the Latinate word devotion. The former still carries the sense that one is swearing a serious oath, without any of the table-pounding connotations that come with the word "oath."

My Top 5 Devotions

1) Mass

This should be every Catholic's "favourite" devotion, if only because Sunday Mass is an obligation. I try my best to make it to Mass on all the other days of the week as well. (No, I don't always succeed . . .)

The best thing about Mass (although many people will disagree with me on this) is that all one really has to do is show up. Jesus and the priest (i.e., Christus et alter Christus) do most of the work. So I go even when I'm cranky, stressed, distracted, or otherwise "not in the mood." As long as my feet can walk to church, my moods can go stuff it.

Sometimes the readings go by in a blur and I go through the motions without registering most of what the celebrant says (which means, according to the Theory of Relativity, that I go by in a blur, too)--but that's not the point. Even when the mind is absent (i.e., the glass is half-empty), the body is fully present (i.e., the glass is half-full): and so the flesh can be willing even when the spirit is weak.

Big prayers like the Mass are like ships onto which the barnacles of smaller devotions can latch. There is no better way to nurture personal piety and devotion than to make a habit of daily Mass. (Try it; you'll see!) Which brings me to the next great devotion that should be on every Catholic's list . . .

2) Adoration

It is thanks to almost-daily Mass that I get to do almost-daily Adoration. Now I wish I had started earlier.

The small, innocuous Adoration chapel is as great a sign of contradiction as they come. If God is everywhere, then why can't we worship anywhere? (Watch out for the a false opposition: you know we can worship anywhere. It just won't be as good.) Understanding the Adoration chapel begins with pondering the mystery that for thirty-three years, God was in a very definite somewhere.

My embarrassing Evangelical uncle once tried to help me *find Jesus* by asking, "If you die tomorrow and Jesus asks you why He should let you into Heaven, what will you say?" I kind of cussed him out the first time (*giggle*); but if he asked me again today, I don't know if I could respond to that without also begging the question. For when I enter this small chapel, it is as if I am already at the threshold of Heaven--and well, the question I seem to be getting there is less "Why do you deserve to be here?" than "Why don't you come and visit Me more often?"

For yes, He is really there--at once in Heaven and at once in all the tabernacles of all the churches of the world--both the only constant in eternity and the One waiting for you to show up.

3) Holy Rosary

"Our Lady's Psalter" is the closest many Catholics ever get to praying the Divine Office everyday. I try to do my best with it.

I like the intellectual aspect of this devotion, which comes from meditating on the mysteries of Jesus' and Mary's lives, and which is wedded to the rote recitation of the prayers the way the soul is wedded to the body. Which brings me back to my thesis that the vitality of devotion comes not from one's emotions or state of mind, but from one's willingness to show up and hold up one's end of the bargain.

Sometimes the decades of Hail Marys are like ropes of pearls I run through my hands with all the grace of a dancer; at the other times, they drop from my hands (and lips) like so many used bullet casings. And there is much to be said for practice and the nurturing of spiritual callouses: the more regularly you "show up," the better at prayer you become.

Over the years, I have come to love how the rosary can give personal meditations, made for no one's spiritual benefit but the devotee's, real spiritual weight. For when they are braided into these universal meditations, they are also offered for the rest of the world.

4) Novenas

A novena usually lasts only nine days, and there are variations which let one complete them in nine hours. Seen in that light, they're some of the most short-term devotions we have; and yet they also fit perfectly into never-ending-until-the-end-of-time liturgical year and the cycles of the Mass.

Remember that novenas are a traditional way to anticipate solemnities, feasts and memorials, although one can also begin any novena at any time, for any special intention. And yes, I always ask for something. Why waste the prayers? =P

I've found that some novenas to saints or for feasts I have no strong emotional connection to create a kind of "trial period" of devotion. This might sound like a business-like approach to the saints ("I'll pray to you for nine days and we'll see if it works out. Thanks for the intercession before God!"); but in this manner, some novenas I've said have turned out to be seeds of more long-term panata to certain saints. And well, even if they never turn out to be anything other than a one-time thing, so are--in a certain sense--the feast days themselves. There's nothing wrong with going through our days the way we go through our rosary beads.

5) Mantilla

Now I'm just being indulgent, for this is something only a handful of Catholics still do. Headcoverings for women used to be the norm, but I don't think they will ever be a popular thing again. (So suck it up, Traddies!)

Some time ago, after one evening Mass, a woman I didn't know approached me and asked me why I cover my hair in church. Before I could say answer, she said: "It's your panata, isn't it?"

And I had to admit that it was. For as much as I want to wear my mantilla in the spirit of a great, universal tradition . . . years of being virtually the only woman in church still embracing this style can't be discounted. This isn't something I'm doing with my community. It's a vow I've made all on my own. Again, the spirit--and heck, the whole community--might be struggling, but one body can still show up . . . and one head of hair can still be covered out of faith.

There is supposedly a tradition that unmarried women use white veils and married women use black . . . but my grandmother and all her friends say they've never heard of it. And I've seen many matrons of my parish wearing white veils. So this year, in deference to my changing wardrobe, I retired my white veils and am now dignified in black--or on occasion, beige.

Image Sources: a) Mass stampita, b) Monstrance stampita, c) Holy Rosary mural, d) Random stampita, e) Mantilla


mrsdarwin said...

I'm currently praying the nine-hour novena to the Infant of Prague (I don't know why it's called that, since it never mentions the infant), but instead of saying it every hour, I end up saying it sometime within the hour. Thanks for reminding me that I needed to say the current installment...

Darwin said that his Irish grandmother used to pray her rosary so fast she got rope burn. She could crank it out, that's for sure, but she was very diligent in saying it every day and had a long list of souls she prayed for.

Enbrethiliel said...


My parish's own old ladies have their own way of racing (and warbling!) through the Holy Rosary and Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it used to be such a turn off for me. These days, however, they leave me in awe. Theirs is a dogged kind of devotion that takes years of walking to church every day, in all kinds of weather and in all kinds of moods, all in the name of a private panata. I imagine it has much in common with being married to someone--and staying married after the bloom has faded.

Dauvit Balfour said...

This post was beautiful. And of course, you had to post on a Friday when I didn't wake up for morning mass :(.

I love your descriptions of each devotion, including the mantilla, even though I can't wear one. The rosary and Mass do so often feel like something I'm just doing, and it's easy to get discouraged by that, when the beauty seems mundane. It's good to be reminded that sometimes that happens, and that showing up still matters.

Enbrethiliel said...


Hey, guess what, Dauvit!


(I'm experimenting with tagging people in the combox instead of in the body of the post.)

Dauvit Balfour said...

Tag back!?!?

What exactly am I "it" for...? I find a sudden feeling of trepidation. As a child being "it" had a clearly defined meaning; it no longer has. Oh, what am I to do?!

Enbrethiliel said...


You're tagged for the meme! Blog about your five favourite devotions. =)

paul bowman said...

I miss S.S. (If I should seem again to accuse you, by implication, of being helpful, edifying, thought-provoking, &c. in your blogging — well, so be it, eh.)

A couple of months ago now, started experimenting — for lack of a better word — at praying the Rosary. It's grown on me quickly as a meditation on Christ & His Church and, as you say, a way of praying about immediate concerns together with prayer for the whole world. There's a remarkable versatility about praying this way — new to me. I won't call my tentative practice a devotion, though, in the sense you're using the word. I'm certainly far from appreciating it as your little old parish ladies understand.

Cash being tight these days, made myself a little knotted rosary of some mason's string. The crucifix was given to me by a woman at the little Marian shrine/chapel/bookstore that turns out to be not far from my shop (& just yards, incidentally, from where that raccoon nearly bought it under my wheels the other night). It was among a stash of such objects that she tells me she took on pilgrimage to Rome and had blessed by the pope. — How strange for this not-yet-Catholic to be carrying around in his pocket, so to speak, a papal benediction in aid to his prayers.

Enbrethiliel said...


And why are you here? Do you want to be tagged, too? Catholic devotions only, by the way. Bwahahahahaha!

That's a lovely comment, by the way.

paul bowman said...

: )