Devotion is No Longer a Dirty Word

A review of Awake My Soul: Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions edited by James Martin, S.J.

To an older generation of Roman Catholics, the mention of traditional devotions like the eucharistic adoration and liturgy of the hours might elicit either chilling memories of a repressive, bygone Catholic era or perhaps a sense of nostalgia for the way things used to be. What they might not expect is that these same devotions are experiencing a renaissance of sorts among a younger generation for whom these practices are new and carry less cultural baggage.

In Awake My Soul: Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions editor James Martin, S.J. has gathered the reflections of a diverse group of authors—many of whom are in their thirties and forties—on their “favorite” devotions. The collection is filled with surprisingly personal, heartfelt and powerful essays that not only touch on individual experiences of devotion but also the origin and historical context of the practices, presenting why they once mattered to so many and why, at least for these particular Catholics, they still matter today.

The subjects range from radical nun Joan Chittister’s reflections on the many devotions to Mary and how she has used them to re-imagine Jesus’ mother as a strong woman and prophet to novelist Ron Hansen’s eloquent case in support of the tradition of First Fridays and the Catholic need for “piety and strict disciplines.” Anne Wroe, an editor for TheEconomist, also writes a simple and elegant defense of holy water as a physical reminder of God’s sanctifying presence. Indeed, the possibility of reinterpreting traditional practices and the need for a return to the physicality in religious experience are the twin themes that hold Awake My Soul together.

Elizabeth Collier, the director of the Crossroads Center for Faith and Work in Chicago and a new mother, describes how she learned the liturgy of the hours from monks but has found a way to pray them herself. “I decided to take up the text on my own terms, adapting them to my vocation and lifestyle…I didn’t want to get caught up in too many ‘should’s’ but wanted instead to explore how God might be able to break into my contemporary life through this ancient tradition.”

In a particularly vivid reflection on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, theology professor Christopher J. Ruddy writes about the importance of Jesus’ physical body, his real, beating heart, and its power to inspire his life. “I look on at that pulsing, fleshy heart,” he writes, “courageous and vulnerable, compact and capacious, never one without the other.”

Martin’s collection skillfully avoids resorting to facile ecclesial posturing about orthodoxy or, perhaps more dangerously, reducing its subject matter to mere camp or Catholic kitsch. Instead, Awake My Soul, makes the difficult but vital connection between the Church’s tradition and its contemporary life, between a community’s expectations and an individual experience, between how God calls us and how we hear that call. In the book’s final essay, which deals with the practice of Eucharistic Adoration, theology professor Brian E. Daley S.J. beautifully articulates the connection–common to the reflections throughout the book–that is at the core of a dynamic, living faith. Rather than trying to define the “new face” of devotion or talking about the sanctity of a return to tradition; he centers, instead, on prayer. “Prayer is always an encounter with Mystery, but it seems more obvious to me, as I pray before the Blessed Sacrament, that the Lord is there and that in the stillness of a little room I am somehow in the heart of the church.”