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The Difference between 'Devotions' and 'Devotion'

Have you ever been in the middle of a group rosary, when someone puts the pedal to the "medal," almost as if in a race to see who can finish first?

Psalm 46:10
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Then the battle begins.

Those who wish to pray the rosary meditatively, raise their voices to drown out the "speed prayer (SP)."

Seeing the line drawn in the sand, SP speeds up until his words resemble more of a slur than a prayer.

Sadly—and I'm sure the devil has a hand in this—by the time the rosary is over, you can cut the animosity in the air with a knife.

Did you ever try to talk to someone while he was shooting hoops? He's here; he's there; he's up; he's down. Every so often, he stops and glances your way, to feign as much interest in what you're saying as he can muster, but in no time, he is back doing what he wants to do.

How would that make you feel?

That must be how Our Lady feels when she is insulted by those who spew words "at" her, while their mind is on their "to do" list.

To many, prayer is like pounding a nail; the faster and the more often you hit it, the more deeply it will go into the wood. Those with this perception of spirituality have a list of prayers that they say regularly. They know which ones have the most promises attached to them, and which carry the highest indulgences.

It's like keeping score at a baseball game.

Fr. John Nicolas Grou (1) was a French mystic from the 19th century who wrote that there is a difference between "devotions" and "devotion," and recognized vocal prayer only as a steppingstone to interior prayer, which is the real key to the contemplative life.

Notwithstanding the general coldness of piety, there are many who profess much devotion. Few, however, have any true idea of it. The majority follow their own prejudices with regard to it, or their imagination, or their inclination, or their self-love.

To the worldly, they become an occasion of ridicule and blasphemy; to the weak, a subject of scandal; to ordinary Christians, a pretext, which encourages them in carelessness, and deters them from embracing the devout life. How important, then, for pious souls, to awake to the glory of God and their own interests, to conceive, according to the gospel, a correct idea of devotion, and to express it in their conduct. (2)

Those who plan their salvation they way that they plan their 401K, perceive themselves as holy, when actually they are full of pride, thinking that they can "babble" their way to heaven.

He must not forget that his sanctification is much more the work of God than of himself; that, even if he should labor to attain it by himself, he would only spoil the work.

The work of sanctification belongs to God to begin, to continue, and to finish. It must be left to him to accomplish this great work. Man should place no obstacle in the way, but should second God's sanctifying work by his consent and co-operation. (3)

Those who are mature and earnestly seek to know God must put aside the sensible crutches (i.e., prayer books) and learn to "listen." Fr. Grou suggests to those who find the graces to seek a deeper devotion, to simply acknowledge before God their own weakness and ask for his mercy. True devotion from the heart is inexhaustible in fresh affections.

But is it pardonable for the mature and well instructed to pray only from a book—to persuade themselves that they are idle if they do not move their lips, and that God does not hear them unless they articulate their requests, often so loudly, too, as to disturb those who are praying beside them?

The slightest act, which the heart may make, or the slightest feeling, which may flow from the heart, pleases God far more, and is far more profitable to the penitent, than long prayers said from a book, while the heart is cold and empty. (4)

There are those who avoid mental prayer because theirs is a nature that struggles with self-discipline. They use their "dis-ease" as an excuse to avoid meditation, a physical affliction from which there is no cure. In actuality, it is a spiritual disease resulting from an absence of one of the acquired virtues: patience.

You do not possess it [devotion] if this exercise is painful to you, if it costs you a great effort, if you are careless, lukewarm, willingly distracted, or subject to ennui, if you count the moments, if you shorten them more than you ought—in brief, if you pay God as a bad debtor pays his debt. (5)

Idleness of heart at prayer, Fr. Grou explains, is the mortal sin of sloth. Meditation, in fact, can be downright painful to those unaccustomed to reflection. There are those who reject the practice of simply holding oneself in repose, of drawing down upon them the dew of heaven, as nothing more than idleness.

But spiritual they are not, though they believe themselves to be so, and flatter themselves that they are devoted, because they speak to God much and frequently, as they do to their equals, and instead of warming and quickening, they only dry up and wither, their souls.

Let them say what they will, self-love presides over their prayers; they offer them to themselves, rather than to God. Their object is to bear witness to themselves that they have prayed, and they think they have palpable proof of it when they have recited a great many prayers. (6)

Humility is the foundation of true devotion. Those who go out of their way to show intense gestures of devotion when everyone else is looking, who never miss an opportunity to wear their ceremonial scapular, or who act as if they are on the verge of levitation, do little to advance themselves in the interior life. Once again, these are only acts of self-love and mean little to God or to Our Lady.

Rather, true devotions springs from the heart of the humble, those who strive to go unnoticed and whose focus is on God, not an audience.
It has a horror of irregularity, always fearing to be observed and noticed. Its desire is to be hidden and lost in the crowd. It loves piety, and prefers above all others the practices which have less show and more substance. It is like the lowly violet, which dares not lift itself up to the light, but which is trodden under foot in the grass, which covers it. Except what is necessary for the example and edification of his neighbor, it is careful to conceal its conduct from the observation of others.

It is perfectly natural, neither affected nor fastidious. Instead of desiring extraordinary gifts, it deems itself unworthy of them, and it continually asks God to do nothing for it which it may attract the attention of man, or give to it the slightest consideration.

It aspires not to the saints who are distinguished, who have had visions, revelations, gifts of prophecy, and other singular graces, and who have been the marvel of their age. It admires and reveres those who have displayed these gifts; but it chooses for its own part, obscurity, scorn, ignominy, to be nothing, to be known by his deficiencies, or altogether ignored and forgotten.

Good works, which make a noise in the world, are not to its taste. It prefers those to which God is the only witness. It recommends secrecy to its beneficiaries, and conceals from them, as far as possible, the source of their benefits. (7)

Fr. Grou suggests that this type of devotion is so rare that one may think that he made them up. Most often, will there be those of singularity, affection, and ostentation. "The devil deceives them," Fr. Grou writes. "Pride devours them. Who would believe that so refined a pride could insinuate itself into a life of piety? Who would believe that one could devote himself to God merely to gratify himself that one should aspire to sanctity in order to gain a reputation that one should gather the fruit of virtue, only to approve himself, and to win the approbation of others?"

The touchstone of true devotion, Fr. Grou writes, is love of humiliations.

He who sincerely desires them, who makes them the great object of his prayers, who receives them with interior joy, notwithstanding the repugnance of nature, who thanks God for them, who regards them as a most precious boon, who does nothing to escape them, who is glad that his faults are known, that he is reproached for his defects, that his virtues should be traduced, and his reputation sullied, and who—if it were contrary to the will of God—will not allow one word for his justification, this is the truly devoted, the perfect disciple of Jesus Christ. (9)


(2) Grou, Jean Nicolas, "Characteristics of True Devotion," trans., New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1882, p9-10
(3) Ibid., p26-7
(4) Ibid., p45-6
(5) Ibid., p34-5
(6) Ibid., p49
(7) Ibid., p97
(8) Ibid., p98
(9) Ibid., p99