A significant and often ignored gift of the Advent season is that of deliverance. What I mean by deliverance is the renunciation of human habits that prohibit an authentic devotion to Christ. And, when one begins to identify the gift of deliverance it is often predicated with a request for guidance in order to deliver oneself from these spiritual habits of distraction. King David provides us with some guidance in this deliverance-guidance process in the following Psalm:
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul, let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me. Yes, let none that wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me know your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.
There are two important facets that King David echoes in this particular Psalm, one is his immediate recognition of God and second, his unquestionable undying devotion to Him as the God of his salvation. What we encounter in this particular Psalm is a sincere profession of faith that identifies God as both Abba and Yahweh simultaneously. A conformity occurs when one asserts God the Father as his path to salvation. St. Francis De Sales describes the act of conformity in the following way:
conformity then of our hearts to the signified will of God consists in this, that we will all that the divine goodness signifies unto us to be of his intention, believing according to his doctrine, hoping according to his promises, fearing according to his threats, loving and living according to his ordinances and admonitions, to which all the protestations which we make so often in the holy ceremonies of the Church do tend.
Authentic Christian Devotion
St. Francis De Sales identifies authentic devotion as the intention to purify one’s soul. This allows for the development of an intimacy with the Blessed Trinity with particular devotion to Jesus Christ. The development of any authentic devotion must always direct the person toward an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ in order to dispel any distractions from the wages of sin both venial and mortal. Authentic Christian devotion allows a person to see themselves as a child of God and initiate a preparation-examination of conscience toward the end of one’s life. This eschatological component of death, judgement, heaven and hell establishes a clear Christian perspective on how we are to direct our devotion to Christ above all things.
What does the Church teach about devotions?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides us with clear instruction and direction under the guidance of St. John Paul II in Catechesi Tradendae on the practice of devotions of prayer related to persons, places or items of veneration:
The religious sense of the Christian people has always found expression in various forms of piety surrounding the Church’s sacramental life, such as the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the stations of the cross, religious dances, the rosary, medals, etc. These expressions of piety extend the liturgical life of the Church, but do not replace it. They should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior, to any of them.
We encounter in the Acts of the Apostles, the Apostles first initial devotional practice after the Ascension of Christ in the upper room where all in one accord devoted themselves to pray together with the women and Mary the Mother of Jesus and with his brethren. Another example described in the Acts of the Apostles is St. Peter’s discourse about the events of Christ life. We encounter the development of a structured order of doctrinal instruction rooted in the kerygma and the creed; with respect to the first act of Christian Initiation for the new Christian community where they held steadfast-devoted to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship to the breaking of the bread and prayers.
Should the practice of personal devotions be avoided?
St. Francis De Sales stressed that true devotion should always reflect the paschal mystery. This is the foundation of Christian prayer where genuine Christian devotion always brings us back to Christ Himself. In another way, authentic Christian devotion always invokes Christ in all things whether on pilgrimage, recitation of the rosary or any Marian devotion, veneration of the saints especially in the form of litanies and so forth. Should the practice of Christian devotions be avoided, the short answer is no so long as the devotion is centered on the establishment of an intimate and personal relationship with Jesus Christ. One example of a genuine Trinitarian Christocentric devotion would be to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Any and all forms of Christian devotion should provide the opportunity to seek and form a perpetual bond with Christ our Savior. The strengthening of this bond between us as disciples and Christ Himself is joyously found and revealed through the sacrifice of the Mass which recalls the events of the Paschal Mystery especially the death of Christ on the Cross specifically enacted to save mankind from the wretches of sin and death. When our personal devotion leads us to Christ in the reception of the Holy Eucharist it augments our union with Christ. The principle fruit of receiving the Eucharist in Holy Communion is an intimate union with Christ Jesus. St. John Eudes provides appropriate context that any form of personal Christian devotion should exemplify our union with Christ:
We must continue to accomplish in ourselves the stages of Jesus’ life and his mysteries and often to beg him to perfect and realize them in us and in his while Church . . . For it is the plan of the Son of God to make use and the whole Church partake in his mysteries and to extend them to and continue them in us and in his whole Church. This is his plan for fulfilling his mysteries in us.