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Notions of devotion

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A few weeks ago, a reader of the Young Voices blog commented: "I would be interested in hearing about the favorite Catholic devotions of your young readers. The Rosary? Divine Mercy? Eucharistic adoration?"

Devotion, both as a practice and as a way of being, is not often a topic of consideration in our post-modern world. The word is derived from the Latin word devovere, meaning "to vow." In a time when vows, whether to religious life or marriage, seem to be in crisis, devotion and devotions seem to be suffering a similar marginalization.

In a relational sense, devotion is a deed of love. It is an unselfish, unconditional commitment to support and care for the beloved. In a religious sense, devotions are a spiritual practice, performed with regularity and dedication. Both actions seem to produce similar gifts: comfort, assurance, faithfulness.

It would be hard to argue that younger generations aren't struggling with commitment, whether in their faith, their relationships, or their work. But it would be equally hard to argue that we are constantly showered with a sense of peace, comfort and consistency. Devotion, it would seem, is needed more than ever.

And, yet, I would say that I know few young Catholics who practice the rosary, Eucharistic adoration or Divine Mercy. I have noticed that young people who are interested in these practices are usually not cradle Catholics. When I was in Divinity School, the students who wanted to start rosary groups were always the newly converted.

Many non-Catholics seem intrigued by Catholic devotions, too. Even my partner, who was raised in a low church, evangelical community, has been intrigued with the rosary since she first saw it used at my grandmother's wake. Though she has yet to commit the Hail Mary to memory, she feels comforted just holding the beads and carrying them in her bag.

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Of course, Protestants have devotions, too. Evangelicals frequently practice daily devotions, typically in the form of biblical passages and several paragraphs of written reflection. Though they are edifying, there isn't any thing tangible in them. Perhaps it is the physicality of Catholic devotions, especially in the rosary or Eucharistic adoration, that offers non-Catholics new forms of solace.

During times of stress or worry, I will carry a rosary in my pocket, frequently reaching for it to diffuse my anxiety. But I confess that I am not reflecting particularly on the glorious mysteries or the veneration of Mary. The comfort comes in the repetition of prayers that were taught to me as a child by my grandmother -- prayers that she promised me would be keep me safe, and help me with my fears.t

The current appeal of the devotions like the rosary may be evidence of a powerful need for comfort and stability, especially among newer generations. When we grasp at beads, we are grasping at reassurance. When we recite the same prayer repeatedly, we are reaching for consistency that seems ever more elusive in a culture where images, inclinations, and information seem to be in constant flux. In a time when it's a struggle to get anyone's attention, it is remarkably healing to feel that our inner thoughts and hopes are always being heard.

These needs are universal and timeless, and, no doubt, have always contributed to the development of devotions over the centuries. When considering the relationship of younger generations to older devotions, it is important to remember that all devotions developed at different periods in history, and that each one was a response to the needs of that particular time.

Though the rosary is traced back to St. Dominic in the 13th century, the Divine Mercy was developed in the 1930s by Sr. Faustina Kowalska. There was a ban on the devotion from 1958 to 1978 while the Vatican reviewed Sr. Faustina's writings for orthodoxy.

There are many devotions that are no longer practiced. Their symbolic power declined with the movement of time, and new generations gravitated toward different images and prayers. Even the Eucharist has undergone changes in symbolic meaning. The first Christians probably could not have imagined a time when the bread that they shared at their meal would be placed in a distant, golden receptacle for adoration.

The value of devotion isn't in the particularities of the practice, but in the fruit that it bears. If fewer young Catholics are performing traditional devotions, this doesn't necessarily indicate that faith is waning, too. It may simply mean that symbols are changing. What once held symbolic power for one generation is fading, and new symbols are emerging. Symbols grow, change and die naturally over time. But the reality that they point to is timeless.

If young Catholics are not practicing traditional devotions, this doesn't mean that there is no longer a need for devotions, or that devotions aren't being practiced in other ways. Instead of sitting in churches in contemplation, young people now build houses and work with the poor. They make a commitment to those in need, and in their labors they devote themselves to the monastic tradition of ora et labora or "prayer and work." Other young people dedicate themselves to yoga, meditation, chant, music or other repetitive exercises that offer both a soundness of body and spirit. At a time when life is either sedentary from hours in front of the computer, or frenetic from over-commitment and over-stimulation, these practices offer the opportunity for focus and centering, and a way to use our bodies -- God's greatest gift to us -- to promote care, healing and growth.

With vows and commitments in crisis, practicing devotions are a vital way to teach younger generations how to be devoted to one another. The discipline and consistency that they develop can prevent us from being seduced by the myriad distractions that compete for our attention. The commitment that they require encourages us not to bail on a situation when it gets challenging or on a person when he or she is vulnerable. The solace that they offer helps us to be a source of comfort and peace to others. Their capacity to cultivate our spirits allows us to discern what is compulsive and corrosive versus what is life-giving.

Young people need to be encouraged in their new forms of devotion, rather than have old symbols, which may no longer speak to emerging generations, forced on them. Just because spiritual practices are new or not overtly Catholic doesn't mean that they are valueless or powerless. Though the acts of seeking are being expressed in new forms and deeds, the virtues that are being sought -- comfort, consistency, commitment, peace -- are no less of a quest for God.

[Jamie Manson received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School where she studied Catholic theology, personal commitments and sexual ethics with Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley. A writer based in New York, she is the former editor in chief of the Yale magazine Reflections. As a lay minister she has worked extensively with New York City's homeless and poor populations. She is a member of the national board of the Women's Ordination Conference.]

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