Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Devotional Life

Little devotional books are popular in the LCMS. These kinds of books tell a 200-word story with a basic message, one for every day. There are periodicals our publishing house publishes, devotional books, and even some web-based devotional stories.

I always appreciate it when I learn that members read these on a daily basis. I'm glad that they take a few minutes for this devotional time. When I was in college I used one of these...but I also cheated. You see, they usually proscribe a reading of a pericope or chapter, along with the single verse printed at the top of the page. I usually "overlooked" the longer passage, read the single verse, the flash-devotion, said the one-sentence prayer at the end and called it quits. Devotions done! Now on to life.

This obviously is not the intent of those who produce devotional books like this. At minimum, the entire passage is supposed to be read, and the prayers are usually intended as a start for prayer. I know this; I've written some of these before (but not for a Lutheran publisher...shh!). But I fear that many people consider that "doing devotions" means reading a little story, saying a prayer and getting on with life. One website puts it this way: "What most people talk about when they talk about devotionals is a book that helps you grow in your relationship with God." (source)

That's not exactly how it is supposed to work. Devotion(s) are defined as "An act of religious observance or prayer, especially when private. Often used in the plural." (American Heritage Dictionary ) Prayer. That's the action of daily devotions. What Christians do privately, outside of the liturgy is, well, some of what they do inside the liturgy: pray and mediate on Scripture.

For this reason, we Lutherans have hymnals that are designed not just for church use, but also for home use, with short orders of worship, daily reading tables and much of the psalter (book of Psalms). There are other options, like the Brotherhood Prayer Book (an independent Lutheran diurnal I have no experience with) or The Monastic Diurnal (not just for monks...but hard to use, Catholic--or Orthodox if you will, and a treasure for the patient or stubborn!). Apparently Concordia Publishing House refused to be left out of the fray and have designed their own diurnal, the Treasury of Daily Prayer (I don't know that much about it this one, but ought to check it out). But whatever source you use, the object is not reading stories to warm our hearts, but praying to God, praying with the psalms, and praying with the Church, i.e., praying along with the Church Calendar in the season, the commemorations, and so forth.

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with reading inspiring little stories that you may find in all kinds of sources. On the contrary, these are good! But we shouldn't limit ourselves to them. Christians need to pray the psalms, to mediate on Scripture, and be encouraged in Christian living through short (or long) homilies, exhortations, lives of saints, meditations from Church Fathers, contemporary stories and devotional reading too. All this will feed and nurture faith in ways it is impossible to reckon.


  1. orrologion said...

    In Orthodoxy there is a prescribed place for the telling of little stories as a part of prayer. In the Orthodox Horologion, a reading from the Synaxarion or Lives of the Saints is called for after Ode 6 of the Canon during Matins (Orthros). In other places, readings from the "Ladder of Divine Ascent" are called for - during Lent.

  2. Christopher D. Hall said...

    That's exactly the point. The lives of the saints (or "little stories") occur together with praying the psalms, scripture, and more prayer. The Orthodox, even when exercising oikonomia in liturgical practices don't seem to go into the "one verse, one story, one sentence prayer and I'm outta here" minimalism. In fact most services I have seen, despite being shortened, were marathons compared to Portals of Prayer...or even compared to our liturgy!

  3. Paul McCain said...


    Several points, you may have missed the many explanations of the Treasury of Daily Prayer that have been circulating in the blogosphere for months, but....the Treasury was part of the Lutheran Service Book project and has nothing to do with any other resources, nor was a response to the same.

    I'm sure once you find some free time to take a closer look at it, you'll see that it is precisely what you are calling for.

    And the writings from the church fathers are a lot better than your odd hermits you have been quoting lately, with their sound bites that appear to have been taken from the script of old Kung Fu episodes.

    : )

  4. orrologion said...

    A regular piece of advice from most Orthodox priests is that it is more important to be attentive in prayer than it is to pray a lot of prayers - at least in one's personal rule, which seems to be the purpose of the devotional booklets. In this 'attentive' context, a prayer rule might be extremely short: The Lord's Prayer each morning and night.

    But, I agree with your broad point: the focus should be on prayer and not the story. The story can keep you in your head and lack of personal praying allows one to simply be talked at rather than to personally commit and strive, co-struggle (an important part of sanctification, no? :) ).

    I always liked Kung Fu, so, apparently did St. Athanasius.

  5. Rev. Eric J Brown said...

    I've got a treasury of Daily Prayer -- I can bring it with me on Tuesday to Winkel if you would like.

  6. William Weedon said...

    TDP is more than a Diurnal because it contains night offices too; it's closer to a complete Breviary (as in all the volumes - but all in one!). The commemorations can be observed in typical Western manner in a way similar to what Christopher described for the East. After Matins, read the section on the commemoration for the day and then pray the collect (which on commemorations is, I think, always tied to the commemoration and not the other readings).

  7. Christopher D. Hall said...

    Paul..glad to see you can play the straight man. I didn't actually think that CPH was competing with Lancelot Andrews Press.

    And I'm glad the old men I quote didn't scare you off. Sometimes they scare me.

    Christopher--not having the tradition of a spiritual father, and having rejected Father Confessors, Lutherans--as you know--are used to winging it. It's pretty humbling to think that sometimes one is given such a brief prayer rule.

    But the difference may also lie in the fact that Orthodox folks are used to a maximal theory. When Orthodox Christian can easily "overdo" it, it may take Fathers to hold them back. Lutherans suffer from the other extreme, I fear, thinking that reading a "nice" story from Portals of Prayer is the sum of Christian devotion and prayer, ("Come Lord Jesus" in addition, of course).

  8. Christopher D. Hall said...

    BTW...speaking of attentive prayer prayer, Beginning to Pray by Met. Anthony (Bloom) is worth its weight in gold. I plan on re-reading it soon and posting something on it in the future.

  9. orrologion said...

    To be fair, the Orthodox tradition is used to maximal prayer, but many Orthodox Christians themselves are not - whether corporately or privately.

    A monastery in Essex, England that had formerly been under Met. Anthony (and is now under the EP) started services in a rather radical manner. The group of men and women, monastics, aspirants and laity that had gathered around Arch. Sophrony (Sakharov) didn't all speak a single common language, they weren't all raised practicing the faith from their youth, and they didn't have all of the service books needed to serve any of the services properly. Arch. Sophrony developed an Athonite inspired, communal form of the Jesus Prayer as a substitute for the regular cycle of services. The substitution is traditional (x number to replace Matins, y number to replace Liturgy, etc.), but the communal aspect was very odd, especially since it had men and women in the same community due to poverty. Odd, too, was the fact that this has continued to this day, long after the time when they acquired all the necessary books, when the brothers/sisters acquired a broadly common language, and after they were able to build a church.

    So, that is an example of minimal rubrics and liturgics, but an equally maximal amount of prayer.

    My confessor once referred to the 18th-19th Century Athonite elders as 'rather grumpy' and I need not continue reading them. Good advice, rather grumpy they were. I'm sure early Christian Keith Caradines are not appropriate fare for everyone at all times and in all places - but they certainly didn't make concessions to the world, went without pensions and publishing houses, etc.

    I like to hear your own voice again.

  10. Dixie said...

    Have to admit I was never a fan of devotionals. I never understood how that was like "praying". It sure seemed a lot easier to read a story than to pray. I worked it exactly like you mentioned, Pastor Hall...skipped the readings--did the one liner, read through the story, said the 3 second prayer and checked it off my list as having been on with life.

    Currently, however, I have been advised by my spiritual father to do structured prayer but also allow time each day for reading the fathers, lives of the saints, theology, etc. So there is room / need for such things.

    I finally decided to get the TDP for my Lutheran husband for Christmas. Since my conversion to Orthodoxy he has exhibited a growing tendancy to appreciate...hmmm...non-modern expressions of prayer and worship. He is definitely moving away from modern American Evangelical practices. I think the TDP is something he will like and use.

  11. orrologion said...

    To be kind to the daily devotions that were a part of my life at my K-8 WELS school... A definition of prayer I have heard diminishes the importance of any words at all, even such minimal words as found in the Lord's Prayer, the Jesus Prayer or the Kyrie. This definition says that the most important thing of prayer is to collect oneself and stand before God in His presence. It is simply to be aware of our true place in the world vis a vis our Creator: "Remembrance of God". Using this definition, the godly story is prayer, devotion, an offering of the time given us.

  12. Christine said...

    Lutherans suffer from the other extreme, I fear, thinking that reading a "nice" story from Portals of Prayer is the sum of Christian devotion and prayer, ("Come Lord Jesus" in addition, of course).

    I'm afraid that's true. It wasn't until I was introduced to the Divine Office that I really learned what disciplined, structured prayer was about and how it related to the liturgical year.