When I first converted to Catholicism, I was overwhelmed by the wealth of devotions Catholics practiced. There was devotion to the five wounds of Christ, the brown scapular, the green scapular, the Divine Mercy chaplet, devotion to the Holy Face, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Rosary, devotion to the Sacred Heart, devotion to the seven sorrows of Mary, total consecration, and countless others.
This treasury of devotions is one of the most beautiful things about Catholicism. But as a zealous convert, I began to load myself down with as many devotions as possible. The more devotions, the more graces, right? Instead of growing quickly in holiness, however, I found myself frustrated and burned out.
What I learned is that devotional overload is counterproductive. Human nature is easily distracted and fickle, and we can easily become mechanical in our prayer life. If we do too much, we become focused on the process of practicing the devotion, rather than the object of the devotion, which is intimacy with God and union with him. We feel like we are holy because we are doing things, but doing things is no substitute for true love of God.
While I had the best of intentions, I would have been better off practicing fewer devotions and practicing them well.
Countless saints have counseled simplicity in the devotional life. In fact, some of the Desert Fathers of the Church often practiced only one or two prayers their entire lives. They became great saints by repeating a verse from psalms (O God, make speed to save me, O Lord, make haste to help me) or a simple invocation such as the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.)
Their unanimous counsel is that it is far better to pray one Our Father well than it is to pray the entire Liturgy of the Hours every day mechanically and without a heart of prayer. Here are three suggestions that can help you find simplicity in your devotional life.
1) Choose a devotion that works for you – Among Catholics, there are undoubtedly some devotions that are more popular than others, such as the brown scapular. While the majority of Catholics may practice a specific devotion, never feel as if you must do it too just because everyone else is. If you don’t feel drawn to the brown scapular, don’t feel guilty for not wearing it if it doesn’t appeal to you.
Experiment if you like, trying different practices. Our Lord will lead you to what will help you most. If you are drawn to a specific devotion, there is a reason. Practice the one that helps you the most and persevere in it.
2) Be consistent – There is no use practicing devotions inconsistently. It will do little good. (I confess I struggle with consistency.)Practice the devotion of your choosing every day with militaristic discipline. Never skip it for any reason. For example, if you have begun the practice of saying three Hail Marys before bed and upon waking, do it every single day without fail. Consistent practice is the only way devotions will bear fruit in your life.
3) Mean it – As I said above, a single Our Father or Hail Mary said with attention and love is better than a hundred of each said carelessly. When practicing any devotion, seek to pray sincerely and from the heart. If you feel the devotion is too complicated, choose something simpler. Whatever you do, never give in to mechanical, distracted prayer. We all struggle with distractions and carelessness in our prayers, but we can’t give up in the struggle against them.
Build your spiritual muscles
When starting out, we are all like babies spiritually, and the process of learning and growing takes time and patience. Our Lord very well may want you to pray the entire liturgy of the hours daily, but you probably shouldn’t start there unless you want to burn out quickly. Start with simple devotions, and build your spiritual muscles. If you feel drawn to add more prayers or practices over time, do so.
Remember, there is no substitute for a true heart of devotion and love. All devotions are a means to an end, and we must always keep the end in view. If any devotion is hindering rather than helping, try something else. Whatever devotion you practice, remember the two greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
What about you? What devotions do you practice? How do you keep it simple in your prayer life?