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Over a lifetime

First slide

They walked together to the altar — a tiny boy, just learning to walk and still unsteady, and his mother who held tightly to his hand as he tried to run. When they reached the sanctuary, she knelt and motioned to him to do the same. He tried, with little success. She made the sign of the cross, and then she helped him bless himself. She directed his attention to the tabernacle, but he was distracted by the Mary statue. Rather than chase him from one statue to the next, his mother led him by the hand to the back of the church. There, she knelt in a pew and tried to snatch a few peaceful moments in front of the Lord. Her little guy discovered how wonderfully the word “Dada” echoed in the nearly empty church. He pointed toward the crucifix. Or was he pointing to the tabernacle? Regardless, even if the fine points of theology are years away and even if “Dada” just happens to be the only word he can say, this little boy was learning devotion.

His mother’s time in the church was short, no doubt shorter than she would have liked. And it was noisy, certainly noisier than she would have liked. But grace was abundant. In that nearly empty church, she had enough time to fill with Jesus, and she had ample time to teach her son that this was where to come to do the same.

Ours is a faith rich with devotional practices — those habits and rhythms that bring us into the presence of Jesus, that keep us there, or that return us to him when we begin to stray. So rich are we that we could not possibly make them all a part of our regular spiritual practice. But we certainly should choose a few and weave them so tightly into our being that we cannot do life without them. 

Because those practices are what open unto us an abundant life, held in the grace of God. Devotion makes us near to God and it makes us like God. Choose the devotions that bring you close to Jesus, and then make them the habits of your life. St. Francis de Sales, whose feast we celebrate this month, teaches that: “all true and living devotion presupposes the love of God. Indeed it is neither more nor less than a very real love of God, though not always of the same kind. For that love one while shining on the soul we call grace, makes us acceptable to his divine majesty. When it strengthens us to do well, it is called charity — but when it attains its fullest perfection, in which it not only leads us to do well, but to act carefully, diligently, and promptly — then it is called devotion.”

Devotion makes us better — both to live with grace and joy in this fallen world, and to extend ourselves with the genuine charity of Christ. The habit of devotion — over time — makes an indelible mark on our souls.

The little boy and his mother leave the church. It is quiet and I am alone with Jesus. I hear a rustling, and look up to see Father shuffling his way to his favorite spot, off in the near dark by the St. Joseph statue. He is not just arriving at adoration. His car was already here when I arrived, and I know that he has been in the chapel until now. Sometimes, he’ll leave the chapel and walk to the church to resume his prayers there. He tells me that it helps him stay awake. Though he has had about eight decades more of church visits than the little boy, they are not so very different. They both look with wonder at the altar. Retired now, Father spends his life in adoration. That is his defining devotion — a rosary before the Lord. To be so blessed to spend time with him in prayer in this church is to know I am in the presence of holiness. He is imbued with the character of the devotion. He will live out his life in the presence of God. It’s as much a part of him as breathing.

I think about the little boy and his mother. She knows that those few precious moments will fill her soul with life-giving strength. She knows the value, despite the imperfections and the noise of her visit. The little boy does not yet know. But by the grace of God, under her good tutelage, he will learn. I can only hope that one day, when he is very old, he will take his familiar place, assume a familiar posture and practice devotion cultivated over a lifetime. I can only hope that for all of us. 

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, writes from Northern Virginia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020

@elizabethfoss