[Forced feelings]

Dear Donagh,

…. I was brought up by very devout parents in the 1950s, or my mother at any rate was very devout, and my father was a good man.  We had the rosary every night followed by trimmings that were as long as the rosary itself.  My mother always took the lead, and my father was always there but he didn’t take much of a hand in it.  The trimmings were endless and I can remember bits of them still.  But I couldn’t pray that way myself, I always felt that prayers were for women and only they knew how to pray.  Years later I found myself in the charismatic movement and I found it good for a while, but there was an awful lot of hyper feelings in that too, especially with some of the members, and I stopped going after a couple of months.  Then for years I didn’t pray, beyond saying a few Hail Marys and an Our Father.  But now I feel it’s time to do something about it, but I don’t know where to look.  Do I have to go back to the way my mother used to pray?  Could you advise me…?  Con 

Dear Con,

Your letter reminded me straight away of ‘The Trimmings on the Rosary’, by an Australian priest (+1952) who used the pseudonym John O’Brien.  It appeared in a collection called Around the Boree Log.  It’s a personal memory for me too – especially the tipping-point you mentioned: when the trimmings became longer than the rosary itself.  Or, as John O’Brien put it, “In fact, it got that way / That the Rosary was but trimmings to the trimmings we would say.”

My mother, like yours, was the priest in the family.  My father, like yours, was always there, but never took the lead in ‘giving out’ a decade.  The language of private prayer in those days was feminine and full of feeling.  (The Liturgy, by contrast, was a male domain, with no feelings at all, or feelings buried in the permafrost of Latin.)  Both our fathers, I think, would understand the father in the Boree Log, who could never find his rosary beads:
“So she let him use his fingers, and he cracked them as he went,
And, bedad, he wasn't certain if he'd counted five or ten.”

The language of piety was a curious creation: it was very feminine in form, but it was composed almost entirely by celibate men.  What Latin didn’t give them in the way of feelings, they made up for in highly pumped-up English.  “O God, infinitely amiable, the only object worthy of all love, I love Thee with my whole heart; I love Thee above all things; I love Thee more than myself - more than my life!”  What a pack of lies!  Who could truthfully claim to love God with their whole heart, above all things, more than they love themselves?  Is it any wonder that so many never found their own voice in prayer? 

Added to the mix was the legacy of 19th-century Romantic poetry, such as Wordsworth’s, who was taken to be the ultimate poet.  I was never at ease with his ‘aching joys’, and raptures, and transports, and dizzy spells… seeing it as more about himself and his feelings than about nature.  I enjoyed, and often recall, Oscar Wilde’s comment about him: that he found in nature the lessons he himself had hidden there.  I think the writers of those intense devotional prayers were probably trying to imitate such writers, even if unconsciously.  That was the way to write, they believed: puff it up to the sky. 

I learned in primary school that “Contrition is a bruising of the heart.…”  If you google ‘bruising of the heart’ today you get “myocardial contusion,” which sounds like something we wouldn’t want to get, especially at our age.  That definition had a clerical cast to it – from the bit of Latin: the word ‘contrition’ comes from conterere, literally to ‘bruise’.  That would describe what those forms of piety felt like: struggling to squeeze out feelings we didn’t actually have.  There is nothing more false than a forced feeling.  Prayer has been called “an hour of truth,” and forced feelings come close to its opposite. 

Today many Catholics (like people everywhere) are finding some form of meditation very helpful.  The best known and most accessible is WCCM (World Community for Christian Meditation).  Look in their website  https://wccm.org/people/john-main-osb/ and you will find all kinds of help, including basic instruction on how to meditate, talks by the founder of the movement, Fr John Main OSB, and even help on how to find a local group.  There’s nothing sweaty or forced about meditation, so you needn’t fear that.  There are many other meditation forms as well, including Zen in a Christian context.  I suspect that many people are attracted to these for a reason similar to your own: these practices are cool – not in the sense of fashionable, but cool in temperature: not high-powered, not wordy, not forced. 

What happened to the charismatic movement?  It set the world on fire.  There were groups everywhere, full of enthusiasm.  The atmosphere in meetings often approached the ecstatic.  It did an immense amount of good, setting millions of people free of slavery to ready-made prayers like the ones I mentioned earlier, free from fixed formulae and prayer-books.  It introduced an atmosphere of spontaneity and freedom that was much needed.  But… where did it all go?  You would be hard put to it to find a charismatic prayer group today. 

I have a theory that it didn’t die out or go away; it simply quietened down, as every ecstatic movement must.  It quietened down into meditation.  When a fire is lit, at first it blazes and crackles, sending sparks in every direction.  Then after a while it settles down into a warm glow, heating the room without any dramatics whatsoever.  I think the charismatic movement fed into the meditation movement of the present day.

So that's my suggestion, Con: try meditation.  You may find that it was worth waiting for. 


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