Monday, 1 March 2010

The old prayer books and 'conferences'

I'm not referring to liturgical texts here, but to the sort of devotional books that, during my youth, many people carried in their pockets or used in the sitting room. Many such books included exhortations to those who wished to become saints (a noble aspiration, indeed - but none of the canonised saints would have met these standards, because it tended to boil down to 'look for scorn and assume everyone is admiring you,' contradictory though that is.) I think the reason some of my own generation (and those who'd be a bit older) acted like such posturing fools in adulthood is that we were 'on the cusp' (and there I'm not referring to the astrology most of us embraced in the 1970s.) We were over-reacting to the 'kick me - admire me' dilemma to which we had been introduced, which suddenly was replaced by 'self awareness' (the real thing is a godsend - the counterfeit variety a cloak for self absorption) and such other trends as a narrow feminism.

Most of these books didn't include only prayers, but copies of 'conferences' and lists of ways we could root out faults. Finding one of these books today (as I did recently) can lead to a certain embarrassment, but I'm smiling yet again at how perspective can colour one's impressions. For example, one part of the daily prayer routine for all was 'examination of conscience.' (This wasn't in relation to preparation for sacramental confession - it was a constant review. I think it's a very good idea to take a moment to see if we have sins or distractions - the trouble was that the wording of these lists could be either overly discreet or leave one to explore the conscience of the entire world.)

Many of the items listed are not sinful, though they might lead to sin in a particular case. There was a very excessive emphasis on 'setting example,' where one was supposed to wish the 'humility' of scorn in the next breath... amazing that someone wanted to be despised and rejected, yet assumed this would lead to admiration. (Yes, I know Christ was despised and rejected - but even Franciscans occasionally remember that the Incarnation doesn't mean only the cross. If one's identity is only as a criminal condemned to death, millions, Christians or not, aren't going to be admiring one for two thousand years.) Now that I think of it, how many of us are looking to others for example in the first place? I can see the idea of example as creating problems if it leads to an exaggerated sense of our own importance - or if, for example, one mistreated another and is not concerned about the lack of charity and justice, or the harm one may have inflicted, but is caught up in wondering if the person we kicked down the stairs now has ceased to admire our example.

Most of us are not candidates for maximum security prisons, so I suppose it's understandable that heinous crimes were not included in books aimed at the devout (such details might only spark imaginations - turning prayer time into a detective story.) Yet there were sins of which anyone is capable which either were ignored, mentioned in a vague and offhand fashion, or sandwiched between 'did I enjoy praise?' and 'was I distracted at prayer?'

I'm sure there are many who would see lists such as these as leading to scrupulosity, and perhaps that is true in some cases. My more cynical disposition makes me wonder if one might inwardly think, "Oh, how very holy I must be, that I must beg divine mercy for being distracted - and have to focus constantly on whether my halo is fading!"

I'm just picking this at random, but there were dispositions (such as 'enjoying praise') that normally were just human nature - and often healthy - in themselves. They indeed could lead to sin in some cases. Certainly, if someone needed praise so badly that s/he sought to destroy the reputation of anyone else who seemed to be getting this, or who neglected children to be known as the tireless church worker, and so forth, it's deep water. (And, in successfully draining such a swamp, one must accept the inevitable point of being up to one's arse in alligators.) Yet it could go to ridiculous extremes, where simple compliments had to lead to putting oneself down, or where someone who'd been a dressmaker for 20 years couldn't assist another because one was proud if one admitted to a talent.

Coincidentally, this little prayer book made reference to criticism - a topic of which I wrote recently. If someone can never admit he is wrong, that can lead to large problems. However, the 'conference' would lead one to think that every critical comment is correct (where haven't we all known those who criticise even the silliest things, in everyone - and isn't this often an ego game?) The idea was that, if one resents or ignores criticism of any kind, one is infected with pride. I would think that getting caught up in such a nonsensical, narrow view might blind us to valuable, perhaps extremely important, criticism.

I'm mentioning this because those who have no previous exposure to these points of view may not understand why over-compensating led to extremes which were just as bad. And those of us who fell into the trap, though we might remember some major document or great work of theology, usually have long forgotten that ideas we learnt first, and against which we rebelled later, well may have come from an innocuous little prayer book.

There was a well-worn joke (probably old when Rome, at least as centre of Christendom, was young) which a few priests I knew used to enjoy repeating. (This aside from the one about Mrs O'Leary, who confessed that she stole a rope without mentioning there was a pig on the other end... I still can't explain why jokes that were so silly and well-worn were hilarious if the right priest told them.) "Father, do you think I should change my self-examen?" Response: "I wouldn't change anything in this cold weather." (I, of course, am not going to compromise on setting a good example by relating how many of them raised the toast of "Here's to those who wish us well, and all the rest can go to hell." Perish the thought that were taken as literally as some of what was in the prayer books...)

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