Fixed prayers fix prayer…

The chaplet is often recited on beads as a ros...“Even if you are on the brink of damnation, even if you have one foot in hell, … and even if you are a heretic as obstinate as a devil, sooner or later you will be converted and will amend your life and will save your soul, if … you say the Holy Rosary devoutly every day until death for the purpose of knowing the truth and obtaining contrition and pardon for your sins. … Never will anyone who says his Rosary every day become a formal heretic or be led astray by the devil.”

— Saint Louis de Montfort (1673-1716), The Secret of the Rosary, “A Red Rose” & “25th Rose”

Full disclosure:

I’ve never been a big fan of the Rosary.

Or, more accurately stated, I’ve never been a big fan of sacrificing time to sit (or kneel) in one place and pray the Rosary from start to finish. My flesh resists it like no other. My mind wanders like…

Where was I?

Oh, right!

Hail Mary!

Knowing that prayer is crucial, however, I have internalized other favorite prayer habits (especially the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the Jesus Prayer, etc.) over the years, but I can only claim a sporadic devotion to the Rosary.

Nevertheless, I’ve always had a great devotion to the idea and the reality of the rosary. I love Mother Mary, I love the brown scapular, I love indulgences, and I love the lore of the Rosary as a chain of grace binding us to the Lord.

But I’ve just never been able to get into it like a good Catholic should.

Oh, I’ve been reassured that it’s not essential to pray the Rosary, so etc. but it’s always been a hollow spot for me. A sort of spiritual color blindness.

But I’m here to thank Pope Francis for my newfound devotion to the Rosary.

Well, more accurately stated, I’m thanking God for the F1 F/X (the Francis Effect) as a catalyst for taking my Entish ways less for granted. (Ents are probably my favorite being in Tolkien’s universe: beings of great but almost unknown power when the good is at risk, wedded to the ancient roots of the world––much like Catholics humbly steeped in the Tradition.)

We know how Pope Francis mocks the counting of decades, yet we also know how his defenders count his daily decades. We know how Pope Francis denigrates the saying of prayers in favor of “prayer” as such, yet we also know that he prays the rosary every day. By now this papal ping-pong is old hat for me and my reader, and thus no cause for consternation. It’s just another of Pope Whitman‘s trademark “tensions” (if not contradictions). Because, I know, I know, I know, there’s a perfectly consistent and profoundly orthodox message coming from Pope Francis on traditional prayers and devotions––it just takes a little, and then a little, and then a little more cognitive collating to bring into focus.


Here’s the point:

It was in the course of threshing out the real Pope Francis, as I’ve been trying to do for the past month, that I came upon this video featuring Michael Matt and Christopher Ferrara doing their threshing of the Pope’s litany of head-scratchers.

It’s all about the baffled head-shake. 

If you advance to 3:20 in that video, you’ll hear Ferrara mention how Catholics praying the Rosary are “doing violence to themselves” even when they “don’t feel like it” (cf. Mt 11:12 and blue note). He then adds, around 9:00, that our loving God gives us an “A for effort” if we pray the rosary “even when we don’t want to,” for God sees how we “struggle” to stay close to the Son.

TOUCHDOWN! That has set my brain on fire, thank you, Mr. Ferrara! For the past few days I have made my daily rosary the summit of my spiritual life. I schedule my evening around it, rather than vice versa. I had once again succumbed to the delusion that my wordless, groggy “prayer” life was enough to get me by on the path to sainthood. In fact, however, what I need, and always need, is a coherent, simple, traditional way of life that is strengthened by fixed prayers like rebar in the soul. If that means that, according to Pope Francis, I have toked from the crack pipe of restorationism and doctrinal security, then so be it. The Entish Old Ways––say the prayer even if you feel no consolation––trump his stumping for Clever New Ways, every time. Recall a point he made to Fr. Spadaro:

“Ignatius [of Loyola] asks us to open our spiritual sensitivity to encounter God beyond a purely empirical approach. A contemplative attitude is necessary: it is the feeling that you are moving along the good path of understanding and affection toward things and situations. Profound peace, spiritual consolation, love of God and love of all things in God – this is the sign that you are on this right path.”

That may be true, but all it does for me is reinforce my laziness, if not valorize my acedia. Pope Francis goes on and on about joy and smiles as proof of one’s faith, which is well and good, but I myself frequently derive an icy pleasure (Pelagian, as he would probably call it) in communing with God, as He specifies in the authority of Holy Tradition, even when I derive no sense of joy from it. I frankly don’t know what “the feeling that you are moving along the good path” is like, but I do how to put one foot in front of another, one word after another, in the obedience of prayer, praise, and penance. I also know that such drab loyalty makes me feel better than waiting for a positive feeling to inspire me to “pray” without words.

On October 8 Pope Francis made a related “off-the-cuff” point (emphasis added):

“And the Lord tells us: ‘the first task in life is this: prayer.’ But not the prayer of words, like a parrot; but the prayer, the heart: gazing on the Lord, hearing the Lord, asking the Lord. We know that prayer works miracles. … And not praying is this: closing the door to the Lord, so that He can do nothing. On the other hand, prayer, in the face of a problem, a difficult situation, a calamity, is opening the door to the Lord so that He will come. … This is what praying is: opening the door to the Lord, so that he can do something. But if we close the door, God can do nothing!”

And on 17 October he made these related points (emphasis added):

“…when a Christian prays, he is not far from the faith; he speaks with Jesus.” And, the Pope said, “I say to pray, I do not say to say prayers, because these teachers of the law said many prayers” in order to be seen. Jesus, instead, says: “when you pray, go into your room and pray to the Father in secret, heart to heart.” The pope continued: “It is one thing to pray, and another thing to say prayers.

Unfortunately, this is yet another of the Holy Father’s obscure false dichotomies (mystical mystification!). He says that “praying” works miracles, and the implication is that, by contrast, saying prayers does not. He says that “prayer” brings us close to Jesus, whereas “saying prayers” groups us with the legalists. I can only disagree. It is precisely by adhering to a ‘rigid’ schedule, and resorting to ‘rigid’ traditional prayers, that we force open our lives to God. It is only by setting time and cognitive power apart for regimented prayer that we shut out other competing distractions that close us to God. Prayer is not just a cry for help “in the face of a problem.” It is an ongoing mortification of the old Adam in order to be reborn in joy as sons in the New Adam (Mt 5:30, Jn 12:24, Rom 6, Col 3 (esp. 3:5)). From the beginning the Church has lived by “the prayers,” not merely by “prayer,” and when His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray, Christ taught not an emotional disposition but specific words that have been fixed in the life of the Church ever since. jesus-prayerEven that most “heart-based” of prayers, the Jesus Prayer, is explicitly rooted in the saying of specific words, in a specific posture, in a specifically coordinated rhythm. I understand, charitably, that the Pope is trying to tell us to enjoy the mid-air freedom of flying in the Spirit, but the fact is, unless you have attained the mystical heights and can jump down from them into a silent glide, the vast majority of Catholics need the “Pelagian” churning of the verbal propellers just to get off the ground.

I all too easily regress into my old Protestant instincts about prayer as a wordless intention, or prayer as a spontaneous warmth, and when I regress, my life suffers. I become unfixed and infirm. Thank God, though, I have been “restored” by grace to the Catholic wisdom of saying fixed words at fixed times in order to fix myself to the God who wants to fix me. Though Pope Francis says “restorationism” is a “temptation” against the “missionary” spirit, I must humbly confess that “the restoration of outdated manners and forms which, even on the cultural level, are no longer meaningful” (his words from the same address linked just now) has quite literally saved my soul. No mere gazing of the heart has fixed prayers have fixed my prayer life, and good thing, because one’s prayer life fixes one to God. None of this is to suggest, of course, that I do no derive any positive emotions or profound joy in my daily struggle for Christlikeness. It’s just to note another instance of how Pope’s recondite oracles do little to nothing for my own san(ct)ity, and seem designed to challenge even the most loyal sons of the Church (here’s more of the same). I can console myself that Pope Francis might approve of my efforts, not only because I’m using a simple rosary made by an inmate, but also because I don’t even have all the elements of the rosary memorized in Latin yet (Pelagian-restorationist-style).

Meanwhile, and what makes my rosary recovery even sweeter? It came about by using an old-school St. Joseph’s Daily Missal (SJDM) that my dad left me. I have a Spanish, an English, a modern Chinese, an old Chinese, a German, and a Latin guide to the Rosary, but something about that unassuming, battered SJDM provided the perfect enzymes for the catalyst which Ferrara planted in my mind. And even though I pray each decade now in English, now in Spanish, now in Latin, now in Chinese, now in German, it is the simple little headings in the SJDM under the quaint illustrations for each mystery that enrich my prayer like never before.

And maybe it’s just that simple.

Maybe my personal “restoration” in the rosary, despite the pope’s sophisticated (and sophistically obscure) denigration of rosary fetishes like mine, captures why I’m still very far from unequanimously calling him “my pope.” Just because he thinks there’s nothing worth recovering prior to Vatican II (“one feels as if one goes back 60 years!”), doesn’t mean he’s right, and much less that I must heed him in his affable myopia.


One of my favorite songs is “Washed Away” by Arrested Development.

It is a song for Ents.

“The ocean’s owned by the serpent…”

It is a song about the satanic desire to erode the shores of tradition built up by divine goodness in human civilization, and about the divine plan to shore up the traditional boundaries of goodness among humans subject to the devil. “Why do we allow them to wash it away? … Why are we allowing them to take what’s good?” Amen, and amen. Yet–“all of us must swim the sea, because our past’s been washed away.” It would probably mortify them to know this, but Arrested Development’s “Washed Away” played a key though obscure role in my converting to Catholicism, and still informs my sense of why marriage is worth defending against marriage revisionists.

Have you frequented my blog long enough to know how I think the pope’s message is crucially “liquid”? (Congratulations! If you followed and peruse that link, you’ve become a seasoned FCA reader!) Biblically, the open seas are the antithesis of God’s saving order: God made the earth from the watery chaos (Gen 1), the Israelites defeated sea-faring pagans (Exodus, Joshua), God’s greatest victory is in converting water into the means of salvation (Baptism in the NT), and the Lord’s final victory is over the beast who comes “from the sea (Rev 13). So, in worldly wisdom, playing with fire is dangerous, whereas according to biblical wisdom, playing with fire, the vivifying grace of God, is the only thing safe. By contrast, to the world, playing with water is mere child’s play, while in the biblical tradition playing with water is a likely path to doom: to water down the truth, to douse the fire of the Spirit, and to erode the boundaries of the Kingdom. Even though in my higher rational centers I know Pope Francis is not a liberal, my abiding fear is that the more liquid the Pope makes the Church’s message, the less biblical he makes the Church.

Since I’ve sapped your joy with so many words by now, I’ll wrap up this post with pictures for your heart to gaze upon. Is that non-restorationist enough of me?

pope francis selfie


God_creating_the_birds_and_the_fishes_mg_0018parting-red-sea2psalm 93 - 3-4jonah-big-fishjesus calming_the_storm2jesus-walking-on-water The Beast from the sea with seven heads-Bamberg Apocalypse Folio032vBeastFromSeaWith7HeadsP1010182P1010194P1010195P1010193P1010192P1010189

About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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15 Responses to Fixed prayers fix prayer…

  1. Jeff says:

    I love a lot of what you say and agree with most of it.

    But there has to be SOME sense in which Jesus words about the vain multiplication of words in prayer is true.

    We used to call the kind of prayer you are referring to “mental prayer”. Mother Teresa said holiness is impossible without it. St Alphonsus Liguori said that all saints have become saints by means of the practice of mental prayer.

    You can’t say everything at the same time. And you can’t address everyone perfectly at the same time.

    I have yet to say any treatise on prayer by any Catholic spiritual writer of note–or any Orthodox one for that matter–which does not insist on the difference between saying words and praying.

    I LOVE vocal prayer and it’s my school of prayer too. I too love the rosary–and hate it–but love it still.

    You can pray without saying prayers. But you can also say prayers without praying.

  2. Dale Price says:

    I think the Pope has a point, but as with all of his jabs at spiritual failings traditionalists are most prone to, is that really a major problem? Catholics mechanically mouthing prayers sounds like a serious problem of the Church in 1966.

    Yes, one shouldn’t have a “look at me, God, I’m reciting the formulae, lucky You!” mindset. That’s a valuable reminder for any Catholic who engages in prayer. But a world where many baptised Catholics don’t even know all of the prayers in a Rosary strikes me as a more symptomatic and widespread problem.

  3. Dale Price says:

    I mean, good Lord–the Divine Office requires prayers at various set times (with some flexibility) of the day. I can’t imagine everyone who recites it according to a schedule is feeling a pure urge to pray, and yet, such a schedule is commended by the Church, and has been for ages.

  4. Yes. Again, he’s stuck in the pre-V2 time warp. I dunno.

  5. As always, he just seems to assume way too much from his listeners. He assumes decades of Jesuit formation and magisterial theological nuance. Is he ever “wrong” (well, in one or two cases I say, yes), but is he excelling as a PASTOR like his fanbase assures us? Ehhmm… Let’s keep praying for him. The word “roughshod” keeps coming to mind.

  6. Oh, and by the way, stop haunting my blog, you restorationist Pharisee, you. My mind cleanse is almost complete and you’re just enabling my old darkness. 😉

  7. Dale Price says:

    Well, whaddaya want? It’s what we RP types do! 🙂

  8. Flambeaux says:

    It’s just a jump to the Left /
    And a step to the right…

  9. mgl says:

    And yet … would you be having these epiphanies if the cardinals had elected Burke, or Ranjith, or Scola? Like you, I’m troubled by the Holy Father’s scoldings of orthodox Catholics and his apparent dislike of traditional devotions. I fear that he may be putting many souls at risk by allowing them to believe that the Church’s teaching on salvation has changed. But the ferment and confusion of the past several months has actually strengthened my faith and increased my resolve to pray with the Church in her traditional ways.

    I seem to be one of the dry, faith-challenged Catholics that the Holy Father has in mind with his remarks, perhaps even “not a real Christian” by his lights. The grace of my conversion from atheism was effected almost entirely through dialectical means, being first convinced that atheistic materialism was self-refuting gibberish, persuaded of the truth of Christianity by historical evidence and logical arguments, at the conclusion of which the Catholic Church’s claims seemed almost self-evident. Though I have to say that my family’s conversion was finally precipitated by a devastating series of events that destroyed our trust in the institutions and laws of men. Otherwise, we might have languished in a typically modern apathy towards the higher things.

    But is my prayer life difficult? Heck, yes.
    Do I find myself almost incapable of sustained mental prayer? Absolutely.
    Do I know what it’s like to have a “personal encounter” or friendship with Christ? Intellectually, yes, but not in any kind of immediate, visceral sense.

    Taking the Holy Father at his word, I would seem to be a hopeless case. I greatly admire those who, like him, seem to feel the Gospel and the presence of Christ in a direct and immediate way, but unless God sees fit to grant me such a gift, that’s just not my experience. And this is precisely why Mother Church’s wisdom and tradition is so important. She realizes that we can’t all be mystics or contemplatives, and she understands that some of us struggle with the conversion of our hearts throughout our entire lives. That’s one of the reasons she provides us with set prayers, often to be prayed at set times of the day—so that even the most obtuse and clueless of her members can participate in the Communion of Saints. Do away with that great tradition and watch as we flounder and fall away, discouraged by our inaptitude.

    So I pray a morning offering along with three Hail Marys, the Morning Office and Evening Prayer, daily Scripture readings according to a set plan, the Rosary at lunchtime, grace before meals, Mass on Sundays and whenever else I can make time for it, Adoration once in a blue moon, Catholic books and podcasts, and ejaculatory prayers throughout the day in response to circumstances. (Plus, my wife and I are currently undergoing preparation for Marian consecration.) All of it contains at least some element of the dreaded “rote”, “routine”, or “memorized”, but that’s the only way in for people like me.

    To sum up, the unexpected fruit for me of Francis’s papacy so far is that I have developed a deeper understanding of the proper reverence we owe to the Pope (and of the boundaries thereof), of the benefits of “set” Catholic devotions, and an awareness of the risk of letting such devotions become mindless. I remain troubled by Pope Francis, but I have to credit his scolding with forcing me to think through these questions. Plus, the battle lines are becoming ever clearer under Francis. Were we blessed with a Burke, a Ranjith, or a Scola papacy, we might well have remained complacent, and fooled ourselves into thinking that the Church was in better shape than she is.

  10. Thank you for your comment, it’s wonderful! I have had similar thoughts over the past several. It’s a pretty grim consolation, though, to think that the Pope is a kind of scourge out of which God can make good for a few knuckleheads like us, while the world at large only gets confirmed in its doctrinal whateverism and situationist ethics. I want to read your comment again when I have time; there’s a lot of good in there, thank you for your candor and wisdom. Glad to have you around FCA.

  11. This is an important caveat, and one I grant. The reason I wrote about all this is partially because it’s actually been a good development in my life, but also because, as with all things connected to Pope Francis, I’m convinced there’s more beneath the surface than most people are willing to fathom (in the nautical sense). Given his background for denigrating “legalistic” Catholic traditions, and given his squishy ecumenism towards Pentecostals in Argentina, it’s not accidental that his words have a Protestant tang to them. (Have you read my previous posts on Pope Francis, by the way? There’s a lot of context about his past that needs to be included in chats like this.) Even barring that “tang”, though, the problem I keep having with him is that he leaves so much unstated, assumes that everyone knows where he’s coming from, and just never seems to care that we might actually like to get his unvarnished, unpatched-together-from-half-a-dozen-other-locutions meaning. I’m repeatedly baffled why many of his words lend themselves *so easily* to anti-Catholic canards. He was called La Gioconda in seminary, by the way, due to his inscrutability, and the Delphic-oracle, Cheshire-Cat smile remains one of his most dominant features. I used to want to believe he had an elaborate but skewed theology, but now I may just be ready to resign myself to the notion that he has no coherent theology at all, just a bubbling stew of homiletical one-liners and pastoral stunts. God help me, a heretical pope would be a relief compared to a careless one.

  12. Jeff says:

    Hahaha! “The lukewarm I will spew out of my mouth.”

    I had just finished reading Cardinal Pell pooh-poohing the SSPX calling Francis a “true modernist” and hotly denying it.

    Then I read what Cardinal Maradiaga, one of the Pope’s closest colleagues and a member of his special Cardinals group, just spoke to OUR bishops:

    ” 2. Vatican II
    The Second Vatican Council was the main event in the Church in the 20th Century. In principle, it meant an end to the hostilities between the Church and modernism, which was condemned in the First Vatican Council. On the contrary: neither the world is the realm of evil and sin –these are conclusions clearly achieved in Vatican II—nor is the Church the sole refuge of good and virtue. Modernism was, most of the time, a reaction against injustices and abuses that disparaged the dignity and the rights of the person.
    The Vatican II Council officially acknowledged that things had changed, and captured the need for such a change…”

    More fun! :p

  13. It’s full of knee-slappers! 🙂

  14. 1withhope says:

    If only the Pope knew a little more about his namesake’s approach to prayer he could have us all another bout of doubt and confusion:

    The Gloria Patri inspired St. Francis of Assisi with the liveliest devotion. He could never tire of repeating it, and he exhorted everyone to say it frequently. Once when he desired to return thanks to God for a special favour, he ordered the Magnificat to be said by one of his friards, he himself saying the Gloria Patri after each verse. He likewise much recommended meditation upon this Doxology. To one of his brethren, who was very desirous to learn he said:”Study well the Gloria Patri; in it you will find the whole substance of the Scriptures.” Abbe Bacquez – Divine Office.

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