This Week’s Discussion Question: Private and public spiritual practices

Here at lovely, excruciatingly hot Notre Dame, where I have been teaching Ritual Studies, I have continued to reflect on the Eucharistic Adoration consultation I had at St John’s in the cool spring. Contemporary ritual studies sees personal, private (family or small group), and public practices as closely connected to one another, especially in supporting one’s sense of identity. Juridically, a public liturgy alone may make me a Christian, but personally (and we hear this regularly from practicing Christians) I must continue to find myself in my religious practices.

We can make a nice timely comparison to the Fourth of July, actually: there are plenty of public actions that Americans do around this holiday, but for many of us, the tiny traditions that have familial relevance are our link to celebrating Independence Day. (For me, growing up, it was making fruit salad and eating baked beans. Not intrinsically patriotic!) Similarly, I find that the Triduum is inextricably linked for me with the baking of traditional Ukrainian Easter bread. I prepare the dough Thursday, because doing it on a fast day is too absurd even for my lively sense of irony. I bake it Holy Saturday before the Vigil and cut the first slices after the Vigil, after which it is served at every meal until it’s gone. At that point, depending on how early in the Octave it is, I might make more! This year, even though my husband was out of town at a funeral, I didn’t want to do without making the Easter bread. It’s part of Easter.

This has made me think of two questions, which I’ll ask together since they fit together:

1. Which faith practices are essential to who you are? Are they personal, private or familial, or public?

2. Do your personal or private practices contribute to participation in large liturgical rites? How?





33 responses to “This Week’s Discussion Question: Private and public spiritual practices”

  1. Teresa Berger Avatar

    Thank you for this question, Kim. I come at it from a particular angle, namely by wanting to question the underlying dichotomy between public, authorized liturgy vs. private, devotional practices. Not that this dichotomy does not function powerfully in our contemporary lives in the church — but the dichotomy seems to me to be one that is not solidified until early modernity (although then with a vengeance). In my own liturgical life, I try to live a seamless whole, between my own prayer life (always lived in the larger whole of being a Catholic); the practices of my Catholic faith as mediated through my Catholic upbringing in post-war Germany; and the “official” liturgical rites of the church. An example might be a practice I recently delved into (out of curiosity really), namely online eucharistic devotion. I come away from there seeking and finding an encounter with the same Lord who is present in my parish on Sunday. Yes, the mediations are different, but the Divine Presence is the same.

  2. Bryon Gordon Avatar
    Bryon Gordon

    Every Sunday when I haul my body across my threshold and move to the public place where my brothers & sisters gather to become Church is most essential. I pray the Hours alone, yet it thrusts me towards Sunday. In my domestic Church [my family], we have grace before meals, and we mark the liturgical seasons with evening prayer. Every November, we make a shrine and place the prayer cards we’ve collected over the years of departed friends.

    Privately, I try to sit 20 mins. a day in silent meditation/contemplation, using the Jesus Prayer. Sometimes, I’ll thumb the rosary beads. Other days I may ask the intercession of some saint to aid others or myself. I’ve been unemployed for almost two years, so daily I ask St. Joseph’s intercession. I perceive these private devotions more as a deepening of the personal relationship with Christ Jesus. I intuit on some deeper theological and spiritual levels how these practices make me acutely more aware of who I am among my brothers and sisters at Mass.

  3. John Chuchman Avatar
    John Chuchman

    Look at the answers I received to my Question. You may wish to pose it too.

    How did we come to believe and/or behave like God is more present in the bread and wine than in each and every one of us?
    Ever wonder why the hierarchy perpetuates such an idea?
    (I posed these Questions and received the following responses)

    Well, if it’s power you’re after,
    then what more than to have the sole ability to “confect the species”
    in other words, at the words of consecration (or in the east…epiclesis)
    God becomes present in the bread and wine.
    No one else can do this, so who has the power?
    Of course, in the beginning it was the apostles and the elders
    who did this without any “official” sanctions.
    Hell, there weren’t any “officials” to issue the sanctions.
    Sometimes it was the head of the family or community leader,
    perhaps even a woman or two.
    Huh? what?
    Oh, my!
    To protect the sanctity of their closed society
    with fear and intimidation
    and ensure they are men/gods of property, power and pleasure.
    St John Chrysostom made many comments that touch on this matter.
    For example,
    Those who fail to recognize Christ in the beggar at the church door
    will not find him in the chalice.
    My question for many years.
    How easy it is to adore a piece of bread, make it a crime to destroy it,
    and totally ignore the person sitting next to you.
    Matthew 25: Whatsoever you do to the least of my sisters and brothers,
    that you do unto me.
    Gary Wills in his book “Papal Sin” attributes to Augustine,
    Receive who you are, the body/blood of Christ.
    The only thing that is/can be transformed in the Eucharist
    is the hearts of those in attendance.

    Historically, Church hierarchy were not able to control mystics
    who had gained quite a following.
    So, the hierarchy emphasized the role of priests
    and their amazing power/magic of the Eucharist,
    which even the mystics did not possess,

    1. Dunstan Harding Avatar
      Dunstan Harding

      St John Chrysostom made many comments that touch on this matter.
      For example,
      Those who fail to recognize Christ in the beggar at the church door
      will not find him in the chalice.
      I think Martin Luther or Philip Melancthon said something similar to this.

      1. M. Jackson Osborn Avatar
        M. Jackson Osborn

        DH –
        Wisdom from St John Chrysostom and many others, including many of the reformers you mention is always inspiring. Yet, it is difficult to absorb that the same minds harboured and wrote the most virulent, hate-filled and hurtful sentiments against the Jews, not to mention those who disagreed with them on any number of topics. Even Augustine and Aquinas were not immune to selective compassion. There is certainly a lesson here for me, considering that there are those for whom to have compassion I struggle.

        The private spiritual practices which I find the most fulfilling are praying the office and providing food for a hungry person. The public one is undoubtedly the mass. When participating in a solemn high Anglican Use mass which expresses the ineffable omnipotence and majesty of God is when I feel that I know him most intimately as the Abba of whom many speak. This may indeed seem an irony to some who prefer less magnificence in their liturgy, but it is nevertheless true.

        Too, I would have to say that playing Bach et al. on the organ, or directing a choir, or just playing the piano at home (and teaching) are all very intense and passionate spiritual exercises. There is indescribably more spiritual depth to making music and experiencing it than can be apprehended by some for whom it is mere entertainment or background.

  4. Greg Corrigan Avatar
    Greg Corrigan

    Real Presence cannot just magically happen. Real Presence happens to those who have the ability (through practice, spiritual direction, or, quite naturally, like the focus of an infant) to be truly present to presence. If one can be completely present to Being, right here, right now, then one has participated in an authentic contemplative experience. Perhaps that is why most people on any given Sunday do not have a real contemplative experience at Eucharist but simply a reverent engagement with a wafer.

    The notion of “online eucharistic adoration” is completely new to me. So I went to to see what it is about. This websites mission claims, “We seek to bring the live image of His living Presence to the homebound, the workplace, and to remote areas around the world.” I am totally baffled. What if someone were to display an unconsecrated host through this medium. Would authentic eucharistic adoration take place? If so, does that mean that anything could be experienced as a consecrated species? (I’m noticing connections to Teilhard de Jardin and his “Mass on the World”).

    Teresa Berger writes, “An example might be a practice I recently delved into (out of curiosity really), namely online eucharistic devotion. I come away from there seeking and finding an encounter with the same Lord who is present in my parish on Sunday. Yes, the mediations are different, but the Divine Presence is the same.” Really? I need to sit and pray about this.

    My initial reaction is more in agreement with John Chuchman and his St. John Chrysostom quote, “Those who fail to recognize Christ in the beggar at the church door will not find him in the cup” (sorry, I’m aware that Chrysostom used the word “chalice,” but since I don’t use it per the RMIII instructions, I won’t use it here either (lol).

    Greg Corrigan is associate pastor at Resurrection Parish in Wilmington, Delaware.

    1. Brigid Rauch Avatar
      Brigid Rauch

      The notion of on-line Eucharistic devotion opens up an entire case of cans of worms. For example, what is the difference between Eucharistic adoration if the Sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle vs on display in a monstrance? If the Eucharist can be adored in a tabernacle, can it be adored from the next room? Down the street? Where does spiritual communion fit in?

      My thinking is that these questions are essentially silly. The only question that matters is whether a given spiritual practice brings a given person closer to G-d.

  5. Dominic Montini Avatar
    Dominic Montini

    Seemed like a simple enough question, not an invite to a diatribe against the traditional doctrine of the Eucharist. St. John Chrysostom’s quote (among others of his that have been taken out of context and misappropriated) merely but eloquently states the “ex opere operantis” effect of our own subjective moral state vis a vis the effect of the Eucharist on us. It doesn’t mean that our actions somehow invalidate the Eucharist or that the Real Presence is not what Trent said it was.

    Anyway, to the topic at hand, I’ve picked up on more devotionals as of late. Prayers to specific saints for specific things (i.e. St. Christopher for travel, St. Anthony for lost things, etc.), the rosary (in context with the Rosary Confraternity), brown and green scapulars etc. Plus, I have a devotion to the Divine Office, but that would technically be liturgical.

    My praying of the Office certainly orders me towards participation in the liturgy (as in, the Mass). I do the old Office (mostly in English, ala 1964 Collegeville) and the hours throughout the day act to digest and spread out the Mass readings/prayers. It is also a good liturgical connection on days when I do not get to Mass. The devotionals point to their liturgical counterparts, i.e. I’m looking forward to July 16 as the Commemoration of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Without having any devotion to the brown scapular, I really doubt I’d have any regard for the liturgical observance of the feast day either.

    1. Jim McKay Avatar
      Jim McKay

      Do you want to honor the body of Christ? Then do not despise his nakedness. You come to attend church services dressed in the finest silks which your wardrobe contains; and it is right that you should honor Christ in this way. But on your way, do you pass naked beggars in the streets? It is no good coming to the Lord’s table in fine silks, unless you also give clothes to the naked beggar – because the body of that beggar is also the body of Christ. Do you want to honor the blood of Christ? Then do not ignore his thirst. You have donated beautiful gold chalices for the wine, which becomes a symbol of Christ’s blood; and it is right that you should honor Christ in this way. But on your way to services, you passed by beggars who pleaded for food and drink. It is no good putting gold chalices on the Lord’s table unless you give food and drink to the poor from your own tables. The service which we celebrate in church is a sham unless we put its symbolic meaning into practice outside its walls. Better that we do not come at all than we become hypocrites – whose selfishness can only besmirch the Gospel in the eyes of others. St John Chrysostom Homilies on Matthew 50

      This fuller quote still seems in line with how others have used it here. But then I did not see their remarks as invalidating the Eucharist or questioning Trent, whose bishops probably knew Chrysostom better then I do. This is an intrinsic part of the Eucharist that Chrysostom sought to highlight.

  6. Linda Reid Avatar
    Linda Reid

    “1. Which faith practices are essential to who you are?”

    Attendance at the Eucharist. This has been the case since I was a child. The mystery and beauty of the ritual has shaped my faith and my music ministry.
    Leading sung prayer is as big a part of who I am as anything else in my life.
    Since the basis of my faith is tied to mystery and beauty, I spend a few minutes each day praying at my icon wall in my home.
    I have an unexplainable (because most young women were supposed to be devoted to Mary) devotion to Saint Joseph and Saint Michael. They are the usual recipients of my prayers of distress. I have many examples of all of the above that no one really wants to hear 🙂

  7. crystal watson Avatar

    1. Which faith practices are essential to who you are? Are they personal, private or familial, or public?

    …….. personal private prayer. No one else in my family is a Christian so it’s just me. The time I spend in prayer (Ignatian imaginative conversation) is important to me and though I have specific times to do it, the talking to God thing happens sporadically throughout the day.

    2. Do your personal or private practices contribute to participation in large liturgical rites? How?

    ….. since I don’t go to church anymore, the way my private practice becomes sort of public is through my blog, visiting prayer sites like Sacred Space, making online retreats like the one given by Creighton University, etc.

  8. Jim McKay Avatar
    Jim McKay

    A few years ago I began leading the Lenten preparations for those in the RCIA who would receive sacraments at Easter. It posed some problems so that much of the available materials were unusable. Since the focus was prayer, I turned to the prayer Jesus taught us.

    I now use the Our Father to explain liturgical prayer: entering God’s presence, glorifying God, hearing of the kingdoms (Israel and Heaven), our bread, taking forgiveness to a tempting world etc. So now my private prayer, whether it is a simple Our Father or an extended meditation on Scripture, an act of glorifying or giving thanks, is informed by my experience of those same things at a public liturgy. And vice versa, my personal experiences of prayer become the basis for a more vivid participation in liturgy, faster responses to images as the arise.

  9. Bryon Gordon Avatar
    Bryon Gordon

    Kimberly, my sister, thank you for putting out good questions to help us reflect more deeply on how we pray, both privately and publicly. As the Apostle said in Romans 8:26, our hope is in the Holy Spirit.

  10. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
    Jordan Zarembo

    Since my faith is flagging badly up to the cliff of agnosticism, reading the breviary or attending Mass in either language is often no more interesting than glancing through Time or programming my computers.

    I take solace in the linguistic mechanics of Christian prayer as if prayer were a stream of word-data to be manipulated and examined minutely. The notion that prayer is personal or public is entirely foreign to me. A division is inconceivable. It would be as if each one of us inhabited a personal universe where our own laws of physics applied only for generally accepted laws of physics to apply when individuals assemble. The raw data is the same regardless of a personal or congregational-ritual perspective.

    Perhaps I have been molded into this way of thinking since I signed on to research religion as if it were an empirical science (Religionswissenschaft).

    1. Brigid Rauch Avatar
      Brigid Rauch

      Find someone who needs your prayers, and pray for them. I’ll get you started – say a prayer for me that the prescription I’m starting on today works! 🙂

      1. Dominic Montini Avatar
        Dominic Montini

        I’m in agreement with Brigid (uh oh, world’s gonna end…:) ) and that is absolutely true-pray for other people’s intentions. It will do you a world of good. Getting away from the arid intellectual side of religion (even though it is extremely important) is one thing Catholicism excels at if we let it. Go all out devotional, it can do wonders.

    2. crystal watson Avatar

      “The raw data is the same regardless of a personal or congregational-ritual perspective.”

      They seem different to me. Prayer in church was the recitation of the memorized words written by someone else spoken in time with others – a kind of ritual. Persoanl prayer is a conversation, my own words, about what’s currently on my mind, with listening to try to hear Jesus/God respond. I’ve never completely understood what prayer in church is supposed to do, but my persoanl prayer is done to make a difference in the way things are. Maybe it’s all subjective.

      1. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn Avatar

        Crystal, God bless you, you are always faithful. I’ve “known” you online for a few years now and appreciate your perspective.

        That said, I often wish that whatever it is that stands between you and communal worship could change.

        As someone who spent years in a space not unlike the one you occupy, with faith and private prayer (but no internet community at the time) I found that in the end it could only happen in community, at church.

        And even today it is about what happens with all of us for me. Trust me, I get frustrated – and I am in a place where we know how to be church together. Oh well, our various perspectives – who knows? That being together, in church, even when I am upset with the institution itself, that is Christ, that is real presence for me. I know that for me – I can’t do or be it on my own. Even with the wide internet communities that I have come to know, love and be a part of.

    3. Charles Culbreth Avatar
      Charles Culbreth

      Zarembo on July 3, 2012 – 2:01 am

      Since my faith is flagging badly up to the cliff of agnosticism, reading the breviary or attending Mass in either language is often no more interesting than glancing through Time or programming my computers.

      Dear Jordan, what a stunning revelation. I pray you’re not going to stay long at the cliff of that desert, seriously. Bart Ehrmann (UNC) sells books and gets to go on Colbert in addition to teaching, but, to me, his lack of joy howls from beneath his calm measured demeanor. If I’ve projected too much, forgive me please.

    4. Claire Mathieu Avatar
      Claire Mathieu

      Since my faith is flagging badly up to the cliff of agnosticism, reading the breviary or attending Mass in either language is often no more interesting than glancing through Time or programming my computers.

      There is at least one good thing about this: you can sympathize with the disaffected youth (and others) who find the Mass boring and meaningless. I have difficulty communicating with them because, although we are at the same place at the same time, and see and hear the same things, the effect on us is so different that it is as if we were in different worlds, alien to one another. I don’t know what to say to them and they don’t know what to say to me. We are all perplexed. Now, you, on the other hand, have a fresh experience of aridity, so you’re in a good position to understand them.

      1. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
        Jordan Zarembo

        re: Claire Mathieu on July 4, 2012 – 2:23 pm

        I find Mass very meaningful and fascinating, especially the EF. However, my interest in Mass is more often academic than devotional. As noted, I now see liturgy from the perspective of coded data (the liturgical text) executed by the action of the liturgical ministers as the processors and interpreters for an intended end (e.g. the celebration of eucharist). This is little different in my view than a computer executing a series of programmed commands for a predetermined result. Perhaps many clergypersons and lay ministers might take offense at my perspective. Even so, this is what is left after the soil in which faith is planted has eroded to the point where a minimal bedrock of agnostic understanding remains.

        Also, like many people, I find it difficult to differentiate the “Church militant” from the “Church political”. It’s rather immature to not believe in a religion because of the presence of hypocrisy, as hypocrisy is a fundamental condition of human behavior. The presence of abusive hypocrisy sorely tests the belief and faith of many, but even then maturity perhaps allows a person to believe despite the presence of harm perpetuated in the name of religion. Once these realities are placed into perspective, then a personal devotional and liturgical spirituality can flourish. I have not arrived at this point yet.

      2. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar


        One of the ways I maintain faith in the face of the manifest and often pervasive corruption of the Church is my appreciation of the irony that it is the Church herself, in the doctrine or original sin, that gives me the most compelling account of that corruption. Hang in there. 90% of faith is simply a matter of showing up.

      3. Claire Mathieu Avatar
        Claire Mathieu

        It’s rather immature to not believe in a religion because of the presence of hypocrisy,

        No, actually that makes perfect sense. I read this yesterday in an online homily (for next Sunday’s readings): “Most priests would agree, I think, that people are drawn to the Church, drawn to Christ, because they see something in the lives of Catholics that attracts them, or startles them, or challenges them; and, wondering what can give lives such beauty or depth or serenity, they are pointed in the direction of Christ. We Christians, the Church, are often the chief way, and sometimes, the only way, in which people encounter Christ today.

        Symmetrically, people can be pushed away from the Church because they see things in the lives of Catholics that repel them. I don’t think that that’s immature.

        Only, for myself, witnessing one example of holiness, one person that touches me, is enough to make up for lots of hypocrisy or corruption.

    5. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn Avatar

      My prayers for you Jordan – I am moved by what you have said about yoru faith. It is a hard place to be.

      Your notion that prayer is either personal or public really strikes me – that division is inconceivable. That just stops me in my tracks, in a most profound and good way.

      Thank you – and I wish you peace.

  11. Chris McDonnell Avatar

    My posting of Beads of Prayer, November 2010, reflects the essence of many of these comments. It is another way of trying to fulfil our need to pray.

  12. Brigid Rauch Avatar
    Brigid Rauch

    May I suggest a secular liturgical practice (Is there such a thing?) that my children and I have followed for years? Take 10 minutes today and listen to NPR’s annual reading of the Declaration of Independence:

    Everything else aside, it’s a fine example of what English can sound like; seriousness does not preclude clarity!

  13. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn Avatar

    Kimberly, what a great question. Although I have found my way to finally responding to a couple of the comments, I find that language is limping for me in my own reply.

    For so many years, I fled church and community. I did not think that I could trust the institution, and I certainly did not believe that I could trust people. I always believed in God however and became such a seeker… and all that seeking, quite by accident (as it would appear) led me directly back to church. At the time, over 20 years ago now, and after an 18 year absence, I did not want to go, but somehow I trusted God and went. And stayed.

    In any event, there is no life without eucharist or community for me. And now that I read Jordan’s comment about personal and public prayer, well I can’t find another word to say. What he said really struck me deeply and I think that it is true. No real difference, is there? Or is there?

  14. Joanne K McPortland Avatar

    This is a great question, and the responses provoke thought. I’m struck by the fact that there is a piece missing between public liturgy and private prayer, perhaps because many of us responding are single or our families have grown and gone. Are there still family prayer/devotion/rituals that speak? Meal prayers, night prayers, family rosary, blessings, seasonal customs like the Advent wreath? It’s an area of spirituality where Jews and Muslims often seem to have an enviable edge on Christians–that ability to weave worship into every part of life.

    For myself, as a two-year revert to Catholicism after a 30+ year absence, I am continually amazed at how “outdated” devotions such as the rosary, stations of the cross, and Eucharistic adoration (which I came back to through the example of teens on a diocesan-wide vocations pilgrimage!) speak to me in a new way. The Eucharist is still the “source and summit” for me, and time I spent in the Anglican communion gave me a deepened love for the Liturgy of the Hours, but these extra-liturgical devotions still, as Bryon Gordon said so beautifully above, “thrust me toward Sunday,” and I am glad these babies didn’t get thrown out with the baptismal water.

  15. Jack Rakosky Avatar
    Jack Rakosky

    The Divine Office is the central practice of my spiritual life.

    It is set within three dimensions of spiritual practice: 1) of solitude, study and contemplation (shaped by Merton and Desert Christianity), 2) of community, i.e. family, parish, small groups (shaped by my Benedictine undergraduate education, and being a voluntary pastoral staff member in the 1980s), and 3) of service (contemplation in action, shaped by a Jesuit Novitiate, and twenty years working in the public mental health system).

    The social psychologist in me sees as false those ideologies which separate public and private, prayer and action, individual and community. We are always shaping institutions and cultures as much as we are being shaped by institutions and culture.

    The Divine Office has shaped my life in many forms (Short Breviary, English Divine Office, Latin Monastic Office, Liturgy of the Hours, Byzantine Office). It exists internally as the desire of the Holy Spirit to pray always in union with all who are in union with Christ. That interior existence has made the Divine Office a living and varied experience far beyond simple ritual attendance at a service or reading from a book.

    The dimension of solitude, study and contemplation began with others (e.g. the gift of Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation in high school from a math teacher who became a life long friend) and has brought me together with others more than it has separated me from them.

    As a voluntary pastoral staff member we spent about the first half hour of staff meetings taking turns sharing our very different spiritualities and prayer lives. That was far superior to many group practices which ask people to adopt someone else’s spirituality or practices as their own.

    The lives of people with mental illness have enriched and transformed my life as much as I have served them. The spiritual community in the mental health system was deeper than most (but not all) of my parish experience.

  16. crystal watson Avatar


    Thanks for the kind words 🙂

    The reasons I don’t go to church anymore are kind of all mixed up. After RCIA i went to church for a few years and did like it, especially the singing, but nothing that happened there ever showed me how to have a personal relationship with God, and given that I was an agnostic at best when I joined, it didn’t fill the void within. But also there were practical reasons too – I have a degenerative eye disease and also I’m very shy – it was hard to always ask someone for a ride to church, hard to not be able to read the missal, not be able to see people’s faces, etc.

    But then a few years after I quit going to church, I ended up making a Jesuit retreat and it did what I had hoped church would do – it assured me God loved me, wanted to spend time with me, taught me how to work on the relationship and how to at least try to find meaning in my life.

    1. Fran Rossi Szpylczyn Avatar

      Yes Crystal, you have mentioned some of this before. I came back worried that my comment may have sounded judgmental – which it was not.

      I love your presence out here on all the blogs -and through your own blog. God bless you always.

  17. crystal watson Avatar

    Same to you, Fran 🙂

  18. Kimberly Hope Belcher Avatar
    Kimberly Hope Belcher

    I hereby close the week’s discussion. Thanks to all of you for your thought-provoking answers, and still more for the personal and spiritual support and respect. I’m thankful to be part of this community.

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