Devotion and the Self

“Devotion” is our spiritual theme for March, and there are few words as challenging for religious liberals. Our view of truth is contingent, our understanding of justice is always evolving, and even our theology is a work in process. Devotion seems to call for complete commitment. We reserve the right to change and grow.

We all recognize the benefits of devotion in some parts of our lives. Few question the value of regular exercise (devotion to exercise) or even a regular devotional practice like prayer or Tai Chi. We respect those who have devoted themselves to a discipline or profession and are regarded as experts.

But there is something in that concept of devotion that makes us leary…at least a little. Devotion seems to imply a commitment beyond evaluation, a faith beyond evidence, a giving away of our critical faculties. We know too well the damage that has been and can be done by “True Believers.”

And yet, devotion also draws us. At least it draws me.

My own spiritual practice is prayer. “My morning devotions,” I sometimes call that time when I sit with myself and allow both questions and answers to move through me. It may sound a bit mystical to some of you.Those of you who remember Jonathan Haidt’s description of the rational rider atop the emotional elephant will know that devotion is not the worldview of our riders. Devotion is not a rationally directed process, though reason is not absent.

But to the extent that my “self” resides in my reason, devotion requires a giving over of control to … what? Language here is far from perfect. For me, my devotions require me to give myself over to the act of devotion itself. That practice does not threaten my rational self, but enriches it. The practice of devotion allows me to “touch” and be touched by the Spirit of Life in deeper ways.

What is your practice of devotion? What allows you to touch and be touched by the spirit, however you may name it?

Here is one poetic description of the process of devotion, taken, perhaps, to extreme:

St. Kevin and the Blackbird
Seamus Heaney

And then there was St. Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underneath
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in Love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
a prayer his body makes entirely
for he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
and on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.