When Devotions Aren't Helpful

Suz and I have a framed Divine Mercy image in our living room — not the most popular and widely disseminated version of the image (like the one on the right), but a different one that we greatly prefer.

We’ve never liked the Divine Mercy images you see on most holy cards and website — the ones based on the 1943 painting by Adolf Hyla, with Jesus tilting his head to one side and making good eye contact with the viewer. To our eyes this Jesus looks too much like the mild, slightly effeminate, northern European Jesus of too much sentimental Protestant devotional art — something that, as converts, we’re more than slightly allergic to.

Everything about the Hyla-influenced Divine Mercy images, from the waves of Jesus’ hair and the shape of his beard to the cast of his upraised hand and the exaggerated bathrobe sleeves, is off-putting to us. His face is too gaunt, skin too creamy, his expression too dreamy. (I’m also not a fan of the "twinkling" effect of the red and pale rays in some versions of this image, though not the original Hyla.) One of us dubbed this familiar image "Seventies Dude Jesus," and it’s stuck ever since.

The original Divine Mercy image created for St. Faustina by Eugene Kazimierowski at Vilnius (called the Vilnius image), a restored version of which has been available since 2003, is, we think, so vastly superior to Seventies Dude Jesus that it’s hard to quantify. This is the image that made Sr. Faustina cry with its inadequacy until Jesus told her it was good enough. I’m sure Jesus would have said the Hyla image was good enough too, but that would have been a lot more generous of Him in my opinion.

Everything about the Vilnius Jesus, from his attitude and expression to the handling of his robe and the rays of light, is more serious, weighty and classical to our eyes. Though still obviously a European image, this Jesus looks more universal, his ruddier skin tone less Caucasian-looking.

The smoothly even red and pale rays and the clarity of the colors (as with the original Hyla, though not some of its imitators) best reflects, I feel, the spiritual symbolism of St. Faustina’s visions. I like the translucence of His robe (particularly where the rays illuminate the sleeves), which looks more to me like something Jesus would actually have worn than does the smooth, heavy linen-looking fabric worn by the Hyla-influenced images.

As strongly as I feel about all this, I recognize that it’s a matter of taste. I don’t claim that anyone has to agree with me, although I suspect that I’m not alone in feeling this way. As a critic I’m used to considering the pros and cons of varying points of view on aesthetic matters, and while I don’t necessarily think that matters of taste are all completely subjective, I also recognize the difficulty of finding fixed points that can be known with certitude.

These questions go beyond matters of devotional art into wider devotional questions of hymnody, church architecture, spiritual reading and even prayer. Since I’m on the subject of Divine Mercy, here is a confession. Every year our family prays the Divine Mercy novena from Good Friday to the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday. I embrace this, and yet there is an aspect of it I find somewhat troubling.

Here we’ve made it through 40 days of Lenten penance, through the rigors of Holy Week and Triduum, with the abjection of Good Friday, finally arriving at the glory of Easter and the Easter Octave — and here we are, day in and day out throughout the Easter Octave, focusing with laserlike intensity on the sake of His sorrowful Passion, the sake of His sorrowful Passion, the sake of His sorrowful Passion, fifty times a day all Easter Week long. Isn’t that a little, you know, Good Friday for a season in which we ought to be joyously celebrating the resurrection of Christ, not His sorrowful Passion? (Perhaps we might add some special Easter devotions to sort of offset this? Does anyone know of any?)

Devotional literature and sentiment is another area that can present stumbling-stones as well as stepping stones. I know I’m not the only Catholic who has been taken aback by some of the more florid paeans to the Blessed Virgin in the writings of Alphonsus Liguori. I understand that devotional language is hyperbolic and poetic and needs to be read in context, but sometimes the effort of contextualizing something becomes more of a burden than any benefit to be gained.

"As the body cannot live without breathing," St. Alphonsus writes, "so the soul cannot live without having recourse to and recommending itself to Mary." If having recourse to Mary is the vital equivalent of breathing, what more essential and vital function remains for the intimacy we ought to have with the Holy Trinity? Again, "Take away the sun and where will be the day? Take away Mary, and what will be left but the darkest night?" Once you make Mary the sun, what room have you left in your picture for the Son of God and His Father?

Not long ago I encountered a passage from a 19th-century devotional work deploring the horrors of venial sin and purgatory:

God hates venial sin so much that in the next life He visits it with chastisements which, during almost an eternity, are a kind of hell, and He keeps the gates of His Paradise closed against souls which are His friends and are dear to Him until the complete expiation of the least of their sins. He hates it so much that even in this life He has often visited it with terrible chastisements. The wife of Lot permitted herself to indulge in thoughtless curiosity; at that very instant she is struck dead.


This might be very helpful and edifying to some people. It isn’t to me. For one thing, whatever the sufferings of purgatory may be, to draw so close and unqualified an analogy between the condition of the Holy Souls in purgatory to the Lost in hell seems to me … unhelpful. And yes, any sin, even venial sin, ought to fill us with dread and sorrow. I always tell my CCD students that the accumulation of venial sins is what makes mortal sin thinkable. But I have trouble with the idea of God striking people dead for a moment of "thoughtless curiosity." Surely the sin of Lot’s wife was something worse than that.

Having said all this, I hasten to add an important clarification.

I certainly don’t want to surround myself only with the devotions and forms of spirituality that are naturally congenial to me. For one thing, discomfort with a particular spiritual idea, image or style may very well point to an area in which I need to grow. It’s precisely what I don’t initially understand or appreciate, not what I do, that is likeliest to help me in the long run.

Even if my discomfort with a particular spiritual expression is purely a matter of taste, there’s something to be said for not having everything my own way. I don’t want to become some kind of spiritual gourmet who must have his devotions attuned precisely to his delicate tastes. A church doesn’t have to look exactly like the kind of church I most prefer. Hymns don’t have to be my own favorite style. Different things speak differently to different people, and even if something is never going to be "my" thing, I can still work with it and benefit from it as best I can.

But this kind of spiritual de gustibus can also be taken too far. Not only is it okay for people to gravitate to devotions that they find most edifying, sometimes when we're uncomfortable with something it may be because there really is a deficiency. I’m not saying that Seventies Dude Jesus is an example of that. But other things are. Not every hymn has to be my favorite style, but some hymns are genuinely flawed or bad. And not every flawed hymn was necessarily written after 1960.

What do you think? What devotions do you find most helpful or unhelpful? How do you deal with devotions you find unhelpful, particularly in group settings?

Incidentally, I got an email recently from someone thanking me for an old post on our family’s Jesus Prayer chaplet. This has been a wonderful devotion for us for years, and I'm delighted to hear that others have found it helpful. I highlight it again here for the benefit of others who may appreciate it as well. If you aren't familiar with the Jesus Prayer or don't pray it regularly, I encourage you to check out this post and look for ways to incorporate the Jesus Prayer into your life.