Choosing Lenten Devotionals: Wisdom From Blessed Columba Marmion

Lent is approaching. (It begins on Ash Wednesday, March 6, in case you get taken by surprise like I do.) This penitential season brings with it the call to do more, to deepen our relationship with God. Let’s take a look at how to choose a devotional practice to achieve this goal.

A few weeks ago, my Magnificat magazine’s meditation expressed some thoughts I’ve had about a troubling development in spiritual direction.

The excerpt, from Blessed Columba Marmion, offers a guide — I think one especially important for women who are busy with so many cares and who are consumers of the many, many devotionals available and promoted on social media.

Although Marmion speaks here about Phariseeism, which emphasizes rules and adherence to form above God’s law — the subject of the Mass reading, Mark 8: 14-21 — what he says can also be applied to spiritual reading that manipulates one’s emotional state, causing us to make a connection between depth of spiritual progress and how we feel about it.

It’s the latter that concerns me now, because in our time sentimentalism, motivationalism (if I may coin a word for a particular genre), and the therapeutic dominate.

This is the passage (I’ve broken it up a bit for ease of reading):

We see how important it is in this matter to distrust our own judgment, our own lights; how important it is not to base our holiness upon such or such a practice of devotion, however excellent, which we choose for ourselves, nor upon such or such an observance of our religious rule.

Such an observance may be suspended by a higher law, as is, for example, the law of charity towards our neighbor. Holiness for us must be based before and above all upon the fulfillment of the divine law, the natural law, the precepts of the decalogue, the commandments of the Church, and the duties of our state.

A piety that does not respect this hierarchy of duties ought to be held suspect: all ascetism that is not governed by the precepts and doctrine of the Gospel cannot come from the Holy Spirit who inspired the Gospel. “Whosoever are led by the Spirit of God,” says Saint Paul, “they are the sons of God.”

Will you go through it again, line by line with me? Let’s see how Marmion can help us discern the helpful vs. the unhelpful.

We see how important it is in this matter to distrust our own judgment, our own lights; how important it is not to base our holiness upon such or such a practice of devotion, however excellent, which we choose for ourselves 

On some level, all devotions are ones we choose for ourselves. Even if they are suggested by a spiritual director, well, we chose the spiritual director and chose to take his suggestions. Only the Liturgy is outside of this movement of our will towards or away from a particular devotion.

It’s not wrong to take practices upon ourselves (prayers, readings, penitential acts), but we have to have an awareness that they are chosen by ourselves, and for our own sake, we need to have a healthy suspicion precisely of ourselves, because the self is not God. As important as it is to be careful of what we eat, it is immensely more important to be careful of spiritual food, which can be for our health or can lead to spiritual sickness.

nor upon such or such an observance of our religious rule. 

This means that if you were a member of a religious order, or as a lay person, have taken upon yourself some rule (such as becoming a Third Order Carmelite or even imposing upon yourself something like “a mother’s rule of life”), it does not supersede God’s law. Religious life requires many little and big sacrifices of one’s own will under obedience, for perfection’s sake; nevertheless, charity and truth are always paramount:

Such an observance may be suspended by a higher law, as is, for example, the law of charity towards our neighbor. 

If your children are sick, for instance, it’s the better part of devotion to tend to them, not rigidly to adhere to your prayers before the Blessed Sacrament. The mother of a family has the duty to see to it that they get supper. If the supper burns, it doesn’t excuse her that she was praying.

But let’s be realistic: I don’t think that most of us suffer from excessive adherence to our pre-planned schedule of spiritual development! The danger doesn’t lie there, I venture to say.

Most women today, reading this, are, much like me, trying to get some prayer, any prayer, into a life filled with unexpected circumstances and distractions and all-around busyness. And most of us aren’t over-schooled in self-discipline, either. We can’t help it, poor us. We are really quite comfortable and likely to remain so.

Here is his prescription:

Holiness for us must be based before and above all upon the fulfilment of the divine law

The divine law was summed up by Our Lord in the Great Commandment:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

the natural law

The natural law can be looked at, briefly, in two ways.

One way is simply to acknowledge and respect the causes of things, meaning above all their ends or goals. For instance, the end or goal of eating is nutrition, and pleasure is a gift that goes along with that goal. If we make pleasure the first goal in eating, we go against the natural law. Children have to develop according to their natures; if we try to rush them or fail to help them in the way they require at the proper times, we go against the natural law.

The other way is expressed in the Cardinal Virtues, or virtues that can be approached and understood by reason, making them accessible to all. These virtues are Prudence, or right judgment; Justice, or giving each his due (including God and ourselves); Temperance, or self-control and achieving the right order of things interiorly; and Fortitude, or the courage to do the Good.

You can see, even with this little explanation, how vast a field of devotion is open to us simply by naming these things! Reality itself is cause for joy; contemplating all these good things brings us far along in the spiritual life.

the precepts of the decalogue, the commandments of the Church

Marmion, having already mentioned the divine law, reinforces its importance with another reference to the Ten Commandments (the decalogue’s precepts, so frequently extolled in the Liturgy — pay attention to the Mass and the Divine Office and you will quickly realize how often we are exhorted to love the Lord’s precepts, to walk in his ways, to learn his commandments, to keep them, never to forsake them).

How often do we take to prayer the commandments of the Church? Her teachings regarding the different kinds of prayer and their importance for us, her expositions of the natural and divine laws, her exhortations to piety? What about just reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

Do the devotionals coming into our inbox or tempting us from the catalog emphasize this vital aspect of the spiritual life?

and the duties of our state.

The “state” of a woman with a husband and a family is the state of marriage. Do we think of that state as involving duties which it is in our spiritual interest to fulfill, or do we see it as either a sort of self-fulfillment exercise or even a burden —  something we have to be talked into all the time, something we can’t confront or fulfill without constant pep talks and assurances that we will be left with a reasonable amount of freedom — that some part of our inner self will remain untouched?

Sometimes I think that women enter into this state freely and then spend the rest of their lives trying to escape!

Is this Lent’s devotional that we’re signing up for steeped in a spirit of helping us go deeper into our duties (which represent God’s will, remember!), deeper into the details of Holy Scripture, and deeper into life’s hierarchies, or does it pull us away by enticing us with visions of emotional fulfillment? Is it a “prosperity gospel” in that sense, that we expect a sort of transcendent realization in the now, discernible in our feelings?

The reality of a “state of life” (marriage is one, religious life is another) is that it, how shall I put this, curtails our scope of action for the purpose of a greater good; it’s precisely service to our fellow man (and child!). By necessity we must be curtailed! There is no other way to do anything of value! As long as every choice is open to us, we are in the condition of not having chosen. When we choose, we by definition limit the scope of what we can do — yet, paradoxically, we find our true creativity. If we seek creativity up front, we get personal destruction. Really creative persons — artists — know this. The form gives the real freedom.

You are probably waiting for me to quote G. K. Chesterton, so here you go!

Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense, every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else… Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion… The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing.

I think we could also say, “Every lover loves his limitations: they constitute the possibility of love.”

The difference between spurious and real spirituality is that the latter reminds us that suffering and self-denial are the essence of the Christian’s life, in the pattern set by the Savior. Suffering joined with Our Lord’s suffering bring us along the road of purgation —  a Lenten road; the only road that leads to understanding (what the saints call illumination) and finally, union with God.

One’s state of life brings with it things that must be attended to. When we do so with love, this disposition in itself constitutes a devotion. Here is the heart of the mystery, to be accepted or rejected. If we allow ourselves to be led away from total self-giving to God’s plan for us (that is to say, to God), we allow ourselves to be led away from the offering of love. And that would negate devotion.

But attending to the things that pertain to your state in life frees you to love.

A piety that does not respect this hierarchy of duties ought to be held suspect

This observation is your tool of discernment, moving forward into Lent (or into whatever moment arises when we choose to go deeper in our spiritual life). Piety, the expression of devotion and worship, submits to the hierarchy, or ordering, of duties and indeed of life itself.

No doubt whoever is offering us a devotional is motivated by a desire to bring us closer to God — but will we end up closer if we fail to consider the claims upon us before embarking? Instead of a willingness to be led by feelings and emotions, our criteria should be tough-minded and yes, hold suspect anything that doesn’t turn us closer to our responsibilities.

all asceticism that is not governed by the precepts and doctrine of the Gospel cannot come from the Holy Spirit who inspired the Gospel.

Asceticism isn’t a word I’d apply to many — most — of the devotionals I see in the Catholic or broader Christian spiritual offerings today. I see very little in the way of denial of self, of helping the target audience identify the cross, take it up, and be heartened in knowing that in Christ, the burden is light.

We should be able to lean on trustworthy authority in the Church: bishops who are supposed to protect the well being of the faithful, guarding the flock against false shepherds and opportunists. Sadly, our protectors have fled the fold. Their indifference to the monetization of devotion — the rise of a spiritual marketplace teeming with self-proclaimed experts — seems even to be part of their plan; our pastors seem happy to outsource their duties, to engage surrogates for what ought to be accessible directly from them.

The Church is constituted to offer each person what he needs to be holy. But in our confused time it might not be easy to figure this all out. And let’s be clear: “results” — as has always been the case, as the martyrs testify — might not be discernible right away or even for quite a long time. As St. Paul says in First Corinthians, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not my own self.”

Being a Christian means grasping this hiddenness, accepting it, being willing to follow Him even in the darkness.

We can do hard things, my friends! Armed with knowledge (such as this truly helpful passage from Dom Marmion), we can fight this battle and win!

“Whosoever are led by the Spirit of God,” says Saint Paul, “they are the sons of God.”

The Spirit of God is not a vague, formless penumbra of an enabling and manageable deity. He is the Third Person of the Trinity. If we want to be one with God, we have to submit to His Spirit and not go our own way to seek affirmation apart from Him.

Luke 21: 36 Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.

What do I recommend? 

I don’t have any quick downloadable pretty ways to get spiritual enlightenment, nor have I done an in-depth survey of what’s available. It might take some work to find what is really good for you, in your present situation. Ideally you’d have a wise spiritual director, but believe me, I know how few and far between those are.

St. Joseph, St. Theresa of Avila tells us, is an admirable spiritual director when we can’t find a here-and-now one. Ite ad Iosef, as Scripture tells us — Go to Joseph — he has the vast stores from which he will protect us from famine.

I have a few suggestions — keeping in mind that Blessed Columba Marmion himself taught that prayer is at its core, conversation with God. So while my suggestions might not be easy, they are simple. It will take more work than just opening your inbox, but it will be uncomplicated in the sense that help is available and trustworthy when we remain connected to the tradition handed down to us.

  • The Magnificat magazine
  •  The Divine Office –  this Lent, what about choosing one Hour (say, the Office of Readings — at the longest one it’s about 12 minutes) and make a commitment to pray it before you head to other destinations on the web.
  • We explain how to pray along with the universal Church in our book, The Little Oratory (affiliate link), by means of your own home altar. Honestly, if you haven’t made your own little oratory in your home, now could be the time — this Lent might be just the moment for you to do it!


This post originally appeared in

Photo from Pixabay

Share this post with your friends


Stay Connected

Sign up for our free email newsletter to stay up to date on the latest from!
  • Hidden
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Scroll to Top