I teach the history of Christian thought and practice from the Reformation period to the present at a Jesuit university in New York. Leading my mostly cradle-Catholic students through the early Protestant polemics against Catholicism during the first weeks of Lent raised a host of questions about rituals and sacraments, ordination and scripture, and about prayer. A lot of Protestant vs. Catholic and Protestant vs. Protestant (as the reformation proliferated the options within Christianity) boil down to how you are supposed to pray: Do you read your prayers? Do you sit or kneel or stand? Are there special prayers to be said at special times?
It is almost funny to read some of these debates now, because, as Jim points out in his post about Anabaptism and prayer, the lines have been blurred in our own age: out of hunger to grow in authentic faith Mennonites practice Lent and Catholics speak in tongues! We feel free to borrow from the riches within different Christian traditions, and this is surely a good thing.
Still, it isn’t wrong to say that Catholics hold a special place for material devotion and liturgical rhythms in prayer. We like to hold things when we pray—rosaries, crucifixes, saints’ cards—and tie our prayers to the concrete acts of lighting candles or meditating on the images of saints. In my own experience, the “stuff” of prayer works in complicated ways to retrain the mind and refocus the spirit.
When I first tried to pray the rosary, my fingers fumbled over the beads while I tried to remember the words to the prayers while also meditating on the mysteries of Jesus’ life. It took a lot of practice to realize that this tri-part form—you pray repetitively, while meditating on something that is not explicitly the words of your prayer, while your hands do something else—was the whole point. The normal distractions of my extemporaneous prayer were waylaid by simply trying to hold on to the form. So too my usual concerns over whether I really “meant” the words of a liturgical prayer: the whole point is not to fixate on the words, but to use them to focus the mind on something else, the mystery at hand.
So can you pray the rosary online? Sure! There are many apps for iPhones and Androids that offer aids for praying the rosary. Many of these include lovely iconographic images to mediate on while praying, along with meditative music, and scriptural passages for further contemplation. As our handheld devices become more thoroughly integrated into our lives, tapping a screen may not be so different than shifting a bead in the hand.
Even more than just offering the prayer in a digital form, digital prayer apps and websites offer visual and aural dimensions of contemplative prayer that can help lift us out of the “verbal dominant” assumptions about prayer. There is an affective dimension of prayer—that taps into our emotions, desires, and imaginations, that can be fostered by focusing on an image or an object instead of just an idea in the mind. Or maybe I should say, a dimension that helps move us from ideas in our minds to the more affective part of our spirit (since I don’t want to sound like I, or any Catholic, is opposed to good old fashioned ideas!). You can see a couple online Catholic prayer resources that emphasize the visual and aural possibilities of digital technology here and here.
These affective and aesthetic dimensions of prayer—the beads, the icons, the chants—are not the exclusive domain of Catholics. And to the degree that they are cultivated and preserved in many forms of Catholic prayer, they are available to non-Catholics too (I once attended a rosary group populated mostly by evangelicals and Buddhists!). I like to imagine that in an earlier age I could have tapped into these prayerful dimensions most strongly by praying in a busy cathedral, eyes cast up to the icon of a saint, fingers working over a well-worn rosary, while the world bustled around me (if you read Luther, late medieval cathedrals were a virtual market-place of busyness). Maybe it is not so different to listen to the daughters of St. Paul chant the Hail Mary through my earphones, eyes cast down to the icon on my screen, while the world rushes by on my morning commute.
Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of Modern Protestant Theology at Fordham University (starting Fall 2012) and the Co-Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary.
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