Identifying Devotional Gems in Unexpected Places

The Devoted Heart

The following reflections on the devoted heart are occasioned by the recent release of my anthology of devotional classics, a book in which each devotional text is accompanied by a 500-word explication by me. I called the texts classics to denote that they possess qualities that raise them above the conventional entries in a daily devotional guide. The problems with the conventional devotional guide are multiple, as Charles Spurgeon discovered when he made a survey of existing devotional books. What Spurgeon found was predictability, monotony, a tendency toward abstraction, and lack of fresh insight and expression.

In compiling my anthology, I worked hard to find devotional riches in unexpected places. Many of the authors would doubtless be surprised by what I chose for devotional purposes. Although I did not primarily go in quest of superior expression, I found that freshness of insight and expression just naturally appeared, often because of the real-life situations from which the devotionals arose.

The Heart in Pilgrimage

Leland Ryken

Literary expert Leland Ryken introduces 50 of the best devotionals from church history, each with an analysis and a corresponding scripture passage to help readers understand and appreciate the literary beauty and spiritual truths they contain. 

I will adduce four examples to illustrate what I am describing, and then I will explore the common ingredients that the selections in my book share, in effect offering a definition of the genre of a devotional classic.

Devotional Riches in Unexpected Places

The burial service in The Book of Common Prayer was not composed as a devotional. It was instead intended to be part of a funeral service. Yet it is a moving meditation on human mortality and immortality. Here is a brief excerpt:

In the midst of life we are in death; of whom may we seek for help, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased? . . . O holy and most merciful Savior, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death . . . [and] suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.

When Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson was walking with a visitor in a garden, the visitor asked the poet what he thought of Christ. Tennyson's response was not offered as a devotional, but it nonetheless rises to that status: “What the sun is to that flower, Jesus Christ is to my soul. He is the sun of my soul.”

William Shakespeare finalized and signed his will a month before his death in 1616. In doing so, he did not envision himself as writing something devotional, yet part of the preamble reads as follows: “I commend my soul into the hands of God my Creator, hoping and assuredly believing through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Savior to be made partaker of life everlasting. And my body to the earth whereof it is made.”

Painter Lilias Trotter made a practice of drawing plants in Algeria, where she served as a missionary in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Trotter pondered the plants that she came to know intimately, the idea occurred to her that they were parables of spiritual truths. One of these parables was built around the idea that just as plants die and then revive to new life, for people, too, death is in multiple ways the gate of life. Here is a brief excerpt: “A gateway is never a dwelling-place; the death-stage is never meant for our souls to stay and brood over, but to pass through with a will into the light beyond . . . for above all and through all is the inflowing, overflowing life of Jesus.”

A Devoted Life Is the Seedbed of a Devoted Heart

Before I turn to an analysis of the common ingredients of the genre of a classical devotional, I will pause to draw a conclusion from the examples I have just quoted. It goes without saying that a devotional comes from a devoted heart, but something else precedes the devoted heart.

A devoted heart arises from, and is nurtured by, a devoted life. Jesus himself said as much when he declared that it is out of the abundance of the heart that a person's mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). It was a lifetime of involvement with the peanut plant that led George Washington Carver to write:

As soon as you begin to read the great and loving God out of all forms of existence He has created, both animate and inanimate, then you will be able to converse with Him, anywhere, everywhere, and at all times. Oh, what a fullness of joy will come to you. God is speaking.

Toward a Definition of a Classic Devotional

Of course it takes more than a devoted life and heart to produce what we know as a written devotional. A devotional is a genre or type of writing. Even when the authors noted above produced devotionals partly unintentionally, what they wrote or said fits all the criteria of a devotional. The basic ingredients of a devotional are timeless, spanning the entire history of devotional writing.

A devotional takes the spiritual life for its subject, but so does a sermon or religious book. We instinctively feel that a devotional is different from a piece of expository or informational writing. A devotional is not primarily an exposition of doctrine, and it does not appeal to our intellect the way a sermon or treatise does.

Instead, a devotional is affective in approach and effect, and in a double sense. The word affective implies first of all an appeal to our emotional being. But our affections consist of more than our feelings. They also involve the inner bent of our soul. A devotional reorients the motion of our soul toward God and the godly life. English poet John Milton provides a good insight on this matter when he claimed that the purpose of devotional writing is “to set the affections in right tune.” That is exactly what we want our reading of devotionals to do.

To this we can add what English Romantic poet William Wordsworth said about the poet's task. Wordsworth theorized that “a great poem ought to . . . rectify people's feeling, to give them new compositions of feeling.” Classic devotionals give us the words with which to express our own affirmations, and some of the time this involves correcting our attitudes and feelings.

Form and Style Are Important in Devotional Classics

If a classic devotional is definable by its religious content and its spiritual impact on a reader, it is also a verbal artifact. The best devotionals rise above the common field and overcome cliché effect by virtue of their superior style. There are multiple pathways by which to achieve this distinctiveness of expression.

One is the aphoristic flair that almost uniformly characterizes the selections in my anthology. An aphorism is a striking and memorable expression of truth. Many classic devotionals are known to posterity by striking aphorisms that are nearly impossible to forget. Here are three of them: “our heart is restless till it rests in you” (Augustine, Confessions); “man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism); “all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” (Julian of Norwich).

A devotional reorients the motion of our soul toward God and the godly life.

Not all of the entries in my anthology employ the techniques of rhetoric such as repetition and balance of clauses, but many do. John Donne's description of the believer's death as an awakening into heavenly glory offers an example: “where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, . . . no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity.” A simple assertion that a glorious future awaits a believer would be flat compared to the parallelism and antithesis that Donne's statement possesses.

A Devotional Is Where You Find It

In view of how many of the devotionals in my anthology are not known as devotional literature but nonetheless are such, a lesson that my readers can carry away from my venture is to be alert to the devotional potential of much that they read or hear. We can compile our own collection of cherished devotionals, even when they are not known as such in the public arena.

Even an event can function as a devotional. For example, once we know about the circumstances of William Bradford's account of the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, accompanied by his appeal to the struggling group to trust in God and even praise him in their extremity, we can relish it as a real-life, living devotional.

I have been repeatedly struck by how an evocative title can become a springboard to fruitful meditation. Several entries in my anthology emerged when their title crossed my path and awakened my curiosity: “A Believer's Last Day Is His Best Day” (a Puritan funeral sermon); “The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment” (a Puritan book); “The Almost Christian” (a sermon by John Wesley).

The process of compiling an anthology of devotional classics was for me a continuous process of tracking down bits and pieces that were part of my literary and religious life that I had never pursued in detail. I will feel rewarded if my readers come to love the entries in my anthology as I have come to love them, and I will be doubly rewarded if my readers catch a vision for finding devotional riches in overlooked corners of their own reading lives.

Leland Ryken is the author of The Heart in Pilgrimage: A Treasury of Classic Devotionals on the Christian Life.

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