For countless Catholics today, and many non-Catholics as well, seeing the name of Father Benedict J. Groeschel on a book is sufficient reason to buy or at least borrow it, and then to read it carefully. Since the 1970s, the work of this wise priest, preacher, psychologist and spiritual director has enlightened and strengthened the faith of millions.
All the more reason, then, to pay close attention to the newest title that bears his name — especially when the author tells us that it was “more than 10 years in the writing,” a process that proved to be “the most interesting and revealing intellectual adventure” of his life.
The depth of the new work — “I Am With You Always: A Study of the History and Meaning of Personal Devotion to Jesus Christ for Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians” (Ignatius, $37.95) — is reflected in the weight of the volume, with more than 600 pages.
The book is primarily a historical study. Yet its analysis also reveals the author’s theological and psychological training as he examines the historical evidence. He keeps an eye on the intimate connection between prayer and belief (lex orandi, lex credendi), and he considers carefully the interior dynamics of the soul. The result is a richly textured, luxuriantly detailed overview of Christian devotion through the centuries and across traditions.
What did Father Groeschel conclude after his decade of study? He argues here that he discovered in the historical evidence an “essential unity of Christian devotion.”
“[T]hroughout its 2,000-year-long history,” he writes, “devotion to Christ has been amazingly similar across the sadly divided branches of Christianity. This largely unrecognized similarity has been obscured by polemical battles over theology and the interpretation of history. …
“Few [have] realized that the best representatives of the various branches of Christianity [have] loved their Founder in much the same way and expressed their devotion in similar terms, consciously and unconsciously borrowing from one another.”
The book is motivated, then, at least in part, by ecumenical concerns. Christians who are divided by theology can find here an important common ground in their devotional life.
But Father Groeschel has other goals for the book as well. He argues that in many of our Christian contemporaries, including many Catholics, personal devotion to Jesus Christ has seriously atrophied.
For some, the problem may simply be worldly distractions. But for others, “a weak, secularized faith, partially undermined by rationalism and materialism,” leads to embarrassment at the very notion of cultivating a personal relationship with Christ.
As a result, for many Christians, faith becomes little more than an intellectual system, a moral imperative, or a cultural reflex.
The book is motivated as well, then, by a desire “to demonstrate that devotion to our Savior is an essential element of Christian life.” “My hope,” Father Groeschel writes, “is to assist the committed disciple of Christ toward a better appreciation of the meaning of Christ and the Paschal mystery of his life, to open the eyes of those who seek meaning amid the desperate turmoil of earthly existence.”
Given that so many Christians today have lost a sense of personal devotion to Christ, the author must first offer a working definition for those who might not quite grasp what he is talking about.
“We can define Christian devotion as a powerful awareness of or longing for Christ’s presence, accompanied by a trustful surrender to him of our personal needs. To this is joined a willingness to do his will and a sense of repentance for any previous failure to do so. We must trust him not only with our present need but also with the salvation of our souls and those we care about. Finally, in some way we must anticipate our meeting with him at the hour of death.”
Having provided that definition, Father Groeschel begins his study with a chapter titled “Finding the Lost Christ,” a look at the Savior and Lord who has become obscured in the hearts and minds of so many. In the second chapter, “You Have Known Him,” he examines “the psychological process of knowing another person, especially one we have neither seen nor touched.” He then goes on to present the historical evidence for widespread devotion to Christ as a living Person, beginning with the early Church.
Historical periods, figures
The author divides the book, and Christian history itself, into two parts. The first includes the ancient and medieval periods. The second begins with the Renaissance and concludes with our own century. Within this overarching framework, he traces various themes in Christian devotion, reflected in various ecclesial traditions, down through the ages from St. Stephen, the first martyr, to Blessed Pope John Paul II.
Among the themes explored, as reflected in chapter titles, are “The All-Powerful One,” “Son of God and Son of Mary,” “The Holy Face,” “Light Shining in the Darkness” and “The Darkest Night in the Early Dawn.”
Catholics will find here enlightening glimpses of personal devotion in the life and thought of many familiar saints and other historical figures: Augustine, Catherine of Siena, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Ávila, Francis de Sales, John Henry Newman and Fulton Sheen, to name a few.
Even so, a number of lesser-known figures appear as well, each with some contribution to make to our understanding of devotion: the Byzantine poet Kassia; the medieval mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp; the 17th-century British Benedictine spiritual writer Augustine Baker and many others.
As the book’s subtitle reveals, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox practice all lie within the scope of this study. In addition, the author examines other Eastern Churches, such as the Armenian Apostolic Church, and major traditions within the Protestant fold: Lutheran and Reformed, Anglican and Wesleyan, Pietist and Pentecostal.
Continuity despite contrast
Nowhere is the author’s evidence for a commonality of devotion across varying Christian traditions more evident than in the chapter on “Protestants in the Twentieth Century.” There, the intense, exuberant devotion of Pentecostals is juxtaposed with the much quieter, more circumspect devotion of Dag Hammerskjöld, the secretary-general of the United Nations “whose journey from skepticism to a deeply experienced belief in Christ followed a very intellectual path.”
At first glance, the contrast between the two could hardly be more stark. Yet Father Groeschel observes: “A close examination … reveals surprising similarities between the emotional expression of the charismatics and the calm, cautious, intellectual belief of Hammerskjöld, not in the mode of expression but in devotion to Christ as the personal source of salvation.”
The author provides samples of Hammerskjöld’s poetry, composed late in his spiritual journey. These illustrate a touching devotion to Christ that, as he notes, would be familiar to many Pentecostals — and, as the book demonstrates, to Catholic, Orthodox and other Christians across the ages as well.
A final overview
The volume concludes with “A Final Overview” that summarizes the author’s findings and challenges readers to cultivate their personal devotion to Christ.
Father Groeschel laments here the impossibility of fully representing, even in a volume this large, “devotion in all its myriad forms or even in every Christian denomination or tradition.” That limitation, inherent in a historical survey of so broad a scope, may at times frustrate readers who search these pages for a particular figure, movement or tradition, only to find that it was not included.
Other readers may find the book’s length intimidating, or the massive accumulation of historical data overwhelming. In that case, the volume is perhaps better approached as a reference work. One profitable strategy would be to read the first two chapters, along with the final one, and then to browse the table of contents or the index to locate historical periods, themes or figures of particular interest.
Nevertheless, those who are willing to invest the time in a careful, complete reading of “I Am With You Always” will be richly rewarded. Whichever roads our personal walk with Christ may take us down, we will find our way more easily and surely in the light of so many who have gone before us.
Paul Thigpen writes from Georgia.