Identifying Devotional Gems in Unexpected Places

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.

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.

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.

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