In response to some combox remarks on legalism, reader Esau writes;
What legalism are you... referring to exactly?
If it is referring to the practices that the Church encourages, such as the Divine Office and such, these are not mandatory but rather devotional practices the Church encourages.
Not at all, Esau. By legalism, in this context, I mean the tendency for the individual to look at their devotional practices as personal accomplishments or marks of holiness, while looking on others with some level of dismissal or condescension.
The same thing can be observed in relation to any spiritual discipline or devotion. Daily Mass, tithing, praying in tongues.. you name it. The focus turns away from God and on to the behavior. The Pharisees acted this way in regard to keeping all the finer points of the Jewish ceremonial law. I'm sure there were many in Israel at the time who kept the law in a way both holy and humble, they just didn't feel the need to go on about it. It's not the form of the behavior, but the attitude of the individual that makes any practice "legalistic" in this sense. It's a matter of pridefulness being attached to religious actions, and it has to be guarded against. This is - I think - what TAE was driving at - making comparisons with others.
I certainly don't regard the Holy Office as "legalistic", though it - like anything - can be approached in a legalistic way. Some Christians might perceive things like the Liturgy of the Hours as legalistic in another sense, simply because it is so highly structured. In other words, it has a more or less strict format that allows for no ad-libbing. As a Protestant, I heard similar remarks about the Lord's Prayer or the Rosary (though with the Rosary the bugaboo was usually idolatry rather than legalism). This strikes me as uniquely derived from the American phenomenon of individualism, the ideal being each "worshiping God in his own way".
The thing is, many, many people find great spiritual benefit in praying in this very structured way. It works for them. Spontaneous prayer is great, too, but it also can be very repetitive... the same phrases and sentiments being tweaked a bit and rearranged this way or that. The big trick with praying, no matter how you go about it, is to mean what you say.
There is a third definition of legalism that springs to mind that has less to do with spiritual pride and more to do with what is required of the individual in order to be saved. It shakes out, to me, like this; Every branch of Christianity has some kind of formula in mind along the lines of "You must do 'x' to be saved". Those forms of Christianity that require less than your formula are peddling wishy-washy universalism, while those that require more represent iron-fisted legalism. The Catholic Church is often accused of both, sometimes by the same people. In this I find a strange comfort, as it aligns well with what Chesterton observed about the Christian faith always being the target of comically contradictory complaints;
"...if Christianity was, as these people said, a thing purely pessimistic and opposed to life, then I was quite prepared to blow up St. Paul's Cathedral. But the extraordinary thing is this. They did prove to me in Chapter I. (to my complete satisfaction) that Christianity was too pessimistic; and then, in Chapter II., they began to prove to me that it was a great deal too optimistic. One accusation against Christianity was that it prevented men, by morbid tears and terrors, from seeking joy and liberty in the bosom of Nature. But another accusation was that it comforted men with a fictitious providence, and put them in a pink-and-white nursery. One great agnostic asked why Nature was not beautiful enough, and why it was hard to be free. Another great agnostic objected that Christian optimism, "the garment of make-believe woven by pious hands," hid from us the fact that Nature was ugly, and that it was impossible to be free. One rationalist had hardly done calling Christianity a nightmare before another began to call it a fool's paradise."