Religion and Devotion
1. St. Thomas concisely expresses the nature of religion in these words: "The object of religion is to give honour to the One God because He is the first principle of creation and order in the universe." (Summa, II-II, q. 81, a. 3)
We know that everything is the work of God. Everything depends on Him both for its being and for its continued existence. This is so from man down to the minutest insect, from the stars in the sky to the invisible atom. It is true that man and the other creatures also work. In fact, the universe is a gigantic workshop. But God is the one and only cause of man and of the whole of nature. We are only instruments of the divine omnipotence. Now, justice demands that we give everyone his due. Everything belongs to God. Therefore, man ought to humble himself before God in an act of adoration and loving obedience. From the highest mountains to the depths of the valley, from the stars of the firmament to the tiny flowers of the fields, all creation unconsciously sings of the glory of God. In the same way man, a creature of intelligence and free will, should offer himself and all his faculties in an act of complete homage to his Creator and Lord. But there is more to it than that. God is not only our Creator and Lord, He is also our Redeemer. The eternal Word of God became man out of love for us. He gave us His teaching and commandments. He redeemed us with His precious blood and left us the Church as our mother and our infallible teacher of truth. So, if religion is to be complete, it will oblige us to be obedient to whatever God has revealed and to whatever the Church which He founded commands and teaches us.
2. Religion, however, should not be a cold, mechanical practice of obedience to the commandments of God and the precepts of the Church. Deep spiritual devotion and supernatural charity are necessary as well as religion. In other words, religion should not be merely external, but should spring from the mind and heart; this is devotion, which is the spirit of religion. "Devotion," writes Aquinas, "seems to be the determination to give one's self readily to the service of God." (Summa, II-II, q. 82, a.2, ad 1) But this determination should be loving and effective because, as St. Thomas also observes, "charity generates devotion." (Summa, II-II, q. 82, a. 2, ad. 2)
St. Francis de Sales analysed and expanded these ideas. "True and living devotion," he writes, "presupposes the love of God; indeed, it really is a true love of God... but a love... which has reached that height of perfection at which it not only causes us to act, but to act zealously, frequently and promptly…" (Filotea, Bk. I, C. 1) He continues: "Since devotion consists in an unique degree of charity, it not only makes us prompt, active and zealous in the observance of all the divine commands, but incites us furthermore to perform readily and lovingly as many good works as we can... even if they are only recommended or suggested." (Ibid.) From this solid and sincere devotion flows that taste for divine things, that inner gentleness and peace of spirit which the Saints enjoyed even in the midst of sorrow and disillusionment.
3. We must not be satisfied simply to carry out the acts of religion, however exactly. We must fulfil them with love. It is the spontaneous homage of the mind and heart that God wants most of all. The body must also pay its tribute of subjection to its creator, but if the mind and heart are cold and distracted, this tribute is worthless. There is no religion without devotion. “This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” (Mt. 15:8; Mark 7:6) Consider this complaint of Our Lord. Let us earnestly examine our conduct. Religion is useless if it is not fed by the active fire of charity. Anyone who is content to go to Mass on feast-days and stand in the church silently and indifferently, like a candlestick without a candle, is not a true and sincere Christian. Religion must be deeply felt. It must be penetrated by devotion and charity. Only then will it inspire real Christian activity.
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