Moral Briefs – Chapter XXXII – Devotions

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonThere is in the Church an abundance and a rich variety of what we call devotions – practices that express our respect, affection and veneration for the chosen friends of God. These devotions we should be careful not to confound with a thing very differently known as devotion – to God Himself. This latter is the soul, the very essence of religion; the former are sometimes irreverently spoken of as “frills.”

Objectively speaking, these devotions find their justification in the dogma of the Communion of Saints, according to which we believe that the blessed in heaven are able and disposed to help the unfortunate here below. Subjectively they are based on human nature itself. In our self-conscious weakness and unworthiness, we choose instinctively to approach the throne of God through His tried and faithful friends rather than to hazard ourselves alone and helpless in His presence.

Devotion, as all know, is only another name for charity towards God, piety, holiness, that is, a condition of soul resulting from, and at the same time, conducive to, fidelity to God’s law and the dictates of one’s conscience. It consists in a proper understanding of our relations to God – creatures of the Creator, paupers, sinners and children in the presence of a Benefactor, Judge and Father; and in sympathies and sentiments aroused in us by, and corresponding with, these convictions. In other words, one is devoted to a friend when one knows him well, is true as steel to him, and basks in the sunshine of a love that requires that fidelity. Towards God, this is devotion.

Devotions differ in pertaining, not directly, but indirectly through the creature to God. No one but sees at once that devotion, in a certain degree is binding upon all men; a positive want of it is nothing short of impiety. But devotions have not the dignity of entering into the essence of God-worship. They are not constituent parts of that flower that grows in God’s garden of the soul – charity; they are rather the scent and fragrance that linger around its petals and betoken its genuine quality. They are of counsel, so to speak, as opposed to the precept of charity and devotion. They are outside all commandment, and are taken up with a view of doing something more than escaping perdition “quasi per ignem.”

For human nature is rarely satisfied with what is rigorously sufficient. It does not relish living perpetually on the ragged edge of a scant, uncertain meagerness. People want enough and plenty, abundance and variety. If there are many avenues that lead to God’s throne, they want to use them. li there are many outlets for their intense fervor and abundant generosity, they will have them. Devotions answer these purposes.

Impossible to enumerate all the different practices that are in vogue in the Church and go under the name of devotions. Legion is the number of saints that have their following of devotees. Some are universal, are praised and invoked the world over; others have a local niche and are all unknown beyond the confines of a province or nation. Some are invoked in all needs and distresses; Saint Blase, on the other hand is credited with a special power for curing throats, Saint Anthony, for finding lost things, etc. Honor is paid them on account of their proximity to God. To invoke them is as much an honor to them as an advantage to us.

If certain individuals do not like this kind of a thing, they are under no sort of an obligation to practice it. If they can get to heaven without the assistance of the saints, then let them do so, by all means; only let them be sure to get there. No one finds devotions repugnant but those who are ignorant of their real character and meaning. If they are fortunate enough to make this discovery, they then, like nearly all converts, become enthusiastic devotees, finding in their devotions new beauties, and new advantages every day.

And it is a poor Catholic that leaves devotions entirely alone, and a rare one. He may not feel inclined to enlist the favor of this or that particular saint, but he usually has a rosary hidden a-way somewhere in his vest pocket and a scapular around his neck, or in his pocket, as a last extreme. If he scorns even this, then the chances are that he is Catholic only in name, for the tree of faith is such a fertile one that it rarely fails to yield fruit and flowers of exquisite fragrance.

Oh! of course the lives of all the saints are not history in the strictest sense of the word. But what has that to do with the Communion of Saints? If simplicity and naivete have woven around some names an unlikely tale, a fable or a myth, it requires some effort to see how that could affect their standing with God, or their disposition to help us in our needs.

Devotions are not based on historical facts, although in certain facts, events or happenings, real or alleged, they may have been furnished with occasions for coming into existence. The authenticity of these facts is not guaranteed by the doctrinal authority of the Church, but she may, and does, approve the devotions that spring therefrom. Independently of the truth of private and individual revelations, visions and miracles, which she investigates as to their probability, she makes sure that there is nothing contrary to the deposit of faith and to morals, and then she gives these devotions the stamp of her approval as a security to the faithful who wish to practice them. A Catholic or non-Catholic may think what he likes concerning the apparitions of the Virgin at Lourdes; if he is dense enough, he may refuse to believe that miracles have been performed there. But he cannot deny that the homage offered to Our Lady at Lourdes, and known as devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes, is in keeping with religious worship as practiced by the Church and in consonance with reason enlightened by faith, and so with all other devotions.

A vase of flowers, a lamp, a burning candle before the statue of a saint is a prayer whose silence is more eloquent than all the sounds that ever came from the lips of man. It is love that puts it there, love that tells it to dispense its sweet perfume or shed its mellow rays, and love that speaks by this touching symbolism to God through a favorite saint.