By Rev. Henry Brinkmeyer
Devotions in the Church
THERE is a distinction to be made between faith and devotion. We cannot be devout without faith, but we may have faith without devotion. The doctrines of faith do not grow; they are always the same; but devotion to these doctrines may and does grow; in other words, the objects of faith are always the same, but they are not always felt, and in consequence, the same honors and the same love are not always rendered them. Thus the sun in the spring-time will have to shine many days before it is able to melt the frost, open the soil, and bring out the leaves; yet it shines out from the first, though it makes its power felt but gradually. In like manner some truth may shine out in the Church for a long time, before it is fully seized and realized and melts men's hearts into love and veneration of it. Moreover, just as the sun thaws in spring-time some particles of snow and ice more quickly than others, and causes some trees and flowers to sprout and bloom more readily than their fellows, so too, some truth may affect one soul more quickly and deeply than it does another, and though understood equally well by all, yet will not call forth equally well from all, religious honor, respect, veneration, fear or love. So you see Devotion is really "truth in bloom," and since there are many truths and many souls in the Church we must expect to see these many devotions.
And such is the case. Any large parish church will illustrate this. The edifice itself is dedicated to Almighty God, under the invocation of the Blessed Virgin, or some particular saint; but within there are sometimes three, five, seven or more altars, each of which has its particular saint or mystery to honor. The worshippers kneel here, each according to his own inclination. No one interferes with another. And as Mass is celebrated, and all follow the sacred rite, each one has his own devotions which are all more or less diversified, and though distinct, converge to one and the same God. Some associate to pray for a good death,
others for the repose of the departed souls, others finally for the conversion of the heathen and the sinner; some join confraternities to honor the Precious Blood, others the Sacred Heart, others again the Immaculate Conception. In a word, there is a variety of devotions open to individual Catholics to choose from according to their religious task, their character, their tendency, and the prospect of personal edification.
What follows from the foregoing remarks? This, that Devotion depends principally on the lucid manifestation and the profound realization of a religious truth. Truth must be presented to the mind, before it can meet with any recognition. We cannot honor and love what we do not know. The better we know a thing, and the more we see in it of the true, the good and the beautiful, the more potently can it influence us. Now, by devotion in general, we understand an ardent affection, which will show itself in outward acts when opportunity offers. Therefore, the better and the more generally a religious truth or object is understood and realized, the more ardent and the more universal is devotion for it apt to become. To be devout then, to be solidly pious, we stand in need of study or instruction or reflection; for naturally the more we learn of religion, and the deeper we enter into it, the more firm and fervent must our devotion grow; consequently we ought always to be learning : above all by meditation and prayer, we ought to endeavor to bring religious truths home to our hearts in order to realize them; then only can we expect to obtain and foster devotion.
But you may ask: "If true devotion depends on understanding and realizing a religious truth, why is it then that the most learned theologians are not the most saintly men? See, here is a poor, ignorant man, who has never learned to read; he was neglected in his youth; he scarcely knows the Lord's Prayer by heart. There is a great scholar, a doctor of divinity. He knows the Bible in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. He has read through all the Fathers. He knows St. Thomas and Suarez by heart. He can solve almost any difficulty and talk for hours on some abstruse, mystical point of Theology. Why is it that the poor, ignorant man is sometimes exact in observing the laws of the Church, is charitable, avoids sin, and loves God, while perhaps the great doctor of divinity does none of these things?" The answer to this difficulty is easily given. The learned doctor may know more of truth, but he scarcely realizes any; while the poor man may know little, but the little he does know, he realizes intensely; it has entered deep into his heart and moves him to act accordingly. Therefore, I have said, devotion depends on the lucid manifestation and the profound realization of a religious truth.
To one other fact I wish to lead your attention, one which must not surprise us if we meet with it in history or books of travel, viz.: That devotions come and go, increase and decrease, are local and universal. In the so-called Raccolta, or prayer book, in which you have all the prayers and acts indulgenced by the Popes of various centuries, in this Raccolta, I say, we find numbers of devotions of which we perhaps never heard before; some of them were formerly loved and revered and widely practiced, but arc now perhaps passing away. For instance, at first great devotion was paid to the apostles, then followed others to the martyrs; though all along there were saints nearer to our Lord than either martyrs or apostles; but as if they had been lost in the effulgence of His glory, and because they were not manifested in external works separate from him, it happened that for a long time, they were less thought of. In process of time the apostles and then the martyrs exerted less influence than before over the popular mind, and the local saints who were new creations of God's grace, took their place. Then owing to the religious meditation of holy men and their gradual influence upon Christian people, those names which might at first sight have been expected to enter somewhat into the devotions of the faithful, shone like stars in the ecclesiastical heavens. St. Joseph furnishes a most striking instance. It was always known that he was the foster-father of our Lord and the chaste spouse of Mary, and still, though he had so great a claim to the veneration and love of the faithful, devotion to him is comparatively of late date, at least among Christian people. When once it began, men seemed surprised that it had not been thought of before; and now they justly hold him next to the Blessed Virgin in their religious affection and veneration. Again, some saints are greatly honored in one locality, and scarcely at all in another; the reason of it is frequently that he is the evangelist or patron, the child or benefactor or pride of that particular nation or city. Thus:
St. Genevieve and St. Martin arc greatly honored in France; St. Patrick in Ireland; St. Wenceslaus in Poland; St. Philip in Rome; St. Januarius in Naples; St. Anne in Canada; etc. Finally, there are popular devotions—devotions that move not only individuals and localities, but also the masses, aye, the world. Such popular devotions are abundant outpourings of the Holy Ghost, moving multitudes to love and religion, working out divine purposes, developing and protecting some divine principle or institution, or shielding from some imminent danger threatening religion or society. From time to time Almighty God lets, as it were, a ray of intense light stream in upon some truth or object of Faith, which, illuminating it, throws other truths and objects in a dark background. This truth or object, though always known, being thus prominently held up, strikes men's attention and seizes upon their affections; in this way popular devotions arise and spread: they are evidences of Divine Providence in general, and especially of God's loving care of His Church. In our century there are two such popular devotions, which evidently came from God. They are devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and devotion to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. These two devotions should be especially cultivated because they are intended in the designs of God to answer to the wants of the age. Of the two, that of the Immaculate Conception holds of course a subordinate place; it is intended as a preparation for the other. For Jesus is obscured, when Mary is kept in the background. She has protected Him; as in His infancy, so in the history of devotion ; and we shall see in a future instruction, that devotion to the Immaculate Conception protects devotion to the Sacred Heart and ministers to it.
"Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God!" Truly, He reacheth from end to end mightily and ordereth all things sweetly. Let us submit to His inscrutable judgments, and endeavor to realize all His designs; for on the one hand, God's glory is man's happiness, and man's happiness is God's glory; and on the other hand, God would cease to be God, if He sought not in all things His glory and man's happiness.