One online dictionary offers four possible meanings for the word ‘devotion’. I would reduce the four definitions to two:
(a) earnest attachment to a cause, person, etc.
(b) a form of prayer or worship for special use.
My reflection this morning is on the significance of these two points for our Christian life journey – being disciples of Jesus and living the Christian spirituality in our daily lives. In classical Christian literature, the word ‘devotion’ is often used in place of the more contemporary word ‘spirituality’. For instance, the classical work of St Francis de Sales is entitled, Introduction to the Devout Life. By ‘life of devotion’ he simply means ‘spirituality’. In short, my reflection is about spirituality – based on the Liturgy of the Word on this 22nd Sunday in ordinary time. What is spirituality.
Spirituality is letting ourselves be seduced by God. “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine…” (Mt 16:24a).
The words of Prophet Jeremiah in the first reading of today are very deep and powerful: “You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced; you have overpowered me; you were the stronger” (Jer 20:7). A little closer to our own times, the Carmelite mystic John of the Cross sings in his Spiritual Canticle (Stanza 1):
Where have you hidden,
Beloved, and left me moaning?
you fled like the stag
after wounding me;
I went out calling you, but you were gone.
Being ‘seduced’ could imply two aspects: to be attracted to something, and then being deceived. In fact, other translations of the same text from Jeremiah (20:7) say, “O LORD, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived” (RSV).
That which is beautiful attracts us. Yes, God is beautiful. He attracts us. He draws us to Himself. The Hebrew Scripture is full of very concrete images of God who attracts human beings. A typical example is the call of Moses: “The angel of Yahweh appeared to him in a flame blazing from the middle of a bush. Moses looked; there was the bush blazing, but the bush was not being burnt up. Moses said, ‘I must go across and see this strange sight, and why the bush is not being burnt up.’ When Yahweh saw him going across to look, God called to him from the middle of the bush. ‘Moses, Moses!’ he said” (Ex 3:2-4).
And human beings acknowledge the attractiveness of God in their own praise of God: “Taste and see that the Lord God is good” (Ps 34:8). “How lovely are your dwelling places, Lord God of armies? My whole being yearns and pines for His courts” (Ps 84:1). “The precepts of the Lord God are true, upright, every one, more desirable than gold, even than the finest gold; his words are sweeter than honey, that drips from the comb” (Ps 19:9-10).
St Augustine expresses this sentiment in his Confessions when he says, “Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new. Late have I loved Thee” (Chapter 10).
And yet, Jeremiah says, “Lord, you deceived me and I got deceived.” Why? Is it because God invites us to seek His beauty not just on the mountain-top, but also in the hustle and bustle of the market place? Is it because God’s beauty is as real as the beauty of the butterfly but it is also hidden in the ugliness of the caterpillar?
Spirituality is the ability to endure. “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16: 24).
In life we come across two types of beauty. There is a type that entices us and provides pleasure. There is another type of beauty that challenges us and offers gratification. Psychologists today differentiate between two types of positive inner states (affective states): enjoyment and gratification. Enjoyment is the immediate feeling of euphoria associated with pleasure. Gratification is often a deeper and delayed satisfaction. Enjoyment is related to the external senses; gratification is basically internal. Enjoyment could be immediate and intense, but could also disappear quickly. Whereas gratification is a plateau experience that provides enduring meaning in life.
I think, what we in Christian tradition call ‘Satan’ is the tendency in us to seek enjoyment rather than gratification. Psychologists still wonder why we humans easily seek enjoyment rather than gratification even if we know from our own inner processes that the gratification obtained through a virtuous life is deeper than enjoyment that comes in seeking pleasure (see the works of Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi).
When God attracts us to Himself, He does not promise us just enjoyment but gratification. If we seek only enjoyment in the presence of God, we feel deceived. The words of Jesus, in the gospel of today, invites us to seek gratification, even if that would imply some peripheral suffering. In the gospel text of today – which is the continuation of last Sunday’s, when Jesus asked the disciples: “Who do you say I am”, and Peter made that powerful claim: ‘You are the messiah, the Son of the living God” – Jesus continues to talk about his impending suffering and death. For the disciples this is unacceptable. In their understanding – as it is perhaps in our own expectations – happiness is the absence of suffering. Peter once again becomes their spokesperson: “Heaven preserve you Lord, this must not happen to you” (Mt 16: 22). And Jesus has to make a strong and convincing statement: “Get behind me, Satan” (Mt 16:23)! Do not allure me with your shallow understanding of life and reality. Happiness is not the absence of suffering; on the other hand, authentic happiness is the gratification that could sometimes be preceded by suffering. It is like a seed buried in the soil – it has to die to give forth new life. “For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it” (Mt 16: 25a). One who seeks true happiness in the fulfilment of mere shallow desires will never find it. Even the Son of Man is not spared from this reality – hard so it seems, but that is what provides meaning to human life itself.
Spirituality is seeking God for His own sake
So is our God, a cruel God – who takes pleasure in our suffering? No! He does promise reward: “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and when he does, he will reward each one according to his behaviour” (Mt 15:27). But remember, this reward is not immediate, external and fleeting; may be delayed, but surely, it will be deep and everlasting.
In my introduction, I spoke about devotion being “a form of prayer and worship for special use.” Here is where, devotion could be different from spirituality. This type of devotion could be seen in some practices of piety: novenas, promissory and intercessory prayers, even in some type of fasting – if these are done to condition God: I do this for you; so you better do this for me.
Why do we come to church? Why do we pray? Why do we undertake elaborate practices of piety? Do we want God to simply solve all our problems – to take away even those aspects that make us who we are: human? In particular moments of prayer, do we seek ‘consolation’ understood often as just a nice feeling? What do we do when that consolation is not there, when perhaps I experience desolation and aridity? Do I just give up prayer and worship?
What Jesus says in the gospel of today would have sounded disappointing in the ears of the disciples: “If anyone wants to be the follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24). Jesus invites them – as he invites us – to seek God simply because God is beauty in itself. In this we will save our lives and find gratification, because it was for this we were created. This is resurrection. This is life in abundance. This is the reward.