Friday, March 21, 2014

Religious vs. Spiritual: St. Thomas Aquinas on Approaching God

I went to a brilliant lecture last night given by Br. Thomas Aquinas Pickett of the Order of Preachers on being "religious" vs. "spiritual" and what St. Thomas Aquinas's conception of both are as well as how we approach God. The talk got me thinking about how part of the difficulty with today's meaning of "religion" and "religious" are tied with the other dichotomy between religion vs. secular, a political concept. I don't know enough on the topic to comment further, so I leave this here as a reminder to myself to look into it the future...


Here's a breakdown of Br. Thomas's presentation (from what I remember, so I hope to re-present the material as accurately as possible):

Today, spirituality often refers to affective experience in the presence of the transcendent. Because these experiences are to be found across religions and systems of thought, spirituality connotes "openness" to other religious experience and doctrine. Spirituality emphasizes the personal (i.e. a personal relationship to the divine rather than an impersonal one). Spirituality is a way of living. Spiritual people will say things like, "I put God (or my relationship with God) above religion/Church/the Bible/doctrine."

Religion is thought of as a "thing," a structure or organized body, either of beliefs or the institution that upholds those beliefs. It connotes tradition, ritual, dogma. Religion is often compartmentalized in the typical life of a modern person, on equal plane with other activity, such as work. Religious people will say things like, "It is the truth of faith that matters, and this must be practiced consistently, no matter how I feel," or "We know God only through the Bible/the Church/religion/doctrine, etc."

Typically, people who emphasize the spiritual more than the religious are "liberal" (in a loose sense of the word). People who emphasize the religious more than spiritual are "conservative."

Interestingly, there are not an insignificant number of people who try to have the "best of both sides," of spirituality and religion, and see aspects of both as necessary.

Preface to how Aquinas would respond to the religion/spirituality dichotomy: it's impossible to talk about one thing in Aquinas because all things are organically united in a whole. To speak about religion, it is necessary to speak about the moral life, through which humans attain their proper happiness and flourishing. Furthermore, how we understand religious and spiritual today was not at all how St. Thomas did. It will be necessary to understand first what St. Thomas meant by these terms before we apply them to the contemporary discussion.

Spiritual for Aquinas = non-physical; thus the realm of intellectual being and activity proper to God, angels, and men.

Religion for Aquinas = a virtue, either acquired or infused (or both), specifically, the potential part of the virtue of Justice that renders to God what is due to Him, namely, honor and reverence, which has two internal acts ((1) devotion, (2) prayer), and several external acts, divided into: 1) bodily reverence, 2) offerings, and 3) the receiving of things.

One is "religious" insofar as one has the virtue of religion. Virtue is a habit, which is an interior disposition of the soul to do good, according to the dictates of right reason (and for infused religion, we must qualify, right reason enlightened by faith). Virtue makes what is good easy, prompt, and joyful to do. But notice, a virtue becomes such in us only insofar as it becomes part of our being, insofar as it is we accomplish the good as though it were second nature, not a struggle. When we are struggling to make a good act, we know that the virtue is not yet ingrained in us.

Devotion, which is the promptness of the will to serve God, is the soul of religion; by prayer, which is the lifting of the mind to God, according to St. John Damascus, we subject ourselves to God and confess our dependence on Him.

It should be clarified that latria (λατρεία, a Greek term that Latin Christianity kept in its integrity as its sacral language developed) literally means "service." Our proper worship of God is our proper service under His command, doing His will. Further, devotion, or the willingness to serve God, is not merely some intellectual aptitude but incorporates the best in the human sensitivity to what is true, good, and beautiful—all the stirring and moving experiences of life and nature, the comedic and tragic, that point us most poignantly to God—these are incorporated into devotion in its full intellectual and affective whole.

Without these internal acts, all exterior acts of religion, whether acquired or infused, are rendered sterile.

Infused religion comes through sanctifying grace and is closely related to the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. By infused religion, we may transform our actions to give them sanctifying and meritorious efficacy (Br. Thomas didn't use these words since the talk was at the popular level); by this virtue, we transform our actions into a kind of perpetual worship, offering all to the Triune God, and receiving Him above all in the Sacraments and in supernatural prayer.

Infused religion also adds a very specific difference to acquired, or natural, religion: sacred revelation shows us how to worship God properly, and we learn how through the Church, who hands on this revelation as a sacred deposit. Although all humans can potentially worship God properly, only Catholics with infused grace may activate that potential through the exercise of the infused virtues.

Therefore, the short answer for Aquinas would be that being religious is more important than being spiritual because true religion already incorporates all that is best in being spiritual anyway under its interior acts of devotion and prayer. Acquired religion focuses our innate spiritual desires into concrete action, which even in the natural world has in every society up until ours incorporated elements like ritual, tradition, sacrifice, and myth. Infused religion is best because it specifies exactly how latria is to be rendered to God because it is God Himself Who communicates to us how to serve Him properly.

Religious are called religious because they offer their entire lives under the vows of religion. Married people also offer a specific form of worship by raising children in Matrimony to the end of glorifying God.

All the baptized are called to practice the virtue of religion.

Three specific ways to grow in the virtue: 1) meditation, especially on God's goodness and our sinfulness (St. Thomas recommends these two general topics as the best for mental prayer); 2) receiving the Sacraments; 3) prayer (Adoration, Contrition, Supplication, Thanksgiving), which makes us go out of ourselves and humbles us before God.

When we receive the Eucharist, we are receiving the very purpose of our life, which is worship of God. St. Thomas notes that we are to be messengers of revelation, of the unveiling of God's glory in the universe, and thus every time we make an act of religion, we change the entire fabric of creation by making present God's glory in a way that was not previously present. Hence, our bodily reverences, such as genuflections and making the Sign of the Cross, should be reverent and visible because they are not only internal acts of humility before God but are also outwardly humbling, insofar as they reveal to those who happen to see us for Whom we stand (or genuflect, if you want to be literal).

Finally, how to tell if you're growing in this virtue: the presence (or absence if you're not growing in it) of spiritual joy. Spiritual joy is not sensible joy although it may be accompanied by sensible joy. Spiritual joy refers to the presence of something good that we desire, and in this case, it is the spiritual good of God. Spiritual joy is the mental vigor that empowers and follows the soul's proper activity, such as in a realization, a recognition, an insight, or the doing or completion of a properly human act. We recognize this vigor when we are engaged in, focused on some task or topic; it can be an intense surge or a continuous stream of concentration, like a spiritual electricity running through us. The greater we desire God, and the further we realize that God is present to us by grace, the greater shall be our joy in serving Him. The ease, the promptitude, the joy with which we serve God will indicate to us how rooted the virtue is.

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