Posted by: Catholic of Thule | July 3, 2011

Dom Vital Lehodey on the meaning of devotion.

I think devotion is one of those things which can often be confused with the emotions that are sometimes produced by it, accompany it, and at times prompt it and ease its practice. Love is obviously another. And devotion is love of a kind, which is brought out by the way it in common speech also sometimes accompanies the notion of love when love is considered deep and sincere. Somebody is devoted to the object of their love. In this sense, perhaps the notion of devotion also in the purely secular and romantic realm is somewhat less tainted by the tendency to confuse the essence of love with mere emotional attachment or sensible passion. Even if it has not quite escaped the modern reduction to mere sentimentalism, which, imo, debases both the sentiment and the real essence of love, there is a notion that if someone is devoted to someone it involves a setting apart and a surrender of the will to the object of one’s devotion, whether in a healthy manner or an unhealthy manner, as may sometimes happen in the romantic sense.  In Norwegian the word for devotion is ‘hengivenhet’ which denotes a giving over or abandoning of oneself  to the object of one’s devotion.

Giving mere sentiment primacy is a debasement of both the sentiment and the essence of love and devotion. Allowing sentiment to run wild could easily lead to actions that are contrary to the essence of love and a tainting of the emotions themselves. We could be led astray by false and transitory emotions. We could be led astray by their absence. The primacy of the will  acting upon proper and sound knowledge of what is good and what is not puts everything in its proper place. Far from ignoring the emotional aspect of things in a manner which leads to an unfeeling coldness, this purifies and elevates emotion as one is able to steer any prompting towards evil into a proper and beneficial course instead by recognising and dealing with emotions, whether misleading or in accordance with true love, in a proper manner in the light of truth and goodness. And importantly, one is able to deal with the absence of any helpful emotions. Thus, placing the will, the intellect and emotion all in their proper place one avoids the inhumane coldness of heart which result from allowing oneself to become a slave to emotion, whether in allowing them to prompt one towards evil, to become a substitute for a real and active love, or in dictating to us through their absence  inducing despair or sloth.

In the spiritual life putting a false trust in and emphasis on emotion is deadly. As indeed in life in general. Seeking sensible consolations for themselves, allowing them to substitute for true devotion, viewing them as the aim and measure of spiritual progress is a surefire way to go astray whether the sensible consolations in question be false or real. Obviously, chasing a false thrill is even more harmful than putting a false emphasis on true sensible consolations, but both can be very harmful.

I found the following wee explication by Dom Vital Lehodey on the nature of devotion, and the relationship between the essence and the accidents of devotion very helpful and inspiring, and so I just thought I’d share it. It is helpful to bear it in mind when dealing both with consolation and with aridity.

Devotion is the promptitude with which the will tends to the service of God, to prayer as well as to other duties. The whole substance and marrow of devotion consists in this promptitude, quickness, agility, holy ardor, generosity, and devotedness of the will. With this disposition of soul we possess the essence of devotion; without it we have only its phantom; and this is why this readiness of will is called substantial devotion.

Generally speaking, it is seasoned with a certain charm and sweetness; we tend with love and keen relish to the things of God, we are well with him; the soul is in peace, the heart joyful, and duty is easy. This sweetness is not devotion; for, without it, the will may be prompt in the service of God; but being superadded to devotion as accident to substance, it is called accidental devotion.

If it remain in the soul without passing into the senses, we have accidental spiritual devotion; if it is spread from the soul to the senses like the overflow of a vessel which is too full, we then have accidental sensible devotion – or, to express it more concisely, sensible devotion. Then the heart is dilated with joy and beats with more life, the eyes glisten and moisten with tears, the face is radiant, the voice full of emotion, all the senses filled with sweet impressions. And this sometimes reaches even to a kind of transport and of spiritual inebriation.

Sometimes, on the other hand, although the will does its duty with generosity, the senses are not affected; the soul is not pervaded by this sweetness, it feels itself abandoned; the mind is empty and has no ideas; the heart is cold and conceives only affections without relish; and the will remains without energy. This is aridity, dryness, abandonment, desolation.

According to this teaching, then, consolations are not devotion; for the prompt will, which is the essence of devotion, may very well subsist without consolations, or be altogether wanting in spite of their presence.

Dom Vital Lehodey, The Ways of Mental Prayer.

Of course, Dom Vital also discusses preternatural and natural causes of aridity, and included among the latter those stemming from sin and faults and distractions which we should correct, as well as preternatural (as opposed to supernatural) and natural causes of perceived consolations.

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