Understanding What it Means to be Devout
The word devotion, which is derived from the Latin, answers to that of devotedness — a vowing of ourselves, a consecration of ourselves. A devout person is, then, a person devoted to God, consecrated to God. There is no stronger expression than that of devotion to mark that disposition of the soul of a person who is ready to do everything and to suffer everything for Him to whom he is devoted.
The devotion to creatures (I mean, of course, that which is lawful and allowed by God) has necessarily its limits. The devotion to God has none, and can have none. As soon as the least reserve, the least exception, intrudes there, it is no longer devotion. True and solid devotion is, then, that disposition of the heart by which we are ready to do and to suffer, without exception or reserve, everything that comes from God’s good pleasure, everything that is the will of God. And this disposition is the most excellent of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We cannot ask for it too often or too earnestly; and we must never flatter ourselves that we have it in its perfection, because it can always go on increasing, either in itself or in its effects.
Devotion is interior and lasting
We see, by this definition, that devotion is something most interior, which has to do with the inmost life of the soul, for it affects that within us which is most spiritual — that is to say, our understanding and our will. Devotion consists, then, neither in reasoning, nor in imagination, nor in anything that is sensible. We are not devout just because we are able to reason well about the things of God, nor because we have grand ideas or fine imaginations about spiritual matters, nor because we are sometimes affected to tears.
Again, devotion is not a thing that passes, that comes and goes, as it were, but it is something habitual, fixed, permanent, which extends over every instant of life and regulates all our conduct.
The principle of devotion is that, with God being the one Source and the one Author of holiness, the reasonable creature ought to depend on Him in everything and be absolutely governed by the Spirit of God. He must be always attached to God in the depths of his soul, always attentive to His voice within him, always faithful to accomplish what He asks of him each moment.
It is, then, impossible to be truly devout unless we are interior, given to recollection, accustomed to retire within ourselves, or rather never to go out of ourselves, to possess our soul in peace.
Whoever gives himself up to his senses, to his imagination, to his passions, I do not say in criminal things, but even in those which are not bad in themselves, will never be devout; for the first effect of devotion is to bring into captivity the senses, the imagination, and the passions, and to prevent the will from ever being led away by them.
He who is curious, impulsive, delighting to interest himself in exterior things, and to mix himself up with the affairs of others; he who is never willingly alone; he who is critical, speaking ill of his neighbor, sarcastic, irritable, contemptuous, haughty, ready to take offense at anything that wounds his self-love; he who is obstinate, believing only in his own opinions, or he who is a slave to human respect and to public opinion to such an extent that he is in consequence weak, inconstant, and always changing his principles and his conduct will never be devout in the sense I mean.
The devout person seeks God, not himself
The truly devout man is a man of prayer, whose sole delight is to be with God, and to speak with Him, and who scarcely ever loses his sense of the presence of God. Not that he is always thinking of God — for that is impossible here below — but because he is always united to God in his heart and is guided in everything by His Spirit. To pray, he has no need of a book, or of a method, or of great efforts of the head or even of the will. He has only to retire quietly into himself. There he finds God; there he finds peace — sometimes a peace full of joy, sometimes a peace in spite of dryness, but always a deep and real peace. He prefers the prayer in which he gives much to God, and in which he suffers — the prayer in which self-love is undermined gradually, until it can find nothing to feed upon; in short, a simple prayer, denuded of all images or of perceptible feelings and of all those things which the soul can experience in other kinds of prayer.
The truly devout man seeks not himself or his own gratification in the service of God, and he endeavors to practice this maxim of the Imitation of Christ: Wherever you find self, renounce self.
The truly devout man studies to fulfill perfectly all the duties of his state and all his really necessary duties of kindness and courtesy to society. He is faithful to his devotional exercises, but he is not a slave to them; he interrupts them, he suspends them, he even gives them up altogether for a time when any reason of necessity or of simple charity requires it. Provided he does not do his own will, he is always certain of doing the will of God.
Devotion calls for simplicity, confidence, and generosity
The truly devout man does not run about seeking for good works, but he waits until the occasion of doing good presents itself to him. He does what in him lies to ensure success; but he leaves the care of the success to God. He prefers those good works which are obscure and done in secret to those which are brilliant and gain general admiration; but he does not shrink from these latter ones when they are for the glory of God and the edification of his neighbor. The truly devout man does not burden himself with a great quantity of vocal prayers and practices that do not leave him time to breathe. He always preserves his liberty of spirit; he is neither scrupulous nor uneasy about himself; he goes on with simplicity and confidence.
He has made a determination, once and for all, to refuse nothing to God, to grant nothing to self-love, and never to commit a voluntary fault; but he does not perplex himself. He goes on courageously; he is not too particular. If he falls into a fault, he does not agitate himself; he humbles himself at the sight of his own weakness; he raises himself up and thinks no more about it.
He is not astonished at his weaknesses, at his falls or his imperfections; he is never discouraged. He knows that he can do nothing, but that God can do everything. He does not rely on his own good thoughts and resolutions, but simply on the grace and the goodness of God. If he were to fall a hundred times a day, he would not despair, but he would stretch out his hands lovingly to God and beg of Him to lift him up and to take pity on him.
The truly devout man has a horror of evil, but he has a still greater love of good. He thinks more about practicing virtue than about avoiding vice. He is generous, large-hearted, and courageous; and when there is a question of exposing himself to danger for God’s sake, he does not fear wounds. In a word, he loves better to do what is good, even at the risk of falling into some imperfection, than to omit it through fear of the danger of sinning.
No one is so amiable in the ordinary course of life as a really devout man. He is simple, straightforward, open as the day, unpretentious, gentle, solid, and true; his conversation is pleasing and interesting; he can enter into all innocent amusements; and he carries his condescending kindness and charity as far as possible, short of what is wrong. Whatever some persons may say, true devotion is never a melancholy thing, either for itself or for others. How could the man who continually enjoys the truest happiness — the only happiness — ever be sad? It is the inordinate passions of human nature that are sad — avarice, ambition, love that is not sanctified by God and has not God for its chief end. And it is to divert themselves from the trouble and uneasiness that these passions cause the heart that men plunge themselves recklessly into pleasures and excesses, which they vary continually, but which weary the soul, without ever satisfying it.
Whoever really and in sincerity gives himself up to the service of God will experience the truth of that sentence “To serve God is to reign,” even if it be in poverty, in humiliations, and in suffering. All those who in this world seek their happiness in something that is not God — all, without exception — will verify the saying of St. Augustine: The heart of man is made for God alone and is never at peace until it rests in God. “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart findeth no rest until it reposeth in Thee.”
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Grou’s The Spiritual Life, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.
Fr. Jean Nicolas Grou (1731–1803) lived through times of tremendous turmoil, first as a Jesuit novice when Jesuits were surpressed, and later during the French Revolution. In his book, The Spiritual Life, are the fruits of his sufferings and prayers.