I was brought up on religious devotion. It enlivened my life, drew me deeper into religion and gave joy to my life. It taught me to love religion and to hear a call to spirituality that has never left me. I suppose I also grew beyond it, probably thinking of it as childish and focussed more on meditation, reading of scripture - more adult religious practices, so to speak. It’s easy to denigrate religious devotion as belonging to a simple faith but it’s a genuine expression of faith for some people and gives a sense of meaning to their life. After the Second Vatican Council there was a sense that the Catholic Church had thrown the baby out with the bath water when there was a lot of emphasis on learning from Church documents about the new developments in and understandings of the Church and less on traditional devotions. There’s now a resurgence of some of the more traditional practices, at least in this country, – they appeal to some but not others and some people can even be a bit embarrassed by them.
Some religions are more devotional than others and sometimes people (probably Christian of course) categorise religions as reflecting the Catholic or Protestant traditions of Christianity. So Tibetan Buddhism would be regarded as more akin to the Catholic tradition because of its smells and bells, chants and rituals while Zen Buddhism would be seen as a bit more austere – akin to the Protestant tradition. It’s often said that Tibetan Buddhism flourishes in Catholic societies while Zen Buddhism appeals to more Protestant countries. Sunni Islam is rather more ‘protestant’ while Shia Islam is more ‘catholic.’ Hinduism manages to incorporate both aspects of religion. It recognises many different paths to God and to wholeness. There’s the way of good deeds, the way of knowledge and reflection on the meaning of life and the way of love and devotion to the one God expressed through multiple manifestations. Saints have composed hymns in honour of the various deities. Mystics, like Antal and Mirabai have devoted their lives to God, foregoing the traditional dharma of marriage. Even great philosophers like Sankara who sought through meditation and contemplation the meaning of life and oneness with God composed hymns and had a personal devotion to God. He was able to live with both aspects of religion.
It’s possible to be devoted to many things. Artists, musicians, sportsmen, academics are devoted to their pursuits and are often only successful because of their commitment and devotion. The kind of devotion I’m thinking about is the kind of religious devotion that cultivates a personal relationship with God, or some other religious figure. For Catholics this could be Jesus, the Virgin Mary, for Hindus the Lord Krishna, for Buddhists the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin or Tara. Often this devotion is enlivened by images which are venerated and respected, something that some religions like Islam, Judaism and reformed Christianity find hard to understand. Images can be seen as idols, taking the place of God and objects of worship in their own right. But this need not be the case and certainly was not what we were doing as children when we were honouring Mary. Images, religious practices can be for the believer what the Catholic tradition calls sacramentals – objects, rituals which are like windows into the Divine, that take us into the presence of God, that enliven in us a love of God which overflows into a love of others. If any of these objects, figures or rituals were to obscure God then they would indeed be idols. But for the most part they are seen as sacred, bringing joy, hope, confidence into religion and genuinely opening devotees to hear the silent music of God’s call to wholeness of life. Perhaps it’s also a question of temperament (or conditioning) but I think religion without devotion would be a very dull state of affairs.