In a strict theological sense, devotion consists in the ready giving of oneself with fervor to the things that pertain to the service of God. Therefore, the “devout” are those who are always available for everything that refers to the worship or service of God.
Devotion is an act of the virtue of religion, although it also comes from the virtue of charity. The two virtues influence one another: charity causes devotion, while love makes us ready to serve the one we love; and, in turn, devotion increases love, because friendship is preserved and increased by the services rendered to the friend.
St. Thomas warns that devotion, as it is an act of religion, refers properly to God, not to His creatures. Hence, the devotion to the saints—and even the devotion to Our Lady—must end in God through them. In the saints we venerate what they have of God, that is, we venerate God in them.
The extrinsic and main cause of devotion is God, who calls those He wants and lights in their souls the fire of devotion. But the intrinsic cause, on our part, is the meditation or contemplation of divine goodness and divine benefits, together with the consideration of our misery. Thus, it excludes presumption and leads us to submit totally to God, from whom help and remedy will come to us. Its main effect is to fill the soul with spiritual joy, although sometimes it can accidentally cause a beneficial sadness, either because we do not fully possess God or because of the consideration of our own defects, which prevent us from giving ourselves totally to Him.
The fervor or readiness of the will consists first and foremost in the forceful determination of the will to remain faithfully consecrated to the service of God, in spite of frequent and painful aridity and spiritual trials. This fervor of the will constitutes, at the same time, the firm foundation on which the whole practice of devotion rests and the cause of all its merit before God. Without it, a purely sensible devotion, a “feeling,” has no consistency or true utility.
The truly devout soul remains calm and unwavering in the service of God through all the variations of sense impressions. In the midst of desolations and the absence of any consolation, true devotion continues to sustain the soul in the service of God. However, sensible consolations should not be despised, when God gives them, for they constitute a powerful stimulus to spiritual activity in the service of God. But we must not inordinately cling to them—as if seeking the consolations of God instead of the God of consolations.
This fervor of devotion, instead of being a simple transitory and passing act, can and must become a habitual disposition, existing and influencing the practice of all acts of divine worship. Nourished by a generous and constant charity and strengthened by the gifts of the Holy Ghost, particularly those of piety, understanding, science and wisdom, this habitual disposition is further aided by an incessant, faithful fulfillment of the duties of one’s own state of life.
To be perfect, this habitual devotion must extend itself not only to religious acts prescribed by divine or ecclesiastical precepts, but also to everything that appears clearly to one’s own conscience as more pleasing to God.
The “spirit of penance” is the habitual contrition of the soul, expressed by the continual repetition of acts of repentance, which impregnate our whole lives.
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I Jn. 1:8). Even when we have been forgiven, nothing prevents us from continually saying to God: “Although everything is forgiven, I will gratefully keep repeating that I regret having offended Thee and that I want to do whatever I can to remedy that wrong.”
For souls that aspire to perfection, this spirit of penance is necessary and is one of the most excellent means to quickly ascend to the greatest holiness.
The spirit of penance helps us to avoid lukewarmness and keeps us humble and generous, as compunction and lukewarmness cannot coexist in the soul.
It is the source and origin of a lively charity towards God and towards one’s neighbor. Towards God, because habitual perfect contrition is one of the purest and most delicate acts prompted by supernatural charity, and, by erasing our faults, it makes us more pleasing to God. Towards our neighbor, because it makes us merciful in our judgments and our conduct with others, as he who knows himself well cannot despise his brethren.
It is also a sure bulwark against temptations. Continuous vigilance over our own conduct, persevering prayer, the spirit of humility, aversion to sin, and the sincere and loving search for God are the means of sanctification provided by the spirit of compunction. Thus, temptation always finds the soul armed and alert and disposed to reject sin.
How can we acquire this spirit of penance? First of all, by humbly asking God: “Almighty and merciful God, who made a spring of living water spring from the stone for the thirsty people; draw from our hard hearts tears of repentance, so that we may cry for our sins and thus deserve forgiveness through your mercy” (Prayer to ask for the gift of tears, from the Roman Missal).
We must also consider with sincerity and courage the abyss of our wickedness. Even the smallest sin is an enormous evil if we consider it in the light of Truth and in contrast to the immense Goodness of God towards us. Let us remember the example of the saints.
We must remember how much our soul has cost Christ. “I have not loved you in a laughing way,” Our Lord said one day to St. Angela of Foligno. Calvary, the bloodied Body of Christ, His pierced hands and feet, the crown of thorns, the spittle on His divine face and His ignominious death on the Cross, should remind us how seriously God takes sin and to what extent He has loved us.