Saint Thomas Aquinas Seminary -
September 27-30 AD 2000
Conference I - Why Be Religious
you are a busy person, and particularly if you had to take a few days of
precious vacation time from work in order to attend this retreat, you may have
had friends and family ask you: "Why are you going?" and
"Wouldn't you really rather take that time—a four or five day
weekend—and spend in at the beach, or maybe over to the lake for a few days
fishing?" "Why would you take your hard earned vacation time to
go and pray?"
you friends and family are asking is actually a very important question that we
ought to speak about and discuss at the beginning of this retreat:
"Why be religious"? Or phrased another way, "why should
people devote considerable time and resources to the things of God, when there
is so much else in life to do"?
Saint Thomas, we might look at the word itself, "religion," to
see if it presents any clues about its purpose or necessity.
He mentions the pagan orator, Cicero, who argued that religion came from the
Latin "re-legere," meaning literally "to re-read."
That certainly does present an important part of religion, that of going back,
over and over, and re-reading and meditating on the truths we know about God.
But it more a description than a reason.
Thomas also quotes St Augustine, who suggested that the word religion comes from
the slightly different Latin word "re-ligere," which
would mean literally to "re-bind"—the idea being that religion is an
attempt to bind ourselves to God.
perhaps, again according to Augustine, the Latin root is "re-eligere,"
meaning "to re-choose," or "to choose once again." In
fact, Augustine (echoing Genesis) suggests that man is uniquely made for God;
he says that "The mind is the image of God, in that it is capable of Him,
and can be partaker of Him."
Man is "capax Dei"—"capable of God." In this
sense, the choice—in favor of God and being religious—is already made for us
in our creation.
three derivations are plausible, but my personal opinion is to say that
"religion" comes closest to the first meaning given by St. Augustine,
somehow suggesting that religion binds us to God. And, particularly, if we
are addressing this question of "why one should be religious," the
idea of binding to God is instructive in several ways.
of all, we can think of religion as being an obligation incumbent upon us in
justice—a simple requirement to acknowledge that all we are and all we have
comes from God. That is to say that we are bound in a legal sense to
acknowledge that all of what we tend to think of as our own property is really
on loan to us from on high. We human beings tend to be rather self
centered, and think of our culture and our civilization and our technology as
being "the work of human hands." We often fail to acknowledge
our dependency on previous generations, and even more, we fail to acknowledge
that no human achievement would ever be possible without making things we have
little story has been making the rounds, that illustrates the point:
scientists have announced that they have completed the "mapping of the
human genome"—that is to say that they have refined a coded sequence that
sort of blueprints how human beings are put together from the elements of the
earth. It is an incredibly complex code, that may indeed help medicine to
treat ailments that spring from genetic causes.
the "breaking" of the genetic code also gave some less thoughtful
scientists the idea that it was now possible to create human beings from their
basic elements. Some began to boast that they could now do what God did,
and make men out of mud. All that should be necessary, went the thinking,
would be to mix the right kinds of dirt in the right proportions, with an
appropriate amount of water, to make a mud that could be fashioned into people.
Presumably, the mud would be brought to life by breathing into its nostrils—or
perhaps with a jolt of electricity, like they used to do in the horror movies.
any rate the boasting got so loud that God heard them, and came down to
challenge their claims. "I've already made man out of mud, so now its
your turn to show that you can really do the same." The scientists,
of course, were a little nervous, but they had done so much boasting that they
didn't dare not show up at the appointed time—and, after all, mankind now had
the recipe in the form of the coded sequences.
on the appointed day, the scientists and the news media gathered to demonstrate
the splendor of human wisdom. Walter Cronkite spoke for a few moments,
reminiscing about how far mankind had come during his lifetime alone—man had
taken wings to fly, had learned to speak and see from one continent to another,
had made the world safe for democracy, walked on the Moon, and was on the brink
of ending war for ever. And here, today, man was to banish medieval
turned over the stage to the official science correspondent from one of the
other networks, who spent ten or fifteen minutes with a set of graphics that
seemed to be a mix of dominos and spiral staircases.
the head of the genome project assumed the podium and announced that a new era
had dawned, evolution had triumphed, and mankind was about to demonstrate that
it had evolved to the level of the deity. Under his direction, technicians
began to place carefully measured and classified packages of dirt on a large
table, next to a large clear plastic tub.
the lightning bolt hit, many of the invited guests assumed that it was part of
the project, until a very powerful voice was heard to exclaim:
"That's cheating!" "You've got to use your own dirt!"
I said, we tend to forget the degree to which we are dependent on God -- which
is why I say that we have an obligation in justice to honor God. But even
such an obligation turns out not to be terribly oppressive. We generally
speak of four ways in which we honor God—none are difficult, and some of them
actually seem to be more to our benefit than anything else.
there is Adoration, by which we praise God simply for His awesome and
overpowering goodness. This should come pretty automatically, particularly
if we are conscious of the source from which the elements of life come to us.
It probably helps to spend a little meditative time looking at the winter sky,
or listening the sounds of the seashore.
second is Thanksgiving, in which we thank God for all of the good things He has
given to us and to those around us. Again, if we are aware of all that God
gives us, thanksgiving will come rather spontaneously. Even if we were to
add up all of the bad things we might observe in the world around us, their
numbers fade into insignificance when compared with the good. And if we
can step back and view creation with detachment, many of the things that seem
bad are often seen to play out with good consequences.
third, Appeasement, by which we ask God's forgiveness for our sins and of those
around us; and by which we ask for God's mitigation of the punishments
that are due to our sins. It should take no imagination at all to
recognize that this is a form of recognizing God that is clearly beneficial to
us. Most all of us can use a little forgiveness now and then.
the fourth kind of prayer, is simply asking God for the things we feel we need
in our material and spiritual lives. (All such prayers are answered, but
sometimes the answer is "no" because not everything we think we want
will be good for us, or fit in with God's plans for us. Nonetheless, it is
easy to see that petition does recognize God's power and generosity, while at
the same time being beneficial for those who pray.
a moment ago, I suggested that being conscious of the wonders of nature helps us
to appreciate God's glory. The Book of Wisdom mentions this, "From
the greatness and the beauty of created things, their original Author, by
analogy, is seen.... fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circuit of the
stars, or the mighty water or the luminaries of heaven."
We modern people have more to look at, and can see the same sort of beauty and
ordered complexity in our arts and sciences; in music and architecture, in
sub-atomic and sub-microscopic physics and biology and medicine, in mathematics
and natural cosmology. It seems that the more mankind learns about the
universe around him, he sees God's signature of ordered complexity written in
virtually everything. We need only to avoid the pitfall that is also
described in the same Book of Wisdom, which describes those who do not see God
in His creation, "For they search busily among His works, but are
distracted by what they see, because the things seen are fair.
So to speak, we must be careful to look beyond the trees to see the forest.
as Catholics, we possess some additional sources that enable us to know, and
consequently, love God. "Judeo-Christianity," if I may use that
hybrid word, is the only religion that makes a serious claim that its God
actually intervened in the history of its people. There are a few others,
like Hinduism, or the pagan religions of the ancient world, but even they treat
their gods more as legends than as persons.
with observant Jews, we can look back to the times of the Old Testament to see
that God took a personal interest in the affairs of His people.
One of the great boasts of the Psalms is that God has revealed His law to
the Jewish people: "He has proclaimed His word to Jacob, His statutes
and His ordinances to Israel. He has not done this for any other nation;
His ordinances He has not made known to them."
We often think of law as being a restriction on our freedom, but the pious Jew
knew that having the Law of Moses was an advantage—It enabled him to keep the
friendship of God, while at the same time producing stability and prosperity
among His people. The Jew of the Old Testament could point to the Exodus
from Egyptian captivity, and to the real presence of God in a pillar of cloud by
day and a pillar of flame by night, and ultimately in the holy of holies at
God had not only provided for His people, but dwelt amongst them in honor and
God of the Old Testament is a motive for being religious, precisely because He
is a personal God. We may tend to think of Him as a bit more stern than He
appears to be in the New Testament -- but, nonetheless, He engages His people in
a personal relationship. He directs them to offer sacrifices at the Temple
in Jerusalem, and to obey His Law—it is only when they abandon the Temple and
the Law, as in the later books of Kings and Chronicles, that He allows them to
become a conquered people.
conquered they are: First by the Assyrians and Babylonians, the Meeds and
the Persians: By the remnants of the Empire of Alexander the Great; the
Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Syrians: and, by New Testament times, by
our Lord Jesus Christ, we have a renewal of God's personal intervention in human
history, and a much greater reason for religious people. God sent the long
awaited Messiahs to Israel, but not for the purpose many expected. He
didn't come to overthrow the Romans or any foreign power—He came to overthrow
the power of sin itself. Since the time of Adam and Eve, mankind had lived
with the inability to do much of anything that was pleasing to God. Even
the sacrifices of the temple, though commanded by God Himself, were not very
effective in making people holy and pleasing to God.
came to change that—He came to remedy a fundamental defect in human nature,
the defect of original Sin. He came to give us a means by which our souls
might become radically holy, and a means by which that holiness might be
preserved and even increased. And, if we are looking for a reason why we
ought to be religious, we need only consider the way by which our Lord brought
about our redemption.
about this: God could have redeemed mankind with nothing more than an act
of His will—He could have chosen to simply overlook the transgression of Adam.
But He decided that it was necessary to take human form in order to more
carefully guide and instruct us in His ways. Again, He could have sent
Jesus Christ to live in a palace, wearing golden robes, and attended by angels.
But instead, He chose to be born in a stable in a conquered land, to a
workingman and his wife. Even then, God could have been content to have
Jesus do no more than go about preaching and healing the sick—He might have
just let it go with a few more miracles and a resurrection or two. But
what our Lord chose to do was to give Himself over to the Jews and the Romans,
and to let Himself die in agony on the Cross.
it doesn't even end there. We have a further reason for being religious
when we realize that our Lord extends the saving value of His death and
resurrection to people in all places and in all times. There was only one
Sacrifice of the Cross: It lasted about three hours one Friday in Spring,
perhaps in the year 33 AD. But by means of His holy Sacraments, that
sacrifice continues to free men from the sin of Adam, and to free them from
their own sins. When a child is baptized, when someone goes to confession
or is anointed on his sickbed, when a man receives Holy Orders, and especially
when Mass is offered and people receive the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy
Communion—when any of these things happen, they happen because of that
Sacrifice on Mount Calvary—they would all be meaningless apart from that
don't know if he is technically correct in this or not, but the philosopher
Pascal, in referring to the forgiveness of sin down through the ages since the
Crucifixion, once said that "Our Lord Jesus Christ will be in agony until
the end of time." At least in some sense Pascal was right, for if the
sins of penitents are to be forgiven even in last hours and minutes of the
world, it will only be because Jesus Christ suffered for those sins—sins that
may not take place until centuries or millennia hence.
we have in God's offer of eternal life through Jesus Christ, a very good motive
for being religious. It would be a good one, even if we didn't know
anything about the nature of Hell. How unwise and ungrateful the man who
does not raise up His mind to Jesus Christ. How foolish the man who fails
to place his petitions before the Lord, or before His Blessed Mother or His
me conclude with just two more motives that bind us to God, one negative, and
then we can end on a positive note.
negative reason for being religious, if you can call it negative, is that man
and society cannot function without God. In the "state of
nature," without God, man and mankind are self destructive. Some of
the modern psychologists and philosophers are right for all the wrong reasons
when they speak of man as being "alienated" or alone. Without
God, he is precisely that. Without, at least, a natural knowledge of God's
Law, man is prone to steal, and to fight, and to commit adultery, and lie, and
to cheat, and even to kill one another.
civilization is unimaginable without Christianity. What greater school has
their been for music, and art, and philosophy than the Catholic Church?
What other source for justice and law? What other power held the factions
of warring Europe together for centuries? What other origin have the great
institutions for charity and education? What would happen to civilization
without God and His Church
only needs to examine civilizations that have given up the acknowledgement of
God, either in whole or in part. At
one time, our United States made up a Christian nation -- pluralistic to be
sure, but essentially Christian. At the turn of this century, divorce was
pretty unthinkable; contraception, abortion, and sexual immorality were
unmentionable in polite company, and very often illegal; cattle were
traded sight unseen on the basis of a description like "prime" or
"fair" and the shake of a hand; neighbors helped each other to
build and to repair without thought of payment; the elderly were valued
and respected members of multi-generational families; no child would dream
of taking the family shotgun that stood by the door to school with him;
and somehow the poor got fed and clothed, and the sick were treated for their
illness. Look at America today! I remember that the nation was in shock when a sitting US
President got caught telling the Russians a single lie about U2 aircraft
look at the Church since Vatican II. "There isn't a marriage
that can't be annulled," they boast in some places. Population
control and family planning have been elevated almost to the level of a
sacrament. Nuns go naked in the fields worshipping the Earth-goddess,
while priests and even bishops get arrested for many of those things not
mentioned in polite company not many years ago. The new Catechism dreams
of an armed United Nations, and at the highest levels the hierarchy moves toward
global government and a world Church (quite different from the Universal Church
of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church). And all this has come about because
of a shift away from the sacred, and to a preoccupation with man as creature of
this world. Man, the family, society, and especially the Church, just
cannot function without God!
let's close on that positive note that I promised. Man must be religious
-- and will want to be religious -- becaause he is made for God, a creature that
is made, as Augustine says "capax Dei" —"capable of
God." The life of man with God is a full life. It can take many
forms, and is certainly not restricted to the monastery or the cloister or the
priesthood or any other form of institutionalized holiness, although such
vocations are good and ought to be considered by spiritual people. The
life of man with God starts very simply with Baptism or a good Confession and
the intention of doing good, avoiding evil, and drawing closer to God.
theologians, and saints like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, speak of a
progressive spiritual life, one that goes through stages wherein we are
successively purged from our worldly attachments, illumined by God's graces, and
ultimately united with Him in contemplation—all in preparation for (and
perhaps a foretaste of) heaven. That's a little bit more technical than we
will be able to get in these few days, but suffice it to say that being
religious and drawing closer to God—ever growing in the spiritual life—is
its own reward. "Taste and see how good the Lord is.... Sweet to my
taste are His promises, sweeter than honey to my mouth." "The
ordinances of the Lord are true, all of them just; more precious than
gold; sweeter than honey and the honeycomb."
if I might give Saint Augustine the last word, its sort of a prayer, addressed
to God: "Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our heart is
restless until it rests in Thee."