Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Retreat 2000
Saint Thomas Aquinas Seminary - September 27-30 AD 2000

Conference I - Why Be Religious
Ave Maria!

    If 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?"

    What 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"?

    Following Saint Thomas, we might look at the word itself, "religion," to see if it presents any clues about its purpose or necessity.[1]  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.

    St. 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.[2]

    Or 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."[3]  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.

    All 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.

    First 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 from God.

    A little story has been making the rounds, that illustrates the point:

    Recently, 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.

Predictably, 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.

At 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.

    So, 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 superstition forever.

    Cronkite 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.

    Finally, 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.

    When 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!"

    As 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.

  •     First 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.
  •     The 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.
  •     The 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.
  •     Petition, 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.

    Now, 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."[4]  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.[5]  So to speak, we must be careful to look beyond the trees to see the forest.

    But 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.

    Together 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."[6]  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 Jerusalem.[7]  God had not only provided for His people, but dwelt amongst them in honor and friendship.

    The 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.

    And 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 the Romans.

    In 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.

    Christ 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.

    Think 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.

    And 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 Sacrifice.

    I 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.

    Clearly, 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 saints.

    Let me conclude with just two more motives that bind us to God, one negative, and then we can end on a positive note.

    The 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.

    Our 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

    One 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 surveillance missions.

    Or 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!

    But 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.

    The 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."[8]

    And 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."[9]


[1]   St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II II, Q. 81, A. 1.

[2]   St. Augustine, Of True Religion, #55, in Summa Theologica.

[3]   “Eo mens est imago Dei, quo capax Dei est et particeps esse potest.”  St. Augustine, de Trinitate, XIV: 8.

[4]   Wisdom xiii: 5, 2.

[5]   Wisdom xiii: 7.

[6]   Psalm cxlvii: 8-9.

[7]   Exodus xl: 32-36;   3 Kings viii: 10-11.

[8]   Psalm xxxiii: 9;  cxviii: 103;  xviii: 10, 11.

[9]   "Quia fecisti nos a te, et inquietam est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te."  Saint Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1.


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