In his Summa Theologiae, qq. 81-100, St. Thomas Aquinas discusses the virtue of religion, whereby we render due worship to God our creator. It may seem odd that Thomas devotes 20 questions to this virtue, each composed of several articles. Questions 92-95, in particular, deal with vices of excess. Vices of excess broadly concern “overdoing it,” as opposed to vices of defect. For example, consider the virtue of courage: cowardice is the defect, and foolhardiness is the excess. Thomas then dedicates four questions to excessive religiousness.
At first sight, this is confusing. It is easy to understand that insufficient religiosity is bad for the soul, but how can we be too religious? An admonition to be “less religious” may seem like an arbitrary rule that does us no good. Sins of excess in matters of religion, however, do not consist in giving too much worship to God, but in giving improper worship, or worshipping the wrong things. By teaching us how to properly render worship to God, the Church focuses and strengthens our worship, and protects us from evil. These “rules” are actually valuable insights from the spiritual masters.
God commands us to worship no other gods (Ex 20:2-6). St. Thomas explains that idolatry—the worship of other gods, or of creatures as if they were gods—is the most grievous of sins because it so thoroughly distorts our relationship to God. The honor that should only be given to the source of all being is given instead to what is lesser.
Aside from worshipping the wrong God, we can worship in the wrong way. We do, of course, have the freedom to pray in our own words in most settings. Our prayer, however, must conform to true doctrine. In liturgies, especially the Mass, our prayer must conform to certain norms, because it was handed on to us through the apostles and their successors, and ultimately from Jesus himself. We cannot invent our own religion and pray according to our own ideas. Offering right worship ensures that the focus of our worship is really God and not idols or our own conception of God.
St. Thomas’ teaching also strengthens our faith. He speaks of an external worship that is disproportionate to the internal state. If we perform numerous grandiose religious acts without making an effort to change our hearts, what we offer is empty. It is, for example, required that we desire not to sin again when we go to the Sacrament of Confession, even if we know that we probably will sin. Confession is not a magic fix that gets us around God’s commandments. Any worship that is not attached to some desire for the good (however feeble) is no worship at all.
Finally, proper worship protects us from the demonic. It belongs to God alone to disclose future events that are not naturally knowable, or to miraculously circumvent the laws of nature. If we try to usurp this power by practicing magic, astrology, or any kind of divination (ouija boards, tarot cards, and healing crystals are common modern examples), we take for ourselves what belongs to God. In all of these cases, we attempt to take for ourselves what only God can give. He alone can give supernatural help. If we find such help from elsewhere, it is not from any friend of God.
St. Thomas seeks to teach us how to worship properly, so that we may more easily understand and develop our relationship with God. God is the only creator and sovereign over his creation, and we can do nothing without him. Our worship must always be anchored in this reality.
Image: Meynnart Wewyck, Lady Margaret Beaufort