Characteristics Of True Devotion, by Jean Nicolas Grou
Something about this book bothers me. Admittedly, as someone who is not familiar with Grou’s other writings and only barely familiar with his life–he was a noted and prolific French Jesuit writer of the late ancien regime and revolutionary period–I am not likely the most sympathetic reader. In reading this work without any context, I thought that the work had been written by a Calvinist author. As that is not something I tend to consider praiseworthy, the work clearly left a bad taste in my mouth. A big part of the issue I had with this work is that so much of the work is the author’s own opinion, rather than being taken from the Bible. And the author’s opinion would be a lot easier to appreciate if it was not so strident and so ascetic in nature. The book reads like a gnostic guide to spirituality and devotion, with a hatred of the flesh and a false dilemma between the body and the spirit with a clear belief in the superiority of the spirit, and that is a very problematic position to take, not least given the fact that it tends to diminish the respect and honor we give to God for having made us of flesh and blood. This book’s insights are greatly diminished by the attitude of the author.
This book is a reasonably-sized work of between 150 and 200 pages. and is divided into 36 reasonably short chapters which read as if they were separate sermon messages. The whole book has the feel of being the collected sermon messages of a rather tough-minded writer. And that is by no means always a bad thing. The author takes on the subject of devotion as one might expect for a minister to do so in the course of a lengthy series of sermon messages that, sadly, do not feature as much of the Bible as one would hope. The main the author begins with preliminary advice, seeks to define true devotion, then he comments on its objects and qualities. The author focuses on the interiority of faith, something which appears to have been a general focus of his writings as a whole. After that the author discusses some of the things he believes true devotion requires and how widespread such things ought to be, as well as what he believes the effects of true devotion ought to be on such matters as confidence, one of the more notable aspects of debate regarding the congruence or lack thereof between interior feelings and exterior realities. The book ends with a discussion of the high view he places on true devotion and some reflections on its characteristics and how it may be obtained.
That is not to say, though, that this book lacks insights. The fact that the author appears to hold to ungodly ascetic views and that he regularly views his own insights as being authoritative, neither of which are a good foundation to build a book like this upon notwithstanding, this book does contain some information that is of worth. And it would be uncharitable to dismiss the book entirely when it does contain worthwhile insights, not least that we need to focus on that which we owe to God, and that we should desire to accomplish His will and serve God’s glory and not our own–and there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the author in these matters. The author takes a broad-minded view of the worth of devotion for believers of all ages and in all conditions and comments on the need for devotion to be accompanied by actions. These are all worthwhile things to say, and if the tone of the author is sometimes strident and the use of his language somewhat ambivalent, there are still insights to be gained from this imperfect work.