Adoration, in the strict sense, an act of religion offered to God in acknowledgment of His supreme perfection and dominion, and of the creature’s dependence upon Him; in a looser sense, the reverence shown to any person or object possessing, inherently or by association, a sacred character or a high degree of moral excellence. The rational creature, looking up to God, whom reason and revelation show to be infinitely perfect, cannot in right and justice maintain an attitude of indifference. That perfection which is infinite in itself, and the source and fulfilment of all the good that we possess or shall possess, we must worship, acknowledging its immensity, and submitting to its supremacy. This worship called forth by God, and given exclusively to Him as God, is designated by the Greek name latreia (latinized, latria), for which the best translation that our language affords is the word Adoration. Adoration differs from other acts of worship, such as supplication, confession of sin, etc., inasmuch as it formally consists in self-abasement before the Infinite, and in devout recognition of His transcendent excellence. An admirable example of adoration is given in the Apocalypse, vii, 11, 12: “And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the ancients, and about the living creatures; and they fell before the throne upon their faces, and adored God, saying Amen. Benediction and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, honor, and power, and strength to our God, forever and ever, Amen.” The revealed precept to adore God was spoken to Moses upon Sinai and reaffirmed in the words of Christ: “The Lord thy God thou shalt adore, and Him only shalt thou serve” (Matt., iv, 10).
The primary and fundamental element in adoration is an interior act of mind and will; the mind perceiving that God’s perfection is infinite, the will bidding us to extol and worship this perfection. Without some measure of this interior adoration “in spirit and in truth” it is evident that any outward show of divine worship would be mere pantomime and falsehood. But equally evident is it that the adoration felt within will seek outward expression. Human nature demands physical utterance of some sort for its spiritual and emotional moods; and it is to this instinct for self-expression that our whole apparatus of speech and gesture is due. To suppress this instinct in religion would be as unreasonable as to repress it in any other province of our experience. Moreover, it would do religion grievous harm to check its tendency to outward manifestation, since the external expression reacts upon the interior sentiment, quickening, strengthening, and sustaining it. As St. Thomas teaches, “it is connatural for us to pass from the physical signs to the spiritual basis upon which they rest” (Summa II-II, Q. xlviii, art. 2). It is to be expected, then, that men should have agreed upon certain conventional actions as expressing adoration of the Supreme Being. Of these actions, one has preeminently and exclusively signified adoration, and that is sacrifice. Other acts have been widely used for the same purpose, but most of them—sacrifice always excepted—have not been exclusively reserved for Divine worship; they have also been employed to manifest friendship, or reverence for high personages. Thus Abram “fell flat on his face” before the Lord (Gen., xvii, 3). This was clearly an act of adoration in its highest sense; yet that it could have other meanings, we know from, e.g., I Kings, xx, 41, which says that David adored “falling on his face to the ground” before Jonathan, who had come to warn him of Saul’s hatred. In like manner, Gen., xxxiii, 3, narrates that Jacob, on meeting his brother Esau, “bowed down with his face to the ground seven times”. We read of other forms of adoration among the Hebrews, such as taking off the shoes (Exod., iii, 5), bowing (Gen., xxiv, 26), and we are told that the contrite publican stood when he prayed, and that St. Paul knelt when he worshipped with the elders of Ephesus. Among the early Christians it was common to adore God, standing with outstretched arms, and facing the east. Finally, we ought perhaps to mention the act of pagan adoration which seems to contain the etymological explanation of our word adoration. The word adoratio very probably originated from the phrase (manum) ad os (mittere), which designated the act of kissing the hand to the statue of the god one wished to honor. Concerning the verbal manifestation of adoration—that is, the prayer of praise—explanation is not necessary. The connection between our inner feelings and their articulate utterance is obvious.
Thus far we have spoken of the worship given directly to God as the infinitely perfect Being. It is clear that adoration in this sense can be offered to no finite object. Still, the impulse that leads us to worship God’s perfection in itself will move us also to venerate the traces and bestowals of that perfection as it appears conspicuously in saintly men and women. Even to inanimate objects, which for one reason or other strikingly recall the excellence, majesty, love, or mercy of God, we naturally pay some measure of reverence. The goodness which these creatures possess by participation or association is a reflection of God’s goodness; by honoring them in the proper way’ we offer tribute to the Giver of all good. He is the ultimate end of our worship in such cases, as He is the source of the derived perfection which called it forth. But, as was intimated above, whenever the immediate object of our veneration is a creature of this sort, the mode of worship which we exhibit towards it is fundamentally different from the worship which belongs to God alone. Latria, as we have already said, is the name of this latter worship; and for the secondary kind, evoked by saints or angels, we use the term dulia. The Blessed Virgin, as manifesting in a sublimer manner than any other creature the goodness of God, deserves from us a higher recognition and deeper veneration than any other of the saints; and this peculiar cultus, due to her because of her unique position in the Divine economy, is designated in theology hyperdulia, that is dulia in an eminent degree. It is unfortunate that neither our own language nor the Latin possesses, in all this terminology, the precision of the Greek. The word latria is never applied in any other sense than that of the incommunicable adoration which is due to God alone. But in English the words adore and worship are still sometimes used, and in the past were commonly so used, to mean also inferior species of religious veneration, and even to express admiration or affection for persons living upon earth. So David adored Jonathan. In like manner Miphiboseth “fell on his face and worshipped” David (II Kings, ix, 6). Tennyson says that Enid, in her true heart, adored the queen. Those who perforce adopted these modes of expression understood perfectly well what was meant by them, and were in no danger of thereby encroaching upon the rights of the Divinity. It is hardly needful to remark that Catholics too, even the most unlearned, are in no peril of confounding the adoration due to God with the religious honor given to any finite creature, even when the word worship, owing to the poverty of our language, is applied to both. The Seventh General Council, in 787, puts the matter in a few words, when it says that “true latria is to be given to God alone”; and the Council of Trent (Sess. XXV) makes clear the difference between invocation of saints and idolatry.
A few words may be added in conclusion on the offenses which conflict with the adoration of God. They may be summed up under three categories, that is to say: worship offered to false gods; worship offered to the true God, but in a false, unworthy, and scandalous manner; and blasphemy. The first class comprises sins of idolatry. The second class embraces sins of superstition. These may take manifold forms, to be treated under separate titles. Suffice it to say that vain observances which neglect the essential thing in the worship of God, and make much of purely accidental or trivial features, or which bring it into contempt through fantastic and puerile excesses, are emphatically reprobated in Catholic theology. Honoring, or pretending to honor, God by mystic numbers or magical phrases, as though adoration consisted chiefly in the number or the physical utterance of the phrases, belongs to Jewish Cabbala or pagan mythology, not to the true worship of the Most High. (See Blasphemy; Idolatry; Mary; Saints; Christian Worship.)
WILLIAM L. SULLIVAN