If the most universal misconception as regards prayer has to do with the use to which the imagination should be put, the same may be said (roughly) as regards the wider subjects of religion. Man makes a mental picture of what he thinks the service of God ought to look like, and, fascinated by the artistry of the conception, fails to see what true religion really is. No sooner does the force of religion strike him than he stumbles out in search of it. He runs about, groping. But of course it has been sitting in his lap all the time, and that is where, if he would only calm down and look, he is most likely to find it.
You cannot visualise God correctly. He is beyond the rim of your experience. You can adore him, but you cannot picture Him. Your picture is bound to be true if it is real adoration; your picture is bound to be false if it is really pictured. So your only chance of conveying the quality of your adoration to the service which you render to God in religion is to eliminate as far as possible your mental images and to concentrate on the service of the will. If adoration is most perfectly performed when there is little or no material element in its expression, then the nearer religion gets to a willed and not an imagined serviced the better. But this is one of the most difficult things for people to understand,.
Thus the mother of a family will tell you that she would be able to give herself much more to religion if she had not got the children to look after. A factory worker will compare her chances with those of a lay-sister, 'I would be very religious,' says the girl in the post office, 'if it were not so impersonal, and if I could serve God in a family.' Everyone creates an imaginary kingdom of God on earth, and sits outside its walls gazing enviously in its direction. But the kingdom of God is within you. Your purpose is to 'seek God and feel after Him... although He be not far from every one of us.'
Imagined sanctity is no sanctity. A religion which exists in hypothetical circumstances cannot last out the pressure of actuality. To presume to a service of God which the present framework of life does not allow is sheer pride. What sort of a service can it be which has its only reality in someone else's vocation? How can obedience to God's will (which is all that religion amounts to) rest upon a concept which is not being realised and which may never be?
If the mother looks upon her children as obstacles to the prompt response to grace, she is missing the whole point. If the children look upon their mother as preventing their development in God's service, they have not yet begun to love God. If the servant writes off her employers as a sheer waste so far as religious perceptions go, and if the mistress looks upon the maid as hired labour and not as a soul redeemed by Christ, then there is a want of balance. One's occupation in life, one's associates, one's material surroundings, one's health and strength are there, are real, are the solids, are the substance from which the here-and-now house of God is to be built. There is nothing concrete in the dream vocation. There is no true alternative to what is going on all round us. There are only magic lantern slides which depend for their existence upon a figment of the mind. The being is absent. It is at best television.
Religion is God. Religion is recognising God in His own setting. The setting is provided by Him, not by man. Man finds his vocation in God, not in dreaming about God. 'in Him we live and move and have our being;' we do not find our being in what we would like to become if we had made ourselves. We are made in the image and likeness of God, not in the image and likeness of a mirage. Religion is God. Not an hypothesis or a mode of self-expression, but God. Just as the Church is not processions or whist-drives or collections for the missions or Roman congregations or Catechism answers -- but Christ, so religion is yielding to that Church, yielding to Christ.
Another mistake is that of looking to religion for something which it is not the primary purpose of religion to provide. People will take up religion for the consolation which they expect to get out of it in their sorrows. They turn to God because they feel that human companionship is not to be relied upon, and that possibly a relationship with God may ward off the agonies of loneliness. Then they find that when the time of trial comes, they have less to draw upon than they had hoped. So they turn to other sources of possible comfort. 'Religion has let me down,' they say.
If religion is not to be taken up as a drug, nor is it to be indulged in as an aesthetic delight. Unfortunately some of the best advertisements for religion are at the same time the most misleading advantages which it possesses. For example, the beauty of the Church's liturgy, the poetry of the Church's symbolism, the very idea of renunciation, wrongly understood, work the wrong way round and spoil the end which these things are meant to serve. Religion has not been invented either to beguile the sense or to train the emotions in good taste.
Another mistake which people make about religion is to expect it to shed more and more light upon both the truths of faith and the personal problems which come up for decision. But the whole point of faith would be lost if the intellect could satisfy itself of the reasonableness of religion's propositions. The mind has to be left in mid-air. The grounds for belief are there, but not always the demonstrable proofs. The impulse must come from the will, not always from the intellect. Love, showing itself in fidelity, drives the soul along the way of religion towards God. And the moment we have said this, we see there is another possible misconception.
If religion is never intended to provide the finished answer to the appetite of the speculative intellect, nor is it intended to depend for its exercise upon the feeling of love. What is called 'uplift' may or may not be one of the accidental effects of religion, but it is certainly not meant to be the foundation on which it rests. The danger of making such an inward awareness of God the basis of one's religion is apparent on the occasions when the awareness gives place to a complete blank. The gust of the heart is no substitute for the cool driving deliberation of the God-enlightened will. 'My love of God is in such good shape,' says the lazy soul, 'that I can comfortably dispense with knowledge. I find I can live on a diet of love, so why should I bother with theology? I take all doctrine for granted. Give me people with hearts; brains can look after themselves.' All this sounds so warm and brave and loving. But it can well be an evasion. It can even be a heresy. Contemplation is all very well -- in fact it is the better part and there is no effective substitute for it -- but its fires must be banked up on the slower embers of doctrine.
So it is not enough to grope after truth by means of keeping the desires stirred up in the direction of God; there must be a corresponding respect for the learning which goes to expand His revelation. Without such balance you get the absurdity of the subjective taking the place of the objective: you get the fact of God being replaced by the feeling of Him. Besides, as Frank Sheed says in Theology and Sanity, you cannot attain to the maximum of love on the minimum of knowledge.
Most of the mistakes, then, which people make about religion come under one of two heads. Either they look upon it as something which exists for their own personal convenience -- taking it up for what they imagine they can get out of it instead of what they can give to it -- or else they make the whole thing such a duty, such a routine affair, as to allow no room for following the individual attraction of grace. For so long as the men can be struck between exaggerated subjectivism on the one hand, and a purely impersonal application on the other, there is not likely to be any real danger of neglecting the light of truth. The trouble comes when you confine the theory to formulae and practice to sentiment.