From the Introduction to Fr. Benedict Groeschel's impressive study, I Am With You Always: A Study of the History and Meaning of Personal Devotion to Jesus Christ for Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians:
When looking for a descriptive definition of Christian devotion, I turned to the account of the first recorded prayer to the ascended Christ—the words of St. Stephen at his martyrdom (Acts 7:55-60). First, the martyr sees the heavens open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. As he is being stoned to death, he prays two distinct prayers: one asks that the Lord Jesus receive his spirit, and the other is a request that the Lord will forgive his enemies. These are clearly prayers to Jesus the Lord. Later we will explore the full significance of this type of invocation, especially in the Pauline writings.
After an analysis ofmany devotional prayers and some personal introspection, I think that a good descriptive definition of devotion to Christ will have the following elements.
1. A powerful psychological awareness of the personal presence of Christ, or a very strong desire for that presence.
2. An immediate appeal to Christ about personally significant things in one's life. This makes devotion a "real relationship" and not simply a meditation. The personally significant thing may be an imperative need ("Lord, receive my spirit") or a strong desire ("Lord, that I may see") or a fear ("Lord, save me lest I perish"). It may be a spiritual need ("Increase my faith"), or the need of someone dear to us ("Lord, have pity on my son"). It may be simply a desire to be silent in Christ's presence ("Come aside and rest awhile"). We must relate to Christ not only with our minds but with our hearts.
3. We must be willing to do what He asks. This is interesting in Stephen's case. Not long before, Christ had given the command: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Mt 5:44). To people of that time such an injunction did not make sense. It had to be accepted on faith. With Stephen, we see a follower of Christ fulfilling this command for the first time in the most dramatic circumstances. Stephen does what Jesus asks, although he may not really have understood why he had to love his enemies. I am not sure that we understand it well even now.
4. Stephen did not fail, but we often do. Some of the psalms (Psalm 51, for example) are beautiful prayers of repentance, and we see repentance in the New Testament—that of St. Peter, for instance—following the failure to be loyal to Christ. Repentance is always part of Christian devotion.
5. Devotion must include trust in Christ. Christ often rebukes the disciples for their little faith, in the sense of trust in Him. He also praised the faith of those who did trust in Him. Faith in the Gospel is always immediate, personal, and includes the idea of trust. Trusting himself to Christ in the hour of death, Stephen makes a clear statement of his belief in life after death; "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59).
Not only does Stephen trust, but he petitions: "Receive my spirit." In most cases devotion includes a prayer for God's merciful providence to grant some favor or grace. The centurion asking for the healing of his boy (servant or son) does so with a confidence that impresses even Jesus (Mt 8:5-11).
6. Finally, mature Christian devotion has a kind of simple eschatological element to it, in which the devout person is thinking not necessarily of the end of the ages, but of his own mortality. The devout are sustained by the hope that at the time of death, they will "see" the face of Christ in a new way, that He awaits them.
To summarize this definition, we can define Christian devotion as a powerful awareness of or longing for Christ's presence, accompanied by a trustful surrender to Him of our personal needs. To this is joined a willingness to do His will and a sense of repentance for any previous failure to do so. We must trust Him not only with our present need but also with the salvation of our souls and those we care about. Finally, in some way we must anticipate our meeting with Him at the hour of death.