My parents had me baptized as a baby, but I was not raised as a Catholic (a story I have recounted in another article); consequently, the concept of piety has been a problem for me. One of the primary ways this concept is spoken about and understood in the life of the Church is through devotionals, such as the rosary, chaplets, litanies, etc. In my heart, these things are still a bit foreign, although I do not see these things as bad by any means. In my spiritual life I prefer a quiet room the bible and/or a good spiritual book (of practices promoted by the Carmelite Order). However, if you see me praying a rosary, that usually means someone close to me has died. This little practice is my way of embracing a popular and ancient devotion in the Church to open up for myself the gift of piety given by the Holy Spirit. Yet, I see a bigger problem for piety in the Church.
Concerns about Piety
Before I entered seminary, I would sometimes hear parishioners at several parishes make criticisms such as, “Oh, look at that person praying their rosary thinking they’re so pious.” These kinds of statements always shocked me. I would think to myself, “What does it matter if that person is praying a rosary while we are doing something else?” Nor did these kinds of statements decrease in seminary or in my religious community; if anything they increased. If a person preferred to pray a rosary or the chaplet of Divine Mercy during their free time, the backbiting or criticism of their piety occurred quite often. God forbid that the person might invite others to join him in praying. Again, I was surprised at the criticisms because I always thought piety was a gift of the Holy Spirit?
The Spurning of Piety
Why do people in the Church criticize each other about pious practices? I think the answer resides in the symbolism of the blessed sisters Mary and Martha. Mary is a symbol for the contemplative life, usually shaped by the pious practices noted above. Martha is a symbol of the active life, which is traditionally understood as engaging in public ministry. The gifts of both sisters are important for the Church, which is to say that the Church always seeks to balance these two dimensions of the spiritual life. True, certain vocations in the Church lean to one sister over the other, but not a single vocation in the Church excludes one or the other. In my opinion, our current moment in the Church is shaped intensely by the spirit of Martha.
The active ministry of the Church – that is, building up the kingdom of God in the world – has a dark side to it. Martha complained to Jesus about the apparent laziness of her sister. Hence, we should not be surprised that those consumed by their ministry may speak ill of those who embrace works that appear “less active” than their own; namely, practices that may not appear to “help” anyone overtly. When the spirit of Martha is allowed to dominate, an unhealthy activism becomes the focus of the soul. Activism nurtures pride because it gives the impression that the activist is a kind of savior. Again, activism is always a serious issue in any life, which is why regular prayer (the spirit of Mary) is necessary for every minister in the Church. A remedy for activism is to never doubt the power of prayer and to meditate upon the words of Christ that “man does not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4).
In recalling the anti-pious remarks, I think it is important to take a moment and reflect on what piety is. As I previously mentioned, piety is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:2-3). The list of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is like a musical crescendo culminating in the fear of the Lord. The list and the order of the gifts is important because a heart that is shaped by the fear of the Lord is open to being formed by the Spirit’s other gifts. The first gift that is shaped by fear of the Lord is piety.
Another word that provides a form of what piety is for our modern mind is reverence. Reverence is about standing in awe of something or someone who is over or above us. Obviously, Christians are called to the stance of awe in our relationship to God, therefore, embracing the fear of the Lord reveals the gift of piety. Piety helps to maintain that needed sense of awe before God. Pious practices help us to develop a heart of reverence in relationship to God. Our pious acts help us to understand that we would not exist if it were not for the love of God.
The Ascension and the Pious Gaze
Living a life of piety is to live from the truth that I exist because I was loved into existence. This truth of our existence – that God loved us first (1 John 4:19) – is thus extended to the Church through Christ’s death and resurrection. It is in the Church that one becomes a member of His very body. This communal need and deepening of piety starts to unfold in the Ascension of our Lord (Acts 1:6-11). The disciples were gazing towards the heavens when our Lord was ascending. As the disciples were gazing heavenward, two men spoke to them. The message of the men in white (probably angels) may have brought the physical gaze of the disciples back to earth, but the eyes of their hearts remained oriented towards the heavens.
In the divided gaze of the disciples, we see the tension of the blessed sisters once again. We are not meant to solve this tension but to live out of it. We live this tension, for example, when we see Christ in the breaking of the bread in the here and now, but, yet, we also yearn to see His return from the heavens. Piety is the gift that allows us to live in that tension, so we can go forth and proclaim our Lord to all we meet. Piety helps to animate the heart of the Church in the great commissioning of evangelization given to the Apostles.
The Dangers of Misinterpreting Piety
The gift of piety, like any gift, can be used in twisted ways. We must never forget we are a fallen people, and we can become confused about our salvation. Piety and its devotions do not “earn” us entrance into heaven, nor do they excuse us from acting in charity when we encounter those in need. Pious devotions are not magic words and acts that force God to give us what we want when we want it. Piety and pious devotions are about the conversion of our hearts to God, so that through reverence our hearts can remain open to His love.
More specifically, piety is a gift that gives a direction to our Christian lives. It is not about arm twisting God to get Him to give us the things our hearts covet. That is why the other gifts of the Spirit help to secure us on the path that the pious heart directs us to. Thus, reflection on our pieties and consideration of the salvation won for us by Jesus Christ are good tools to judge our devotions. They can help us judge whether or not our pious practices are taking us off the path that Christ has made for us as His Church.
Sadness and Splendor
At times, when I reflect upon my life (as short as it has been) I find myself a bit sad. When I ask people about the pious practices of their cultures and families, the beauty of piety strikes me as something I lacked in my childhood. It amazes me how pain can arise in the soul once it realizes the beauty of God has been absent to it. In general, I believe sadness and pain arise because the soul learns about its lost time, time that we could have given to our God, who is beauty.
Beauty is a final flower of piety. Piety helps the beauty of God to become manifest in the heart; it is part of the beauty of our God who became incarnate out of love for us. Pious devotions help the human mind to retain the splendor of the incarnation, retaining that knowledge so that it remains in the forefront of the mind.
I hope the spirit of Mary, the one who sat at the feet of our Lord, helps us and the whole Church to remember an important truth about charity. A pious heart helps the soul to maintain an attitude of Mary while willing to serve His needs as Martha. A pious heart can see the splendor of the Lord in any act of charity done in the name of the Lord. In seeing that splendor, sin loses its luster, making it possible for the life of charity to become second nature to the soul.
This is a serious warning cry: Surrender without reservation to the Lord who has called us. This is required of us so that the face of the earth may be renewed. ~ St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)