Ernst Kasemann once commented that the problem with the world is that the liberals aren’t pious and the pious aren’t liberal. A wise comment, one that puts some perspective on the sixth gift of the Holy Spirit, piety. What is piety?
Piety is generally identified with a certain temperament. We speak of someone as being of a pious nature and when we say that we generally use the word to designate a mixture of three things: a certain natural religiosity, a certain sentimentality of soul and a certain softness of heart, both as this pertains to a person’s general sympathy for things as well as to his or her intellect and its reluctance to ask hard questions.
Oftentimes too we identify piety with certain pietistic practices: popular devotions, charismatic prayer, pilgrimages to Marian shrines, lighting vigil lights in a church, praying the rosary, singing certain kinds of sentimental hymns and so on. Sometimes too we notice that this attitude and these practices are maintained at the expense of biblical, theological and doctrinal principles. Such is the common sense notion of piety. Such too is its common practice.
And so we have certain expressions that designate piety: “It is natural for her to believe!” “Tears come to his eyes so easily; he wears his heart on his sleeve!” “She’s so soft-hearted!” “He’s afraid of ever asking the hard questions!” “She’s living in a dream world!” “He’s spaced out on devotions!”
But what is piety really as a gift of the Holy Spirit? What is its value to an individual and to the community?
Piety, as a gift that God gives through the Spirit to build up the community, is not natural religiosity coupled with sentimentality and a certain softness of heart and head. It is rather a passion for the faith, a burning, emotional counterpart to stoic, intellectual belief and commitment.
Piety is to faith what falling in love is to a relationship, what romance is to love. The tradition of piety within Christian literature is analogous to the tradition of romanticism within literature.
And, as we know, in both love and faith, romantic feelings can easily create an emotional vortex that can, and usually does, strip the person inside it of all healthy balance and not a little sanity. Hence, we see the many imbalances that piety can trigger in people’s lives. Piety is dangerous.
But, as Goethe once warned, the dangers of life are many and safety is one of those dangers. Falling in love is dangerous, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good – and oftentimes the single thing that can bring real transformation.
Most of us could, I submit, use a little more piety in our lives, especially those of us who, for whatever reason, have a certain disdain for it. Why do I say this?
I have spent the last 30 years moving within various ecclesial and theological circles, among very good people, but among whom piety is not given much regard, save of the negative sort. I have been in a lot of theology schools and have never there seen a rosary, attended a Benediction, heard a Marian devotion praised or heard a vigil light referred to with anything but disdain.
If any of us there practises piety, we do it at night, in secret, like Nicodemus.
In fairness though it should be pointed out that theology schools exist for the purpose of critical thinking, not to promote piety. The danger, though, as Eric Mascall once put it, is that we, the theologically critical, are so afraid of contamination by impurities that we put ourselves on a diet of antiseptics – we will never die of food poisoning, but we often suffer from severe malnutrition.
Faith sustains itself through mysticism and piety is the mysticism of the poor – always has been and always will be. We must be careful not to disdain this, nor distance ourselves from it. It was the poor, with their mysticism, piety, who recognized and accepted Jesus, while those who disdained the impurity of their approach to God, with its imbalances, also disdained the earthly Jesus.
Those of us who kick against the goad with piety, tantamount to the person who has a certain disdain for those caught up in the experience of falling in love, might do well to pray for it. Our very protest suggests something. Piety is not the only virtue, but an unwarm heart is not a virtue at all.