About piety, I sometimes feel that I neither practice it nor know how to define it. And unhappily, we tend to brand those people “pious” who receive Communion only after ostentatiously genuflecting (slowing everyone) slowly bowing their heads (more slowing) and then sticking out their tongues for the Host. Enough already: keep your piety in your heart and your tongue in your mouth.
And anyhow, this Gift of the Holy Spirit expresses something more complex. It is not sweetly saying a novena to get relief from hiccups or win the gift of a new car. It is not having lace on the altar cloths – or new clothes for Easter or a picture of Pope Francis on your office wall. So what is it?
The first Indo-European word for all this was the Greek eusebia. At the time of The People’s exodus from Egypt, maybe 800BCE, the Greeks were calling the fear of provoking the gods and losing their favor, eusebia. For instance, they begged that crops would rise out of their planted seed, and fish will fill their nets in the deep purple waters. That devotion was eusebia.
Over centuries, eusebeia became the virtue of someone who performed all religious duties faithfully and fully – but without any big display. That would have been what it still is - false piety. Then the pious learned to follow law and custom without being rigid. On the stone arch above the central well in Athens this motto was carved: MEDEN AGAN – nothing too much. Moderation in everything – that came to be a public sign of interior piety.
Starting with Plato, the Greeks established some humanistic habits that have ripened and bore fruit among Christ’s followers: Religious beliefs are purified and strengthened by human science and philosophy. Love reaches beyond friendship and marriage into eternity. The young should honor their parents and elders. Citizens rightly pay taxes and follow laws. Above all, humankind learned to love God -- and God revealed more and more emphatically the divine identity: God is Love. And we apply this to the Gift of Piety.
Way back when the Greeks were still just practicing moderation – it’s still recommended by therapists and business counsellors – Isaiah prophesized something more dramatic. He foresaw God breaking into human history and consciousness in the Person of the coming Holy One.
“The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and [eusebeia, piety] towards the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.” (Is. 11:1-3). There are the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, given first of all to the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth. Then, through Him, to us.
So piety now reaches beyond the windows of our knowledge into eternity, and we learn that we are to know, love, and serve not just now, but forever and ever. Now what can we mean by piety?
At its root, the virtue (power, authority) of piety brings the pious person to humility: we really know who we are. Nothing of ourselves, we have the transcendental splendor of being Personally created and crafted by the Almighty Maker of the entire cosmos. And since we have managed to damage ourselves with our sin, we have been saved from what St. Paul calls ”this body of sin” – humankind as you see it in vivid moving color on television.
In this inimical context, the pious have the power and authority to know and respect our personal responsibilities and duties to God, to our families, to our fellow citizens. The pious recognize our religious and familial duties: because we are Jesus Christ’s, we are good family, good friends, and good citizens. We are not, however, showy and flashy doing all of that. The showy and flashy, and the obsequious and lugubrious, are the parody of pious – and the ones preferred by our media today.
The truly pious are alert to our responsibilities, duties, and obligations. We meet and fill them calmly and carefully. We do not need to show off, largely because we do not need others’ approval. Our piety gives us all the self-confidence we need as we face God before anyone else.
Facing God brings us into the realm of spiritual experience. Piety may include some of that interior experience, but we tend to use other names for it. Piety brings our souls to deep contentment when we are just doing what we must do or need to do – or what someone God puts into our lives needs us to do right now.
There’s much more to it, but we could say simply that piety means just doing the next good thing, praising and thanking God.