This week I am going through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, in preparation for the feast of Pentecost this Sunday, to stir up our desire for the Spirit’s sway in our life, and to open ourselves to His promptings.
The gift of piety has a bad rap, no doubt. For many people, the word ‘piety’ and its related adjective ‘pious’ evoke the picture of an exaggerated, even showy kind of religious fervour. The pious person is the one who makes a big fuss about being religious, who bows and genuflects ostentatiously, who cannot help but put on a show when they are saying their prayers, whose conversation is ceaselessly, remorselessly sprinkled with an endless spiritual syrup of ‘God bless yous’ ‘God willings’ and a menu of other stock religious phrases, and who indeed seems incapable of talking about anything other than a short list of approved ‘pious’ topics.
Most of us, even the most devout of us, find this sort of thing somewhat annoying, and certainly not especially commendable. Fortunately, this has precisely nothing to do with the gift of piety. To be strictly accurate, this kind of showy ostentatious affected religiosity is called pietism, and it is no virtue, let alone a gift of the Holy Spirit.
So what is real piety? The best way to describe it is to back up and look at fear of the Lord and fortitude, the first two gifts we have examined. These first three gifts are all about bringing our human emotions, our passions, properly ordered in the divine life. The gift of fear properly orders, well, our fear, by so grounding us in the love and beauty of God that we dread absolutely anything that takes us from it—sin, in other words.
The gift of fortitude properly orders our anger, if you will. That fighting spirit in us that allows us to overcome any evil, any opposition, anything that comes against us. Spiritual fortitude gives us such a depth of communion with God that not only is our anger utterly purified of its negative and harmful elements (rancour, bitterness, hatred) but strength and courage flows to us from the heart of Christ to bear us through any evil and suffering.
Piety, then, orders our love properly. Our affectionate love, that is. The gift of piety gives us a genuine love of God as our Father, of Jesus as our Saviour and Lord, of the Holy Spirit as the ‘sweet guest of the soul’ who gives us all these good things in a personal way.
Instead of God being ‘that guy up there’ and Jesus being some remote historical abstraction or ‘that guy on the crucifix over there’, and the Spirit being a meaningless cypher, with piety we actually do begin to love the Trinity with genuine love. And because of that, we do have a genuine reverence and respect for God and the things of God that affects how we carry ourselves in church, in prayer, in our speech and manner. Real piety is not the ostentatious artifice of ‘religiosity’ (which has as much to do with egoism as anything else), but a real and sincere reverence flowing from love.
There is a great healing in this, perhaps the greatest healing of all. The core wound of our humanity, after all, is that we genuinely do not believe that God loves us, or that He is real at all, or that He is with us, or that He is good and desires our good. The wound of original sin at its very heart is a wound of mistrust, an alienation of affections, as that good old fashioned phrase puts it.
Out of that mistrust comes a terrible sense of isolation, of abandonment, and out of that comes all sorts of things—hardness of heart, bitterness of spirit, or a plunge into every worldly and sensory pleasure available to us. Piety, then, heals this in us.
God wants us to know Him. And to know Him is to love Him. The gift of the Spirit is that which gives us the knowledge of God, not on some intellectual level of theology and doctrine (these are not without value), but on the level of personal encounter and transformation.
Piety also bears fruit in a genuine love of all men and women. When we start to actually love God, then we love what He loves, and He loves all His children. Piety yields compassion, concern, mercy as its obvious and immediate fruits.
So, it’s a good deal! And let us pray for a renewed gift of piety and deepening of this gift. The world is a hard place these days—so much anger, so much distress, so much coldness. We need more people both on fire with love and tenderized by love, and it is the Spirit’s gift of piety that makes us that. Come, Holy Spirit.