We know real piety when we see it, right? Yes, but no. Pope Francis expressed concern in a 2014 talk that piety, known as one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, often is “misconstrued or treated superficially.”
What is difficult to understand about piety? Doesn’t it involve devotion to God in its many forms, including all the practices that help people express their faith at any given moment?
Clear enough! Still, Pope Francis cautioned against confusing this gift with pietistic appearances.
“Some think that to be pious is to close one’s eyes, to pose like a picture and pretend to be a saint,” he remarked. For him, that image does not capture the gift of piety’s essence.
Pope Francis stressed on another occasion that “true religious piety consists in loving God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbor as oneself.” That certainly sounds like quite a big calling!
Does it sound slightly paradoxical too? How does one zero in so entirely on God, while remaining profoundly committed to others around us, whose needs, expectations and hopes may appear unbounded? The question becomes, will believers be able in actual practice to accomplish both goals?
But what appears to be paradoxical can be a good thing. Anyway, Benedictine Father Benoit Standaert thinks so. In his 2018 book “Spirituality — an Art of Living: A Monk’s Alphabet of Spiritual Practices,” he commented:
“Thanks to paradox we learn that we can lift up common opposites and find a new perception of reality. Paradox then becomes a key, a finger that points past itself to what is other.”
Father Standaert thinks “a paradox that is fully accepted works a transformation.” Of course, it also might greatly challenge the mind and imagination.
Another complicating factor when discussing the gift of piety is its name, which some scholars consider a near synonym for another gift of the Spirit, one which peppers the pages of Scripture: “the fear of the Lord.”
But this, too, is a bit of a mind twister. Biblical fear of the Lord and fear as it typically is understood in our times are not one and the same.
The fear that causes some to scream and run away at the sight of a spider is different from biblical fear of the Lord, which Psalm 111 recognizes as the “beginning of wisdom.”
Fear of the Lord as Scripture knows it does not prompt a flight from God. Father Standaert recalls the writing of Julian of Norwich, the 15th-century English mystic admired today by many. She called fear in its most authentic form a “brother” of love.
The psalms provide glimpses of what fear of the Lord meant in ancient Israel. “Blessed are all who fear the Lord, and who walk in his ways,” proclaims Psalm 128. With those few opening words it makes clear, first of all, that this is not the kind of fear that terrorizes people. Fear of the Lord is a blessed source of happiness.
Second, the psalm seems to address the purpose of this kind of fear. It enables people to walk in the ways of God.
The concluding words of Psalm 111 also are revealing. After calling fear of the Lord “the beginning of wisdom,” it adds: “Prudent are all who practice it.” A New American Bible footnote explains at this point that fear of the Lord refers to “reverence for God.” It is, then, a basic characteristic of the Israelites’ way of life.
When someone acquires “a holy reverence for the Lord,” life becomes “unthinkable without him,” Father Standaert believes.
A debt is owed to the Old Testament Book of Isaiah for listing gifts that we attribute to the Spirit. Found in Isaiah 11, it includes “fear of the Lord.” Isaiah considers fear of the Lord a “delight” (11:3).
Yes, some scholars seem to consider fear of the Lord at one with the gift of piety. Fear of the Lord often is “equated with piety,” Father Standaert states.
Whether synonymous or not, piety and fear of the Lord are gifts that encompass reverence, awe and respect for God, and love too. Each gift orients people of faith to love God and to honor God’s presence in others, to walk in God’s ways, that is.
A gift of God is given for a reason. Its purpose is life-giving, but not only for oneself.
The piety that is a gift of the Spirit refers to “a bond that comes from within,” said Pope Francis. “It is a relationship lived with the heart,” and it underscores “our friendship with God.” It “warms the heart.”
But if piety expresses a relationship with God and “touches the very heart of our Christian life and identity,” it is not a gift to keep locked away inside ourselves, he suggested. It is a gift that enables people to serve their neighbor “with gentleness and with a smile.”
He explained, “Piety means to be truly capable of rejoicing with those who rejoice” and “of weeping with those who weep.”
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(Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.)