Piety, from the Latin word pietas, which initially meant “responsibility,” “duty and devotion,” “implies…fidelity, reverence, obedience, and commitment.” Piety in the Bible means godliness (eusebia) in the Greek New Testament and is akin to the Hebrew hesed in the First Testament, which means “steadfast loyalty and love” that characterizes the mutual obligations and responsibilities of covenant relationship to God and to others.
Unfortunately, understandings of piety have deteriorated through the centuries, such that calling someone pious sounds pejorative, that is, they are less than truly God-focused and more self-focused, so as to appear or pretend to be something they do not live. The second letter of Peter relates the characteristics of true Christian piety, as follows:
May grace and peace be yours in abundance through knowledge of God and of Jesus, our Lord. That divine power of his has freely bestowed on us everything necessary for a life of genuine piety, through knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. By virtue of them, he has bestowed on us the great and precious things he promised, so that through these you who have fled a world corrupted by evil desire might become sharers of the divine nature. This is reason enough for you to make every effort to undergird your faith with virtue, virtue with discernment, and your self-control with discernment; this self-control, in turn, should lead to perseverance, and perseverance to piety, and piety to care for your brother [and sister], and care for your brother [and sister] to love.2 Peter 1:2-7, NAB
In essence piety is love rooted in relationship to God through Jesus Christ, that is, sharing in the divine nature of God that overflows in care of one’s fellow human beings. At heart, piety is dwelling in the free grace of God to be men and women of faith, whose lives are governed by discernment, so as to live virtuously in the strength of God’s presence.
The contrast of pseudo-piety and the genuine variety is embodied in the Sermon on the Mount, where the piety of hypocrites (Greek for actors) is posed against its polar opposite—the righteousness of acting justly of the truly pious. The three practices of piety—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, which for Benedictines are the bona opera (good works) of Lent, are signs of “a heart devoted to God,” rather than to “public recognition” out of appearing righteous. Jesus in Matthew stresses the secret nature of these three acts of piety because God sees the heart and what motivates one’s deeds by doing them not for outward show, so as to be seen as pious.
The fruit of living out of integrity of right relationship with God manifests in attitudes towards one’s neighbor: not judging others by our own flawed standards, “balancing love with discernment” by paying attention to what is precious, persisting in prayer requests, trusting God to respond according to God’s divine perspective, rather than our own, and the golden rule. Thus true piety not only seeks the grace to draw closer to God and God’s loving will for us, but also seeks the greater good of others. In essence piety is not what we make ourselves to be, but how the Holy Spirit empowers us, often without our knowing, to be our best self for others. This gift of becoming the piety (godliness) of the Divine Indwelling within and around us is a journey of a lifetime.
In the ancient monastic tradition pseudo-piety comes from the sin of vainglory, the step to arrogance, “the mother of all evils,” according to Abba Isaiah. Abba Isaiah said, ‘I think it is a great and honorable thing to defeat vainglory and make progress in the knowledge of God, for whoever falls into the hands of this wicked passion of vainglory alienates himself from peace and hardens his heart against the saints, and the end of all his evil ways is to fall into haughtiness, which is arrogance, the mother of all evils. As for you, faithful servant of Christ, keep your practices hidden, and with your heart’s toil take care that you do not lose the reward that your practices will bring you because you are trying to please people. Whoever does something to show off for people will receive his reward in full, as the Lord said’. [Matthew 6:5]
I suspect that it is very difficult in our modern culture to practice the humility of not making what we do known, because there are so many outlets for boasting of our accomplishments and ways to let others know how much better we are than “those others.” It takes restraint and the grace of God to keep our loving actions hidden and knowledge of them to the God who sees our piety in secret and discerns its source. So we pray:
O God of Righteousness, steadfast loyalty and love, grant us your grace of true piety: When self-promotion tempts us to boast of our accomplishments, grant us humility.When seeking recognition as a sign of importance tempts us, grant us awareness of being a child of God. When thoughts and words of rash judgment tempt us to condemn others, grant us self-awareness of our own faults in need of healing. When the need for praise from others preoccupies our minds, grant us interior peace of heart. When pretense masks the desire for real connection, grant us opportunities to serve others with unassuming care. Lord, may our piety be grounded in your love for us and manifest in random, humble acts of kindness. Teach us by your own example how to serve others for their greater good and how to savor our relationship with you, Source of every good. In your loving name we pray. Amen
Keith Barron, “Piety,” The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, edited by Michael Downey (Collegeville, MN: A Michael Glazier Book, Liturgical Press, 1993) 742.
Luma A. Khudher, “The Sermon and Authentic Piety,” The Bible Today 55.1 (January-February 2017) 24.
Becoming Fire: Through the Year with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, edited by Tim Vivian, Cistercian Studies 225 (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications/The Liturgical Press, 2008) “October 10,” p. 392.