Sunday, August 29, 2010

Part I: Piety the Gift

Since it has become popular in some Catholic circles to speak of piety as if it were a disease rather than a gift of the Holy Spirit, I have asked my Byzantine Catholic friend Mary Lanser of Irenikon to write a series of essays about it.

Piety the Gift
by Mary Lanser

Piety is most commonly identified with the externals of religious devotions including personal attitudes of heart and mind expressed in prayer and spiritual writings, and descriptions of, pilgrimages to, and venerations of holy people, holy places or holy things. In this brief four part series we hope to illuminate the foundations of true piety, without which, these external manifestations would be absolutely meaningless.

According to the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas as well, piety is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In that sense it is not a virtue that we can acquire, it is a gift of grace given to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is a gift intended to assist us in quieting the passions and incorporating the virtues in our daily lives.

St. Thomas takes the enumerated list of the gifts, and the description of the spirated nature of the gifts directly from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 11:2-3. I am including two reliable translations of these passages so you can see that the list in Isaiah appears slightly differently from the seven gifts as they are listed in the Summa Theologica by St. Thomas as: wisdom, knowledge, understanding and counsel, fortitude, piety and fear.

However, the contents of either list, the one in Scripture or the one from St. Thomas, is not different from the other in meaning.

Isaiah 11 (Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition):
1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root. 2 And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding, the spirit of counsel, and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and of godliness. 3 And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge according to the sight of the eyes, nor reprove according to the hearing of the ears. 4 But he shall judge the poor with justice, and shall reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: land he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. 5 And justice shall be the girdle of his loins: and faith the girdle of his reins.
Also note that in verses 4 and 5 of Isaiah there is a foreshadowing of the Sermon on the Mount and what we have come to know and revere as the Beatitudes, or the way of the beatitudinal life. There is also distinct and powerful references to justice, which we will come to address, in due course. These elements are crucial in understanding the full import of piety as a spirated virtue [by the enlivening power of the Holy Spirit] in our lives, designed to assist us in becoming more fully one in and with Christ.

As St. Thomas writes:
seeing that these gifts are set down in Holy Writ as having been in Christ, according to Isaiah11:2-3 ....the virtues are given simply that we may do good works, but the gifts, in order to conform us to Christ, chiefly with regard to His Passion, for it was then that these gifts shone with the greatest splendor. Yet neither does this appear to be a satisfactory distinction. Because Our Lord Himself wished us to be conformed to Him, chiefly in humility and meekness, according to Mat. 11:29: "Learn of Me, because I am meek and humble of heart," and in charity, according to Jn. 15:12: "Love one another, as I have loved you."
In the latter part of the text, referencing both Matthew and John the Beloved, one can begin to see the relationship between the gift of piety, or godliness, or fear of the Lord, as it is variously translated, and its fulfillment in living a beatitudinal life. Over the centuries, for the saints and fathers, piety has been an especial type of virtue. Not quite the same type as the virtues which, as we've been taught, can be either infused in us through the Trinity indwelling, or acquired naturally to some degree.

It is revealed in Isaiah that true piety cannot be acquired by human effort in any way, but is by its nature given to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That does not mean that piety is entirely an internal and invisible movement of the Spirit in each person, or that we cannot interact with that gift in very personal and public ways. Piety is made manifest both interiorly and exteriorly.

In a word from Venerable Nilus of Sinai we can see that if piety is truly in operation in a soul, it is inevitable that it becomes apparent to the hearts and eyes and ears of others: “Not he who shows mercy to many is pious, but he who offends no one. Study virtue by word, but preach about it by deed.”~Venerable Nilus of Sinai.

As surely as we think this is a simple counsel to treat our brothers and sisters as we'd like to be treated, we can be equally assured that it is not.

The question remains: What does it mean to “offend no one.” Not what does it mean to us, as in what is the first thing that comes to mind? But what did it mean to Venerable Nilus?

If we are asked or ordered or merely expected to sin, in any fashion or to any degree, must we sin in order to offend no one? If we are expected to behave in such a way that we know or believe will be offensive to God, whether or not it is personally sinful, must we do so in order to meet the Venerable Nilus' criteria that we offend no one?

Of course not! What Venerable Nilus says is that we are not only to seek interiorly to be holy as Christ and the Father are holy, but we are to outwardly sign or preach the Kingdom by being visibly holy in our lives. We are to accomplish this by displaying the very godliness in us that is a gift from God, spirated by the Holy Spirit, first to Christ, and then to us through Baptism into Christ. We accomplish this first and foremost by being obedient to the commandments and to legitimate authority in all things but sin.

It is also clear from this brief counsel that piety is the hearthstone for the fires of humility, for the proud can still show mercy, but it is only the meek and the humble who can empty their own will in deference to the will of another, and it is only the meek and humble of heart who seek never, first and foremost, to offend God. And if one teaches and preaches the truths of the Kingdom then they will not ever be truly offensive to others, for offensive in the sense of the holy fathers means to give scandal or lead others into sin, by thought, word or deed!

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