As usual, forgive the silence. Once again, computer issues have gagged my fingers. Hopefully, they’re resolved now.
At any rate, back to my intermittent musings on virtues. Today’s contemplation is piety, the second virtue in ADF’s list.
Piety, as commonly conceived, is the observance of ritual forms — orthopraxy, as it were — as well as religious duties or obligations. It’s related to the Latin word piare, meaning “to propitiate,” according to our friends at dictionary.com. This makes sense: the correct observance of ritual, in a classic sense, propitiates a deity who may otherwise be in a snit over spilt wine or cheap chalices.
A pious person, then, does what is expected of him ritually. In a Pagan sense, he would observe all the expected rites in the traditional manner, preferably without error. But religious observance isn’t limited to formal rites. In a religion that espouses charity to the poor in its doctrine — most strains of Christianity — the pious man would be expected to give alms to the poor, eschew a lavish lifestyle so as to tithe to charity, etc.
As ADF describes it in their dedicant literature, piety is the “correct observance of ritual and social traditions,” as well as “keeping the Old Ways, through ceremony and duty.” The last two terms are critical: ceremony and duty.
Hence my issues with piety as a virtue.
Piety is, in effect, focused on externals — the display of righteousness through conformity to tradition and social mores. There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you — I’m all for rituals, offerings and behaving in such a manner as not to shame my fellow humans or my Gods. All too often, however, piety can be reduced to the shallow show: Going to church publically, but engaging in securities fraud, adultery or sheer selfishness privately. Doing ritual flawlessly, but not believing a word of it. Talking a good line about loving the poor, and then stealing money from them to better yourself.
Piety implies showing respect, but not necessarily having any inside. It has overtones of hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness, snobbery.
Rather than piety, I advocate faith — a concept linked intrinsically to both loyalty and trust. You keep faith with the Gods by honoring your duties and obligations, and show your faith in their love by trusting them when the chips are down. Faith, from the Latin fidere, “to trust,” is primarily an internal process. It involves vulnerability to an Other in which you place a certain degree of emotional or intellectual investment, whether that’s a human being, a deity or a concept such as science. That Other has an existence outside the self, which means it can renege on its part of the bargain (“break faith”) or simply not meet expectations, causing one to “lose faith.”
Faith isn’t about the show. A person with deep faith doesn’t give a flying monkey whether their neighbors notice their devotion, or whether society gives them a gold star. It’s important to some degree that the Other notice, if it’s a human, deity or something with individual consciousness. (A concept such as science or a political party doesn’t have the organs to pay that sort of attention.) Unlike piety, if a faithful person screws up with the particulars of religious ritual or form, it’s not the end of the world; instead, she does what she can to strengthen and repair the relationship, and restore the Other’s faith in her, if needed. It’s more about relationship between I and Other rather than propitiation, which is a one-way street.
Aedh Rua discusses cneastacht, which means sincere, whole or healed and deals with what he calls “inner rectitude.” While you can view this in terms of piety — the strict observance of forms — it’s more internally focused. You honor your sacred and social commitments with no external motive or hope for external praise or gain; “sincere” comes from a Latin term meaning pure and untainted. You behave genuinely, and it’s this pure act which provides wholeness — healing and unity with the larger universe and the divine.
To be pure and untainted, it must “come from the heart” as we say in the West. In Indian terms, it’s bhakti — devotion, love, care for the Other.
Piety can, on its best behavior, show that care for the Other. It’s the formal structure that can complicate things.
I’d mlike to believe I’m both faithful and pious, although I’d prefer not to admit to the latter! I follow the ritual forms of my religious path, but I do so out of love and not believe in the near-magical properties of the form itself.
What do you think?