When we talk about the gift of piety, it is often easiest to get the hang of it by talking about what it looks like. Like most things having to do with God or any other personal relationship, piety is often a thing easier caught than taught. Seeing a saint makes it easier to understand sanctity than merely reading about it, just as you more easily learn to ride a bike or throw a football by watching others and doing it than you do by just reading an instruction manual.
This is one of the reasons that the Church gives us saints to venerate — and why some of the most beloved saints were not necessarily big on book learning themselves.
Take St. Francis of Assisi. This is a man who was almost piety incarnate. He is a man for whom friendship with God was second nature and who lived out the works of mercy in beautiful ways. What is for us often a chore — particularly prayer — was for him genuinely joyful and life-giving. He did not merely love God; he liked him and knew himself to be loved and liked by God. In his simplicity, he put it best: “I want what God wants. That is why I am merry!”
Francis was famously disinterested in book learning. He listened to Scripture and to the Gospel, of course. But, beyond that, he tended to be more a man of action than of contemplation. His life is characterized by quick starts, impulsive moves and grand gestures that came, not out of folly, but of a hot-burning fire in the heart.
If he was not riding off to battle as a young man, he was selling all his father’s stuff and giving it to the poor, or standing buck naked before the bishop and declaring God his Father, or kissing a leper, or taking it into his head to preach to the birds or make friends with a wolf, or rushing off to gather stones to rebuild Christ’s church.
So much did he both love and like God that people could not find it in their hearts not to love and like him. Even Muslims facing off against his fellow Christians in the Holy Land could not find it in their hearts to dislike Francis. When this crazy Italian appeared in their camp, offering to jump into the fire along with one of their own and see who was burned and who was not, they did not kill him as an infidel, but instead treated him kindly and sent him on his way. He was, as G.K. Chesterton described him, “The Man Who Could Not Get Killed.”
Not, of course, that he wanted to die, but, rather, that he was willing to die for the love of God and of his neighbor. He lived out the paradox of the Christian who was so in love with God and with life that he was happy to sacrifice the latter for the former.
This Franciscan sort of joy is one of the marks of piety, in that it approaches willingly and with a sort of zest what we, in our selfishness, often approach reluctantly and with gloom. It is not Pollyanna-ish, but is instead genuinely able to find real happiness in the sacrificial offering of self to God and neighbor. It takes seriously as a sort of knightly code of honor the words of the Mass, “We do well always and everywhere to give you thanks.”
In this, of course, we see St. Francis — and all who live the gift of piety — emulating Jesus, who offers Eucharistia — thanksgiving — on the night he knows he is to be betrayed. This instinct to give thanks to God and press on in loving his people no matter what is at the heart of piety. Study it in the lives of the saints.
Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.
The series consists of the Introduction;