The Nine Virtues: Piety

Mar 7, 2016
  1. Veneration or reverence of the Supreme Being, and love of his character; loving obedience to the will of God, and earnest devotion to his service.
  2. Duty; dutifulness; filial reverence and devotion; affectionate reverence and service shown toward parents, relatives, benefactors, country, etc.

I have been inclined in myself to say that piety is only the second of those definitions, but I think the first is implied in it: duty without love is empty and indeed damaging to the dutiful, and it undermines those to whom the duty is done. Still, I’d swap the priority, for me at least. Duty comes first, but it comes out of love. Love in itself is not enough. (I was raised Protestant, but you’d never know it. I’ve never believed that faith without works amounts to anything at all.)

Who is pious? This might be the toughest question in the bunch, because pious to me means righteous, holier-than-thou, hypocritical. Who is pious in a way that I see as virtue? The people who protest the abuses of the Church, both large and small c. Mother Teresa. Monks, nuns, and others living a purely religious life. My grandmother was pious, even if not faithful; she went to church every week no matter what. I have not, particularly recently, been especially pious. A lot of things in my life fell apart in the past four or five years, and my relationship with the gods was one of the first things to go.

What is the definition of piety? The DP guide defines it as "Correct observance of ritual and social traditions, the maintenance of the agreements (both personal and societal) we humans have with the Gods and Spirits. Keeping the Old Ways, through ceremony and duty." This matches with my instinctual drift toward the second dictionary definition, and feels more right to me, although the American in me bristles at “correct.” I’m also inclined to edit “maintenance of…agreements” into “maintenance of relationships.” It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. Relationships, to me, implies something long-running that both parties have a certain investment in, above and beyond whatever short-term contractual arrangements might have been made. A relationship is something you work for and on, both individually and on a larger scale.

The whole thing is complicated, of course, by the fact that we’re taking what was once the religion of an entire culture (or, you know, set of cultures) and trying to do it in a pluralistic society with virtually no official support, which is not unheard of (see: ancient Rome and its territories) but is an unusual position for these kinds of relationships to be situated in. Which is a big part of the reason I joined ADF. I can’t always make it to group rituals; I’m fairly nomadic and haven’t been able to settle down into a single real-world Pagan cultural group. But by paying dues to ADF I’m helping to support group, public ritual, done in my tradition or something close to it, for the good of all.

Huh, seems like I think paying tithe is piety. Well, that makes a certain amount of sense; sacrifice is part of the exchange economy we share with the spirits, and tithe is one step away from sacrifice.

Who is pious in the lore? Now this one is harder. I don’t know of anyone off the top of my head from Irish mythology; the Irish relationship with the gods is so tense. I’m tempted to call out True Thomas, who kept his bargains with the Sidhe. (Impiety is more common, I think, particularly where the Sidhe are concerned. And punished accordingly.) And there’s Patrick, of course. I will have to do my research.

When have I been pious? I have wracked my brains and what I have come up with is that period of time when I was in college - possibly a little earlier, possibly a little later, possibly as little as a year or two, I honestly can’t remember - when I was celebrating Imbolc regularly and devoutly, with a fresh loaf of bread and some charms and a ritual. It was immensely fulfilling and reassuring, and I miss it terribly. I feel like it also coincides with the last time I wasn’t depressed at that time of year, which… all my relationships fall apart when I’m depressed, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that my relationship with the gods does as well.

I wonder what it would be like to bake bread for Brigid when it isn’t Imbolc. I think it would be good.

More often, I’ve felt impious, when I realize it has been weeks or months since I’ve done a ritual, said a prayer, offered anything in sacrifice. Relationships are fuzzy things, and I’ve never been particularly good at them. It’s far too easy for me to let something slide as not terribly important - as each small action is not terribly important in the grand scheme of things - until the accumulated weight of the actions I didn’t take is bearing down on me.

Your understanding of the virtue. I do think piety is a virtue, although it’s a difficult one for me. It’s related to the virtue of - I don’t know if there’s a single word for it, the ability to get along with others and to occupy a place in the social web. But piety is less about the social web (although it’s connected to it) and more about the cosmic web, occupying a place that is connected to the Midrealm we live in and to the gods and ancestors and the Good Neighbors, and paying your dues to each of them in turn as well as receiving the support and sustenance from each of them in turn. Piety is understanding that no man is an island, and acting accordingly, on a cosmic scale.

I still can’t shake the association of piety with obnoxious hypocritical people, so I wish there was another word, but I can’t find one right now. I’m willing to try to do the work of changing the associations in my mind instead.

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