The Gift of Piety

Seven-Gifts-Holy-SpiritWe have considered the gifts of contemplation: understanding (which helps us to penetrate the meaning of God’s words) and wisdom (which helps us to know God himself). We have seen the gifts of the difficult parts of the active life: counsel (which helps us figure out what to do) and fortitude (which gives us the strength to do it). Now we are considering the gifts of ordinary life: knowledge (which helps us to see all things in relation to our love of God) and today, “piety,” by which we live this out.

Isaiah presents these as pairs: “a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and might, a spirit of knowledge and piety.” The last one, which we will consider next week, is presented on its own: “and his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”

St. Thomas points out that in each of these pairs, there is one that gives knowledge, and another that follows through on that knowledge. In the case of counsel-fortitude and knowledge-piety, Isaiah 11 cites the gift of knowing first, as if first we know, then we do.

But in the case of wisdom-understanding, the order is reversed. St. Thomas suggests that this is to show that in ordinary life, we know more than we can act on, and so knowledge has a kind of primacy – but when it comes to knowing God, the simple contemplative gaze of wisdom will always exceed the understanding we gain from words. It arises from that understanding, but infinitely exceeds it.

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So we already have a clue to what “piety” means: parallel to the other pairs, piety is the living out of our knowledge. The love of God (the Holy Spirit) causes us to see everything in a new light (the gift of knowledge). Piety is acting on that knowledge – not just in the hard cases, but in every case.

Now, if you look at your Bible, you may be confused. The Hebrew original, on which modern translations are based, doesn’t say piety, it says, “fear of the Lord.” This (perhaps unpleasant) phrase is in fact repeated: “the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord; and his delight will be in the fear of the Lord.” We will talk more about fear of the Lord next week; for now, suffice to say that the Hebrew word also means “reverence.” We live out our love of God through reverence in all things.

But the tradition spells this out a little more deeply. Somewhere around the year 250 BC the Jews in Egypt produced a Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the “Septuagint” because, according to legend, there were seventy independent translators who, inspired by God, all gave the exact same translation. The deeper point is that the Jews, and later the Christians, including official Church teaching, counted this translation as itself inspired. There is real insight in the Septuagint.

The Septuagint gives a different word for this gift, another word for reverence, without the element of fear that occurs in the last gift. The Latin translation translates this as “pietas.”

Well, the point is, we needn’t put too much weight on the particular word piety, but it expresses the tradition’s insight into what kind of “reverence” we live in our ordinary lives.

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The Latin word pietas is vastly richer than the English word piety – and you simply have to forget what piety means in English if you want to understand it. Pietas is the kind of reverence we have for our parents. It is honoring our father and mother, and other people like them.

This is a fabulous insight into the ordinary attitude of the Christian. The heart of this gift is not that we quake in fear before the Lord, but that we recognize him as Father, and give him the respect he deserves. That is how a Christian treats a tree, and that is how a Christian treats another human being: as if God is Father. This is the root, too, of what we said on Memorial Day about patriotism: the root of patriotism is pater, Father. We act as if God is Father.

The ancient Romans had very neat insights about this (as do the Confucians, and many traditional societies), which the Western Christian tradition has embraced. The Romans said, if you respect your father, you respect his children and his household. Reverence.

When the Spirit of God, the love of Father and Son, is in our hearts, our attitude toward everything is shaped by that love.

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Think of someone who annoys you. What would it mean to let your reverence for our heavenly Father shape that relationship?