The Right and Wrong Kinds of Piety

A ‘Kemble cup’ is a Herefordshire expression for a parting drink. Its origin lies in the last hours of St John Kemble, whose feast we keep today. Falsely accused of complicity in the Titus Oates plot, he was apprehended and sentenced to death (at the age of 80). Before his execution he insisted on saying his prayers and finishing a cup of sack, inviting his jailers to join him. Fr Kemble is exactly my kind of saint: not pious as many understand piety, but truly devout because truly human.

In my (limited) experience, Catholics and Evangelicals both have a difficulty with piety. Put simply, we have a tendency to overdo it. Whether it be multiplying statues and devotions, or scripture quotations and Hallelujahs, we surround ourselves with an aura of godliness that doesn’t always bear inspection. We say the words and we do the deeds, but are we being completely honest with God or ourselves? Is the piety true or false? I have always believed in being as honest as one can with God, admitting one’s doubts, fears, anger, whatever is the struggle of the moment. Yes, one would like to live with a serene and untroubled faith — but that wouldn’t be real; and a real faith is what one needs.

So, this morning, a word of encouragement for all those who feel they are somehow substandard Christians because they aren’t quite ‘good enough’; because they go to church reluctantly sometimes, or eat or drink too much, or have messy personal relationships or just don’t quite ‘get it’. Faith is a funny thing. It tends to come and go. Moments of great enthusiasm are often followed by long periods of lassitude and weariness. What matters is perseverance, not piety as that is commonly understood. One of the Desert Fathers was asked the secret of his spiritual life. He replied, ‘I fall down, and I get up. I fall down, and I get up.’ That is the right kind of piety, and one we can all practise.


9 thoughts on “The Right and Wrong Kinds of Piety”

  1. Thank you for a brief synopsis of St John Kemble and he’s a Priest after my own heart.

    I can recall from my upbringing the attitude of Piety of many of those that I knew from Church, who once outside the Godly surroundings and trappings of worship, were quite arrogant about those who they considered not to be as good Catholics as they believed themselves to be. It can be disheartening to be criticised openly or behind your back only to hear of it from others that you’re not as good as you should be, or worse, your attendance and attitude in Church isn’t seen as being as pious as you should be. Perhaps something else that turned me away from God, among the many other things that happened in my life in those days.

    One thing about being an Anglican, is that there seems to be much more joy and informality in our people and congregations (I’m not saying it’s not the same in Catholic ones, just stating my personal experience) and there seems to be a zest for finding Jesus among those that I worship with, which is enlivening in ways I hadn’t found in my catholic experience. We’re certainly not perfect, travelling alongside other Christians, stumbling and falling but picking ourselves up and moving forward again.

    St John Kemble seems to have had a sense of this, and known that perfection is only found in God, while we are but poor shadows of that perfection, but longing for the time when we shall be one with him. That hope which sparks my faith, which sustains it and which helps it to grow, despite my stumbles along the way.

  2. That is a perfect description, fabulous, fabulous.. I just wish someone had told me that when young, or perhaps they did and I just wasn’t ready to hear what they were telling me. I always felt a substandard Christian and a bit of a fraud as a consequence.
    Thankfully I now have a measure of humility, I fall down, I get up, I fall ……….

  3. Thank you for reminding me of what I was needing atm, that the process of being a member of God’s people is that we are human and we fall, then get up, then fall, then get up and it is in this process that we are close to Jesus as he helps us back onto our feet.

  4. Thank you and God bless for sharing these insights, Sr Catherine.

    As I have experienced it, and to generalise, Catholicism focuses on the Cross, where the other end of the Christian religious spectrum focuses on the Resurrection, with mistier shades in between.

    The business of being a ‘Work in Progess’ as we journey towards Heaven, getting the best out of each day, is in striving to keep these two essentials in register, part of the same cosmic equation, recognising both sides of the coin as a solution to our Fallen humanity.

    That we know we are sinners who need saving is the first esssential. Then the picture becomes real and dynamic, not just a doctrine to which we pay lip service, however sincere we hope to be. The energy of the Holy Spirit can then be released in us.

    But we all labour and are heavy laden, neglecting to take Christ’s yoke upon us that our burden may be light.

    With love and prayers,


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