St Augustine of Canterbury and the Gift of Piety

One of the paradoxes of monastic life is that we begin by knowing everything, and the closer we get to the end, the more we realise we know nothing at all. Yesterday a friend reminded me of something I had written a long time ago:

My novitiate had nearly come to an end when I was appointed minion to the monastery poultry-keeper . . . . The grace of the novitiate was sufficient to allow me to accept my role of henchman and get on with the uncongenial business of digging trenches in the snow and mucking out filthy hen-coops; but it wasn’t enough to make me embrace my task. I did what I had to do with steely determination, but I could not love it. Love came later, with the realisation that, no matter how hard the task set before me, no matter how repugnant I found it, somewhere in the midst of it all was God. I cannot honestly say I found God in the hen-coop; but I did, at least, begin to seek him there. So, the question for today is: where is your vocational hen-coop, and how are you going to deal with it?

That was, if I may say so, the gift of piety at work — or at least its beginnings. Piety is the gift for which we pray today in our novena to the Holy Spirit and one which St Augustine of Canterbury, whose feast this is, possessed in abundance. He didn’t want to come to Britain and dawdled on the way, but as soon as Gregory the Great told him to make haste, he did. He didn’t much like what he found when he arrived, but he toiled away diligently. Miracles followed, and when Gregory expressed disapproval, Augustine made sure that they were not bruited abroad. To this day, they remain unknown. In short, Augustine learned day by day what his mission was to be and did his best to fulfil it, becoming in the process a great saint, one who loved the Lord with all his heart and desired to please him in everything. That is truly piety at work.

In popular parlance, being pious is almost a term of abuse. We tend to think of limp, Lydia Languishes of virtue, living horribly circumscribed lives and disapproving of everyone else. The more classically-minded think of pius Aeneas with all his trickery and often distant relationship with truth. The Church, however, has always been clear what she means by piety. It is what one might call an instinctive love and reverence for God that makes us want to worship him and do his will. It makes us want to be reverent; makes us want to be pleasing to God. It does not come all at once but it can be cultivated and grow. Piety is one of those gifts that require us to co-operate with grace. Its effect on others can be huge. Just think what St Augustine did for Christ in this country. Just think what we can do, too, (even, I daresay, in a hen-coop).

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7 thoughts on “St Augustine of Canterbury and the Gift of Piety”

  1. As ever, Sister, you have hit the nail in the hen-coop on the head. I talked to my parish priest last year about how difficult I found it to do things to please God, much as I wanted to. He said, “It is enough to want to want “. Your wise words today have reinforced that thought for me. Thank you.

  2. Oh, how I enjoyed reading this. Thank you. It just oozes real piety … on a wet morning in a hen coop. Thank God for humble nuns and monks… and for priests … and for the wonderful Saints … and for the rest of us who go on trying.

  3. Our late Mother Mary would be with you on this. Swore she would leave if asked to be in the kitchen, and was there for 20 years. Would you say that the less we THINK of being ‘pious’ in trying circumstances (and just get on with being in them) the more likelihood there is of us acquiring piety??

    • Good question. I think I’d say ‘yes’.The more we look at ourselves, our reactions, and so on and so forth, the more I think we are tempted to take our feelings as guide — and that’s runionous to the spiritual life. As the old parody of the psalm goes
      My eyes are always on myself;
      My feet are always in the snare.
      Our best hope of being pious is simply abandonment to the divine will. Pity it’s usually hard.

  4. I “reverted” to Catholicism last year after 25 years outside the fold. I go to mass, read the bible, pray daily (not sure its enough), read a lot about Christianity and search out understanding of Catholicism via things like your blog (Thank you for this). I am worried I dont really act as Christ would want in terms of good deeds. I have young children and work so am busy a lot of the time but also I dont want to give up what little time I have to do good deeds. I also fail at cooperation with my vocation as a mum with good grace. I’m not sure how I change. I want to. This article gives me something else to pray for. I do wonder how to cultivate and grow in piety.

    • I’d say you are doing a lot and would want to encourage you. It’s easy to beat ourselves up about not doing enough, but we’re human, not superhuman. Working, with young children, you must get tired and frazzled at times and you wouldn’t be quite real if it didn’t show (probably more to you than to others). So, if you feel the house is a mess, the children have been shouted at, you haven’t had time to do more than mutter an Our Father as you finally slip bone-weary into bed, you can comfort yourself with the thought that thousands of saints have had the same experience. God makes us holy in his own way. Be assured of our prayers.

  5. Thank you Sister for the encouragement and prayers. You and your order are in my prayers too. It’s more important now than ever before to have online ministry.

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