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.

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