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Personal Piety: A Case Study?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 09, 2013

Indulge me, if you will. I am finally on the way home from that cross-country trip to visit relatives and vacation in two of our national parks. Driving all day today and tomorrow will put me back in Manassas, Virginia Saturday evening, with time enough to catch up with yard work on Sunday—before returning to my desk (yes, where I belong) on Monday. So in keeping with the close of what has at least been a working vacation, let me save meatier fare for next week. Here is a brief reflection on personal piety.

One of the remarkable things about Catholicism, in contrast to the high degree of specificity in many Christian sects, is that it embraces an almost unlimited range of personal piety in its adherents. This is another sense in which the Church is truly universal. There is room here for the upbeat and the downbeat, the stern and the easy-going, those who thrive on the traditional, and those who love new devotions or spontaneous prayer. There is room for those who fret about their piety, and those who chuckle over their own pietistic foibles. The Church encompasses in her members forms of piety which thrive on the intellectual, the emotional, the artistic. We may be prone to exercise our piety socially or privately, and in either corporal or spiritual works of charity. The list of the particularities which drive our various forms of piety is nearly endless.

Now, as I must always say in such discussions, don’t get me wrong. Personal piety is not only unique to each person; it is also necessarily imperfect. This is so true that the greatest mistake we can make with respect to piety as Christians is to sacrifice humility by regarding our own pious sensibilities as uniformly superior, while looking down on the pious sensibilities of others. But there are other pitfalls, too. The most important of these trap us into resisting or refusing either the teachings of the Church or her authority over ecclesiastical life, including sacramental life, based on our own pious preferences. Sometimes we even let our piety interfere with our own reception of grace, as when we disdain the Mass, concentrating throughout on the imperfections of a particular liturgy, if it should happen to be prayed in a way that is not to our liking.

On more mature reflection, which of us is worthy of even the most poorly said Mass?

There is room, then, for our own particular inclinations in piety, our own particular forms of piety, but because each form of piety carries its own imperfections and even dangers, there is always room for improvement as well. It is the job of the Church to warn against these dangers and to lead each form of piety to be more perfectly itself, more perfectly in tune with Christ, the universal God-Man, who has given us the gifts which actuate our own piety, and who expects to receive our unique and precious devotion unsullied, as much as humanly possible, by our own selfishness.

I am thinking about piety today largely because of an experience I had this morning, when the engine in the van began to make yet another dreadful whining noise. We had overnighted in Little Rock, Arkansas on the long drive home from our oldest son’s home near Dallas, Texas. Some readers will recall that we had to get our differential rebuilt while on an extended “break down” visit with my older daughter’s family near Indianapolis. I confess I prayed to St. Joseph to help us avoid another automotive delay, though—arising from the peculiarities of my own piety—I dislike praying for things which, on a scale of human misery, are so trifling. But my wife cheerfully responds that Our Lord loves to hear from us about everything, and I am pretty sure we are both equally (but never absolutely) correct in our pietistic differences.

Anyway, I trundled over to a nearby Firestone Service Center in Little Rock first thing in the morning, shortening my beauty sleep to do so, not without an interior chuckle at my corresponding disgruntlement. It’s that piety thing again. I find it difficult to avoid laughing at my pretensions. In any case, I asked a mechanic to take a listen, which led to the following conversation:

Him: [Opening the hood] Start ‘er up!
Me: OK. [Engine roars and squeals into life.]
Him: Hey, turn off the air conditioning, will you?
Me: OK. [Click.] Hey, wait, the engine stopped, too. The sky is falling!
Him: No. You just can’t hear it now that the AC compressor has stopped.
Me: [Feeling, um, stupid.] Oh, so what would it cost to fix the compressor?
Him: Probably half a day’s work and a thousand dollars.
Me: [Broke, but vindicated!] And if we drive a thousand miles to home without fixing it?
Him: Worst case? You’ll feel too warm.

(Well, unless the AC clutch binds up, which isn’t likely.)

And then there was the follow-up discussion with St. Joseph:

Me: Well, uh, thanks…I think.
Joseph: Did you or did you not ask to get home without another big delay?
Me: Hmph. I guess you have me there….
Joseph: Yes, I do. I always do. I don’t see why you can’t get used to it!

And you know what? St. Joseph can have me. I couldn’t be in better hands. It really is that piety thing, once again. It is inescapably highly personal. But under the guidance of the Church, it works. It works, in its own way, for each of us.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Sep. 17, 2016 7:20 PM ET USA

    Busy week; slow response. I agree w/ you. Is Pope challenging: Have we lost focus on what matters and mercilessly now live as 'entitled' to what God provides through the environment? Catechism presentation of Faith can't change. But, does our approach to sharing the Faith need to adjust within bounds of Truth to build up the Kingdom? Not about turning out a light; about how can we help poor for opportunity to have lights, medicine, etc. Not political, willed action w/ intent to help.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 06, 2016 5:05 PM ET USA

    bkmajer3728: I don't think anyone would deny that care for the environment, done for the sake of all our neighbors, so to speak, has a merciful element. I said as much. The problem I was trying to identify was that of declaring that care for the environment is, ipso facto, a work of mercy (like feeding the hungry, etc.) that should be added to the list. There are a great many reasons to care for the environment, many of which have nothing to do with particularly merciful motives, all of which depend on a whole raft of prudential judgments which may be correct or incorrect, and almost none of which are of personal and immediate use to those in need. What we do not want to imply, to take an obvious example, is that turning our lights out (which also lowers our electric bill) is the kind of work of mercy that will clearly be recognized at the judgment. That's a lot like telling children to finish their dinners because there are people starving in China. I've not seen anyone quarrel with the idea that we ought, as Christians, to be good stewards of the environment for the common good. It's trying to capsulize this broad activity as an enumerated work of mercy that raises the problem of properly understanding the nature of mercy. Something that is so far removed from free, direct and immediate help to a neighbor has a high risk of being either trivialized or ideologically driven, as we already see on all sides today.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Sep. 06, 2016 6:51 AM ET USA

    I don't understand this reaction. We all breathe the same air, drink the same water, stand on the same earth but yet when it comes to responsible use this isn't "real" mercy? Look, I am not a tree hugger. Yet, recognition of the limits & impact to our neighbor seems justified. It seems to me, this is a reaction to incongruity with a catechism definition instead of an honest attempt to reconcile difference in understanding. Remember, there will be a general judgment in addition to particular.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 03, 2016 8:12 PM ET USA

    lak321: It seems to me that praying for the dead has the character of a merciful act, as we are doing something that directly, deliberately, freely, and immediately helps--and has no other reason than to help--specific persons (whether individually or in groups) who are in need.

  • Posted by: lak321 - Sep. 03, 2016 1:59 PM ET USA

    Praying for the dead also doesn't meet your criteria.

  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Sep. 03, 2016 1:24 PM ET USA

    To your 1st point. Imagine spending a million dollars to fix a bridge which a homeless person lives under, they get rid of grafitti, remove all the weeds, fix all the cracks, p,ant some flowers, they stand back and say well we cared for the environment in one small way and yet the homeless person remains there unnoticed and unhelped. The works of mercy are christlime encounters between people.

  • Posted by: doughlousek7433 - Sep. 03, 2016 8:17 AM ET USA

    Neither of you are too critical. Today, we do not need to be distracted from our mission; lead souls to salvation. When do we hear this message today? When do we hear the truth about hell and the devil any more? Yes, mercy is important; as is our stewardship of God's gift of this planet. However, too many are taking the wider road today, and we need to refocus, not widen the road by opening the wrong doors!

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Sep. 03, 2016 1:26 AM ET USA

    What about the risk of deifying the environment; i.e. "Mother Earth." Making the environment in this sense "personal."

  • Posted by: k_cusick1963 - Sep. 02, 2016 8:03 PM ET USA

    What really bothers me about attaching environmentalism to traditional Catholic teaching, is that the traditional acts of mercy are timeless and will always be so. Climate change cannot be scientifically linked to human activity, and from what I've seen to date, there is plenty of reason to question whether the whole thing is based more on politics than actual science. Like you and Phil, I agree that recycling, turning off unneeded lights, etc. is good Christian stewardship. But that is all.

  • Posted by: unum - Sep. 02, 2016 7:34 PM ET USA

    I'm a fan of Laudatio Si' and believe it provides much food for thought about concern for our world in today's atmosphere of high finance, big business, and new technology. However, I agree that adding care of the environment to the Corporal Works of Mercy dilutes the Church's attention to personal relationships and muddies the impact of the Holy Father's important teaching on the care of our world.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Aug. 10, 2013 11:01 PM ET USA

    I suspect you would have a very interesting thread by asking readers to comment on the most humorous prayer story.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 10, 2013 8:07 AM ET USA

    The personal anecdote strikes close to home. Glad you can kesp going towards home. Nonetheless, while reflecting on comments about the liturgy and baptismal rights I stumbled upon an analogy. I believe that the Catholic life involves a certain connectedness that is analogous to the connective tissue we call blood. The Precious Blood of Our Lord that makes the sacramental life possible most beautifully represents the cohesiveness and vitality of sacramental participation by the baptized.

  • Posted by: abc - Aug. 09, 2013 10:41 PM ET USA

    Thanks. Whenever I feel "insufficient" as a father (that is, all the time), I ask St. Joseph to "stand in" for me and "compensate" for my deficiencies. It is something that calms me down, and it is probably my most frequent "personal piety" practice.

  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Aug. 09, 2013 7:12 PM ET USA

    More delight! and very helpful.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 09, 2013 6:31 PM ET USA

    Regarding the piety, it is always important to have an anchor or put another way, to be oriented to mind of the Church. The Catechism of the CC states: ."..the baptized person also enjoys rights within the Church- to receive the be sustained by the other spiritual helps of the Church. " This is a bourgeoning area of discussion. In a very real sense the baptized soul deserves the best the Church has to offer. So does her Master.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 09, 2013 6:12 PM ET USA

    Seems to me, Dr. Jeff, you've spent way too much time with this post, seeking the Good Lord's indulgence as you do yard work on Sunday. Tch, tch, tch. If I were you, in view of the special relationshp you seem to have with St. Joseph, I'd stay off any riding mower, and I wouldn't use any expensive power tools. Let St. Joseph get his kicks by braking a spade or a rake, preferably a borrowed one at that.