Piety is almost a foreign word these days. Most people I know do not consider themselves pious to anything or anyone. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, piety is “Religious devotion and reverence to God.” In other words, piety is to maintain a relationship with deity. The definition implies that one also believes in the deity. I like this definition, although it seems to differ slightly from that of the dedicant handbook, which describes piety as “correct observance of ritual and social traditions, the maintenance of the agreements (both personal and societal) we humans have with the Gods and Spirits. Keeping the old Ways, through ceremony and Duty” [sic].
I think ritual and ceremony are both very important, but another important ingredient is missing: that of belief! By just believing in and loving a God, you are devoted to him or her, and you revere him or her. This belief is often the motivation for ritual and ceremony. For example, I know several agnostic and atheistic people. They find it difficult to believe in any deity and, therefore, don’t feel right even trying to connect through ritual. They ask, “What is the point if I don’t believe?” Thus I feel that the two definitions are less than adequate on their own, but very useful when viewed together. Each part of the definition needs the other to create what I truly feel to be piety.
It’s easy for me to think of people who are/were pious. Mother Theresa was pious to her God. While recent evidence points to feelings of disconnect, she believed in her God and worked for him by carrying out his message of love by offering care to those in need of it. She gave up her secular life for her beliefs, whether she was secure in her religion or not. Mother Theresa is an example of orthopraxic piety, meaning that she was devoted to her religious practice and not necessarily her belief. My mother has always been very pious. She doesn’t prescribe to any religion per se, but does believe in a greater power. She doesn’t have many rituals but she fervently believes in something wonderful and powerful. She often prays silently to this being – a simple ritual that sprung out of belief.
I think I’m a very pious person. I remember and acknowledge the Gods and spirits often. I pray to them in the morning, I thank them for my meals, and I thank them at night, among other times. I sometimes ask them for help, but I most frequently express gratitude. I usually do this silently or in private. I sometimes feel like those are the best times between myself and the Gods. I’m not putting on a show for anyone else – it’s just us. I feel that I can be more myself with them under such conditions.
I think that thoughts and actions can be pious, but only if there is belief behind them. I think intent is a powerful thing. Certain Gods may be very happy with offerings of ale, but if you don’t know why you’re offering it, or if you don’t really believe the Gods like or want it – what’s the point? The Gods are as good as forgotten.
This topic reminds me of the character Easter from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Easter is a rich and healthy Goddess living in modern America because people still use rabbits and eggs on her feast day. Although mortals still celebrate spring around Ostara, Mr. Wednesday (Odin) points out that most people don’t even know who she is when they celebrate Easter. She sadly agrees, acknowledging that she has been forgotten. Thus actions are good, but they are only truly good when there is belief behind them.
That isn’t to say that the actions are less meaningful and could be replaced or eliminated all together. I personally feel that the Gods love it when attention is paid to them. They want us to know their histories and mythologies. They want us to understand the types of offerings they would love, and the social traditions connected to them. I think that’s what is meant by a “maintenance of agreement” with the Gods and spirits. We research and/or remember what it is that they love – what is meaningful and valuable to the Gods. We give them those offerings of physical actions to say to them that we remember and love them, and that we respect them. I sometimes think of the Gods as powerful, spiritual lovers. A lover isn’t going to stick around if he or she doesn’t feel fulfilled and paid attention to. In addition to the love you feel, you also have to give your time to him or her, as well as gifts to show affection and remembrance. Relationships are two sided and take work. But just as roses on Valentine’s Day don’t make up for a year without romance between two lovers, a person attending/performing one ritual per year does not make them pious. It takes work, dedication, and understanding as well as love and belief.
~Grey Catling, 2008