For most of my adult life, including also my teen years, I have striven to be a pious Christian. Being a questioner by nature, I have always wanted to know exactly what piety is and how to obtain it.
I remember in high school “senior seminar” class, we studied the American puritans, briefly. I recall being impressed with their austerity and conviction and wondered how they arrived at such certainty and willingness to be faithful to their beliefs. I have always been introspective, and this questioning about puritan piety led me to a time of deep reflection. I was filled with doubts about myself, as most teens tend to be, but I also had, unknown at the time to me, clinical depression.
I loved God. I loved the Church. I loved Christianity. I was persuaded in the depths of my soul that it was the true and correct faith and that I should and would live the rest of my life seeking to be as good and loyal and pious a Christian as possible.
But, in the cocktail of emotions that was my inner self, I could not settle down on anything. I was down and sad most of the time. I would try to be good, and fail over and over. Every time I believed I had made some success, I would fall back; all because of my emotional distress over which I had no control. I thought, however, it was my own fault and the fundamentalism I was raised in reinforced this.
In the year after I graduated from high school, I left the Baptist church of my youth, and became Reformed Presbyterian and a Calvinist. Calvinism, with it’s far reaching implications, gave some structure for me to bind up my emotions. I began to read the works of the Puritans and formed my piety after theirs. In doing so, I very nearly destroyed myself. I was wracked with guilt, constantly. I saw myself as a failure as a Christian and a human being. Perversely, Reformed theology lauds such a view of oneself. It is on this pretense that one may “flee to Christ, resting only in him.” And so, I did.
As the years passed and I reached my mid 20’s, I began to realize that I was actually dying inside. The more I worked to be holy and pious, the more reviling I found myself to be. I began to explore Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and discovered a rich trove of spirituality that not only supplemented my Puritan approach, but seemed to correct it…for a while.
I married in 1994 at the age of 24. We had a very Reformed wedding and continued to attend the Presbyterian church of which I was a member. Then, one year into our marriage, we went to seminary. It was a seminary of a conservative denomination in the Episcopal tradition. At first, I was stoked, but as time went on, the pressures of school, work and marriage took a mighty toll on my life. I was literally falling apart at the seams and had no idea what to do about it.
When 2001 and 9/11 happened, I was in a state of major depression. I had spent nearly that entire summer in bed; unable to work or do anything meaningful. My wife and I were fighting every day and in February 2002, she left me. I returned to my parents house as a broken, confused, essentially dying, man. In late 2002 I admitted myself to the hospital for suicidal thoughts and was sent to a mental hospital for a week. There I was diagnosed with major depression and put on medication. I began to feel better. A lot better. I was beginning to see some light at the end of a long dark tunnel. Yet, I was still broken inside. My faith had failed me. My mentors and their promises of happiness if I obeyed the Lord failed me. My orthodoxy failed me. The only things that did not fail me were my parents and a few close friends.
After I was on the meds for several years, I thought I had “dealt” with the underlying issues that were causing my depression. So, under my doctors supervision, I went off the medications. Within six months I was suicidal again and again admitted myself to the hospital. However, this time, I was determined not to come out of the hospital the same person. I made an oath to myself that I would find out the truth about myself, God and the world, and then I would be free. What I didn’t realize, was that by making such a promise to myself, I had already taken the first step in the right direction by acknowledging that the ways of the past had not worked and I needed to separate myself from them.
I began to systematically deconstruct my entire moral and ethical system in my head. I seriously wanted to start over again and I did my best to rid myself of any and all baggage from the past. I realized what I needed was not to be good or follow the rules, but to have someone, like my parents, who loved me unconditionally. I needed a God like that. Not the God of the Puritans who was impossible to approach and only rewarded impossibly difficult to keep rules.
I was nearly 40 by the time I came to myself, as a real person, and decided I would no longer believe anything simply because someone told me, no matter who they were or what esteem I held them in. I determined to find the truth, but this time without so much baggage from Fundamentalism. I largely threw that out the door with it’s narrow piety and legalism.
Now, as I am in my mid 40’s, reaching on toward 50, I still feel the baggage that I have tried to offload. But, the future is much brighter. In the past, I had lived my life in fear of everything, especially hell. But I have made it clear to myself that I will fear nothing because where there is fear, there is not love. Love being the key to happiness.
My piety has greatly changed from my teenage years. I still love God, the church not so much because of the horrendous abuse and evil I have experienced in it. I still want to be holy. I still pray every day. I still seek to do the will of God, but my perspective is very different now. Whereas before, I would be mystified at how to be “good”, I no longer feel the need. Being a Christian is not about right doctrine, tradition, or a specific brand of piety, but about following Jesus. According to St James, “True religion and undefiled before God and the Father, is to visit widows and orphans in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” There is a vast difference between the piety of James and that of most Christian traditions today. Most traditions have lost sight of the simplicity of piety as “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” and myopically focused on the emotional/internal aspect of piety. Feeling right has trumped doing right. In fact, doing right, in these traditions, cannot be pleasing to God unless it is done from a “pure heart” aka: right emotional state. I’ve left that all behind. All that matters to me and God is that widows and orphans and anyone who is oppressed, disenfranchised, marginalized, should be treated with love and respect and dignity as is becoming for a human being. I will stand against injustice wherever I see it.
This is genuine piety. Say your rosary. Do your prostrations. Pray the daily office. Fine. But these are merely peripheral practices that have little if anything to do with piety. If you do not love your neighbor as yourself, you have failed both God and the Gospel. That is the bottom line.