Monday, November 22, 2010

The Perils of the Pious: How the Devil Can Hijack Holy Practices

by Msgr. Charles Pope

Many years ago I heard a Protestant Minister say that Satan wasn’t all that concerned when a person went to church because he could drag a soul to Hell from a church pew just as soon as from a gutter or brothel. Now preachers are given to hyperbole and perhaps some distinctions are in order here, especially for a Catholic. We do in fact believe that the Sacraments, if received fruitfully, do strengthen us and provide a sure help against the incursions of the evil. That said, we ought to also acknowledge that there are certain temptations common to believers and church-goers. Perhaps we could refer to these as the “Perils of the Pious,” or the “Risks of the Religious.” What are some of these?

1. The Risk of Ritualistic Reductionism – This temptation is to reduce holiness and righteousness to the following of a few simple rules. One becomes proud of the fact that they go to Mass on Sunday, put some money in the basket, say a few prayers, maybe even the rosary. Now these are all good things, but the danger becomes thinking this is all we must do. We can too easily tell ourselves how good we are and not look at the deeper drives of sin in us such as unrighteous anger, rash judgment, sensuality, greed, and injustice. We think, “I am basically a good person because of my religious observances.” On account of this thinking, we are not prone to consider that there may be some pretty ugly things about us that need attention.

Many years ago there was a woman in my parish who came to daily Mass and stayed to pray the rosary as well. In many ways she was very holy, and certainly pious. But she had a deep wound in her heart she refused to see. At least once a week she would lament to me how the “neighborhood was changing.” This was basically code for the fact that it was becoming African American. Her laments about this were quite bitter and she thought she’d have to leave the neighborhood on account of it. I suggested to her that perhaps she could love her new neighbors, get to know them, and evangelize. She rebuffed this in strong terms and said, “We’re not going to have them come in here and change our church!” In further discussions between us it was clear that she couldn’t see her racism for the sin it was and she often protested that she had been going to Church all her life. She had reduced holiness to the following of rituals, to saying a few prayers. These are good things, but somehow she thought this exempted her from looking at other things, or perhaps it blinded her.

The Pharisees had reduced faith to the following of 613 rules. Now this may sound impressive at first, but many of the rules were about washing things, not eating certain things and so forth. They weren’t that hard to follow. In addition to reducing holiness in this way, they also interpreted the rules in a very minimalistic way. You may recall the rich young man in the Gospel who, when being reminded to love his neighbor asked Jesus, And who is my neighbor? (Lk. 10:29). In effect what he is trying to do is minimize the concept of “neighbor.” It is as if to say, “If I have to love my neighbor, let’s define neighbor strictly and keep this whole thing manageable.” This is what the Pharisees did, they reduced holiness to a very narrow spectrum and thought they could buy God off by these observances.

There is more to holiness than ritual observance. To this peril of the pious the Lord says, For I desire mercy more than sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6). Jesus reiterates: If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matt. 12:7).

2. Crass Comparison – The religiously observant exhibit important virtues that are praiseworthy. Going to church and praying, reading Scripture, and financially supporting the Church are good things. The religiously observant also strive to avoid serious sins such as fornication, immodesty, drunkenness and the like. They may not live perfect lives, and surely they admit that, but they do strive to heed God’s Law. However, this too can lead to the tendency to rashly judge others and to show a lack of humility. It becomes too easy to congratulate ourselves for being decent people. We can think, “At least I’m not like that prostitute or that corrupt city official!” But in the process we can lack the humility to see our own sins as significant, or to see ourselves as in need of great mercy.

The fact is, being better than a prostitute or a corrupt city official is not the standard that’s going to get us heaven. The standard that we must meet is Jesus Christ. Now if we really grasp this and understand how far we are from meeting that standard, then we will humbly cry for mercy. But the peril of the pious is to compare ourselves to others, not to Jesus. Too easily we can become smug and superior, arrogant. We can become unaware that we too need boatloads of grace and mercy to even stand a chance of getting to heaven.

To address this peril of the pious Scripture also speaks: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

3. Checking off the God-Box – There are some people who are religiously observant not so much because they Love God but more because they want to control Him or overcome their fear of Him. We can too easily reason that because we have said certain prayers, or followed certain rules we have “checked off the God box.” Once we’ve said our prayers we can feel safe and get on with our day.

Perhaps this attitude is rooted in fear, and so the thinking is that I have to placate God to get what I want from him. If I don’t pray, perhaps bad things will happen, or good things won’t happen. So I need to pray, but the motive, conscious or unconscious, is more to advance my own agenda and self-interest than loving attentiveness to God.

Another more cynical form of this is to pray and fulfill religious duties more as a strange way of keeping God at a distance. The thinking here is that God has to be honored for my life to go well. Hence, I will do some quick devotions, (i.e., check off the God-box) and then I can feel free to get on with my day. St. John Vianney said of some who pray in this manner: And still worse, there are some who speak to the good God like this: “I will only say a couple of things to you, and then I will be rid of you.(Catechisme sur la priere: A. Monnin, Esprit du Cure d’Ars, Paris 1899, pp. 87-89).

God wants whole hearted devotion, not perfunctory practice. And we can too easily think that quick devotions, good though they are, will be sufficient. But love is extravagant and wants to do more, not less. God wants love, not lip service. Religious rituals and recited prayers are beautiful things, but they are not the end of our relationship with God they are the beginning. Yet there are some among the religiously observant who think that perfunctory observance will buy God off or permit them to run off in their own directions for the rest of the day. To them the Lord says, This people draw near with their words, and honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists [merely] of tradition learned by rote, (Isaiah 29:13).

You may wish to add to this list. The main point here is that our flesh and the devil can take beautiful things of the faith and twist them for other, less holy purposes. Beware these perils of the pious, these risks of religious.

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