On practicing piety

"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Matthew 6:1

Yesterday at the Ash Wednesday service, as I let all the familiar words wash over me, it occurred to me that there’s practicing piety, and there’s practicing piety as a performance. 

This is nothing new, of course. “Beware of practicing your piety before others,” Jesus says. Don’t do it as an outward show to appear pious for appearance’s sake only. 

And I got to thinking how for myself, at least, my desire not to show any outward form of piety is in itself a form of piety that I want others to acknowledge. “See how I’m not obnoxious about my faith like them! See how tastefully I post articles with the proper feeling on Facebook to express my religious values!” as I wait for people to “like” me. My tasteful expressions of faith are just as much a performance as more overt outward shows. 

But what if I practiced piety for my own sake? What if practicing piety was a form of play or experimentation, a way of trying things on for size? What if I were practicing piety, not so others would see what I was doing, but in order to try new things and see what works and what doesn’t – even if some of those practices were total bombs. Even if I got it totally wrong. 

What if I told people I would pray for them, not because I want them to think I’m holy, but because I want to see what happens when I do it. What if I fasted, not because I think people will be impressed if I fast, but because I’m curious how it might affect my relationship with God and others. 

And the tough one: what if I said what I really thought or believed, even if it doesn’t fit nicely (conform!) into the proper piety boxes of my faith community. Even if people found it shocking and offensive. Even if it sounded heretical. Even if I’m not sure if I’m right. Just to see what would happened if I shared my doubts, my disagreements with doctrine, my personal perspective. What if I practiced my piety that way? What might happen then?