Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
Jesus said “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. . .And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6: 1, 6 (Gospel on the Second Saturday of the Souls)
Good morning Prayer Team!
The word “piety” is defined as “the quality of being religious or reverent.” Wikipedia has a whole page dedicated to the concept of piety, on which it says “In spiritual terminology, piety is a virtue that may include religious devotion, spirituality, or a mixture of both. A common element in most conceptions of piety is humility and religiosity.” And another definition is “reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations.”
Let’s begin with “reverence for God”. When a person wakes up in the morning and offers a prayer, or makes the sign of the cross, or kneels at his or her bedside, this is showing reverence for God, it is a pious act. It is also a private act.
When a person goes to worship in church and is intently praying and singing and maintains their focus on the Lord, this is showing reverence for God. And despite the fact that worship is taking place in a public, corporate context, this is a private act.
When a person helps a neighbor, whether instinctively, or if they are asked, and then focus on the act of helping, this is showing reverence for God by offering loving support to a neighbor.
When a person helps out expecting a material reward, that does not show reverence for God, because the end goal is payment or recognition, not humble service. When a person calls attention to themselves in worship, then there is no humility there either. And when a person makes piety a public act, by calling attention to themselves in their prayers, or making a big deal out of praying in public, this is exactly what the Lord is warning against.
There is nothing wrong with making a witness for Christ in our lives. There is nothing wrong with talking about Him with others. There is nothing wrong with bowing your head in a restaurant and saying a prayer in a public place. God sees what is in our hearts and knows our every thought.
When an act of piety is done with the express purpose of bringing attention to oneself, this is not pleasing to God. When an act of piety is done privately and with humility, and someone notices and has an experience of God because of it, then this is beneficial to our souls, to the souls of others, and pleases God.
I’ve shared this with those who read these reflections on several occasions, that as time goes by, I am more and more comfortable leading worship and prayer in a public context. I absolutely love praying with people outside the context of services, something that I used to feel uncomfortable with in the early years of my ministry. And I love that part of my “job” involves helping people. I get the opportunity to minister to others on a daily basis, something for which I am very grateful. But there has to be more to it than that. We have to make sure that we are making time for private devotion and prayer that is seen by no one but the Lord. We have to make sure that we are doing things for others for which there is no expectation of payment, reward or recognition. And we have to temper the almost natural inclination towards self-promotion by shying away from recognition and seeking humility and anonymity in our piety and our service to others.
Many of us wear crosses around our necks, and in the Orthodox world, some of us wear prayer ropes or prayer bracelets on our wrists. When we wear a cross or a prayer rope merely in order to display our “religiosity,” then we are doing the very thing Christ warns against. Wearing a cross should serve a reminder to us to be better Christians. Just wearing a prayer bracelet does very little. We have to make the sign of the cross each day in prayer, use the prayer bracelet for its intended purposes of praying, and honor God not only through outward appearance, but inner disposition of the heart. For our faith is not based only on signs and symbols, but on action. Signs and symbols identify us as Christians, but it is our actions that define our Christianity, specifically our actions when no one is looking and when there is no possibility of earthly reward. It is the secret things and the unrewarded acts that are the things recognized by the Lord, which will eventually be rewarded, not by men, but by Him.
As we are shined on by the lightning of the fathers, as if we enter now a most delightful garden, let us fully enjoy the river of Your delight. With wonder we view the excellence of their deeds and virtues, so let us strive to emulate them. Let us pray to the Savior, “By their intercessions, O God, account us worthy to become the partakers of Your kingdom and rule.” (Kathisma, from the Orthros of the Second Saturday of the Souls, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
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