In the chapel of the oldest continuously operating Jesuit novitiate in the world, in a sleepy village in southern Poland, the likenesses of great Jesuits of the past gaze from the walls above, their faces turned attentively toward the altar—with one exception. Francis Xavier is looking out the window.
It’s not irreverence, of course, that has the saint turned the other way. Xavier, who agreed to leave Europe for the Orient on a day’s notice, was, in addition to being the greatest missionary since Paul, one of history’s great travelers, a man whose desire to plant the seeds of the Gospel where they had never been sown before was extinguished only by death.
There’s something essentially Jesuit in that desire, and hopefully at least a spark of it burns in each one of us. Our formation, you may recall, aims to prepare us to go anywhere in the world, though usually we’re given a bit more notice than Francis Xavier. For me, this summer was no exception and saw me spending July in Krakow teaching English to Jesuit scholastics from Poland, Croatia, and Russia.
It was heartening to meet and live with such good brothers, and equally heartening to be immersed in Polish culture. The Poles are a wonderful people—noble, warm, and very, very Catholic. I realize that this is a bit of a generalization and that one should be careful conflating religious and ethnic identity. (And in fact, at an academic conference I attended earlier in the summer I met a number of young and quite impressive Catholic scholars from such bastions of secularism as Belgium and France.) What makes Poland special, however, is the degree to which Catholicism has penetrated the culture, the ways in which the faith is palpable in all aspects of Polish life. The Poles are unabashedly pious.
Here in the States, especially in more sophisticated circles (or circles that think themselves sophisticated), piety often gets a bad rap. The Protestant impulse to strip the altars and whitewash the icons has influenced the way American Catholics think and act. This instinct is not entirely without basis in the Gospel, since our Lord is quite clear in repudiating shows of false piety.
But, of course, what makes false piety so dangerous is how closely it resembles the real thing; the devil who talks like an angel is more dangerous than the devil who smells of sulfur. False piety turns the expression of love for God into a means of personal gain, and that’s perverse. But just because something good can be misused doesn’t mean it stops being good.
Piety is good and necessary because ours is an incarnational faith. Our religion is not a set of abstract principles about God to which we’re required to assent, nor an ethical guidebook; it’s a relationship with God, who has become man to live among us.
And this relationship is not meant to be a sort of cordial business transaction; it’s meant to be a love affair. Not, of course, a tawdry Danielle Steel love affair, but nonetheless a relationship that engulfs us—all of us—from the tips of our fingers to the depths of our soul. No aspect of our humanity can be left out of our relationship with God.
Any deeply loving relationship requires an underlying core of commitment and conviction, but relationships are also made up of a host of little details, of shared moments—inside jokes, vacations spent together, even mishaps endured together. No relationship can last long without a real affection for all the tiny particulars about the other person that might seem peripheral individually but taken together add up. I once spent a summer as the teaching assistant to a kind old professor who had been married for over forty years. Due to their conflicting professional responsibilities he and his wife had to spend about a month apart. About midway through the month he turned to me after dinner and sighed, “I miss the way she smells.” Then he grinned impishly and added, “She smells like an old person.”
It was one of the most genuinely romantic statements I’ve ever heard, and it seems to me that any successful marriage must embrace numberless such sentiments. The romance in our religion, in our relationship with God, takes the form of piety: of candles lit, of places of pilgrimage returned to, of gestures, of holy cards in wallets, favorite images, favorite songs, devotions, phrases that stick with us. Are any of these particulars the core of the faith? Not at all. But without them, the faith begins to feel rather arid.
The wonderful thing about a Catholic culture such as Poland’s is that the faith has become incarnate there in the myriad details of the people’s piety. It’s incarnate in a genuflection before communion, in shrines like Czestochowa, in parish traditions. I was privileged to be present at a priest’s first Mass, an event rich in traditions that involve not just the priest, but his entire parish. Everyone, it seemed, had some unique and special role. It’s a particular feature of genuinely Catholic piety that it is rarely ever entirely personal but usually draws us into a deeper relationship with that great cosmic circle of God’s friends we call the Church.
In thinking about the “romance” of popular piety, I was reminded of the famous words about falling in love with God from Pedro Arrupe, former superior general of the Jesuits, a quotation which I think hints at the profound practicality of all that Polish piety:
Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.