By George Roughead, Latin and History Teacher
“Let’s start at the beginning, a very good place to start” was the advice of Julie Andrews. The question can often be: What is the beginning? The Lord tells us where to begin our journey. The first commandment is to acknowledge that God is God and that we are not; the first commandment dealing with other humans is to honor our parents. The combination of these commandments, reverence for the supreme good and respect for our ancestors, may be the key to understanding piety.
Piety comes from the Latin word pietas, but knowing that root doesn’t really give us a great clue as to what the word means. We’re in luck with the Greek word, eusebeia, which is connected with pietas. Eusebeia can be broken down into two parts: Eu, meaning good, and sebas, meaning awe or reverence. To be pious must mean something close to revering what is good. This also implies that you can be impious and revere what is bad. In the Roman context, to be pius meant to be dutiful and patriotic and good. There is an implied directive in the Roman understanding that to be a good person, you have to have an understanding that you are part of the nation, and that service to the nation is part of what it means to be good. It means that to be virtuous, you must respect the traditions and expectations that were given to you and carry them out.
Contrast this with our modern imperatives of hedonism, self-expression, and creativity. There are few things that we push more on young people than these. We don’t ask them to think about what those before them have done; we ask them to disregard these things. We don’t ask them what to revere outside themselves; we ask them to find what is worth revering within themselves.
The pagan ideas of the past were often half-truths, but there is truth to be salvaged within the Roman perspective. The truth of participating in God’s Kingdom is worth saving. The truth that self-expression and creativity aren’t meant to be aimless and self-gratifying but should fit within the central mission of the Kingdom is worth salvaging. Critical thought and actions should be compared against God’s truths set forth in the Bible and placed in the proper order of God’s light. If we tell a better story—that a young person is created for a purpose which is clear and eternal, not obscure or lasting only as long as a piece of chocolate cake—then we can capture the hearts of the youth. Then they will take one giant leap toward the highest good of self-giving love and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Julie Andrews mentors us again, “A job well begun is half done." A young person with pious roots has a destination and a task but not the tools. Let education give them the tools to complete their task and reach their destination.