Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Conspicuous Piety

Anonymous asked, "A quick question. "Don't be conspicuously pious" strikes home. So should I cross myself before having lunch with folks from the office?"
Some of my friends are for it, some are against it and I'm with my friends.  :)

Personally, I generally don't. I don't want to be identified as a Christian by my co-workers by my "pious acts" but rather by my Christian acts that they would not view as a public "show" of my religion.

Lately Tim Tebow has taken the issue of public displays of personal piety to a new level. (Not that no athlete has ever crossed themselves, prayed or knelt in the end zone before).  But for some reason he has spawned an "in your face" public piety that I think speaks of the polarization of evangelical American Christianity and the culture more than perhaps the piety and beliefs of those who practice it.

I will lay aside the fact that "this is a free country and we can pray, bow, chant or stand on our heads for Christ, Allah, Zeus, the Cosmic Chicken King, or our Fairy God-mother."  That is not the issue. What we are free to do does not make doing it edifying nor compelling to those who watch.

The issue for me is, who is it for and what does it accomplish?
Of course there are those who think crossing, praying in public and Tebowing are "standing up for Christ".  Perhaps. It does take a degree of either courage or social unawareness to do something in public that would be viewed as stupid or offensive by some. However, doing something socially awkward and offensive, even if it is well intended or even religiously motivated doesn't make it good, it just means the "doer" is well, offensive and awkward.  That's why multi-level marketing works.  And just because someone is insulted for a display of anything doesn't make one a martyr for the cause.  Street evangelists with loudspeakers who harass passers-by are rightfully persecuted for being annoying asses whether they are selling cell phone plans or salvation.  But is this all on the same level as crossing one's self before a meal in front of friends?

The questions for me are: "Is it really standing up for Christ?" and "Who is it for?" Personally, I tend to think of religious displays done publicly as standing on the street corner making a show that might impress some other Christians.  I think it drives a wedge between me and a cynical unbeliever that I would never reach with pious behavior but possibly can reach with love.  I would rather have someone not be surprised if they saw me cross myself than to be surprised that I DO cross myself, if you get my drift.  The "aroma of Christ" and the "adornment of holiness" is, according to St. Paul, our lives, not our words or "washing of hands" in public.  The true sign of the Cross is the crucified life, the outward sign (the "icon", if you will) of the Cross must have a correspondence to something real (incarnate, if you will) to those who witness it.  Without the correspondence and integrity of the incarnate and the sign/icon, the outward is merely a potential for an awkward moment or possibly an offense, and perhaps worse, an hypocrisy waiting to be called out.  That is why I don't buy making the sign of the cross as a particularly good thing to do even though it is congruent with the fine points of Orthodox theology. We should not expect to be judged favorably or accurately by those who do not share our theological paradigm, nor should we begin "teaching them" about our faith with displays of private piety and the esoterica of our religion.  Our initial point of contact should be the common ground of both our experiences and expectations of "true religion" (and ultimately what the sign of the Cross really MEANS and really points both of us to): self sacrificial love for one's neighbor.  Even the irreligious can understand that and can be impressed by it. Becoming all things to all men, according to St. Paul, sometimes means giving up the trappings of our personal piety in order to not be judged wrongly by the unbeliever.

IF someone I know ever converts and asks why I didn't cross myself and pray in front of them, I'd just say I didn't want to make them uncomfortable or offend them out of respect for their beliefs at the time.

All that said, I'm inconsistent and it depends on who I am with. I generally pray or cross myself if I am with other Christians (even some evangelicals). I generally don't in a mixed group with people I don't know and who don't know me well enough to know I am either a Christian or at least a "helluva nice guy". If I'm eating alone or when I DO make a sign of the Cross in a public setting, I keep it small and quick because its for me, not everyone else. 

So for me, I'd rather be seen in public taking up my cross and dying to myself than crossing myself.  Of course, it's not an "either/or" but I better be damned sure if I go for the "both/and" I better have both lest I put the Cross to open shame and hold it up to public ridicule by my actions (I think St. Paul in Hebrews has something about that...). 

By the way, yes, I'd put an icon in my cubicle.


Sean+ said...

Simply put, this is the best thing I have read on this subject yet. And it does help me somewhat to sort out the issues.

Øystein said...

Good points. But how is an icon on the desk any different? Don't you run the same risk of seeming pious, when your actions may not be very pious? In other words should I wait until I am more saintly? (one can wait a rather long wait).

Anonymous said...

My confessor wants the icon on my desk. He thinks I'm less likely to repeat certain sins in the presence of the Theotokos.

Matushka Anna said...

When I was last working in a hospital as a nurse, we tended to carry three-ring binders around with us so that patient information would be covered (as opposed to a clipboard). Everyone decorated theirs in some way so that it was immediately obvious whose was whose - most people inserting family photos under the clear plastic cover. I had photos too, but I also had two small laminated icons of Christ and the Theotokos. Given the work that I was doing I needed to be able to pick up my notebook and see them there. A few times (only a few, in a few years) someone would notice and ask, but most people would simply notice but not ask, which was fine with me. A lapsed Greek Orthodox doctor once wondered out loud whose notebook it was. When I told him it was mine he was surprised I wasn't Greek. (: They were very small icons and I didn't feel they were conspicuous. More people noticed the normal-sized cross I wore than the icons.

Steve Robinson said...

Anon, Yep. That is usually my advice to folks. There's just some things you don't do in front of your Mother. The "communion of the saints" has some very practical consequences if we really believe it.

Oystein, (and Matushka), somehow having religious art isn't as "in your face" as a religious ACT performed in a public place. It's the difference between an athlete having a tattoo of a cross and making a sign of the cross or Tebowing after every play. But of course you are right, for someone who might know what the icon means or takes your art seriously you could be tagged as a Christian then you have to prove it. I've been in my cubicle for 5 months and I haven't moved my icon in yet. I think at this point everyone knows me well enough and many of them know I'm Orthodox (or at least a Christian) so it wouldn't be a surprise to anyone. IF anyone were interested enough to ask about it, it could be a talking point without being an awkward conversation now.

tabitha said...

If it were just me and my husband, we would probably not pray aloud out and about. (for better or worse)

We have 4 kids who are also converts, 9 years down to 3, and they insist we pray at meals even if we are in a taqueria. My 9 y o stands, faces east, and prays aloud.

Now, he isn't doing it for anyone else. So I stand with him and pray. He is an excellent example for us.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Interesting post & comments.

I think this explains why Tebow's piety annoys me, but Polamalu's doesn't. No one is going around making fun of Polamalu by crossing themselves frequently (bec his piety isn't obnoxious & showy) I suppose my annoyance at Tebow is something to repent from.

todd said...

I remember reading that as part of his piety (presumably in obedience) St. John Maximovich walked barefoot. But then he was told, in Russian, to 'carry his shoes', which generally means to wear shoes. From then on, he used some creative piety, carrying his shoes in his hands wherever he went.
My spiritual mother told me some time ago not to mind what others think, but that I should cross myself before Christ prior to eating. So of course, that is my practice.
Another Orthodox woman one time told me that I should wear my cross as a blessing, under my shirt. And though she was pretty much a stranger, I took her word to be from God. So that has been my practice. (Maybe this sort of obedience is naive?) I sometimes wonder if God might ever send another who will tell me that I should wear my cross outside my shirt.

Steve Robinson said...

Fr. Benedict, I hope no one takes my personal opinion/actions as "spiritual direction". As I indicated, it is an open discussion.

I've thought more about it today and here are some further considerations:

How did doing public displays of personal piety become defined as "standing up for" or "being counted as for Christ" when Jesus Himself told us to do our personal piety and religious traditions in our closets? The sign of the Cross and prayer (which the sign of the Cross is) are NOT to be done publicly but out of sight. It seems to me that things that belong to the realm of pious actions or ritual are primarily acts of prayer, worship, devotion and liturgy which belong to and in those contexts. The "crucified LIFE" (being an icon of the love of Christ to our neighbor) belongs to relationships, and when in conflict love trumps ritual and pious tradition. The Gospel is clear on that.

I am not sure that feeling guilty or applying guilt or shame for being embarrassed doing religious rituals in public and being labelled defacto spiritually or perhaps psychologically "weak" is helpful when in fact it may be that it is the more discerning and spiritual path. Indeed, lots to consider, more than I even originally thought and wrote about. Thanks!

Tabitha, I would tend to agree with you... your kids are more important than bystanders. I will scandalize a bystander before I would scandalize my child's faith. However, as you say, if my children were not present, I would do what I do.

Ochlophobist said...


God sent me to give you this message. You must now wear a cross outside of your shirt. It must be at least 12" long and weigh at least 2 lbs. Instead of a chain to hold the cross on, you are to use barbed wire. If you wear a coat in winter, it must be on the outside of the coat. It you swim in summer, you better swim with this puppy on. You might want to get another tetanus shot.


Steve Robinson said...

Och, you are bad, bad, bad. But you knew that... :)

amy said...

Sorry for not reading all previous comments before posting, but my bed is calling. The prophet Daniel has been on my mind much and it seems to me that his actions were both faithful and discrete (Daniel 6:11). He might be a model for us, neither changing his habit of prayer, nor shunning the open window. That being said, I cross myself before meals in public and in private. I find that this is a powerful habit and in the past when I have allowed myself to shirk it in company, I soon find myself eating unblessed food in private too.

Grace said...

This is such a great post. Thanks as always for the common sense and the honesty.

And I like the idea that I want to behave in front of co-workers and whoever else in such a way that IF I cross myself, they aren't surprised. "Oh, that explains it." Something like that.

todd said...

I've been warned about messages that start with,"God sent me to give you this message". I hope my naivety is tempered with a fragment of common sense.
But I love your words like a bucket of cold water splashed in the face. Thank you for being your brother's keeper.

Thomas said...

IMHO, as long as one's life consistently reflects the piety one displays outwardly in such gestures, I wouldn't see a problem. Crossing oneself, or praying before eating, and then yelling at the server over some perceived omission, *would* be a problem. As far as making others uncomfortable, I remember Paul's words: "...but we preach (kerusso - proclaim openly) Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness....) 1 Corinthians 1:23

Anonymous said...

Thomas, agreed the preaching of the cross can be an offense, but is doing prayer in public "preaching" or is it giving preemptive offense so the preaching won't be heard? As s-p mentioned, Jesus condemned public piety, not evangelism.

Anonymous said...

I currently don't cross myself in public primarily because I'm afraid people will think I'm weird--that doesn't seem like a very noble reason. But then, my motives don't necessarily have any bearing on whether or not the act is worth doing--Still, the fact remains that I don't cross myself in order to protect my pride.

s-p said that when he does make the sign of the cross in public, he does so for himself, and not for others. That seems like a good guideline. It's possible to imagine that praying in public would not be such a problem, were it not for our prideful purposes.

As far as basing the choice between crossing/not crossing on how I expect people will react to my piety--I don't think that I'm in a place where I can accurately predict whether they will take offense or not. It's such an unusual act in my neck of the woods, I'd bet the reaction would mostly be neutral. Who knows?

Here is my main question: In a more perfect world, ought not crossing oneself be a normal commonplace acknowledgment of the way the world is? Like eating healthy food, or putting oil in my car, isn't it something I ought to be able to do for my own good, without having to worry about offending others or inflating my pride?

Steve Robinson said...

Anon, Ah...more to think about. This just struck me. If we have an issue with pride, do we work on pride by doing something that Jesus condemned (public displays of piety) that embarrasses us to do in order to get over our pride. Why not do something that has no impact on other people's attitudes toward "people of faith" and God to work on our pride. Why not do something humiliating like wear mismatching clothes or a bad haircut or not wear deodorant? Pride is pride and there are lots of ways to work on it than Tebowing or "praying on streetcorners".

Fr. Obadiah van Jones said...

Most acts I keep relatively private, but if someone were to see me in the act of self-flagellation during my lunch break, I would explain what it meant, obviously. My body is my temple, and it's covered 73% by icons tatooed throughout various periods of my life, ie: Salve Regina in Latin on my left abdomen from when I successfully exorcised 100 demons from my ex-gay son. There are also my beaded necklaces, 24k gold icon rings on (right hand only) and various scar-icons on my chest and arms - but these are covered by clothing.

Steve Robinson said...

Fr. Obadiah, your comment reminds me of St. Paul's statement, "I bear the marks of Christ in my flesh", referring to his scars of persecution. Perhaps we have exchanged making the sign of the Cross for bearing the signs of the Cross as our "witness" because the only persecution we generally have in our country and culture is political marginalization, Hollywood caricatures of our worst expressions and getting our feelings hurt.

Joseph Barabbas Theophorus said...

I see a subtle (or maybe not so subtle) change from the O.P. creeping in. At the beginning, we were talking about "really standing up for Christ" and "self sacrificial love for one's neighbor". But now things have flip-flopped: doing things for oneself is being praised, Jesus supposedly condemned public piety (!), and the idea of things being objective is now showing its head. It's always hard to tell if I am taking these words in a way other than they were meant due not only to the general inadequacy of language but the further limitation of words alone, but I figured these would be helpful points in any case.

First, we need to be careful when we talk about doing things for ourselves. Ideally, our lives should be selfless. That doesn't simply mean less and less selfish, but living with the realization that we have our being through others. We only exist, in an ontological sense, because we exist in relation to other persons (especially the Persons of the Trinity, Who sustain us first and foremost). Our lives should reflect this fact: everything we do should be for others (especially the Persons of the Trinity), whether it be what we call "piety", our "work", "entertainment", or anything else.

Second, Jesus did not condemn public piety as such (like the Divine Liturgy, for instance...), but piety done to glorify the "self". This is why, while telling us on one hand to go into our closets, He also told us to be as lights shining before men. In an ironic sort of way (at least ironic to us today), our actions are selfish because we care about others too little, not too much! That is, we try by our actions to make others give us some of their own life (attention, praise, etc) rather then giving our lives for them. This is a tough thing to comprehend, and a tough thing to even speak about, but if we don't make the radical transition from trying to be less selfish (the attainment of which can itself become a selfish passion) to complete selflessness wherein we take no thought of ourselves at all and live only for others (primarily the Persons of the Trinity), it just isn't love.

Third, we cannot divorce the action from the heart behind the action. There are no such things as objective actions and no such thing as objective truth. Sometimes we use these terms for the sake of convenience, but we must be aware that the actual concepts are pagan to the core. We believe in Absolute, Relative, Personal Truth: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Absolute, for the Trinity is without change. Relative, for they exist in a relationship and we exist the same way: only by being in some type of relationship with them. Personal, for they are Persons, not impersonal objects, ideas, values, laws, codes, or "things". Thus, there is no objectively good thing or action. Something is good only in so much that it reflects the Absolute Nature of Divinity, exists in and works to support a genuine relationship, and has as its beginning and end the love of persons. I don't think I need to go into the many lives of saints whose actions did not fit into to the modern, secular, pseudo-Orthodox pattern of behavior and morality or the many heretics who were, also by today's crazy "standards", near-perfect churchmen to demonstrate this.

I don't really want to say much about the O.P. itself. I do like Thomas' short comment, though; I think it captures my general thoughts fairly well, at least as I understand it in the light of what I've just written (especially my second point).

Steve Robinson said...

Joseph, Indeed the comments have taken twists and turns but in most ways I think, still addressing the points of the original point perhaps on a more personal level for the commenters. As someone pointed out, in a perfect world with perfect motives this wouldn't be an issue. I agree with your points regarding relationships which is (I think) at the heart of the original post's focus: what does public piety do to our relationships with unbelievers. We could run a gamut of "Orthodox behavior" from a discreet sign of the Cross to demanding time from our employers as our "religious rights" to do 3rd, 6th and 9th Hours during our work day and conspicuously pray them in our cubicles with bows and prostrations. I agree that there is no "objectivity" of pious behavior and that was the thrust of the original post, it is judged by those who watch and is thus relational. If it were not, it would not be an issue. It is only in that sense that making the sign of the Cross is "for one's self" if it must be done discreetly to avoid being perceived as "overly pious" and perhaps closing the door on a potential relationship.

I can't remember who I read years ago, but he said there are things that belong to the Church and in the Church and are not meant to be paraded before the world (that is why the Eucharist used to be "private"). He said "the Gospel belongs to the world (preaching and evangelism), worship and prayer belongs to the Church". I liked that. I think that may sum up some of my thoughts that we shouldn't see or use "prayer" as an evangelistic method nor make it a litmus test of one's "boldness" as a Christian before the world. Thanks for the excellent thoughts.

matushka constantina said...

I wouldn't normally comment on this since the question was directed at me. But, just today our priest read from St. Nikodemus on scandals (unfortunately this text is not in English). St. Nikodemus says that we should be careful not create scandalize others (ie. create stumbling blocks for them). But when something is correct we should do it, whether or not someone becomes scandalized, because if the other person is scandalized in those circumstances he is so for the wrong reasons. So, the example given was when we walk in front of an Orthodox Church we make our cross even if another will be scandalized because it is the right thing to do. This sounded awfully similar to whether or not we should cross ourselves in public before eating, so that's way I've shared it. Whereas, as St. Paul said today, we could avoid eating meat - and similar things - if it were to scandalize our brother, but we should not avoid confessing Christ when we should.

Steve Robinson said...

Matushka, thank you for the quote. I agree there are certain things that are "right", especially morally. However St. Nicodemus and many of the other saints were writing about Orthodox behavior in a context of an "Orthodox culture" and nation where it was the norm, not an abberation nor one of 10,000 brands of Christianity. What is "right" in terms of a pious custom done publicly in OUR context and their effect on our relationships with non-Orthodox in a cultural context where Orthodoxy is virtually unknown and "evangelical-in-your-face "Christianity" is obnoxious and a stumbling block, I think, is not addressed by some of the Saint's writings. For me it is a matter of discerning which "right" pious custom is "expedient" in certain situations.

Jeremiah said...

This is a great discussion, and one I've wondered about often. I don't usually cross myself before meals (or even pray), mainly because I'm forgetful (and partly because I'm prideful). But I guess I usually think I should.

A distinction might be made between public piety and piety in public, where the difference is precisely that the former is done for others and the latter for oneself. What are the considerations in favor of foregoing the latter for fear of the former? The only that have come out so far that I can see are (1) offending others and (2) finding a sense of pride in one's religiosity and (3) putting the Cross to shame.

None of these seem particularly good, at least in my own case. (1) I honestly can't think of anyone who would be *offended* by my crossing myself. Some might think less of me, or feel a bit uncomfortable, but I don't think those are very significant. (2) I admit this is a danger, but, as I said, I am equally prone to being ashamed of my religion. This might be where some spiritual direction is needed, but insofar as I worry more about the latter, crossing myself in public might be a good combative. And (3) seems to be a bit of a slippery slope - if I am worried about this, shouldn't I do my best just to keep my Christianity completely hidden, given my sinfulness.

I guess my thought about this particular issue, at least when it comes to crossing ourselves before a meal, is this: This is just what we do before meals, we should do it in a non-flashy way, but also not be ashamed to be seen doing it. (Cf. Tertullian, writing in a time of general persecution: "in all our coming in and going out, in putting of our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupieth us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross")

modestinus said...

The fact this is even being discussed is pretty darn absurd. The moment you become self-conscious of Crossing yourself in public is the second you should stop.

With that said, I've never actually seen anyone "Tebow," but I've certainly seen the Orthodox equivalent 500,000 times. Whatever. To this day I really don't know who was being sincere and who was putting on a show...well, wait, never mind -- of course I did. I just knew I wasn't "supposed" to think about it. If there is anything to love about Old Believer piety (and I actually think there are several things to love about it), its not all of the prostrations, but rather the strict uniformity of every Cross, bow, prostration, and kiss. There's no way in hell you can know if someone is being sincere, fraudulent, or -- more likely than not -- too scared/respectful to be the jerk who breaks ranks. But for the rest of Orthodoxy, its a free-for-all, both in and outside of church building. I guess that's true in Catholicism, too, but the only Catholics you see crossing themselves a lot outside of Mass are old ladies and baseball players. That's fine with me.

David said...

Jeremiah's post has expressed my thoughts on this matter very succinctly.

In most situations, is a quick crossing of oneself before a meal really so "in your face" as we're making it out to be? I'm not so sure.

The only exception I can think of (in my own case) is when I am among certain Protestant Christians who are praying before a meal--I don't think I should cross myself when my Dad blesses the food, because I'm pretty sure he'd take that to mean: "Hey, look how Orthodox we are!" Even that exception stems mostly from the nature of our relationship, and the fact that we were in conflict over my decision to convert.

Jeremiah said...


Not everyone is lucky enough to have all they think and do strike them as utterly obvious. Some have to struggle; and that may be cause for pity, but not scorn.

Anyway, the principle "don't do anything that makes you self-conscious" seems like a pretty bad one. The reason the crossings and bows of the Old Believers you mention come naturally is because they are for them part of an ingrained habit. Habits develop in stages, and the earliest stages are almost always accompanied by a feeling of self-consciousness. To stop at that stage is to refuse to grow. One reason to cross yourself even when you feel self-conscious is in the hope that soon it will not be self-conscious.

Steve Robinson said...

Modestinus, Jeremiah and David, I agree "self-conciousness" is not a good measure, but as David pointed out "other conciousness" is, which is the point of the original post. I would probably say that we should be other concious enough that some things we do as "second nature" aren't so second nature we neglect to see their impact on others. All in all, I don't think in general crossing ones self would be deadly to a relationship, but as David pointed out it can be a speedbump. The uniformity of the Old Believer's piety in Church would not necessarily be a good thing outside of a Church service or setting.

Jason said...

Good thoughts all around. I have an icon in my cube and I do cross myself in public, though my concern isn’t with offending people, it’s rather the other end of the spectrum: I find that I’m incredibly uncomfortable and worried about what people will think of me. Now as a 45 year old adult you would think I should be way past being concerned what others think, but apparently I am not. I feel bad and guilty about such petty things, and as others have mentioned it seems in some ways that I am ashamed to acknowledge Jesus in public (before the Father). I realize it’s more complicated than proof-texting but it does make me wonder why this is such a big deal to me. Perhaps this should be a point of confession for me during Great Lent. Thanks for the post Steve, great stuff!

Ochlophobist said...

I think that because I am so concerned about keeping my facial skin beautiful I should subject myself to facial flagellation this Lent, so that I learn humility and God loves me more. Plus when people ask why there are open wounds on my face I can witness to them.

Joseph Schmitt said...

I'm surprised that Polamalu hasn't come under heavier scrutiny. I consider his incessant crossing of himself to be infinitely more annoying and misguided than any of Tebow's piety. At least Tebow's piety, as insufferable as it is, bares a certain consistency with his faith, i.e. the belief that God really does care about everything (even football) and really wants Tim to succeed that He may receive some glory. But for Polamalu, he should, as an Orthodox, be keenly aware of two facts: 1) God does not give a damn about football, and 2) even if He did, chances are He's not charmed by the crossing of oneself at mach speed in a manner that is reminiscent of strumming a banjo.

For what it's worth, in the realm of piety in professional sports, I prefer the Barry Bonds approach, as he would, in particularly flashy manner, cross himself with his glove (and over his entire upper body at that .... oh how Orthodox....), nonchalantly catch a fly ball, flip it into his throwing hand, and toss it back to the infield, knowing good and well that he did it in his own strength, without the assistance of the incorporeals.