Last week I heard an insightful homily regarding outward acts of piety. The priest observed that there are some who seem to have deep spiritual lives, but what they do outwardly is actually covering up for a very deep interior wound. To take it further, he observed that there are those who are ever-ready and ever-armed with liturgical, or other books, and prepared to leap upon the smallest error in the liturgy - yet this isn't really their issue. He surmises that there is something deeper there, covered by the outward anger and vigilance.
To be clear, he was not saying that outward piety was a bad thing or that we do not have a right to a properly celebrated liturgy. Rather, his point was very simple: do not look merely upon outward acts and assume that is the whole story.
All of us are carrying about deep wounds, some bleeding, some scars, and we do different things to cover them up so that others cannot see. This is why we need the Confessional, for there we can bare our souls to the Divine Physician. This is why we need prayer, for there we can bring our spiritual torments to the only One who understands how to make us complete.
It is a temptation to look at the lives of others, and their pious acts, and try to compare ourselves to them. In Lent, it is a temptation to compare our failings to the claimed or visible "successes" of others and conclude that for us, Lent has been a failure.
We cannot judge the souls of others, good or bad. We cannot see if their piety is only outward, hiding a seething mass of anxiety or sin. We cannot see if someone's anger, off-putting in appearance, may truly be fueled by a life of holiness.
It is said that Blessed Mother Teresa was a hard woman, yet there is no doubt about her holiness. They say the light of God just shone through her. Yet we also know how she struggled in years of spiritual darkness. Her outward smiles, her ability to care for and love others, her ability to pray, outwardly, told us only a little about her.
There are many Saints whose flaws were apparent to all, and yet, they lived lives of deep devotion and holiness. There's no such thing as a "cookie-cutter" saint, a Saint that ran around on tiptoes, hands open, floating along on clouds of devotion.
It may be tempting to look at this or that person who spends hours in the chapel and claims to fast and pray constantly, and seek to be like them, but this is one of the biggest spiritual mistakes anyone can make. Do not be "like someone else." Be who YOU are - fully - in the face of God.
During Lent we are called to acts of penance, abstinence, fasting, and alms, and each of us does this with some degree of success or failure. The litmus test before God is not one of comparison with others, but resides entirely in our own relationship with God - and with His Church.
Every Saint became a Saint simply because he or she knew him or herself in relation to God, and responded by being fully who they were called to be. They were all human and had human flaws, but in true piety, they never gave up seeking the face of God. They never gave up falling before His Throne in prayer, humility, and obedience. They did not try to copy someone else, or compare themselves to the Saints that had gone before them. Instead, they brought everything they were, from personality to temperament, to favorite sins and passions, to favorite devotions and, above all, their love for Christ - and they were transformed, little by little, so that they could become holy as their Father in heaven is Holy.
That's true piety. That is what makes a Saint.
Do not get caught up in the sin of spiritual comparison. In the spirit and advice of the Saints, assume the best of those you meet, look always to the example of Christ, and always continue onward, for it is He who awaits your love and devotion. It is He who thirsts for you. The world does not suffer from too many Saints; it suffers from not having enough.