William Bortz, "Piety"

Below, I offer a reading of William Bortz's poem "Piety." I am curious to hear about your experience with religion and how it impacts your thinking. ashok DOT raj DOT karra AT gmail.com.

What is piety? It's not a word I use a lot.

Being pious, a virtue. A virtue of religion? Duty, devotion to religion. Observance.

There's pietà. Pity, compassion. Not necessarily duty.

Maybe not even religious.

Piety (from The Grief We're Given)
William Bortz 

we are all out 
to sea 
some looking for a 
others, a current


Took me a while to realize people went to church for very different reasons.

(Everything sounds the same when you’re not really listening.)

Some are really hurting. Some want to fit in. For still others, this is all they know.

I know a number need the service, the ritual. All the other things a church does might as well not be there for them.


“We are all out / to sea.” Everyone in a different direction, drifting. A few barely hanging on. Quite a few who are lost. There are those who think they know where they’re going and why. Land and others nowhere in sight for long stretches of time.

I like to say that being lonely makes you part of the largest group of people, but that’s never comforted me.

“Out / to sea” speaks why. There are billions on the waves, but no one has to ever see you. Or be near you.


Out to sea, we look “for a / lighthouse.” Or a “current.” What matters, it seems, is the sensation.

The feeling of being guided into port. Resting where one can. Or the feeling of motion, going swiftly, cutting through what was an obstacle.


Sometimes there’s prayer, and it’s less than honest. While Hopkins’ fragment “Summa” is beautiful, I wonder how it works with certain believers:

The best ideal is the true
 And other truth is none.
All glory be ascribèd
 To the holy Three in One.

“The best ideal is the true” doesn’t say to “love your neighbor” or “do no harm.” While no moral rule is perfect, they’re starting points for dealing with the mess life throws at us.

“The best ideal is the true” could lead someone to take a prayerful, meditative vision and fight for justice. Bring gentleness into being.

But it can go other places. “And other truth is none”—I’ve seen this in action. From what I can tell, Hopkins was no bigot. However, I know plenty who use their beliefs to dehumanize rather than uplift. “Other truth is none” is a deadly slogan in the United States.


I don’t know what honest prayer is. I might know something about emotional honesty. About being clear about how we want to feel. What results for us and others.

I come back to the end of Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility” often:

For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

It’s just a gesture. “Spreading wide my narrow Hands.”

Like dancing alone, in the privacy of one’s room.

No one can be hurt by it. It may not work. But the orientation is positive. “To gather Paradise.”

If it does work, in what does one believe?