Informal markers of piety and devotion
December 14, 2016 8:25 AM   Subscribe

Evangelical Christianity has the well-worn Bible. What informal markers of piety and devotion do other faiths/sects/spiritual practises have?

I'm looking for examples that aren't enforced or encouraged by official doctrine, but it's okay if they're talked about approvingly by leaders, as with the well-worn Bible. They should be things that indicate that someone has gone well above and beyond official requirements in their dedication to the faith.
posted by clawsoon to Religion & Philosophy (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The zebibah, or "prayer bump", a mark made by years of pressing one's forehead to the floor to pray to Allah.
posted by Etrigan at 8:36 AM on December 14, 2016 [9 favorites]

The Islamic prayer bump has been extensively written up.
posted by yeahlikethat at 8:37 AM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

According to the great movie "The Apostle" with Robert Duvall and elsewhere, "Pentecost Croup" occurs when you're hoarse from preaching/shouting so much.
posted by Melismata at 8:46 AM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Depends on the church, somewhat, as there are groups that essentially REQUIRE very rigid dress standards, but in more mainstream protestant/evangelical groups I feel that there is a way of dressing and grooming (especially for women) that fits this description.

- clothing that is not only modest in the usually accepted sense but somewhat fashion-contrarian/plain.
- hair that is either very simply styled or not styled at all, except in some very utilitarian sense.

Somehow the men in these settings always manage to look more mainstream/professional while achieving the same effect/praise...
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:57 AM on December 14, 2016

As an Irish Catholic I would offer up: well-worn Rosary beads, a small holy water font by the door to bless yourself as you enter and leave, having holy water about you in general (a small bottle in the car for example), and a Sacred Heart picture on the wall probably of the living room (fun fact - my Mum used hers as a lie detector).
posted by billiebee at 9:23 AM on December 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

A mezuzah – I've even spotted them on industrial garages and the like.
posted by zadcat at 10:08 AM on December 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is super inside-baseball, but in the Modern / Centrist Orthodox Jewish community, having a sefira beard (not shaving your beard on the days between Passover and Lag Ba'Omer) does this, since technically you're allowed to shave if you need to look well-groomed for work. So intentionally getting scruffy means you either have a job in the religious world, or you care more about following the custom than about what your boss thinks.

FWIW in the Orthodox community (and a healthy percentage of Conservatives as well), having multiple mezuzahs is standard practice.
posted by Mchelly at 12:35 PM on December 14, 2016 [4 favorites]

The Catholic church is filled with these—in addition to the rosary, medals and scapulars are very common.
posted by Polycarp at 1:38 PM on December 14, 2016

Catholics might show this with

the 'style' of the Sign of the Cross--
i have seen folks who make mini-signs at each body location.
small sign at top of head;
small sign at heart;
at left shoulder;
at right shoulder;
so four signs of the cross as one action.

how deeply one genuflects;

or by never, ever chewing the Host.
posted by calgirl at 1:54 PM on December 14, 2016

I think that whether one chews the host (communion wafer) is probably more a matter of age than piety. In the 1960s, we were taught to never chew the host, but to let it dissolve in our mouths, and communion wafers were purposely made very thin so that they would dissolve without being chewed. Later, hosts were made thicker so that you pretty much have to chew them. It's quite likely that older Catholics are trying to stick with the rules they were initially taught. Because there have been so many changes in the Catholic Church in the last sixty years, Catholics who are just doing what they've always done might appear to be more devout.

I have never seen the multiple signing calgirl describes, but as the reading of the gospel begins during Mass, older Catholics will make the sign of the cross over their foreheads, mouths, and hearts. I wouldn't call this a sign of being especially devout. Again, they are just doing what they were taught as children.

Many women and even young girls who attend Latin Mass today wear mantillas. The Catholic Church stopped requiring women to cover their heads in the 1960s, so I would consider this a mark of devotion. However, I have only seen it at Latin Mass, which most Catholics do not attend, so it might not be widely recognized by Catholics.

In general, I agree with billiebee, but would add a St. Christopher's medal in the car. St. Christopher is the patron of travelers.
posted by FencingGal at 6:07 PM on December 14, 2016

Pictures of The Last Supper in the house.
posted by SLC Mom at 6:28 PM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

A well worn Book of Common Prayer for Episcopalians/Anglicans.
posted by SyraCarol at 7:04 PM on December 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

A nightly full family participation rosary recitation is a practice found in (my experience) a small percentage of Catholic households, but is certainly highly approved of as a mark of great piety.
posted by forthright at 7:30 PM on December 14, 2016

[wikipedia] "A temple garment, also referred to as garments, the garment of the holy priesthood, or Mormon underwear, is a type of underwear worn by adherents of the Latter Day Saint movement after they have taken part in the endowment ceremony. Garments are worn both day and night and are required for any adult who previously participated in the endowment ceremony to enter a temple. The undergarments are viewed as a symbolic reminder of the covenants made in temple ceremonies and are seen as a symbolic and/or literal source of protection from the evils of the world.

The garment is given as part of the washing and anointing portion of the endowment. Today, the temple garment is worn primarily by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and by members of some Mormon fundamentalist churches.
Adherents consider them to be sacred and not suitable for public display. Anti-Mormon activists have occasionally publicly displayed or defaced temple garments to advance their opposition to the LDS Church.

Temple garments are sometimes derided as "magic underwear" by non-Mormons, but Mormons view this terminology to be both misleading and offensive."
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:37 PM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

zadcat: "A mezuzah – I've even spotted them on industrial garages and the like."

I don't think this example is on-point because mezuzahs are meant to fulfill a specific biblical commandment:
In mainstream, i.e. Rabbinic Judaism, a mezuzah is affixed to the doorframe of Jewish homes to fulfill the mitzvah (Biblical commandment) to inscribe the words of the Shema "on the doorposts of your house" (Deuteronomy 6:9).
The OP specifically asked for things "that aren't enforced or encouraged by official doctrine." In Judaism, there is a specific term for traditions that are passed down as part of Jewish practice that reflect custom but that are not considered legally binding as a matter of Jewish law. The term for such a custom is a "minhag" (plural "minhagim").
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:20 PM on December 14, 2016

For Jews, probably the most common such thing would be wearing a Star of David as jewelry, usually a necklace. Such ornamentation might not necessarily signal "piety" or "devotion," though, but rather a desire to visibly identify as Jewish.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:23 PM on December 14, 2016

If you see a Hindu wearing a red thread (kalava) on their wrist, it means they've recently attended some kind of religious ceremony.
posted by Aravis76 at 1:43 AM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

In Anglicanism/Church of England, having your own special pew, and as an extension of that, a kneeler that you always use (and may even have tapestried yourself!).
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 2:36 AM on December 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

More Roman Catholic markers:

-Ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday (it is not a Holy Day of Obligation so Mass is optional).
-Dried palm fronds in the home (usually arranged in a cross or around a picture of Jesus) from Palm Sunday
posted by castlebravo at 8:13 AM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is pretty derail-y, but I keep coming back to this question, because I think it's really interesting from a Jewish perspective. It seems to be framed from a place of mild hypocrisy (the link to the "well-worn bible" is satire), or at least of a "what could a nonreligious person show or have, to be perceived by pious / very religious people as actually being pious / very religious?" But in Judaism, actions and piety don't always go hand in hand. There are Orthodox Jews who observe everything to the letter but are on the fence about believing in G-d. And there are Reform Jews who don't observe halacha in any ways that obviously manifest physically, but are still deeply religious - and still observing in a way that works within Reform doctrine. It's easy to make the assumption that a person's level of observance of the Torah laws is the measure of how religious they are, because doing more feels like it should equal caring more deeply. But that's why we have the Talmud in the first place - that's just your opinion, man. After a certain point, doing more just means doing more.

I love the mezuzah answer on this because it straddles all of the issues, and simultaneously shows how the question may not have a Jewish answer. We're required to put a mezuzah on doorposts and gates. Halacha makes it more clear which doors that applies to - not on the bathroom or a closet, but yes on a gate if it's above a certain height. You're not required to have on at your place of business, though many people do. A lot of people will put them on their garage doors, but others will say that's not necessary.

So for a Reform Jew, one on the front door is generally considered enough - having more, and especially having one on the garage would stand out, where it never would for an Orthodox Jew and rarely for a Conservative one. But for a religious Reform Jew, I'm not sure it would be seen as a sign of religiosity/piety, as much as "oh, you do that?" It's only highly symbolic to the outsiders looking in. Because the more invested you are in Judaism, the more you know that you start from the laws, and then you divide different people's way of observing those laws into chumras (super strict observances) and kulas (the loosest interpretations of how to observe), and know that most people who are in your religious subgroup are somewhere in the middle. To paraphrase George Carlin on driving speeds - everyone who does less than you is a sinner, everyone who does more than you is crazy.

So basically, the only markers a nonreligious person could show to fool a religious Jew into thinking they're one too, would basically entail following enough of the laws to become - de facto - a religious Jew themselves by that person's metric. I suppose it's possible to keep a kosher home ironically, but from the viewpoint of Judaism, G-d doesn't care why you do it or how you feel about it.

Having said all that, wearing a kippah / yarmulke isn't a mitzvah, it's just a custom. So technically anyone wearing one - especially in secular circumstances - is showing a level of piety whether or not they actually believe. So there's that.
posted by Mchelly at 8:44 AM on December 15, 2016 [5 favorites]

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Mchelly. Even more derail-y, but in line with your thoughts, I was originally also thinking of Black Bumper Mennonites, but they were ruled out because the sign of piety - painting over your car's chrome - was an official requirement for membership. (Now it's only a requirement for pastors; I'm not sure if it still acts as a sign of piety among the membership.) The various Old Order Mennonite groups sound similar to your depiction of some Jewish groups, in that the faith is very action-oriented, rather than belief- or emotion-oriented. That complicates the question a bit.

Or maybe it doesn't. Hmm. The zebibah is a great example of what I'm looking for, because it's a side effect rather than a direct effect, and it only comes from long practise. One doesn't imagine someone getting plastic surgery to create a zebibah, just like one doesn't imagine a line of pre-distressed Bibles, except as satire. And both of those side effects come from repeated actions. Is there anything like a pious-action-created "Jewish thumb", or maybe bald spots attributed to the long wearing of the yarmulke? Does repeated wearing of the red string in Hinduism lead to sore wrists, or giant piles of red string at home, or something like that? Do pious Mormons get Temple Garment Itch? Do pious Catholics get holy water stains?

Narrowing the question, I'm thinking that the best informal signs of piety are ones that can't be bought off-the-shelf, wouldn't necessarily be easily recognized by outsiders, and are maybe a little unflattering unless you know the long devotional practise that lies behind them.
posted by clawsoon at 10:02 AM on December 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

To clarify the specific examples that have led me to choose some answers: Well-worn rosary beads/prayer books, scruffy beards, dried-out palm fronds. They all capture an otherwise-unflattering side effect of devotional practise that I wasn't able to articulate when I first wrote the question but which capture what I was looking for.
posted by clawsoon at 10:32 AM on December 15, 2016

Like the Rosary, some Buddhists may have well-worn malas from use in chanting.
posted by spinifex23 at 11:50 AM on December 15, 2016

The dried-out palm fronds also appear in the rear windows of the Baptist cars in my area. I saw one just the other day, many months from Easter (with a well-worn Bible, also in the rear window).
posted by pupsocket at 11:59 AM on December 15, 2016

There's a lot of subtle signalling in dress and grooming among different Orthodox Jewish groups. I'm not sure whether you'd distinguish between a signal that means "extra pious" and one that means "member of group with a reputation for piety", though. There's no intrinsic reason why a Jew with a knitted kippa (usually associated with more modern, especially Zionist groups) should be more pious than one wearing a black hat associated with Chassidic or other ultra-religious groups - but that's the reputation the groups have.

Within a particular group, it generally has more to do with behavior than other symbols. There can still be external signs, though. For instance, male Chabad (Lubavitch) Chassidim are supposed to wear a hat and jacket at least at prayer times. If you see them wearing those items on other occasions it might indicate that they're very punctilious about prayer, including preparatory blessings before food and grace after meals. In other Chassidic groups some women will wear a headscarf because they consider wigs to be modern and/or flashy; the men will wear white shirts (more formal!) but generally not ties (so flashy and goyish). People that do otherwise will look as though they're deliberately positioning themselves on the fringes of their community and hence probably less pious. But as Mchelly said, to the insiders it's behavior, not these relatively trivial externalities, that counts.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:10 PM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

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