June 17, 2008

Discerning Modesty

Modesty has been a very interesting aspect of life as a Catholic woman, for me. Prior to my conversion, I never thought about things like modesty. As a teenager I certainly went out of my way to dress immodestly much of the time. Which isn't particularly shocking or surprising when you consider how distinctly immodest our society is (unless we're talking about breastfeeding in public, and then suddenly everyone turns into Ms. Sally Prudy Pants). Even the word "modesty" has distinctly negative connotations to it; it sounds dusty and uptight and isn't it synonymous whith "frumpy?" It's certainly not a word or a concept used by the average young woman. During my conversion I began to ponder modesty, although mostly in terms of what was appropriate garb for Mass. Around this time I also had a pretty significant weight loss, and after years of wearing jeans and T-shirts, I was itching to show off my hard work. While I certainly wasn't dressing in a blatantly provocative way, I was at times finding myself wearing clothing I would not have felt comfortable wearing to Mass, which gave me pause and caused me to seek out a deeper understanding of modesty. Incidentally, I recently learned that modesty is one of the 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit, so of course this all makes sense!

In the past, the Church has spoken pretty clearly on modesty. Pope Benedict the XV said, in 1921 (though it sounds as if our current Pope Benedict could be speaking of today!):

One can not sufficiently deplore the blindness of so many women of every age and station. Made foolish by a desire to please, they do not see to what degree the indecency of their clothing shocks every honest man and offends God. Most of them would formerly have blushed for such apparel as for a grave fault against Christian modesty. Now it does not suffice to exhibit themselves on public thoroughfares; they do not fear to cross the threshold of churches, to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and even to bear the seducing food of shameful passions to the Eucharistic Table, where one receives the Heavenly Author of Purity.

St. Padre Pio insisted on modesty, going so far as to turn women away from confession if they were immodestly dressed. His brothers eventually posted on a sign informing women that they must enter the confessional wearing a skirt at least 8 inches below the knee. This would certainly be quite shocking if it were to happen today. But St. Padre Pio didn't refuse immodestly dressed women to confession because he was cold-hearted or self-righteous. When probed, he replied, "Don't you know what pain it costs me to shut the door on anyone? The Lord has forced me to do so. I do not call anyone, nor do I refuse anyone either. There is someone else who calls and refuses them. I am His useless tool."

Which is really the point of the whole issue. Modesty is pleasing to God because it respects and honors our bodies and souls as His creations. It's pretty simple at the heart of it. Of course there's a lot of deep theology regarding the very real differences between men and women and how those differences perfectly complement each other and reflect the perfect nature of God that I'm glossing over, but well, I'm not a theologian. So I'll leave the trickier stuff to the experts for now and point everyone towards Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body and the myriad compendiums and summaries that have been published on it to help us lay folk understand the message.

Now, what constitutes modesty in the modern world? That gets tricky, and add up how many Catholic women there are in the world and that's how many different answers you'll get if you ask. In discussing modesty with other Catholic women, I've come up with a basic outline that most seem to agree with, keeping in mind that this refers to daily dress, and not to say, mountain biking or exercising.

  • No tank tops
  • Nothing that shows cleavage
  • Skirts at or below the knee
  • No "stripper shoes"

Beyond that, it's harder to pin down. Full-time skirt wearing in particular seems difficult to commit to. I mean, besides evangelical fundies, who wears long skirts every day, anyway? Won't people think you're weird? Won't people think you're just being self-righteous and over-zealous (especially if you're a convert)? I know these are the concerns I have as I'm currently discerning full-time skirt wearing. But if we arrive at our decision slowly as we pray, asking the Spirit for guidance, considering Scripture and Tradition and desiring to please our Lord (and let's not forget to look to Our Lady as our model of femininity and modesty), then the answer is probably easy, though the practice might be difficult. As with all things, when we seek with a sincere and humble heart, we can trust the Spirit to guide us. Modesty is something we do to please the Lord, not a contest over who's sleeves and skirts are longest.

All things consider, modesty is one of many facets of my conversion, and something that I'm still in the process of discerning (have you noticed I like that word? Discerning. It sounds so proper and dignified, much nicer than "thinkin' about"). I try to keep my husband's desire to see me attractively dressed in mind, and to remember that modest and frumpy are not the same thing. I don't wear anything I wouldn't wear to Mass. I haven't worn pants (outside of my garden and the gym) in awhile. I don't wear tank tops, though I do wear short sleeves, and I try not to wear anything that comes lower than a couple inches below my collarbone. Mostly I continue to look to Our Lady as my model of modesty and keep my heart open to the guidance of the spirit.


Anne Marie said...

ieThis is an issue that’s cropping up for me too. I would consider full time skirt wearing if I could figure out how. I can’t seam to find cute everyday sort of skirts. I’ve considered learning to sew to make my own and one day maybe I will. In the mean time I’ve simply moved toward always striving to look feminine (as much as possible for a slight tom boy) and avoid an androgynous look even in the jeans. I’m a bit past the wearing tight clothes age, gravity being the force of nature it is and all, so that’s not an issue any longer, but looking nice, and feminine, and modest w/o being to casual is something I’m working on too.

I’ve been thinking that maybe there’s a niche market for modest clothes for girls & women out there. Cute and modest with out the whole Little House thing, just seams so hard to come by.

Mrs Pea said...

I know we live in different countries, but I have worn skirts full-time for years. I had a break about three years ago for a few months when I wore some pants but I was never happy, and I reverted to skirts only. Nobody has ever commented to me about it, even when I stopped wearing pnats again.

The only thing I have thought "I should ahve worn pants" was a boat trip out to sea, where I had a wobbly moment caused by my skirt not allowing me the same modest freedom of movement as I boarded. That's it. In like ten years.

Right now I have two linen skirts, one cord skirt and one denim skirt. It works fine.

If you feel that God wants you to wear skirts, just wear 'em! I think we can be more worried about what people will think - I read about a woman who wore just one dress for a whole year as some sort of art thing, and she said that people didn't really notice because people aren't that bothered about what other people wear. I have to say since I cured myself od Gothardesque obsessing about other people's modesty I no longer notice or care about it either.

skirts are so pretty and Maryish, too :o)

catherine said...

I am on the same path as well. Part of it is do to age - at almost 40 I don't want to look like I am trying to be 20. But I also feel called to it, and I think if I could get out of the jeans habit I would be fine. Definitely something to think about, and something I want to teach my daughter by setting the right example.

Sweet Charity said...

I am knew to this whole modesty thing too, as I was not raised in a Christian home. I am just beginning my journey on skirts only/mostly and I have yet to hear negative comments from anyone about it. If you follow the convictions our Father places on your heart then He will bless you and protect you immensely. Best of luck to you on your journey!