Thursday, April 10, 2014

Speaking on Modesty: Hemlines are Irrelevant

Thanks for joining this Lenten discussion! I'll be posting weekly thoughts by Catholic women and men who have something to share on modesty: what it is, how it's lived out, why it's important to them. I don't agree completely with all of these people, and I don't expect you to either; but I do want to open up a conversation. To make it easier, I've turned off the Capcha (you know, those horrible little letters and numbers you have to type to post a comment), so share your thoughts freely.

This week my husband decided to join the discussion! We both hope you enjoy reading Seth's perspective. What do you think?

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     Modesty is not just for women. Yes, it may be easier for them to dress provocatively right now because styles prefer the female body at this point in history, but that’s just fashion; something modesty is only peripherally related to and which has vast cultural allowances. Every time and place has its own set of rules as to what parts of the body are appropriate for the public's eye; there is no objective truth regarding ankles or collar bones or thighs, and to get bogged down in the “how tight is too tight” debate not only ignores the dramatic difference between cultures, but focuses on one mutable expression rather than the deeper and steadfast truth. As a fruit of the Holy Spirit, modesty applies to everyone - men as well as women, little babies and wrinkly old people and everyone in-between (although babies do have that whole “before the age of reason” gig working for them). Of course, having asserted that women don’t hold a monopoly, my following examples are pretty exclusively female. I apologize for the irony in advance.

     According to Scripture, Salome danced before Herod to gain his favor, ultimately asking for the head of St. John the Baptist. In Western tradition this dance became known as the “Dance of the Seven Veils”, spiritual symbolism playing a role there as well as a certain fleshly imagination. It’s more than just a strip-tease, it’s a descent into forbidden territory, and when the final layer is removed the trap is closed, the king ensnared. This imagery calls to mind the concise and rather stark definition of modesty provided by the Church, “modesty is decency”, and the more evocative, “it means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden” (CCC 2522 and 2521 respectively). While Salome doubtless has other sins and vices working against her, in this scene she can certainly become a symbol of immodesty - not necessarily her actions themselves (enticing for some kind of gain), but indecency of her choice in that particular setting. The story reads like an inversion of Ruth in the Old Testament, lying at the feet of Boaz to gain his favor and protection; or Esther presenting herself in all her splendor before her husband to win the lives of her people. Or, perhaps more to the point, Judith seeking admittance to the tent of Holofernes in order to slay him by making herself “very beautiful, to entice the eyes of all men who might see her” (Judith 10:4). The problem with immodesty is not unveiling, it is specifically unveiling what should remain hidden, a definition that changes rapidly given different scenarios.

     Nor does this mean merely physical unveiling. Gossip, slander, boasting - all these can fall under the exhortation to modesty. Emotional blackmail is immodest, as is a lemming mentality following the latest fad of thought or ideology. Modesty protects us, protects our mystery and what the Catechism calls our “intimate center.” This manifests itself in every aspect of our being; our thoughts and feelings, our prayers and imagination, our senses and gestures. All are therefore in the care of modesty.

     An alternative image to that of Salome can be found in an icon of Mary titled “Enclosed Garden.” In it the Mother of God stands within a small park, gloriously dressed in richly embroidered robes calling to mind the bride in Song of Solomon. She holds the Christ Child, dressed as a tiny king, while she herself is crowned by two angels. Far from being hidden or concealed, the two stand proudly on display, the centerpiece of a second Eden. Virtually all icons of the Madonna represent her indicating her Son, pointing the way by a gesture or glance; and while her form may dominate the actual space, His presence is the subject matter. And in this way all icons are a representation of modesty, for by protecting ourselves as God intended we can grow in purity - our singular purpose being to imitate Christ and become like Him in all things, using our presence in the world to call all minds to God.

Michelangelo's "Risen Christ"

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Seth Goepel doesn't write from anywhere. He doesn't write. At least, not usually. Except when he wants to. And even then only in short, terse, Hemingway-esque sentences. But again, maybe that's just the tequila speaking.

If you've missed our earlier conversations:

Read Kate Madore's opening post on Modesty

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