Rediscovering Modesty from Within
Modesty is a type of temperance. It tempers, it makes rational, the way we move our body, our playful actions, our style of clothing, and more fundamentally, the passions of the soul that underlie these things.1 According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the notion of "modesty" in dress, speech, or behavior is derived from the notion of moderation, of doing something in a fitting, well-considered manner that observes a mean between extremes.2 In this instance, the extremes are shamelessness (the more common) and prudery or unhealthy inhibition. Like all moral virtues, it gives not only an aptitude for wanting and choosing what is right in this regard, but it urges us to do so; it becomes a second nature, an energetic disposition. And, Thomas would remind us, modesty helps us to enjoy rightly the lesser goods of the body; there is no question of choking legitimate passions when person, place, and time call for it. The modest person is one whose actions and appearance consistently reflect self-mastery, good judgment of what is appropriate, a firm command over feelings, a serene ability to express and to "be" oneself without self-advertisement. Hence, true modesty begins in the soul and only later catches the eye's or ear's notice.
The German philosopher Peter Wust speaks of the proper attitude a person should take to his own existence, and while this sounds quite abstract, it seems to me that we must begin here if we are going to understand modesty. "Piety towards oneself surrounds the self like a delicate membrane, which must be kept safe from harm if we want to protect our souls from being laid open to great dangers." This piety is concerned with "values, which are, as it were, a heavenly trust within us which we are bound to defend whenever a hostile power threatens to profane them."3 "Our soul in its ultimate depths is a secret, and this is the inner chamber of the soul which we are, up to a certain point, obliged to preserve religiously. Reverence for ourselves forbids us to unveil the sanctuary of our souls with a rash and impious hand, and to do so would be a real profanation and show an unforgivable lack of modesty."4 Many in the Western world, it seems, ignore the need for, or attack the idea of, such an inner modesty, which is the true cause and ground for outward modesty. "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness" (Mt. 6:22-23). Gabriel Marcel comments: "Against this modesty [of the spirit], in fact, the most active and most opposite powers of our age have made alliance."5
There are different aspects of the virtue of modesty, and it's unfortunate that only the most elementary kind, decency of dress, has tended to receive the name, although one still catches a hint of the older meaning when a man who does not put himself forward is described as "modest." The deeper, inward modesty consists in regulating one's entire life in a manner that is calm, gentle, reverent, and pure. Putting on modest clothing or avoiding immodest dances is not enough; countless men and women have shown a riotous immodesty in private, despite a pristine public demeanor. Research on the prim and proper Victorians has shown that beneath their apparent reserve was a welter of unchastity. Obviously, it is not enough to have the trappings of virtue. One must interiorize virtue, it must become the guiding principle of one's desires and thoughts. Only in this way will the outward dimension correspond to the inward and vice versa.
The modesty most required for the basic health of society dressing and comporting oneself in a manner that will not excite undue attention from the opposite sex has been discarded in modern Western societies, and its opposite flaunted. Many earnest Christians, and sadly, even Catholics who sincerely want to lead a life of sexual purity, seem to be unaware of the link between a chaste heart and a chaste appearance, between commitment of will and presentation of body, an ignorance all the more surprising in that the connection has been understood in every age other than ours. There are, for example, young Catholics who try to be pure but who continue to dress as their secular peers do, in provocative or inappropriate styles of clothing. One sees this vividly at World Youth Days, where, in addition to immodesty, an astonishing lack of awareness of what is appropriate for a sacred and solemn event is all too common. Obviously, warm weather and long hikes have to be taken into account, but there are modest and immodest solutions to any situation. Who has not been struck by old black and white photographs of pioneer settlers who, in the midst of sweltering summer heat, wore multi-layered, full-length outfits? I don't suggest we return to that, but I do say that we could heed their example of propriety and stamina.
Habitual lovers of pleasure dress as they do for a reason, even if they could not articulate it: they live for physical comfort, and anything which could cause discomfort or inconvenience or interfere with the experience of pleasure is to be rejected out of hand. For the hedonist the question of competing values never arises because he or she does not seem to think that there are any other values. Thus clothing will be chosen with only two criteria in mind: first, comfort; second, the provocative, even erotic, effect it may have on others. Clearly, as a small part of sound asceticism, Christians ought to reject this sort of pampering of and pandering to the body. St. Paul describes the believer as one who is "always carrying in [his] body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies" (2 Cor. 4:10). We cannot pretend that how we treat ourselves bodily, how we eat and dress and look and move, whether we do so with restraint or abandon, with polite regard or thoughtlessness, with responsibility or naiveté, are spiritually irrelevant "fine points." On the contrary, they are essential. They, too, will either manifest the life of Jesus to the world, or promote a contrary spirit. How someone treats, displays, and makes use of the body reveals much about the workings of the soul: who a man is, who he thinks he is, what he thinks about, what he wants. In more ways than people realize, looks are not deceiving; "the medium is the message."
We read in 1 Tim. 2:8-10:
(2:8) I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; (2:9) also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire (2:10) but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion.
It is as if St. Paul were saying there is a way of behaving and appearing which is inseparable from the Christian way of life; it is one of the marks of the believer in the world. Modesty, like peacefulness, though primarily a good of the soul, does not stop at the soul, but has an effect on all aspects of social life. The Christian needs to give the world this example. The very absence of excess is worthy of making its presence known. Modesty is a deep human need that is only rejected at great expense to integrity and legitimate self-love. How many women are there whose dignity is wounded, and whose memory is loaded with one incident after another of men using them? They have suffered much on that account, on account of poor upbringing, poor education, poor advice. They needed modesty, which is so closely bound up with the fact and the feeling of human dignity. Now that they have suffered from its absence, they need it even more to recover their dignity, their sense of worth, of being a person who deserves to be loved for her own sake. Everyone wants to be loved as a person, not a thing a who, not a what.
The Christian is called upon to proclaim the primacy of the human over the animal, and with it, the inviolable sacredness of a body that receives life and movement from an immortal soul fashioned after the image of God. "The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (Gen. 2:7). "Thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb . . . My frame was not hidden from thee, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth" (Ps. 139:13, 15). The body is a creation of almighty God, the temple of his Spirit, washed and anointed in baptism, promised a share of bliss in the final resurrection. Our appearance and way of behaving should bear witness to the uniquely Catholic truth that both celibacy and marriage prize the human body as a worthy offering of love, a channel of grace, a sacred sign, when consecrated by the sacraments of Jesus Christ. "The body is not meant for immortality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body" (1 Cor. 6:13).
Whether we speak of an organic body, a political body, or the Mystical Body, each in its own way is a unity composed of many distinct parts in hierarchical order and relationship. The human person is, in a sense, a hierarchy of elements of personhood: there are many layers or levels to me, and not all of them should stand in the forefront. Radical egalitarianism is an error no less in the personal than in the social sphere. The bodily dimension of a person carries with it sacramental significance, above all the naked body, as John Paul II has explained in his audiences on the original unity of man and woman. The naked body is the most expressive gift spouses give to each other. In giving it they give themselves, since the body is not something I "possess" as if it were my property, but a true part of who I am. The human person is not "in" a body but is bodily. "Why are there so many members in a natural body hands, feet, mouth, and the like?" asks St. Thomas. "They serve the soul's variety of activities. The soul itself is the cause and principle of these members, and what they are, the soul is virtually. For the body is made for the soul, and not the other way around. The natural body is a certain fullness of the soul."7 Hence, the body, far more than any other gift that can be given, ought to be unwrapped and taken only by him or her to whom it has been solemnly vowed, even as the blessed Eucharist, which contains the true body of our Lord, is to be received only by the baptized, those who are wedded to Christ in charity. A man's body, teaches St. Paul, no longer belongs to him, but to his wife, and her body to him (1 Cor. 7:4).
It is worth dwelling on the special sacramental bond uniting husband and wife and the all-encompassing modesty, the sensitivity of soul, it demands. Modesty is an essential virtue not because the body or the passions are shameful in themselves. It is their very natural goodness and their potential as ministers of grace that imposes a duty to protect them from abuse, manipulation, and disorder. Think of the beautiful words of St. Paul, so exalted, so full of God's love for all that he has made and redeemed: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body" (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Human beings are called upon to guard the secret of their personhood, a precious gift from God, a mystery not indiscriminate public consumption. To the courting, the betrothed, the newlywed, the lifelong pair, a heavenly trust is given and they are bound to defend it against hostile powers that threaten to profane it. At their core man and woman are secrets to be shared in love. The inner chamber cannot be left open as a public playground; it should be treated with a reverence like that with which we approach the sanctuary and tabernacle of a church.
The virtue of religion, whereby we give back to the infinite God what we are able to give, includes the offering up to him of our persons, our bodies and souls, in faithful love. This is why modesty is both a consequence and a safeguard of religion. Holiness, we read in St. Thomas, denotes two things: being clean and being firm.8 "Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God": blessed are they who firmly preserve their purity of soul and body, for the sake of loving God with their whole being. The sight of God, the great goal and joy of Christian life, is the ultimate reason we must keep our hearts, our words, our movements and appearance, pure, undefiled, simple, restrained. In so doing, our way of life is conformed to that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and makes present in a fallen, soiled world something of the bright innocence, the serene peace, the incorruptible freshness of the Holy Spirit.
1. See Summa Theologiae [ST] II-II, q. 160 on modesty in general, and qq. 168-169 on the species of modesty that concern external actions and appearance. As these discussions fall within the larger treatise on temperance (qq. 141-170), modesty has to be understood in connection with the larger human responsibility of training and perfecting the concupiscible appetite, the power of loving pleasant things and bearing unpleasant ones.
2. See ST I-II, q. 70, a. 3: "Man is well disposed in respect of that which is below him, as regards external action, by modesty, whereby we observe the mode in all our words and deeds." ST II-II, q. 120, a. 2: "Modesty, which is reckoned a part of temperance, moderates man's outward life for instance, in his deportment, dress or the like."
3. Quoted in Gabriel Marcel, Being and Having: An Existentialist Diary (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 223.
4. Ibid., 224.
5. Ibid., 224.
6. Indeed, in an way unusual for chant, the Gregorian melody turns up at the end of that statement, as if asking a question or, perhaps, prompting an examination of conscience.
7. Commentary on Ephesians, ch. 1, lec. 8.
8. ST II-II, q. 81, a. 8.
Peter A. Kwasniewski is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy; Instructor in Music History and Theory at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, WY.
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