Last year a Catholic writer asked us to stop focusing so much on the subject of modesty. Some view modesty extremely important, but mainly present it in terms of “covering up” our bodies so we don’t incite people (typically men) to sin. Others view modesty entirely subjective, or at least something that only matters in the interior. If we look at modesty in either way, then my colleague is right in calling on us to stop. Thankfully we don’t need to look at modesty in such a way.
What is modesty? Modesty begins not with our clothing, but with our hearts. St. Jerome defines Christian modesty as avoiding that which is self-seeking. (Epistle to Pammachius) The reason that we should not be self-seeking is because we should always be seeking (or looking to show to others) the face of God. Thanks to our fallen nature, focusing on the face of God is hard work, and it is far easier to be self-seeking. As Chrysostom notes, we find (The Old Testament figure) Joseph’s modesty appealing precisely because it is not common for men in his station to be so. (Homily on 1 Timothy 4)
Looked at from this perspective, we should be able to answer my colleague’s article as to why we can’t stop “fretting” over modesty. In modesty we find the essence of the Christian. Tertullian refers to modesty as “the honor of our bodies” and “the guarantee of our race.” What is needed is not for us to stop fretting over the subject, but to approach it with the mind of the Church. We spend a lot of time talking about physical modesty in our appearance, and rightfully so. Yet there is more to modesty than this.
We should also ask how much our actions look to bring attention to ourselves. When I write, am I writing for the hit-count? Am I tailoring my articles with a bunch of gimmicks in an attempt to get a better search engine rating? Am I trying to get people to listen to my voice, rather than the voice of the Church? When I help others, am I doing it so people can realize how generous and great I am? When I pray and sing at Mass, am I elevating my voice just a bit so everyone can hear how good I sing? Am I trying to get people to see my piety when I kneel in prayer? In short, how much am I like Christ (who lived a life of having himself despised for our sake and the honor of His Father), and how much am I like the Pharisee, who though fully and ornately clothed radiated immodesty? Once we shake off our Pharisee nature, how can we continue to grow in Christ?
Modesty must lead to something beyond ourselves. It must lead to humility. Many people falsely view humility as simply not taking credit for something. The biblical understanding of humility is far deeper, especially in light of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. (Philippians 2:6-8) First Christ emptied himself. The Greek word used for the act of emptying yourself is kenoo, which means to count one as if they are nothing, as emptiness. This is modesty in a nutshell. Once Christ views Himself as nothing, the Lord of the Universe becomes our servant, even to the point of dying the death of a traitor. Because of this humility through modesty, God gives Him everything in creation. All this began with Christ’s modesty.
In light of our Lord’s example, one thing is clear: We aren’t very modest. Even the holiest of us has a lot of immodesty that God needs to help heal. Thankfully God knows our infirmities, and has given us all the tools we require for this goal. First and foremost are the sacraments, particularly Confession and the Eucharist. In one we realize there isn’t much reason for self-seeking, and in another we seek the only person that truly matters. Now that we have established the point of modesty, we can consider modesty on a deeper level, and that is something that will be done in the next column.
image: The Conversion of the Magdalene or An Allegory of Modesty and Vanity by Bernardo Luini, c. 1520