Let’s Talk About Modesty

976px-'Conversion_of_the_Magdalene'_or_'Allegory_of_Modesty_and_Vanity'_Bernardo_LuiniLast 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

Kevin Tierney


Kevin Tierney is the Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane. He and his family live in Brighton, MI. Connect with him via FB  or on twitter @CatholicSmark.

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  • Kelli

    I like to call this stuff, “Emotional Immodesty.” I see the twenty and thirty something generation as people who really suffer this. They carry their every thought to facebook or twitter, for the whole world to see. Also, designing their tattoos to accentuate their body parts and then wearing clothing that allows others to see their body art. The trouble is we have to begin with the physical immodesty because our outward appearance reveals the Christ that lives within us. Now look around, that’s a scary thought! I think mindset must be flipped around in the next years. We must begin teaching young children about emotional immodesty first in hopes that it will change the physical immodesty of the future. How do we do that in public education? Surely their are some sly minds out there that could pull this off?

  • To be honest I think all generations suffer from this. Think the guy going through a mid-life crisis who buys the sports car. Or the push to get women to “fight the effects of aging” in their 70’s and 80’s. (Those marketing campaigns are basically a big neon sign demanding women start drawing attention to themself.)

    I really don’t think schools can teach this. It has to start with parents, and priests need to start preaching on it. All too often when we hear a priest “preaches about sin”, it more often than not is about fornication or cohabitation or abortion. That’s a great thing to talk about, but there are lots of sins that, while not as vile, I would argue lead to more souls being damned because of their subtle nature.

  • Beverly Hagar-Schmerse

    Read Matt. 7: 1-5. Maybe we should stop condemning others, when we should be examining our own consciences.

  • I’m not really sure what in the article could be read as “condemning others” so I guess I’m a little confused here.

  • Beverly Hagar-Schmerse

    I guess I was referring to the types of questions you posed…they appeared to leave only two alternatives: either you did it/or you didn’t…it seemed to me that people do those things for any number of reasons…all of which do not have to arrive to the conclusion you have drawn. I was looking at them as if I were one who did all those things and at various times may appear to be doing it for the reasons you give…then I began to think of other reasons people do those things…ie. inspired by the Holy Spirit, deeply drawn into prayer during a particular part of the Mass, to dress a certain way out of necessity…etc. I also felt your questions could have been more open ended to leave room for a variety of alternatives. I still believe you could have said what you wanted to say in a less judgmental format.

  • As with all things dealing with the interior life, there aren’t easy answers. Many of our answers can be self-serving, even if we find them pure. Doesn’t mean we are bad people. Just means we aren’t as holy as we could possibly be.

    The writer of Ecclesiastes I’m sure had a lot of justified reasons for why he questioned this or that. Sometimes his state in life might have required it. But eventually, he realized whatever the reasons, there was a hint of vanity to what he was doing. With a lot of those questions (especially the ones centering around writing) I’ve struggled with a lot myself, and still do. It’s why I can ask them.

    I don’t like the way most discussions about modesty happen. Yet we need to have a discussion about modesty, and that includes all of us answering personally pointed questions. Having that discussion really isn’t being “judgmental”

  • Beverly Hagar-Schmerse

    Now this would have been a very, very good opening to this discussion on modesty…you are showing your human side of the equation…and I for one can relate to that!! When I think of this article from now on, I will think of these paragraphs as the beginning of it!! Right on!!

  • JMC

    I think part of whole modesty issue is that most people don’t understand the concept of modesty. Our culture has trained them to equate “modesty” with “frumpiness” and to see the virtuous life as joyless. Throw in a child’s or teen’s dread of the teasing and bullying that is the inevitable result of being “different” in any way, and you have an automatic aversion to modesty, or virtue in any form. It’s no wonder radical Moslems see the Western world in general, and America in particular, as “the grain shai-tan.” (Pardon the spelling if I got it wrong, but you get the drift.)

  • JMC

    Oops. I meant “great,” not “grain.” Missed that one on the proofread.

  • catholicexchange

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  • ManofHonor

    Just guessing here but it is probably an ad as the MOD said. If it is really annoying you could look at getting an AdBlock.