There has been a lot of very good discussion on yesterday’s blog post on the banishment of “dirty dancing” at many school dances. Much of the discussion has centered on modesty. Modesty is a beautiful, essential and often diminished virtue in today’s “tell-all,” “show-all” world. There are many good definitions of modesty. Websters dictionary defines modesty first as freedom from conceit or vanity and secondly as propriety in dress, speech or conduct. It is the second definition that concerns us.
While the Websters definition of modesty is surely accurate I would like to say that the most beautiful and thought-provoking definition I have heard is that modesty is “reverence for mystery.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church has some very fine reflections along this line. Here are some excerpts:
Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love….Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness…. Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet. (CCC 2521-2522)
There are just some things that are private and personal. In an age where gossip and prying into personal matters has become a 24 hour news cycle we do well to recover the notion that discretion is not the same as secrecy and cover-up. Modesty and discretion recognize that the disclosure of certain things requires a proper relationship and context. Some things should be shared and seen only in very specific settings and relationships. Some things SHOULD remain hidden out of respect for the human person. This is poorly appreciated by too many today.
Some thoughts on modesty to perhaps provoke further thought and comment:
- Modesty is wide ranging – A lot of our discussion on modesty has focused on questions of clothing. This is due to the many modern problems associated with this aspect of modesty. But modesty also includes things such as: discretion in conversations, bodily posture, movements, and knowing what, when and with whom to disclose certain things.
- Modesty as discretion – The inappropriate of revelation of personal matters is rampant in today’s talk show culture. People openly discuss what they should not before audiences of millions of people. This indiscretion percolates down to ordinary daily interactions wherein people often share too much and are also too curious about matters which should not pertain to them. The expression “Too much information (TMI)” has crept into our conversations as a recognition that many people too easily share their personal information with other often un-willing recipients.
- Modesty respects Context- It is clear that the criteria for modesty and discretion are affected by the individual(s) with whom we interact. Mixed company is a limiting factor that is often neglected today. It may be appropriate for women to speak act and dress a certain way in the exclusive company of other women which is wholly inappropriate in mixed company. The same is true for men. Certain topics of conversation that are appropriate in single sex company may be inappropriate in mixed company. Age is another factor. When children are present certain topics and behaviors are are wholly inappropriate. Sadly our immodest culture exposes children to all sorts of things that they are not ready for. We have grievously offended our children by easy exposure to things like pornography, immodest conversations, and adult topics. Even worse we have often sexualized children by dressing them (especially girls) either immodestly or in a way that pertains to adults. When I was a child it was rare for little girls to have ears pierced, wear lots of make-up perfume, high heels etc. Too often today we doll up little girls to look “sexy” as though they were grown women. Finally, locale is something of a factor. Being at the fitness center, beach or the pool may allow for some adaption in clothing. However it is clear in this culture that we have often gone too far and some beach apparel is downright sinful.
- Modesty has Cultural Variants- There are some cultural variances – In some cultures it is common for people to cover up head to toe. In many Middle Eastern cultures it is considered disgraceful for men or woman to wear shorts in public. Even the feet in some cultures of the far east are kept covered. Some in the West consider the veiling of the middle eastern cultures oppressive but such cultures often consider us sinfully exposed. In certain indigenous tribal settings it is not unheard of for women to go about topless, though this is rare. The Catechism says, The forms taken by modesty vary from one culture to another. Everywhere, however, modesty exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man. …Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person (CCC 2524) Thus the catechism, while admitting that there are variants in modesty, teaches clearly that the existence of some varying standards does not mean that modesty has NO standards. Modesty is a basic intuition proper to every person and culture. Despite some variation modesty does exist as a discernible truth that must be respected.
- Modesty is respect for others – The word modesty is rooted in the word “mode” which refers to a manner in which something is done, or to an arranged norm. Moderation also comes from this word since we adjust our behavior to a norm or reasonable “criteria.” Hence modesty also displays reverence for others by respecting reasonable and agreed upon norms. Tweaking or shocking others by immodest behavior, dress or conversation is a form of disrespect both to individuals and communities.
- Modesty is Charity- Immodesty can and often is seductive. It lures others to unchaste thoughts or to immoderate curiosity. To intentionally dress, act or speak in a way that deliberately causes others to sin can be a grave sin. Sometimes the effect is less intentional and rooted merely in an insensitive or unknowing manner of dress or speech. But to the degree that we come to understand that we are dressing, acting or speaking in a way that is reasonably tempting to others we ought to stop. This is charity for others who may be weaker than we are in the matter of chastity and self-control. A standard of reasonableness is also operative here. We cannot protect everyone from every possible attraction. Women for example should not have to hide every curve of their body in a way that would severely limit them just because some men struggle. But in all matters a charity should prevail and reason norms be employed that protect others from undue temptation. Humorously, some years ago a young woman in a VERY short skirt came to my Church Office and requested to meet with the pastor. I happened to be passing by in the hall and invited her to have a seat in the meeting room. Shortly after we were seated my secretary came in holding a blanket which she proceed to place over the woman’s legs. She apparently knew the woman and she said, “Don’t you EVER come in here dressed like that again and tempting my pastor!” I must say I had been enjoying the brief view but was grateful to my secretary for her intervention. It was an act of charity :-)
- Modesty is reverence for mystery- The human person has many deeper dimensions that cannot and should not be causally exposed. This is a characteristic of our soul that is also expressed in our body. As relationships deepen more is shared. Close friends share more than mere acquaintances, or so it should be. As regards sexuality, this is meant for the deepest and most personal relationship which we call marriage. Only a man and a woman who have committed themselves to a lifelong relationship should unveil this portion of their soul and body. To fully disclose oneself requires a oneness only God can effect. In marriage God makes two one. And only this absolute oneness should permit the sacred unveiling of one’s whole self to another. Sexual intercourse is a kind of sign or sacrament of the deep union of marriage which only God can give. This mystery of the other person should be reverenced prior to marriage by modesty and after marriage by a modest reverence for the privacy and personal quality of that mystery which is sexual intercourse.
- Modesty is beautiful and attracts - Most men, in their better moments, admit that they find modesty beautiful. Lust is base but modesty is beautiful. Lust excites only a physical urge but modesty draws forth an attraction to the whole person. I have not heard many women comment on how they experience modesty in men, but it is a sure fact that modesty is beautiful because mystery attracts. A woman’s mystique, her mystery, is deeply appealing to most men. Even in marriage, many husbands have told me how attracted they are by their wife’s modesty. In marriage there is surely a place and time for full disclosure, but in between modesty still seems attractive to most of the married men I’ve talked to. The following video does a pretty good job in showing forth the intersection of modesty, beauty, and admiration.