Modesty is Reverence for Mystery

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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  🙂
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

Food’s Beauty

corn-on-the-cob-lgThis weekend I attended Peter Kreeft’s talk in Alexandria, VA entitled “The Power of Beauty in the Sacred Arts”, sponsored by the Foundation for Sacred Arts. Dr. Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and the King’s College and is a prolific writer. The talk was brilliant, and while I’m sure I could blog about more profound things, today I choose food in the hopes that we might think more profoundly about food.

One of the questions asked during the Q&A session had to do with whether or not there was beauty in “fast food”. Dr. Kreeft’s answer was that, it being fast food, it is likely that even if beauty were present we would not stop to contemplate it. (typical Kreeft witticism)

For me, it’s not so much that the food is “fast” but that it’s so processed. One could say we process the hell out of our foods, but I would actually say that we process the Heaven out of our foods. There is something spectacular about the plants, animals, and grains that God has placed on earth to nourish our bodies.

Today (shortly before lunch) I was contemplating the beauty of food. What came to mind as particularly beauitful foods were corn on the cob, a fresh raspberry, and the avocado: the straight plump rows of yellow kernels; the fuzzy red seed pockets; and the bumpy black skin protecting the creamy green fruit. With such beauty, I wonder why our society adulterates it so often and to such a degree.

Now I can’t say all of this without acknowledging that there are people in the world who are not blessed with access to fresh food, or food at all. So my prayer today is that we who have access to fresh food take the time to contemplate its beauty, thank God for the gift our food, and continue to share our food and argicultural technology with the poor and the hungry.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. Matthew 25:35

Ugliest Church Art Contest

Well OK, Let’s admit it, the modern age hasn’t exactly been known as the golden age of Church architecture. The following website has collected some of the more “unusual” Church art of the past decades.

Ugliest Church Art Contest

Enjoy, and submit your own entries! By the way, I don’t agree that all the sites listed here are ugly. This is just for fun. It is well to remember the old Latin admonition: De gustibus non diputandem – In matters of taste let there be no disputes. According TO ME some of these entries are authentically ugly, even scary, but some aren’t so bad. You be the judge. And remember it’s just for fun. No polemical ugliness intended here.

And are some more really awful Church exteriors:

Really Ugly Church Buildings

On a more positive note, here is a video I recently put together on some of what I CONSIDER to be some beautiful Church interiors.

Even More Beautiful Churches

I put this video together, this time focusing on exteriors. The music is Nisi Dominus sung by the Majorstua Kammerkor. The Text of the psalm is rather long to produce in full here but the opening text, translated from the Latin, goes as thus:

Unless the Lord build the house, those that labor to build it do so in vain. In vain is your earlier rising and your going later to rest, you who toil for the bread you eat. For God pours gifts on his beloved when they slumber!

Enjoy the Video

Beautiful Churches

I put together a quick video program with pictures of beautiful Churches and posted it over at  I hope this will be the first of several I intend to do. We have some very beautiful churches!   The music in this video is Bruckner’s Locus Iste Here is the text and translation:

Locus iste a Deo factus est,
inaestimabile sacramentum;
irreprehensibilis est.

This place was made by God,
a priceless sacrament;
beyond reproach.

What is Beauty?

We live today with very high expectations of many things. Culturally we have very demanding standards for beauty, especially in regard to women. We expect them to have appealing “curves” but be slender etc. Even ordinary weight is considered by many as unattractive. All this obsession with perfection leads to low self esteem among women and men too. Further, these high expectations of zero body fat and perfect shape, hair color, skin tone etc. leads to hypercritical and hurtful remarks. There is an old saying that “expectations are premeditated resentments.” Hence this attitude also may have to do with marriage difficulties as the near perfect bodies of youth give way to the more “settled”  bodies of middle age and beyond (gravity and age do have their effects and even if you weighed what you did in High School it doesn’t look the same!) Plastic surgery is a miracle for those with truly catastrophic injury or deformities but today it is too often the refuge of those who have become obsessed with how they look and how they think others regard them. Oh to be free of such obsessions! The picture to the right depicts a woman but men have the problem too.

Help me Lord to be little more comfortable in my own skin. Help me to accept that you like both tall and short people because you made them both. Both the blond and the brunette are from your hand, wavy hair, straight hair wirey hair are all from you and apparently to your liking. Thin and hefty, black, white and all between are from your artistic hand. Help me to love me as you made me. If I should lose weight for health’s sake help me, but if its only about what others might think of me, free me.

Watch this video and see how a very lovely young woman is not lovely enough. She has to be altered, “perfected.”  And when simple natural enhancements are not enough her image must be furthered altered on a computer. Message: the perfect beauty does not exist in the world of media. She must be invented. Then everyone can pine after and spend large amounts of money and time trying look like someone who doesn’t even exist.