A few months ago, I had a Skype conversation with a Catholic writer who is a woman. Though impressed by her work, I had also found it a bit dour in spots. Consequently, I expected to find myself screen-to-screen with a frump.
Rarely have I guessed so wrong. Land o’ Goshen, she was a looker – and a charmer to boot, with a smile that could melt steel girders, leaving truthers no room to quibble. The purpose of the call was strictly professional, but something dreadful happened. The social equivalent of muscle memory kicked in, and I found myself trying to impress her by recycling, over the next 45 minutes, every single clever thing I’d said or written over the past five years. The poor woman must have felt like those 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, fighting in the shade of Persian arrows.
By the most indulgent of secular standards, this was pure doucherie. According to Catholic moral theology it was something worse: an offense against modesty. Normally when people speak of modesty in a religious context, they’re referring to women’s dress – whether such and such an outfit shows too much décolletage or drumstick. Defined more broadly and in a unisex way, modesty is one of the virtues subordinated to Temperance, which governs, in accordance with reason, man’s basic drives toward enjoyment, self-preservation, and self-assertion. A modest person of any sex knows when and how not to show off.
The Catholic Encyclopedia calls modesty “the outpost and safeguard of chastity.” It’s an image to stir any Beau Geste fan’s heart: brave little modesty, manning the embrasures of Fort Chastity and facing down the galloping hordes of concupiscence with the Maxim guns of Shame and Reason. But it’s important to note here that concupiscence accounts for other appetites beyond the merely physical. Indeed, the friction of bodies is not the only appealing part of sex. There’s also the satisfaction that comes from being selected – from being told, in so many words, “Yes, your genes will do.”
What I was seeking, in that Skype conversation, was not a literal tryst. That would have been too glaringly sinful, not to mention a technical impossibility. Instead I was angling for some sign that, under very different circumstances, I would have been worthy of one. The late militant atheist Christopher Hitchens painted it to the life when he referred to the “real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary” bursts of laughter that inform a guy his quips are hitting the bull’s-eye.
A modesty fail can be said to have occurred because my thirst for admiration slipped reason’s moorings. First it fixed itself on an unsuitable object – someone who’d granted me her time for purposes that didn’t include admiring my wit. Second it monopolized that time, effectively wasting it. Third, by reducing the woman to a potential source of admiration, it treated her as a means to an end, which left her short the charity I owed her as a neighbor. In pursuit of that one transitory end, I ended up committing a small cluster of sins.
In Dawn Eden’s book The Thrill of the Chaste, Kevin Tierney offers a prescription for modesty that sounds a bit on the stern side:
When I help others, am I doing it so people can realize how generous and great I am? When I sing and pray at Mass, am I elevating my voice just a little bit so that everyone can hear how good I sing?…In short, how much am I like Christ (who lived a life of having himself despised for our sake) and how much like the Pharisee, who though fully and ornately clothed radiated immodesty.
A certain amount of self-advertising is necessary for obtaining goods, like jobs and new friends, that even a well-ordered appetite would desire. For those in the market, it is absolutely essential for the acquisition of a mate. We might say that modesty should check self-assertion when it aims at goods beyond these – fame for fame’s sake, power for power’s sake, sex for pleasure’s sake, or in my case, admiration for validation’s sake.
Now, it’s relatively easy for me, a life-celibate, to remind myself to squash occasional impulses to strut the rusted debris of my stuff. What practical advice I would give to a young Catholic guy – an undergrad at Steubenville, say, or Dallas – I have no idea. Even kids that age who aren’t rutting like brute beasts are jockeying for pride of place like bighorned sheep on jimson weed. In that state of barely tamed nature, hearing that reason is proper to man just doesn’t sound very convincing.
I suppose I would refer them to Josef Pieper, who writes that Temperance, modesty’s umbrella corporation, “renders men beautiful,” but “with a more spiritual, more austere, more virile aspect.” It is as though the soul, by drawing nearer to God, causes a cleft to form in the chin.
It is not easy to read in a man’s face whether he is just or unjust. Temperance or intemperance, however, loudly proclaim themselves in the order or disorder of the features, in the attitude, the laugh, the handwriting. Temperance, as the inner order of man, can as little remain “purely interior” as the soul itself, and as all other life of the soul or mind. It is the nature of the soul to be “the form of the body.”
In other words, for a young bookworm or aesthete to fear being mistaken for Ven. Pope Pius XII is perfectly understandable. But woe betide him who breaks that mold too eagerly. Before long, he might end up being mistaken for Bluto from Animal House.