Sometimes I see something online that leaves me puzzled the whole rest of the day.
Today, it was a photograph of a poster that was hung in a church foyer; at the top were those oddly sentimental line drawings of effeminate angels bowing their heads to a monstrance emblazoned with the words ADORATION REPARATION. I don’t know why I get nervous when I hear “reparation.” I suppose it reminds me of my time on the Planet Charismatic, when I honestly thought God deliberately sent pious people bad cases of tuberculosis so that they could “offer it up.” But I’m the last person to blame my crotchets on the designers of random religious clip art.
But that wasn’t what confused me; what had me scratching my head was the text. It said:
Out of respect to Our Lord and for the edification of our neighbor, we beg women and girls to appear in church modestly dressed. Slacks, shorts, sleeveless and low cut dresses do not meet the norm of Christian modesty. Your cooperation is evidence of your love for Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and respect for the House of God.
First of all, what kind of grammar is that? It’s a very short statement; it could have been copy-edited six times in five minutes. Who says “respect to Our Lord” instead of “respect for Our Lord?” Why isn’t there a dash between “low” and “cut?” Wouldn’t it be ten times clearer to write “Slacks, shorts, and sleeveless or low-cut dresses” instead of “slacks, shorts, sleeveless and low-cut dresses?”
What does “edification of our neighbor” mean? Who’s going to be edified by what women wear to cover their backsides, unless they wear skirts made of pages from the McGuffey Reader? It reminds me of when I was making a vain attempt to fit in at FUS, and was told that if anyone said a swear word I should say “That is not edifying to the Body.” I didn’t know what it meant then. I don’t know what it means now. I think if my neighbor wants to be edified, he should stop looking at women and read a book– or even a blog post. I can recommend some lovely ones.
I guess I feel happy that they’re “begging” women to wear modest clothing. At the traditionalist church downtown, they coldly require it, and that always irks me.
The use of the word “slacks” led to quite a discussion among my friends. I had rarely heard anyone but traditionalists refer to women’s trousers as “slacks.” It sounded like one of those affected words from the Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism. I took an informal poll of my friends on Facebook, to see if anyone other than modesty posters ever referred to women’s trousers as “slacks.” Several friends chimed in that their octogenarian grannies did. I was fast becoming convinced that “slacks” was an archaism like calling every women’s shirt a “blouse,” but I was mistaken. Some friends from the Midwest call women’s dress pants “slacks” and call all women’s shirts “blouses” as well. Once of the Midwestern slack-sayers was a female Episcopal priest, so certainly not influenced by the Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism in any way. Perhaps the Midwest is always a few generations behind on changing vocabulary trends. Maybe in twenty years we’ll all be speaking Nadsat, but in the Midwest they’ll speak crisp and perfect English. That would be fun. But I digress.“Slacks, shorts, sleeveless and low cut dresses do not meet the norm of Christian modesty.” This casually implies that there is a single norm of Christian modesty to which we can all adhere, which is nonsense. Amish people are Christians, and Amish women wear bonnets because bare hair is immodest to them; however, I’ve seen lots of pictures of Amish girls playing sports barefoot. In certain Asian countries where feet are considered erotic, you can be sure that a good Christian would modestly keep her feet shod in public, but wouldn’t wear a bonnet. There are Christian sects who view bright colors as deeply immodest, and then there are certain Orthodox women who never go to Liturgy without wearing a colorful scarf. You can easily find strict groups of Evangelicals who think women should wear their hair down around their shoulders in a tangled mess; they even think this is what Saint Paul is talking about. There is no norm for Christian modesty.
And then there’s that zinger of a last line. “Your cooperation is evidence of your love for Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and respect for the House of God.” If I ever become a debt collector, I’m going to end all my notices with that very phrase.
Okay, so I don’t like the poster.
I wish there was one set of rules for how a man or woman definitively ought to dress in Liturgy or Adoration. I wish there was. I wish loving our Lord and respecting the House of God was a matter of putting on a certain dress. If the priest from my church handed the whole congregation white cassocks with tacky choir collars we were required to wear to Liturgy every Sunday, I would be relieved. But he hasn’t.
Here’s a better idea than policing other people’s clothing: police your own heart. I won’t say “rend your hearts, not your garments,” because somebody’s already said that. But rend your heart with repentance before you go to Liturgy or Adoration. Don’t be dramatic about it, and don’t try to conjure up a nice miserable feeling or anything like that. But take some time before Liturgy to think about how much God loves you, and about the ways you haven’t responded well to that love. Repent of your sins, resolve to do better, make peace with your neighbor if applicable. See where God directs you. Maybe God will direct you in how you’ve been thinking wrongly about clothing. Maybe He does want you to edify your neighbor by covering your chest. But perhaps He wants you to know that you’re not responsible for the fact that your neighbor won’t stop leering. It could be that He’d like you to stop obsessing over clothes and just wear the first dress or suit you pull out of your closet until you learn not to care about appearances so much. It could be that He wants you to stop making yourself late for church by preening too long in front of the mirror– or, He could let you know that you’re being too hard on yourself and you’re allowed to have fun dressing up.
I can’t say where God will direct your heart, any more than I can say what you should wear to church.
Wherever it is, I think it will be much more edifying than staring at women’s clothing.
(image via Pixabay)