they tell me my body is sacred. what does this really mean?

they tell me my body is sacred. what does this really mean? January 11, 2017

“Women, dress modestly. We veil things that are sacred. The Blessed Sacrament is not left lying around for everyone to see. It’s in a tabernacle, often with a veil over it.”

Or something to that effect.

But the phenomenon of veiling is not so simple as that. To conceal or to veil might be a protection of holiness, but it might also be a disguising of ugliness. Veiled language is often used when the speaker wants to make the horrifying seem palatable. A classic instance of this is Humbert’s rhetoric in Nabokov’s Lolita: he never speaks directly of the things he does to her, but instead adorns his language in poetic conceit, making a romance out of a crime. Veiling can be a way of attracting attention, too: when you see a curtain hanging, or a locked door, you always want to know what’s behind it. This can be a way of encouraging the sense of mystery when there’s actually nothing especially mysterious. Umberto Eco explores this in Foucault’s Pendulum, in which the seekers after hidden knowledge are beguiled only by it’s hiddenness, even though it turns out there’s no secret at all.

So covering the body doesn’t necessarily mean that we think it’s sacred. We might also think it’s ugly, or evil. Or less interesting than the clothing we put on. There are many reasons, in different cultures, why body parts are covered or revealed. And not all coverings presuppose dignity.

Anyway, why is it only women who are holy? Aren’t men sacred, too? The “we veil holy stuff” argument is typically used in favor of women wearing chapel veils. If there something about our heads that makes them more sacred than male heads? This argument for veiling is actually a very recent one, anyway, with as much basis in the historical reality of veiling as it has philosophical consistency (that is: almost none).

Our first major records of veiling in the western world are from tablets of Assyrian law. Veiling was mandatory for women of class but prohibited to the poor, prostitutes, and slaves. A woman of class who forgot her veil and a prostitute who dared to put one on were both subject to the same punishment: fifty blows and asphalt poured on her head. Not so bad, I suppose, by Assyrian standards (these are after all the same blokes who used to torture people using a practice called “the tub”- Google at your own risk).

This carried on into the Greek and Roman cultures, when women of the noble class would wear thick cloth veils that simultaneously denoted their higher class and their husband’s power over them. The latter association was so strong that removing a veil in ancient times was similar to a statement of divorce. This is St. Paul’s own background as a Roman when he speaks about veiling to Corinth. I believe it absolutely needs to be considered when we discuss what he wrote. What we are talking about here is the authority of a husband over his wife – that she should be covered and that is his responsibility to see to as well, that the veiling in some way makes her his own, and that there is no reciprocal motion on his part to denote his own marital status.

The veiling argument is also used to promote the covering of our genital areas.  Consider this assertion from a Catholic News Agency piece:

One woman taught me that as women, we cover certain parts of the body because they are life-giving and therefore sacred. We veil our bodies because they’re holy.

Of course, the ambiguity of veiling is still a factor here. There are many reasons why we might choose to cover our genital areas. They are more sensitive, for one thing. Also, as Yeats pointed out, “love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement”: genitals are right next door to the parts that give forth not life, but food-waste. We tend to hide these areas because we (well, most of us) consider pee and poop to be gross. Keeping these bits covered is good hygiene. Also, again, there is an a-historical blitheness about such assertions on covering. The historical writings on the female body do not stress genital areas as holy, so much as either dangerously tempting or vilely fleshy. We do not have a rich theology of the sanctity of female genitals, but we do have some earnest guys bloviating on how deadly or gross they are. We need  to look to the poets for some better theology on this one (as so often).

Then CNA article goes on to this:

She continued on to compare our bodies to the Eucharist. You would not see the Precious Body of Christ lying on the altar, you find it tucked away in the gold tabernacle and sometimes even with a veil over it. Our bodies too, are holy and deserve respect, not just a thin layer of spandex.

Her point is that we shouldn’t wear leggings. I’m going to ignore that point. I love my leggings: because they cover everything that I want covered, and they’re comfortable, and they’re affordable, and they can be quickly dressed up with a nice sweater, but I can also throw my Carhartts over them to go chop firewood. The theology of my leggings is the theology of work. And anyway, if my genitals are so sacred, I don’t see how a chunky layer of corduroy is necessarily more reverent than a thin layer of spandex. Or am I supposed to wear lacy undies all the time? I guess I can see an argument for lingerie here.

So, yes, the argument against leggings is silly. It’s also silly to assume that men can’t respect us unless we flounce about in frillies. The history of fashion and feminism demonstrate that women can be adorned as princesses and still treated like disposable crap.

No, let’s go on to the really interesting bit, and use some good wholesome seventeenth-century bluntness here: she just said that our vulvas and vaginas are like to the holy Eucharist.

Now, some might say this is stupid, or sacrilege. I actually find it fascinating. We women are told repeatedly that we are not fit to celebrate mass because we have the wrong sex-bits. In fact, having us even near the altar as extraordinary ministers can, it seems, blunt the edge of holiness in what would otherwise be a good manly mass, all tinkling bells and lacy robes and sweet incense.

Note here that I am not arguing that because my genitals are holy and life-giving, I need to be ordained a priest. I just keep coming back to this reality, that we have a theology that likes to reference female sacred-ness in order to keep us under wraps but is reluctant fully to explore the sacramental significance of this sacred-ness. Why should our holiness mean we need to be veiled, but keep us from more full participation in the sacramental life of the church? Even the traditional ritual uncleanness of the female genitals has significance here: our vaginas bring forth new life, new persons – but also blood, which can be a sign not only of death and uncleanness, but also life and redemption.

I’m glad I ran into that article today. I’m still going to be wearing leggings, but I am also going to be considering the significance of this Eucharistic aspect of my body. My female body.


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