The leaders of the Challenge Club of Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church in Edmond, Okla., kindly asked me to speak at their recent “Virtue en Vogue” fashion show. Below, my prepared remarks about “the forgotten virtue of modesty in dress.”
Modesty is the virtue by which we simultaneously protect and project our dignity as persons created in the image of God. It is the virtue by which we protect and project our dignity as, specifically, daughters of the Lord. Someday, it will be the virtue by which you protect and project your dignity as either religious sisters or as wives and mothers.
It is a very great and powerful virtue, but it is not always the easiest to practice. We have to pray and strive and consciously decide to be modest even as the world tells us we ought to either flaunt our bodies or cower in embarrassment of them.
Once upon a time, though, the struggle to be modest was not a struggle at all; modesty was baked into us as persons.
In the very beginning of time, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27).
He graciously gave Adam and Eve a home in the paradise that was the Garden of Eden, a garden filled with “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9). He told them they could eat of any tree in the garden except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
For a time, Adam and Eve lived happily in the garden.
Genesis 2:25 tells us that Adam and Eve “were both naked, but they did not feel shame.”
This verse has great relevance to our discussion of modesty.
In the Garden of Eden, before sin ever entered the world, “The man and his wife were both naked, but they did not feel shame” (Gen 2:25).
In other words, in the perfect world that preceded man’s fall from grace, neither man nor woman had any need for clothing. Clothing was not in the picture at all.
Eve didn’t wear hats; she didn’t wear gloves; she didn’t wear dresses or scarves or shoes or jewelry.
It’s not that she had a closet full of clothes and chose not to wear them. She had no clothes and she had no need of them because both she and Adam understood perfectly who they were and how they were to treat each other.
That is, they knew they were persons created in the image of God. They knew they were created by love and created for love. They knew they were neither pure spirits like the angels nor mere bodies like the animals; they were human beings, both body and soul.
Scripture tells us that, when God looked at Adam and Eve, He saw that they were good. Adam and Eve looked at each other just as God looked at them.
When Eve looked at Adam, she saw that he was good. She saw the whole person of Adam, not just his body. She saw, among other things, his shining intellect and his strong will. She saw that he was male, that he tilled and kept their common home, as God had commanded him. She saw his capacity to love and be loved. She saw all of this at a glance – a glance of both her eyes and her heart.
When Adam looked at Eve, he saw that she was good. He saw the whole person of Eve, not just her body. He saw, among other things, her shining intellect and her strong will. He also saw that she was female, uniquely capable of bearing life into the world. He saw her capacity to love and be loved. He saw all of this at a glance – a glance of both his eyes and his heart.
Pope Saint John Paul II summarizes it this way: He says Adam and Eve saw and knew each other “with all the peace of the interior gaze.”
In other words, Adam and Eve had nothing to fear from each other. In the Garden of Eden, neither of them would ever have looked at the other as anything more or less than a person to be loved.
Because of this innocence and purity, their own skin was all the attire they needed to protect and project their dignity as human beings created in the image of God.
Then, of course, Satan tempted Eve to disobey God and to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and Eve did so. She, in turn, gave the forbidden fruit to Adam. With these acts of disobedience, sin entered the world.
Here is Genesis 3:6: “She took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”
Think about that: The very first thing Adam and Eve did after they sinned was to make clothes for themselves.
In a sense, then, clothes are evidence of our fallen nature; if we were not fallen, we would not need clothes at all. That is not to say that clothes are bad. On the contrary, in our fallen world, they are good and necessary.
All of this reveals, though, that modesty is not only – or even primarily – about clothes. It is, first of all, about recovering an interior attitude toward ourselves and others – the interior attitude that characterized Adam and Eve before sin entered the world.
It is about the ability to look in the mirror and to see your whole self looking back – not just your physical features, but your intellect and your will and your ability to glorify the Lord, as well. It is about the ability to look for the good in others and to rejoice when you find it.
How do we recover this attitude? It might seem impossible, but it isn’t, for, with God, all things are possible.
Yes, we live in a fallen world, and we ourselves are born in a state of original sin. Our intellects are darkened and our wills are weak. We are inclined to choose what is wrong and evil at every opportunity.
The Good News, though, is that God sent His son, Jesus, to redeem us and, indeed, to redeem this entire fallen world. By His life, death and resurrection, Jesus paid the price for our sins and opened the door for our salvation.
He established His Church – the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church – and He gave His Church the seven sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders and the Anointing of the Sick. The very real grace of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross flows through these sacraments. These sacraments make it possible for us to live in a very real relationship with God, who created us and loves us.
Our relationship with God is very similar to our relationships with each other. We are born into a relationship with Him through Baptism. When we offend Him, we say we are sorry through Reconciliation. We share family meals with Him through the Eucharist. Reading Scripture is like reading a love letter from the Lord. Praying to Him is like talking to Him on the phone.
As we grow in our relationship with the Lord, we become more and more like Him. We grow in virtue, including the virtue of modesty. It becomes easier to look at ourselves as His daughters and to look at the people around us as His sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters.
Before you fret, then, about specific guidelines about what is or is not modest and before you ever set foot in a store to buy new clothes and before you ever get dressed for church or school or a football game or a date, seek first the Kingdom of God.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind – and love your neighbor as yourself. Pray for the grace to be modest. Read the Scriptures about what it means to be modest. When you fail, repent immediately and go to Confession. Pretty soon, it will come naturally to dress like a daughter of the Lord because you’ll be living that all-important relationship day in and day out.
That said, guidelines are helpful, and that’s why we’ve provided a few as a starting point for you in today’s program.
If the very first pieces of clothing – loin cloths sewn from fig leaves – were evidence that Adam and Eve had fallen, then let your clothes be evidence that you have been redeemed by Christ.
Priests, who wear clerics, and nuns, who wear habits, give us concrete examples of what this can look like. Their clothes – simple, dignified, consistent, minimalistic – signify to the world that they have given their lives to Christ, that they are Christ’s.
The Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia in Nashville, Tenn., consider their white habits a sign that they are wedded to Christ.
In an interview with NPR, Nashville Dominican Sister Mara Rose McDonnell said this of her habit: “It’s beautiful, and it’s a reminder that you are a spouse of Christ. But it’s more than that. It tells others that there’s a reality beyond this world. There’s heaven. We’re all orienting ourselves towards heaven.”
One habit that is available to the laity is the scapular, a small, two-sided cloth necklace that signifies consecration to Jesus through Mary. Mary herself gave this habit to Saint Simon Stock in 1251.
When she did so, she said, “Wear the Scapular devoutly and perseveringly. It is my garment. To be clothed in it means you are continually thinking of me, and I in turn am always thinking of you and helping you to secure eternal life.”
The scapular is typically worn underneath our clothes, so it is not usually visible to others, but, I’ve found that, ever since I began to wear the scapular, I have dressed more modestly.
The scapular has a rich history and I encourage you to learn more about it and even to consider purchasing one and asking a priest to bless it and invest you in it. (If you ask him to invest you in the scapular, he’ll know just what prayer to say!) Sacred Heart Bookstore sells scapulars and they’re readily available online, as well.
A specific piece of clothing like the scapular or a crucifix necklace or a Miraculous Medal can be a fitting foundation for the rest of our clothing choices, an anchor that reminds us that we are daughters of the Lord and should dress accordingly.
Regardless of whether you choose to wear a scapular or another specifically religious item of clothing, however, your clothes can still witness to the world that you are Christ’s.
My prayer for you is that – with a little inspiration from the clothes you see today, as well as the ongoing discernment of prayer and Scripture study that is a part of the life of every Christian – you will genuinely want to choose clothes that are classy and tasteful and will have fun doing it!
I’ll leave you with two Scripture verses that capture all of this more concisely than I could ever say it.
Proverbs 31:30 tells us that “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
And 1 Peter 3:4 tells us, “Let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight.”
May virtue truly be en vogue among you!