Thursday, June 13, 2013

Reflecting on "Modesty Sets Fire"

Recently I read Modesty Sets Fire by Marc Barnes/BadCatholic, and it set off several thoughts in my head that I want to now capture and look at. You can read the whole post for an overview; I'm going to pick through it for the bits that set my mind in motion.

Marc says, "I suspect we prefer monotony to metanoia" (conversion). I see this as a huge problem among Christians, one that persists mostly because we don't explicitly examine our sense of drudgery enough and because we are uncourageous wimps. Healing stories in Scripture always make me wonder how difficult that healed person's life became afterwards. You get your sight, or use of both hands, or you're cleansed of leprosy, and suddenly everything you've known is turned upside down. Being healed can really ruin you if the drudgery of same-old-same-old is something you secretly treasure.

The only way out of monotony is to really and truly feel the pain of your predicament. Pain should not cause Christians to turn away our faces and hide. Where there is felt pain, there is hope, as long as that pain is not stuffed, but allowed to be the vehicle to bring us out of ourselves for union with Christ. What else but our need prompts us to want God? We are nothing if not a gaping need for God and His forgiveness. Isn't this why classic spirituality teaches us to seek after perfect contrition? We need to feel the pain, a deep remorse for our sin (which is so much different than the devil's guilt that tells us we are worthless creatures) to even want freedom from it. Without contrition, without the pain that tells us the truth about ourselves, we walk around bored with our lives, bored with prayer, bored with God, bored with being good, bored with being evil. Bored. Flat. Dull. Not caring. Anesthetized.

All that was really just a minor introductory point.

Closer to his main point, he then goes on with this bit from the Catechism about modesty making it possible to resist fashions. Of course that means more than popular clothing styles, although he uses that to illustrate his intended point.

His main point isn't mine, really, but let me lay out three items for closer examination. Number one, the positive definition of modesty:

Modesty is wholeness; integration; a harmony between body and soul; the outward revelation of our inward subjectivity through the presentation and action of the body, in which we express to the world the inexpressible fact of our personality, and by which we have the faith necessary to believe in the subjectivity and personality of every human on the planet...
And that is simply true. Two:

I believe that modesty empowers us to act, and with the ability to act comes the ability and the impetus to resist the allurements of fashion.
And three, he talks about how passivity is the province of objects, and action is the province of subjects.

All right. This is where all my synapses started shooting fireworks.

I am always trying to understand what God is teaching me, and stringing these particular thoughts together just now is like stopping on my hike up the mountain and taking in a great view. Integration, modesty, empowerment, subjectivity, action... All of these aspects of truth and conversion have been percolating in my life in recent years. That word empowerment seems to be my word of the month, actually. Ok, so what of it.

Forget, please, equating modesty with baggy clothes, or with clothes at all. Just forget it. Modesty is this inner, spiritual quality. When it is present, it manifests, of course, but like all spiritual qualities, when it is not there, it can also be aped. I am undecided on whether aping is a good thing; perhaps it depends on how malleable we are in God's hands, how willing we are to be taught that the good we think we are doing is really worthless straw that needs to be traded for real virtue. (Or might we repent more quickly if we are the honestly wicked type?)

Certainly we are often unaware that we are aping -- externally copying what we think is morally upright, good, and holy behavior. As we progress through conversion, we go from whatever coping mechanisms we know for survival, to behavior that gets us accepted by others, to behavior that seems to fit a holy ideal, to that which God teaches us fits our own soul for the praise and glory of His name, for our good and the good of all His holy church.

I have journeyed this route, too. In certain aspects of my life I have been more scared to be taught by God than in others. I have been rather terrified, frankly, of God addressing my sexuality, of His bringing a harmony there between my body and soul, of allow Him to allow me to express my whole personality, and to act as a free subject. I have been terrified of the healing that would turn my world upside down. It's always the fear of the unknown, of course, and of that which one is unwilling to explicitly examine. It's the secretly-treasured prison of drudgery.

But I have long held a "blank check" policy with God; He is granted a free hand in my life, period. And He's taken me up on it.

He knows me far more deeply than I know myself, and He has also been intricate, patient, loving, and extremely clever in the ways He goes about leading me to freedom. I've had to walk blind because if I would have seen where I was going to end up, I would have bolted.

It is super tricky to be an adult married woman, edging up on being so-called middle aged, and getting some of this stuff for the first time. Big internal changes are one thing for a youngin, but it dawned on me recently that mismanaged big internal changes about modesty are one reason people my age end up divorcing. Yikes.

The conversion from experiencing oneself as an object to experiencing oneself as a subject is profound and powerful, like dynamite. And it highlights how and why Christian life is not just about me & Jesus. We need the Church, we need connection, commitment, belonging and protection in the Body of Christ when our understanding of ourselves starts getting blown apart. But we shouldn't get afraid of God's power, because when we hang in there with Him, we are healed, not left devastated.

These things are difficult for me to address, but it is true that since my teen years I have become accustomed to men staring at me, talking dirty and stupid around me, or getting sort of puppy-dogish or weirdly attentive. Through the years I've dealt with this as well as I could, which wasn't very well, and it involved a lot of shutting out. A lot of accepting, without thinking about it, that I was an object to which degradation was simply to happen. That was actually a tad more comforting than thinking that I was some kind of slime that caused men to be bad. There were definite comfort advantages for me in not examining this too closely.

Then I met... well, no, I won't use his name. God had work to do, and His choice of instrument and His ways scared me. But God taught me through this good man that I am a subject, not an object. God slowly removed the "object" knots around me (which had grown slack from years of not being yanked on as much) and had me practice the harmony, expression and wholeness of modesty born from being a somebody instead of a thing. Then when the time was right, he removed my mentor and set me off without the training wheels. Every step in the whole process I was either scared, angry, or both. But the one thing that has kept my life on even keel is to say every day to Jesus Christ in the midst of His Church, Jezu ufam tobje: Jesus, I trust in You.

Stopping to behold this view on the mountain humbles me, or at least it had better. I resist God, and I often think my life is on the brink of disaster when really He is blessing me. I cry over dropping my favorite stone when God is trying to fit me for a crown. I am so intent on my pleasures, and God is so intent on my happiness. I am silly.

Surviving conversion requires far more courage than one might think, says St. Teresa of Avila. But emerging on the far side of a conversion journey, becoming the one God created one to be (onion journey though it always is), one is rendered empowered. Free to act, to create, in the image of God. As St. Catherine of Siena said (and Marc quotes) "Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire!" This is where Jesus was fishing when He said "Ask whatever you will in my name, and I will do it." May I have the strength to keep going in this way.

I used to think being a Christian made me a sheep, but it occurs to me now that the virtue of modesty — and of chastity to which it is ordered — is the revolution against passivity, and will prepare my arms for battle, to burn down and build up what I will.

Read Marc's whole article at

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