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A Christian’s guide to modesty in the hot summer months

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter

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Editor's note: Read Part II on this subject here: How modesty protects men, women from abuse, manipulation, and disorder 

June 4, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Each year as we enter the warm summer months, the problem of modesty in dress arises—ever more acutely, it seems, as Western people lose even the minimal moral bearings and social customs that once guaranteed a modicum of self-respect and consideration for others. We need nothing less than a moral revolution, a rebuilding of our most basic concepts of virtue. This will be difficult, needless to say, and we may not be able to turn the tide of the general culture, more correctly described at this point as an anti-culture. Yet it is by no means impossible to rebuild these concepts within Christian communities, if only there is a courageous willingness to address the issues at stake, with clarity and calmness. I shall attempt an overview in this week’s pair of articles.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the notion of “modesty” in dress, speech, or behavior is derived from the notion of moderation, of doing something in a fitting, well-considered manner that observes a mean between extremes. In this instance, the extremes are shamelessness (far more common today) and prudery or unhealthy inhibition.

Like all moral virtues, the habit of modesty not only gives an aptitude for wanting and choosing what is right in this regard, but it urges us to do so; it becomes a second nature, an energetic disposition. Thomas would remind us, too, that modesty helps us to appreciate bodily goods in their rightful place. When person, place, and time call for it, concupiscible passions are good, instruments of virtuous action intended by God.

The modest person is one whose actions and appearance consistently reflect self-mastery, good judgment of what is appropriate, a firm command over feelings, a serene ability to express and to “be” oneself without self-advertisement. Hence, true modesty begins in the soul and only later catches the eye’s or ear’s notice. This inward modesty consists in regulating one’s entire life in a manner that is calm, gentle, reverent, and pure. Putting on modest clothing or avoiding immodest dancing is something that “spills over” from that interior condition.

Modern Western societies have discarded the modesty most required for the basic health of society: dressing and comporting oneself in a manner that will not excite the wrong kind of attention from the opposite sex—an animalistic, possessive, reductive attention. Indeed, as is obvious, the opposite vice is flaunted. 

Sadly, many sincere Christians who want to lead a chaste life seem to be unaware of the link between purity of heart and modesty in appearance, between commitment to virtue and the way the body is presented to others—an ignorance all the more surprising in that the connection is rather obvious and, in consequence, has been clearly understood in every age other than ours.

There are, for example, young Catholics who try to be pure but who continue to dress as their secular peers do, in provocative or inappropriate styles of clothing. One sees this vividly at World Youth Days, where, in addition to immodesty, an astonishing lack of awareness of what is appropriate for a sacred and solemn event is all too common. 

Modern-day people seem to have adopted one criterion alone: physical comfort. Anything that could cause the remotest discomfort or inconvenience is rejected out of hand. As a result, when dressing in hot weather, Christians all too often fall into the bad habits of their secular peers who do not think about what would please God or help oneself and others to remain chaste, but only about what is coolest or easiest. As a small part of sound asceticism, Christians ought to reject this sort of pampering of and pandering to the body. St. Paul describes the believer as one who is “always carrying in [his] body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor 4:10). 

Who has not been struck by old black and white photographs of pioneer settlers who, in the midst of sweltering summer heat, wore all-covering, full-length outfits? I don’t suggest we return to the same wardrobe, but I do say that we would do well to heed their witness of propriety and stamina. Obviously, circumstances of hot weather and activities such as long outdoor hikes have to be taken into account, but there are modest and immodest solutions to any situation. With our modern materials, dressing modestly need not mean dressing oppressively; for example, dresses of cool, lightweight, opaque material are available that cover the shoulders and come down to the ankles.

We cannot pretend that how we treat ourselves bodily, how we eat and dress and look and move, whether we do so with restraint or abandon, with polite regard or thoughtlessness, with responsibility or naïveté, are spiritually irrelevant “fine points.” On the contrary, they are essential. They, too, will either manifest the life of Jesus to the world, or promote a contrary spirit. How someone treats, displays, and makes use of the body reveals much about the workings of the soul: who one thinks he (or she) is, what one thinks about oneself and others, what one wants from oneself or others. In more ways than people realize, looks are not deceiving: the medium is the message.

As with every topic of importance, divine revelation is not lacking guidelines. “I desire then … that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion” (1 Tim 2:8–10). There is a way of behaving and appearing which is inseparable from the Christian way of life; it is one of the marks of the believer in the world. Modesty, like peacefulness, though primarily a good of the soul, does not stop at the soul, but has an effect on all aspects of social life. The modern world needs models of self-control and dignified self-presentation; Christians can and must set the example. The very absence of excess is worthy of making its presence known.

The virtue of religion, whereby we give back to the infinite God what we are able to give, includes the offering up to Him of our persons, our bodies and souls, in faithful love. This is why modesty is both a consequence and a safeguard of religion.

St. Thomas says that holiness denotes two things: being clean and being firm. “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God”: blessed are they who firmly preserve their purity of soul and body, for the sake of loving God with their whole being. The sight of God, the great goal and joy of Christian life, is the ultimate reason we must keep our hearts, our words, our movements and appearance, pure, undefiled, simple, restrained. In so doing, our way of life is conformed to that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and makes present in a fallen, soiled world something of the bright innocence, the serene peace, the incorruptible freshness of the Holy Spirit.

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.