Musings on Muses
Tuesday, August 31, 2004
Dealing with Chastity
Note: This is my second attempt at this post. The initial version was incoherent and bland so I have reworked it. If anyone saw the original, please be aware of both style and content changes.
Weeks after the initial story has broken, I decide finally to step into the fray regarding Deal Hudson. Most of what I have to say really concerns the blogosphere more than Mr. Hudson himself. Flambeaux had wanted to comment but was having trouble collecting his thoughts so I have picked up the baton.
If you are not up to date on what I am referring to, the quick summary is that Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine, recently stepped down from his position as an advisor on Catholic issues to the Bush campaign after the National Catholic Reporter dug up some dirt on an affair with a student ten years ago. I have not read the article and really have no desire to. My comments are tangential. What I really want to talk about are some of the reactions to this.
But first, some kudos where they are due. While sniping and gossip occur in the usual places, I think there has been some fine commentary at a few blogs. Cacciaguida has, I think one of the better, and more measured posts on the topic. Smockmomma, of the Summa Mamas also wrote some very thoughtful points which dovetail nicely with my recent posts on modesty. Mr. Luse of Apologia has also, as usual, written a thoughtful, humorous, and meaty post on the kerfuffle. But on to the main point.
It was an offhand comment, but a significant one, in Mr. Luse’s post that ruffled Flambeaux’s feathers and prompted me to put key to blog. (Will someone please find a better phrase. “Pen to paper” is so lovely, but we lack an electronic equivalent.) Several bloggers have mentioned, as Mr. Luse does, that chastity is easy.
Perhaps I should say this again so that it is noticed. Many bloggers have said that it is easy to cultivate and practice a virtue like chastity in one of the most sex-obsessed and immodest cultures in history.
I am willing to give Mr. Luse the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he meant simple. It is certainly simple to be chaste. Just don't do unchaste things or think unchaste thoughts. Not complicated. But also not easy. While chastity may not be impossible (God would not demand it if it were), it is certainly not easy in our culture. It requires grace. And that means that like any other virtue there is spiritual labor involved. And while Mr. Luse may not have intended to say that it is not hard to be virtuous, I have seen commentary in other blogs which certainly implies or even states this baldly.
Perhaps an analogy would be appropriate here. I am generally of a sunny disposition. Hope is a virtue that seems to come naturally to me. It’s easy to be hopeful when life is good, things are going your way, and you are disposed to an optimistic point of view already. However, I have friends who suffer from depression. Hope is a dreadfully difficult virtue for them. Now that is not a free license to despair. “Sorry God, you gave me a chemical imbalance so I figured it wasn’t worth trying to trust in You.” But it does mean that they are going to be doing a lot more prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to be even half as hopeful as I naturally am. If I said to them “But it’s so easy. Just trust in God and He will take care of you,” and rattled off a few appropriate verses from the Gospels, I would not be doing them a service. They have a problem that must be addressed seriously, recognizing they are not disposed to hope but must nevertheless seek God’s grace to be hopeful. And they have to also address what is at the root of their despair, the tendency to depression which has causes physical and mental as well as spiritual.
If chastity is a virtue, then it is quite comparable to the previous example of hope. Some people are naturally pure in heart. It is easy to act chastely and keep thoughts pure. But for other people, for whom Lust is their personal bete noir, it is not easy at all to do these things. And I contend that it is, like hope, as matter of disposition. Just as some people have trouble cultivating hope because they are plagued by depression, there are people who have trouble living chastely because their sex drives are disordered. We do them a disservice in not recognizing that. (And don’t make the mistake of thinking that only homosexuals have a disordered sex drive. There are a lot of straight men and women who do not have properly ordered sexual appetites.) There is a large portion of people for whom living chastely is an act of heroism.
Especially in a culture that sexualizes everything, we should not downplay the hard work that goes into living a chaste life. We can't just say, "Don't do it." A friend of mine, ordained last year, said that he was disappointed in how little guidance he and he classmates got in living a chaste life. At least seminarians get some. For the men (and women) who carry the cross of disordered sex drive (be it same-sex attraction or plain ol' lust), there needs to be more assistance in helping them keep custody of the eyes, hands, and other body parts.
Another nit I would like to pick while sorting through the comment boxes is the labeling of Mr. Hudson as a hypocrite. Does it cross no one's mind that perhaps he has spoken so passionately about some of the topics he has because he knows those sins intimately? Are we not allowed to talk about the sixth commandment if we have at any time in the past had trouble obeying it? Mr. Hudson writes that the sins committed ten years ago have been confessed and he has repented. Perhaps that experience colors what he says when his writing touches on sexual sin. Do any of us know how much he has reformed his soul as well as his actions?
It is one of the beautiful facets of our faith that we need not have experienced a temptation to know it for what it is and counsel against it. But that does not change the fact that sometimes it is the voice of experience that teaches best. I would not be the person to talk to about same sex attraction. I've never had it so I can only speak in generalities. I would be a lot better to talk to about spiritual dryness, which is something of a monkey on my back. (Funny that despite that, I still have a natural disposition to be hopeful. God’s grace is mysterious and wonderful.)
Flambeaux and I divide our own apologetic efforts for this reason. He is baffled by Protestants; I'm baffled by post-modernists and other forms of insanity. We each have particular rebellions that we understand intimately and had to quell to fully embrace the Faith. In the same way, perhaps if Mr. Hudson's struggles with chastity have brought him to a place where he has learned how to avert the eyes, quash the thoughts, and keep body, mind, and spirit faithful to his family, maybe he has not only a right, but also a duty to talk about sexual morality.
The ten second summary of this vast post is this:
-Virtue is not easy. If it seems to be to us, it is because God has given us special graces to resist temptation to a particular sin or set of sins.
-It is not helpful to those who are disposed to particular sins to merely instruct them that “Those sins are sins! So, don’t sin!” They probably already know this. What they need is practical help in fighting temptation and cultivating virtue. They need the example of saints who have faced the same problems and heroically defeated them. They need support. If they have reached the point where they want to live virtuously, contempt and dismissal are counterproductive.
-It is not hypocrisy to condemn a sin that you personally struggle with. It only becomes hypocrisy when you present yourself as an example of a virtue that you do not display. Any man who says “God have mercy on me, a sinner” probably has a lot to tell us about sin and the struggles he has with it. Starting with such luminaries as St. Paul and St. Augustine. Deal Hudson may be no saint, but that is probably his goal if he is honest in his faith.
Please, when dealing with sin, let’s avoid the Microsoft answers (technically correct but practically useless.) We all know that chastity is a virtue and lust is a sin. But just because lust is such a middle of the road sin (after all, Dante places it relatively close to Limbo, only the 2nd circle of Hell), let’s not assume that it is easy to avoid. For many it is damnably difficult and their struggles, and sometimes their failures, should not be ridiculed or downplayed. If will power was enough to avoid sin, we would not need Christ or the Cross.
Monday, August 23, 2004
More thoughts on modesty: The Chromosome Planets
Michael Jantze writes a great cartoon called the Norm. One of his fun recurring strips is The Chromosome Planets, where the eponymous hero comments on the differences between men and women, who seem so be from two different planets, X and Y. The humor comes from something we all know instinctively: men and women are different. And much of the grief that comes from discussions about modesty comes from this very same source.
Modesty has two components which can be compared to the Great Commandments. There is the aspect of the virtue which is centered on respecting God's gift of sexuality, which corresponds, of course, to "Love God with all your heart". And then there is the more controversial half, which is helping our brothers in Christ avoid occasions of sin, loving "our neighbor as ourselves."
Only women really don't have the same problems with custody of the eyes that men have. We appreciate beauty, including the beauty that is a handsome man, but as a rule, women are not oglers by nature. (This of course admits of exceptions but I would argue that they are exceptions that come about by conditioning.) Therefore, when our brothers, fathers, friends, and husbands complain about their difficulties, we are likely to respond "So what. Suck it up and don't look. Let me be comfortable. I'm not trying to be provocative." The problem with this attitude is that it is not charitable. We are not loving them as we would be loved. Without trying, we're offering temptation because we have trouble seeing it. Most women will agree when a blouse is overtly trampy, but it is harder to see why even well cut, loose fitting pants are more tempting than a just-below-the-knee skirt.
There are many reasons to aspire to modesty in dress. Wendy Shallit's A Return to Modesty gives some wonderful ideas from a secular perspective. Modest dress earns better treatment from men and more respect in situations where a woman wants to be treated seriously. Certainly good reasons.
Beyond the secular though, once a woman aspires to please God as well as herself, she has more reasons to dress modestly. God gives us sexuality as gift, not to be displayed in such a way that we become objects rather than people. (Conversely, we should not dress in sacks, obscuring even our eyes, because that denies the natural and good beauty that we have as human beings.) Once we see that modesty is as much an attitude as a matter of square feet covered, it's natural to both seek modest clothing and wear it in a modest manner.
However, there is another way in which we please God by our modesty and that is in charitably considering our brothers when we choose our clothing. That means considering whether despite its comfort it might be an occasion of sin for others. This can be difficult of course. It's hard to be accomodating to others. It's tempting to say "It's their problem" and go on wearing what we like regardless. But it's no more kind that downing martinis in front of an alcoholic and feeling righteous because at least you didn't offer any.
This is where my musing on attractive modest clothing have stemmed. Because I admit my own weakness in this area, I know that I am just as stubborn about this. I want clothing that doesn't hamper me or feel uncomfortable. I don't want to dress in sloppy, dowdy clothes. I don't want to look like a Stepford wife. (Actually, I kind of do. I love the lines of late forties/early fifties clothing.) And I think that clothing that is acceptable is the first step on the road to behaving charitably toward my neigbors. It's rather like accepting the health arguments for NFP before recognizing its moral merits and finally embracing an open attitude toward children. There has to a first step and so far many of us women have be held back by a distaste for what is offered.
I think that there is room for books of discussion on this. From what dress is appropriate in what circumstances (Athletic wear is different from church clothes for example, but some athletic wear, like tennis dresses, have become far too skimpy.) to what standards can be considered the bare minimum (pun intended) there's a lot of room for talk. But also for answers. We are never going to recivilize society until we start acting like men and women and respecting each other, including our weaknesses.
Thanks to the Old Oligarch for starting this discussion. Also, a great source of information can be found at this site.
Friday, August 20, 2004
Modesty and a Healthy View of Self
There's been a lot of talk in the Catholic blogosphere about modesty in dress. I think the most intersting thing that occurs when the hot topic comes up is that almost everyone agrees that modest dress is a duty of the faithful but we can't agree on what is modest. I think the issue is often confused by the fact that many of the manufacturers of "modest clothing" produce clothing that could be called frumpy at best. As a seamstress, I offended by poor fitting clothing, whether it's overly tight or the western equivalent of the burka.
From my own experience, I have spent most of life dressing in a matter that is modest in one sense but not in another. I have always struggled with my weight. Therefore, uncomfortable with showing a body I disliked, I wore frumpy clothing: large sweaters, baggy jeans, shapeless dresses. When I lost a lot of weight my freshman year of college, I went a bit overboard and some of the clothing I aquired was a little too revealing of my slightly slimmer self. I have since begun to finally approach an ideal wardrobe, of properly fitting clothing, appropriate to a nursing mother. It's the first time in my life that my wardrobe has a coherant look to it, incidentally.
I think one of the challenges of dressing modestly begins with self-image. Many women, including myself at times, where fashionable clothing, however it appears, because of a lack of personal style and a fear of not fitting in. A truly modest woman would actually have style because she is not a fashion victim. She chooses clothing that she likes, appropriate to her station in life (the Queen should not buy her clothes at Wal-Mart), but is not overly concerned about them after aquiring them. She does not agonize over her appearance but strides confidently through the world unconcerned by herself. That's style. The opposite of style is the fashionista, obsessed by the changing barometers of Milan, Paris, London, New York, and "the street", always seeking novelty, thinking of nothing but clothing. And it filters down to most modern American women through fashion magazines so that we buy woithout thinking whatever the "new look" is.
Beyond the fear of not fitting in, there is the fear of not being perfect. The worry over the perfect body leaves many people with a loathing for their body that manifests itself in two radically different expressions of fashion. One is the uncovered look. It is rarely one sported by people truly comfortable with their appearance. Most women who wear too little are trying to convince themselves of their worth by buying too revealing clothing in the hope of being noticed (and approved of) by men. It's superficially flattering. In the opposite direction, women wear clothing that is more sloppy than truly modest. It's baggy, ugly, frumpy and hides the body. It shows no more respect for God's creation than "hooker chic". One extreme objectifies the body by using it as an allurement, the other denies the beauty inherent in all creation by hiding it.
I dislike ugliness and I haven't seen much pretty clothing lately. For example, the bathing suits the Old Oligarch links to in his earliest modesty post cover appropriately but are hideous. Do I have a market if I can design a bathing suit that doesn't leave one exposed but also looks nice? For that matter, if I turn my designer's eye to a line of clothing that is pretty, fitted, yet covers appropriately, would women buy it? I think it would be a great thing to create clothing that makes a woman look and feel good, so that she can grab any two pieces in the morning, walk out of the house, and not think about them for the rest of the day.
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
At first I hated these...
But on second thought, isn't the new rage for ponchos like this:
the perfect nursing mother's cover-up. Why didn't we think of this sooner?