Stepping aside from the Christmas festivities for a moment, a couple of us priests had a rather interesting conversation a few days past that are worthy of sharing. After all, I did promise that this would be more than just a travel blog! Further, I wish to inform you at the outset that there will be few (applicable) pictures in this post for reasons which should quickly become obvious…
If you’ve been to Italy or you’re familiar with Italian art, you’ll know that one of the “unique” things that might draw attention to one habituated to American culture, is the … well, nudity. It’s not found so much among the Italians themselves (thanks be to God!) as it is the art – sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and the like. On top of that, the Italians, appearing to be a very contact-oriented people, have no problem expressing their love for that “special someone” for all the world to see. It seems no accident that Italian is a “romance” language and that Italians appear good at what we’d call “romance”. To give you some idea of what I’m talking about, had such behavior, however, taken place in one of our Catholic high schools, someone would be written up for public displays of affection (PDA) …or worse!
This priest-friend pointed out – and I readily recognize and agree with it – that while our American “sensibilities” find this behavior to be improper, inappropriate, or – to borrow a phrase from our Italian friends – brutta figura, it just might be the case that the Anglo-Saxon tradition (and thus, the American tradition) is deeply influenced by a Puritanism which might be described as the extreme opposite to that of the Italians. Deeply influenced by the Catholic tradition, Italians have learned the goodness of the body, but I wonder if that connection has been severed such that the body, with its needs and desires, has been unknowingly elevated to the greatest of all goods. On the other hand, the Puritan worldview, in reaction to this “Italian” perspective, sees the body in a more negative light such that it needs to be covered and/or hardly ever seen in public.
That being said, the profound effects of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s has only further muddied the waters regarding the body, sexuality, and the true good such that we are like sailors on a ship who have willingly jettisoned the anchor to the depths of the sea and are drifting wherever the waves and winds should take us. In light of this, it seems like the “right” and “easy” thing to retreat to the Puritan worldview as a reaction to the multi-faceted misunderstanding and misuse of the human body. Realizing that I’m summarizing in broad strokes with generalities, and perhaps stereotypes, I think there’s more than a shred of truth here and more importantly, rather worrying exactly about the nature of the extremes of this cultural pendulum, we have a need to find the center, wherein lies virtue, says, St. Thomas Aquinas.
One major error that can lead to either extreme, regards the meaning of the body within the context of our existence as human persons. Why do we have a body and what is its purpose? For what end have we been given a body? How does the body fit within the context of our existence as persons composed of body and soul? These are the kinds of the questions that are no longer asked or simply ignored; however, to recapture the truth about ourselves – both body and soul – these are the questions that need to be accepted as answerable and then answered.
As a starting point, when asked about modesty – because this is what we inevitably resort to – I found it a good benchmark for our young women to wear clothing that identifies one as female, but not clothing that reveals what makes one female. One might ask at this point why the Church cares about what one wears!
First, Pope Francis in his “Angelus” address yesterday had this to say to Christians: “Do not forget Christian consistency, that is, to think, feel, and live like a Christian and not to think like a Christian while we live like a pagan. Not this!” He was reminding us of the need to have a consistency and coherence between what we “profess with our lips” and what we preach with our actions. The saints did not say one thing with their lips and another with their lives; we shouldn’t either! Second, what we wear says something about who we are and what we find important. Soldiers, for example, are trained to have immaculate uniforms precisely because it points to something bigger than themselves, but of which they are a part. Militaries throughout history have understood that the way one dresses will have an impact on performance. If one takes his dress seriously, it means he will likely take his jobs and responsibilities more seriously. Thus, the way we dress will reflect and express – either intentionally or unintentionally – what we find most important or most valuable about ourselves.
Current trends in clothing encourage people of all ages that one’s body is the best thing you’ve got going for you, and it’s to be shown off in subtle and not so subtle ways. On the contrary, it seems that we need to recover the authentic dignity of the human person as a union of body and soul, especially recognizing the built-in hierarchy of the body and the powers of the soul. Following the wisdom of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that among the various components and powers of the human person, the body was the least of those good things found within every person while the various powers of the soul are progressively more important: the vegetative powers (responsible for growth, sustenance, and generation), the sensitive powers (responsible for knowledge through the senses and emotions), and the intellectual powers (intellect and free will). With this hierarchy in mind, clothing, understood properly, isn’t to reveal the body, but the person. The problem is that we’ve reduced clothing to “this is cute” or “it doesn’t make me fat” or ” it makes me look tough” …all highlighting merely the body, not the person, body and soul.
While some may doubt the connection between what one wears and how that communicates something to others, I give the following example. A study was done at Princeton and reported in National Geographic, neither one thought-of as intentional friends to the Christian faith, that when men were shown pictures of women in bikinis, the male brain reacted in the same way as it would react to power tools. This means, men are naturally inclined to treat such women as objects, not subjects, not human persons. Furthermore, men are very talented at mixing and matching mental imagines. Thus, for example, women – young and old – who find themselves in “cute” leggings, which, in reality, reveal more than they conceal, can easily and unfortunately be viewed in an undisciplined man’s mind without clothing because there’s little left to the imagination!
That being said, I wish to qualify these statements about modesty, women’s clothing, and lustful minds by saying that both men and women have a duty in this fight against sin. Both have a duty, under the influence of God’s grace, to “control” their sinful desires and to aid their brothers and sisters in this work by what they say, think, and do (and wear). One of the best analogies I’ve found came from a young woman in response to ladies who feel like the responsibility to “dress appropriately” is entirely one-sided! I’ll just give you her words:
I think we can all agree that as girls, exercise is important to us. We want to stay healthy and are often working on getting fit. We work out and stay away from carbs or sweets. We use all of our willpower to not eat the chocolate cake on the counter! Now, let’s pretend that someone picked up that chocolate cake and followed us around all the time, 24/7. We can never get away from the chocolate, it’s always right there, tempting us and even smelling all ooey gooey and chocolate-y. Most of us, myself included, would find it easy to break down and eat the cake. And we would probably continue to break down and eat cake, because it would always be there. Our exercise goals would be long gone in no time.
This is how I imagine it is for guys. Girls are walking around all the time with barely any clothes on at the beach or pool! Guys can never get a break from it, even if they’re trying to see past all the bodies to find the smiles and personalities within the girls.
We – men and women – have an obligation to authentically present our humanity, in its entirety, for our brothers and sisters, by helping them to focus on us not just as parts but as persons. Remember that body language is real! Ask yourself: what does my clothing say to others? Where is the attention drawn? Furthermore, we have an obligation to look for the authentic humanity in others, even if they’re not seeking to promote it or if they’ve forgotten it.
There was more to this conversation, but I’ll continue this next time…