The discussion on modesty, veiling, vanity, gratitude, and related topics continues here and elsewhere on the Internet. I'd like to extend a special welcome to those clicking in from the Catholic Answers forum on veils--please feel free to look around, get acquainted, and leave comments, even if (especially if!) you disagree. All voices are welcome here.
Some comments left in the comment boxes beneath the earlier post made me think about the problem of vanity and its related ills a bit more. The following speculation is pure fiction; any resemblance to actual people or conversations is both accidental and regrettable:
You are meeting your cousin Edwina for tea. You've always thought of Edwina as a good Catholic wife and mother, overall, but you do think she tends to be a tad critical sometimes. As you choose your outfit for the meeting, you notice that you're being a bit more careful than usual. Slacks? No; last time you met Edwina she mentioned that her spiritual journey had led her to a place where she saw slacks as being the textile equivalent of satanic clothing as far as women were concerned. She expressed her sadness that your journey was lagging a bit behind. No need to go there again.
A skirt, then. Not that one; she's seen you in it at four family gatherings, and at the last one she jokingly called it "Miranda's uniform." Not this one, either; it falls a mere four inches below the knee, and is therefore what Edwina calls a 'hussy skirt.' The two which meet or exceed Edwina's length requirements are scarlet and a sober brown, respectively. You take the brown, bracing yourself for the inevitable question about your "Franciscan" spirituality, but knowing that it will be better than Edwina's conclusions about such an 'abandoned' shade of red.
Jewelry and makeup are easy; none but your wedding set, and none but a little powder. Edwina has made it clear that she disapproves of jewelry-wearing as "frivolous" and that she thinks of makeup as something that would only be worn by the kind of woman who'd choose the red skirt. Shoes are a bit more difficult, as you usually wear sandals in this kind of weather, but unless you're prepared to play off the "Franciscan" thing to the point of having to endure discussions about how secular Dominicans are much, much better for you spiritually, you'd better not. So you choose closed-toe loafers, plain brown, and then realize that you will have to wear stockings, too, as Edwina considers the absence of them to be "uncouth."
By the time you add the stockings, you are running late. Edwina is never late. You grab your purse and go.
When you reach the little cafe that Edwina always chooses for these little outings, you see that she's already there, and that she's already ordered the tea, which means it is jasmine tea, or as Edwina says, "The only tea fit for a lady's consumption." You hate jasmine tea, but it wouldn't have mattered even if you'd been there on time.
"Miranda! I was just wondering if my watch had stopped," Edwina calls out, a thin vinegar-ish smile crossing her lips.
"I'm sorry, Edwina," you say, sliding in to the chair opposite her.
"That's a nice handbag," she adds, zeroing in at once on the one weak point in your armor. "Where did you get it?"
Time almost freezes, but not quite.
Which way do you go? Do you tell her the name of the discount store whose clearance bin you found it in, which will make her despise you as a bargain shopper? Do you tell her the designer, which will make her despise you as an extravagant spendthrift? Or do you act as if you've had it a long time and can't remember where you bought it, which will make her despise you as a liar, and a fairly unskilled one to boot?
You thought your armor was sufficient, and that your shield would deflect her poisoned barbs. But she's been engaging in these sorts of battles all her life, and she could outflank you in her sleep.
You mention quickly the name of the designer, mumble something about a sale and a gift certificate, and turn the topic of conversation elsewhere. But the damage has been done. Edwina's eyes glitter with thwarted vanity; she carefully feels you out, testing your position. That wonderful Catholic book she just read--oh, you've read it, too? Father X, her new pastor--oh, he used to teach at your high school? This wonderful new recipe for vegetable soup--your mother's recipe? Really? One wonders how Aunt Caroline ended up with it, then...
Your shield takes hit after hit. It's going to crumble, sooner or later. A chance remark about your three-year-old's struggles with toilet training does the trick. "Really?" Edwina purrs, retracting her claws as the shield of your self-esteem falls to pieces. "Three? Why, all of mine were trained by eleven months--except poor Ethelbert, of course; we were so worried that he might be slow in other ways, too, since he wasn't trained until a month after his first birthday. But the flashcards and the Mozart CDs have done the trick, we think," and she leans back in her chair as if there were an actual mouse between her paws.
For the rest of the interminably long tea-party she's like a cream-fed cat, contented to give you stinging advice on the management of your children, and the name of a really good child specialist who can help with "that toilet issue," which she whispers behind her hand, attracting a lot of attention from the two tables closest to you. Her whisper has always been more like a very audible hiss than a sotto voce.
You are very glad when it's time to go.
I enjoy science fiction, as I've mentioned before. Writers in this genre have a tendency to create technologically-advanced shields to protect spaceships, space stations, planets, cities, and the like. But one thing I've noticed about these shields is that nearly all of them can only be operated with a significant amount of power. Often there isn't sufficient power available to operate the shields and other important functions (engines, weapons, life-support) all at the same time. The shields borrow power from something else; they are draining; they are enervating; sometimes they simply cost too much.
The shields we put up to protect ourselves from other people's vanity, judgmentalism, envy and spite exact a similar toll from us. They force us to engage in a battle we have no taste or inclination for on terms we'd never willingly accept. They make us crawl inside someone else's dark and narrow reality and navigate the unfamiliar labyrinth of their hatred and anger toward the whole world. We think we can manage to protect ourselves, but the more we try to deflect their criticisms or appear to absorb their 'advice' the more we run the risk of losing all our power to avoid being injured or damaged by our contact with them. The shields fail, and we are diminished yet again.
Defensive weapons, however valuable, can only do so much, even in the fight between good and evil. If we really love the people we encounter, we will be willing to use some offensive weapons, like honesty and truth and even mirth.
A Miranda who enters the cafe on time, dressed in slacks, wearing her usual makeup, and ready to laugh aside all of Edwina's silly prejudices and to show her, gently, persistently, compassionately, how wrong it is to sit constantly in judgment on her fellow men, to rob them of their God-given worth, is a Miranda who needn't be afraid of being judged herself. Oh, Edwina may still judge her, but Miranda isn't given her the ammunition necessary to do any real damage; Miranda isn't cowering behind that power-draining shield, which will only do its job as long as Miranda is willing to let Edwina be the one with all the power.