Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Salvation by Externals

In some conversations I've had with people about the whole "Where does the slacks = immodesty notion come from, anyway?" topic, I've realized that there's a common thread running through a lot of the "But the proper holy Catholic way is..." types of thinking going on out there.

Bear with me; I'm thinking out loud, so to speak, so this isn't going to be all that orderly.

What are the various points of contention among Catholic families as to how to live, and how to raise our children? Some of them are big deals, such as homeschool/Catholic school/public school debates, or some TV/no TV except EWTN/ no TV in the house debates. But on these big debates, oddly enough, people seem to be willing to accept that different families may arrive at different conclusions much of the time, and that a family who tries homeschooling and finds it doesn't work for them isn't necessarily abandoning their children to the prevailing culture, or that a family who occasionally tunes in to "Little House" reruns isn't handing their children over to Satan, etc. Moreover, there's more patience, seemingly, for where individuals and families are on the journey--that perhaps they are being called slowly to consider homeschooling but are still in the exploratory phase, and that we should respect that, be helpful, but not pushy or overbearing as we share our homeschool experiences.

So the "big deal" matters don't seem to get as much open criticism, perhaps because it's easier to know that making these decisions isn't always easy and doesn't always work for each family's situation. Why all the contention on the smaller matters then? Why so much insistance that dressing a certain way, praying a certain way, following the liturgical seasons a certain way (with rules about when to put up a tree and why we shouldn't mention Santa and all sorts of other issues), going to a certain parish or a certain Mass, covering one's head in church if one is female, and so on?

Some of it, as many people have said, may be because so many of us were taught by the loosey-goosey, anything goes religious educators in Catholic schools or parishes, who told us--wrongly--that all sorts of things the Church actually teaches were really no big deal. I can remember hearing that if we hadn't killed somebody, we hadn't committed a serious or mortal sin, for instance--and this was during my adolescence, when serious sins become quite possible (and not just the ones violating a certain commandment; we never learned that missing Mass on Sunday without a good reason was a sin!). So, as several wise women I know like to say, we don't quite trust our own impulses, and when somebody shows us a path to holiness that looks doable and not too complicated, our desire to embrace these things comes from that place of early mistrust, to a certain extent.

Some of it, too, may come from a tendency to lump everything that is seemingly "good" into one big category, without differentiating between greater and lesser goods. So we see things like daily Mass attendance or a daily rosary/other prayers as being on the same level as wearing a veil or dressing in skirts only, without realizing that all of these things are on different levels: Mass attendance is the greatest good in this list, and wearing skirts probably last, but we start to see them not only as equally important, but as practically required for a serious Christian.

And we may also forget what the high school religion textbook my family used when I was in high school was careful to point out: even among good things, there are specific aspects relating to one's own vocation which must be taken very seriously indeed. The text used the example of the wife and mother who attended several daily Masses and spent hours in prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament, but who was thereby neglecting some of her duties to her home and her family. Her notion that the good example she was setting for her children outweighed her neglect of some of their material needs was truly mistaken, and she was not pleasing our Lord by her actions, because the vocation which she was supposed to be living was not that of a contemplative nun, and meeting her family's needs was the highest and best form of prayer she could offer to God.

So some families at some times may not be able to attend daily Mass, or to pray the rosary, without neglecting their little ones or placing a hardship of some other sort on the family. And some mothers might not be able to wear skirts exclusively while still doing all their chores (bearing in mind that the decision to wear skirts as a voluntary penance is fine, but that skirts themselves don't produce holiness); and a mother whose attempts at wearing a head covering at Mass produced nothing but anger toward the toddler who kept snatching the hat or veil off of mommy's head might want to rethink the whole thing.

Because the externals of our lives don't produce holiness. Attending daily Mass is definitely productive of grace--but not if we spend the whole time distracted or frustrated or otherwise barred from active participation. Praying the rosary is a beautiful devotion and a good prayer habit--but not if we have to skimp on dinner preparations and buy convenience foods every day in order to have the time to say it. Covering one's head at Mass can be a lovely act of voluntary penance--or it can be alternately a temptation to pride and a distraction. Wearing skirts as a similar act of voluntary penance can be productive of grace, too--but not if we're already inclined to wear them and go around looking down at those who don't, or worse, judging them guilty of sin for not doing what we're doing.

The Pharisees in the Bible were famous for focusing so much on the externals that our Lord called them "whited sepulchers." On the outside, they radiated 'holiness,' but their hearts were devoid of love, mercy, humility, kindness, and joy. Sometimes, traditional Catholics are wary of being compared to the Pharisees, because the liberal Catholics liked to use this comparison as a way of insinuating that people who actually cared about what the Church really teaches, etc., are Pharisees. But there's a big difference between wanting to grow closer to God by obedience to His Church, and by thinking we can grow closer to God solely by what we do on the outside.

How do we know the difference? It's simple, really: we are being Pharisees when we make the externals more important than our interior journey toward holiness and when we begin to judge others and look down on them for not adopting our voluntary habits and practices. Being concerned when a Catholic friend skips Sunday Mass regularly in order to go to brunch with friends or when she goes shopping in a mini-skirt and halter top is not being a Pharisee; being concerned when a friend says that she can't get to daily Mass more than a few times a month or because she wears slacks while crawling around the floor after an active set of toddler twins most likely is an indication that we're veering into Pharisee territory.

Scripture tells us that we must rend our hearts, not our garments. So long as we let our interior castle fall into disrepair it doesn't matter if we wear the skirtiest of skirts or the most floor-length of somber black veils; our Lord sees the inside, and knows us for who we are, and calls us, continually, with His great love, to turn to Him in humility and penitence.


Tony said...

It seems to me that the "hierarchy of goods" is used on a regular basis to forgive ourselves for those little acts of respect that we choose not to do.

Far be it from me to put all women into "Catholic burqas", but there is something about a woman in a modest skirt with a mantilla on her head that makes me feel holier, and allows me to focus more easily on things of God.

As far as the slacks thing, there have been involuntary eye tracking studies done on guys, and when they encounter a woman in slacks, their eyes first involuntarily track to her crotch, then the man has the opportunity to catch himself and focus his eyes and mind elsewhere.

I also don't think it's an either/or thing. Woman can go to Mass and dress modestly.

(I'm probably going to regret getting into this particular discussion.)

Red Cardigan said...

Tony, you're certainly welcome to get into discussion here, but I do think you're wrong. :)

In the first place, no, I don't think "hierarchy of goods" means "forgiving ourselves for the little acts of respect we choose not to do," and in fact think that's a bit of a judgment call. There are only so many hours in a day, and millions of acts of prayer and devotion we can do; no person can possibly do them all, and as I said in the post, we don't please God if we neglect the duties of our vocations in order to spend more time in contemplative prayer or other devotions.

As for the skirt/mantilla thing, I just point out that holiness is not a feeling, and also that if a Catholic woman wants to cover her head in church a hat is a valid option that has the added value of not drawing attention to her private penitential act.

As for the "studies have shown" bit, can you please cite those studies? Every time I hear that phrase it ends up being tracked back to a single book, itself problematic as the second edition supposedly had to be re-done to remove unattributed source material (plagiarism) from the first. I would like to see the research for myself, and from more than one study if at all possible.

This_Cross_I_Embrace said...

Hi Red,
I am a fan of your blog, and just gave you an "award" over on my blog for your contribution :)
Thanks for being such a strong voice for Catholic values.

Tracie said...

Here's one eye-tracking study:

What I find amusing is that it shows that men look at crotches in general, not just women's. Even other men and animals come in for a good eyeballing, LOL.

Dawn said...

Great post. Thanks for the reminders and wisdom.

Tony said...

As for the skirt/mantilla thing, I just point out that holiness is not a feeling, and also that if a Catholic woman wants to cover her head in church a hat is a valid option that has the added value of not drawing attention to her private penitential act.

Red, why do acts of respect need to be private? When we walk into Church, we're supposed to genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament. Are we to keep those signs of respect private? In my opinion public acts of respect and devotion can be infectious (when done for the right reasons).

I'm not suggesting that women (or men) ought to be forced to dress a certain way, I'm just trying to present another viewpoint, and a viewpoint from the testosterone-enhanced side of the divide. :)


You are absolutely correct. But the fact is a skirt helps prevent that from happening, at least in the case of viewing ladies (or men if they choose to be "kilted").

When I went to visit my wife's cousin, I noted that their humongous male pit-bull made me feel inadequate. I don't trust a dog that fits that description. :)

Red Cardigan said...

Tracie, thanks! I guess women, men, and animals all ought to wear skirts. Or men could practice custody of the eyes, right?

Tony, you're conflating two different things. I genuflect in front of the Blessed Sacrament because that is what all Catholics are supposed to do. Head coverings were once mandatory for women, but they aren't now. So if a woman wants to cover her head, she may; but people have gotten some silly ideas about veils, saying they were always worn etc. I've written about that here before, but the reality is that when women covered their heads in church in America the vast majority of them wore hats, not veils (veils were kept in the purse in case of unplanned visits to a church). And if a woman wears a hat in church, no one looking at her knows for sure what is in her heart--and isn't that what our Lord said we should do, when we pray, give alms, etc.? Not make a parade of our holiness, but do these things in secret, and receive the reward from the Father who sees our hearts?

Look at it another way: we all genuflect in front of the Blessed Sacrament, but suppose a group of people decided that after genuflecting a full prostration was a "better" sign of respect, and started to do it: genuflect first, and then lay face down, immobile, in the main aisle of the church. Would we admire their great respect for Jesus, or think there was something wrong with such a spectacle given that it draws a lot of attention and goes way beyond what the Church has asked of us?

Tony said...

Or men could practice custody of the eyes, right?

When this is brought up, I know the conversation is over.

Thanks all of you.

Red Cardigan said...

All due respect, Tony, but why?

I'm not saying women should be free to run around in halter tops and mini skirts, or to dress in clothing that is clearly immodest.

But a decent pair of loose-fitting slacks is not immodest attire on a woman. There is a point at which a man must indeed control his impulse to look at various parts of a modestly dressed woman's body, right?

Or are women required to wear shapeless jumpers over tentlike long sleeve shirts everywhere they go, so that men won't face temptation?

I'm not trying to pick on you, Tony. But too often I see an attitude among Catholic men that says, in effect, "We men can't help ourselves. If you wear slacks, we're going to look at you in an immodest way; if you wear a shirt or sweater that reveals the fact that you are not flat-chested we're going to look at you in an immodest way; and if we look at you in an immodest way, it's your fault for not being holy enough to wear shapeless clothing so we won't be tempted."

But that's not what our Lord says, when He says we should pluck out our eyes if they cause us to sin. Both men *and* women are strictly required to practice custody of the eyes, and though I understand that a man is more easily tempted to sin in this way, this does not mean that he can thus blame any woman who is not dressed in a loose-fitting ankle-length sack for his sinful thoughts about her.