Aside

Let’s Get Traditional

 I find romance in it and move in circles steeped in it; I’m a girl in love with tradition. Some people say family is loyalty to each other, I suggest that it is the loyalty to tradition that makes you a family. Generation to generation customs are passed down and they become the thing that brings us joy. From what goes on the table at Christmas to where you spend your new years eve, and woe betide any one who comes between a Gallagher and their rightful caterpillar cake on their birthday, or any one of us and that light blue polo. Most importantly we are part of a universal family drenched in ceremonial tradition.  

So I’ve made my point, I love tradition. It’s consistency is secure, its “the living faith of the dead”. Maybe this is why I didn’t do well as the bohemian starving artist I had dreamed of being during college. Many of my heroes scoffed at tradition calling it the jail of creativity and the antidote to innovation, saying that when the mind is secure it begins to decay. Maybe this is why many youth workers steer clear of tradition with their young people. Constantly trying to be creative with the liturgy, this saddens me somewhat. The more I’ve learnt about tradition the more I love it, and this time its not just habit got out of hand, it’s tradition with real meaning. 

I recently learnt about a couple of traditions that got me really excited and I learnt them during a latin mass. Firstly I learnt that the priest puts water in the precious blood to symbolise the water that flowed from His side as He was pierced. Secondly I learnt that the priest puts his amice on his head because it represents a helmet. St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians talks about “the armour of God” and so the amice is the helmet which protects the mind from assaults by the devil.  

It’s not often I get to watch a priest vest up, but in the retreat centre were I worked the sacristy was a cupboard so priests would often put on their vestments as I set up the chapel for mass. It always fascinated me about the different layers and the different meanings. It wasn’t until recently, though, that a priest told me about “vesting prayers” as I bugged him about the significance of his amice. He told me that when he puts on his amice he prays “Impone, Domine, capiti meo galeam salutis, ad expugnandos diabolicos incursus.” (Place on me, O Lord, the helmet of salvation, so I may overcome the assaults of the devil.)

The catechism, as ever, speaks quite poetically of tradition; calling it a “living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit”.  The catechism tells us that tradition is how the Church breathes in the next generation.

 “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.”“The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.”

So why does the word ‘tradition’ seem to terrify so many people? I remember telling a friend that I had just been to an Extraordinary From Mass. His face dropped when I told him I had really enjoyed it and eventually he came out with “I didn’t realise you were traddy…” as if I had just confessed to enjoying witch hunting of a weekend. On another occasion I remember pulling a mantilla on to my head as I walked into my parish church. Again, I may as well have just popped a wet fish on my head. 

Some times when the older generation sees a young person wearing a mantilla, or indeed enjoying a bit of latin, they react as if we’ve opened the long-lost trunk in the back of the attic and are trying on nanna’s wedding dress. They’re a little taken aback that you found the trunk but they find it quite twee that you think you know what you’re doing. Some of the older generation love it, they see a true sign of personal ownership of faith in the gesture. For others it just makes them angry, I’ve been told that covering my head is a step back for feminism in the Catholic Church. (interestingly only by men.) 

Some praise it, some are cautious, and others are just baffled. So let this blog go some way to explain my personal reasoning for wearing a mantilla, as I think each person’s varies slightly. It began well over a year ago when, in my preparation for lent I began reading the gripping tale of Rachel Held-Evans’ challenge to live a year of ‘Biblical Womanhood’ in which she tackled the virtue of modesty. At the time I wrote about standards of modesty, but what really caught me about this particular section of Rachel’s journey was the fact she covered her head during every prayer. To me it seemed like a little prayer bubble. I love praying in community but I’m often distracted, particularly during adoration, by other people twitching or shuffling, it seemed that this simple gesture of covering your head would keep all of that out (it sounds ridiculous but I find it to be true). Looking back on it, I suppose, it’s similar to the amice in some way, a helmet to protect you from distraction in your prayer. 

At this time I spoke to a friend who was in seminary and I told him that I wanted to cover my head, he told me to back myself. As Easter drew closer I found myself being part of an acting out of the stations of the cross. I was Mary (obviously) and I thought that because I was Mary, I would have to cover my head. After that my mantilla got put away for a little while. It wasn’t until a couple of months later that I realised it’s importance to me. In the place where I worked, we’d go in and out of the chapel for prayer several times a day. It’s not until you have those profound moments of prayer, that inescapable realisation of the true presence that you realise, this isn’t just another room in the house. In those moments you realise what the words “this is God’s house” really mean. Not least that, in that chapel over the last three years had been some of the most profound turning points, the really deep moments of conversion of heart. In that place I had, and still do, shed many tears, shared many laughs, many signs of peace and many, many prayers. This place was special, it is the centre of all I did that year and whatever happened in it required a special level of reverence.

I struggle in adoration, they say that creative types aren’t supposed to be made to sit still for too long. Every tiny noise or movement seemed exaggerated in my head. It suddenly dawned on me exactly what I needed, a prayer bubble.

Towards the end of the year I started wearing my mantilla more and more, and it had a strange effect on me. It was like a helmet, when I put it on it reminded me that the place I was sacred. It reminded me that the only focus should be on Him, who bought me here. My mantilla, I feel, became a visible and tangible for me that which I feel in my heart. 

I’ve tried to explain this to people before, when they’ve asked me about wearing my mantilla. Sometimes they don’t really get it.They don’t understand how it helps me to pray and to feel God’s presence, but also they don’t get how my hair could distract others. People say it’s a pretty old-fashioned way of thinking, that, just as it is no longer obscene to have one’s ankles on show, your hair is no longer a cause for attraction and therefore has no place being covered. St. Paul would disagree, and who am I to disagree with St. Paul? 

I nourish my hair (it may not look like it) but if I was to go out for the night, I wouldn’t go out without doing my hair first. So Paul says “if a woman nourish her hair, it is a glory to her” so it only makes sense to cover it, because it is His glory that is our focus. In this small act we reflect, in a tiny and as ever insufficient way, Our Lady. This submission to God’s glory above our own, by taking part in something so deep-rooted in ecclesiastical tradition and in scripture (“Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.” Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age” – Catechism, boom), the counter-cultural step towards modesty, we can find ourselves coming closer to Our Lady, who in turn brings us closer to Her Son, with each point. 

I don’t think covering my head is as stuck in the past as many people think. More and more I see other women covering their heads, and for many different reasons I assume. I must admit it felt a little strange at first, something that was designed for modesty that quite obviously made me stand out, but once I settled into it and remembered why I wear it, it really did become like a helmet for me. It now stays in my bag always, just incase, even on Copacabana for the Papal Mass, I’ve never seen a mantilla more covered in sand than this one when I got it home!
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I know this is a very specific tradition that I’ve spoken about, but it’s one that I feel really reflects my love for and the importance of tradition. Moreover the importance of asking questions, being ever more curious about our faith, like little children. 

It’s being praised as a “powerful” deconstruction of gender stereotypes in the workplace, leaving women feeling like they could take over the world. It’s being likened to Dove’s triumphant “Campaign for Real Beauty”. Though it had it’s flaws the sketches video, that came from this campaign,did cause us to reflect on ourselves, and urged us to give ourselves a little more love. The greatest piece of advice I ever heard, was that if I was in a sitcom all the quirky, embarrassing, socially awkward parts of myself would be the parts that other people love. However, I don’t really need soap to tell me that and least of all do I need that soap to tell me that beauty is the reason I can love myself and that others should. 

While I fully applaud this move away from beauty being the yard stick against which women should measure themselves, I can’t quite whole heartedly back Pantene’s empowerment for women’s success as much as the internet suggests I, as a young, independant woman, should. I’m not alone, feminist bloggers everywhere aren’t buying what Pantene is selling. The thing is it’s not even selling it that well. I’m not quite sure what Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg found particularly powerful about what is essentially another spot from a beauty company where skinny, gorgeous women flick around their long, glossy hair. Somehow, despite Pantene clearly trying replicate their feel-good success, there’s nothing of the ‘Real Women’ that dove tried to promote and while I do admit that most days my mood is determined on how good my eyebrows look I don’t think how seriously people take me professionally is determined on how shiny my hair is, and nor is how ‘Strong’ I feel. In fact, is there anything more sexist than suggesting it might? 

Pantene and the many, many bloggers backing their spot, have come up with some startling statistics that make me want to wash my hair and therefore be more accepted by men in my place of work. For example “70 percent of men think that women need to downplay their personality to be accepted.” and where men are “smooth”, women are “show offs.”, where men are “neat” women are “vain”. I don’t know about you, but I know men who have been teased (by women) about their beauty regimes. I’ve heard women talk about men’s suits on the tube as ‘too flashy’ and debate whether the amount of buttons a man has undone is ‘just showing off’. These playground jibes aren’t the end of it. Kelly Services, a staffing agency, released an incredibly interesting study that shows that nearly 35% of men said they believed they had experienced sex-based discrimination over the past five years at work. 

So maybe 70% of men have a point. Maybe these 70% of men have been personally victimised by Regina George.  Another study showed that the mean girls spirit goes far beyond high school. 95% of 1,000 working women polled believe they had been undermined by another woman at some point in their careers. So maybe you are bossy, or pushy. Poor you, that must be tough. Well. at least you have beautiful hair. Go you. But, seriously… 

Mrs Norbury. :’)

If you feel like you have to be a hard-nosed business woman to get by then back yourself all the way. But it comes with consequences and some of those consequences involved being labelled “hard-nosed”. Mrs Norbury was pushy, but she didn’t mind, because it got results. Don’t let Pantene be the thing that backs you. I’ve somehow managed to find myself working in some very female-heavy environments, I went to an all girls convent school, and yes we play dirty sometimes, and yes we get labelled as bitchy, bratty or a princess. Now, I’m not trying to knock Pantene for creating an advert that portrays inequality in the work place. It is not, in my opinion, a powerfully positive image of women in advertising. It doesn’t make me feel strong, and it doesn’t encourage me to whip it. What it does it remind me that some people are going to unfairly judge me and also that my hair is kind of ratty and I have an uncanny ability to fall over whilst standing still. This ad kind of makes me think I need to be spoken up for, and worse; that I need to be spoken up for by Proctor and Gamble. I’m quite capable, I think.
I myself, have a very real oestrogen-fuelled need to look at big glossy ads that make me want to exercise harder, that tell me how to have beautiful hair, make my eyes pop, and cover up all the things that make me anything less than a china doll. As long as people exist there will be perceptions, and standards of beauty. I’m not some sort of hermit, I know the boost my self-esteem gets when I indulge it a little and yes, in order to fuel this demand I know that companies will use dirty tactics to make me buy their products. Don’t let beauty be your yard stick for the rest of your life. Your self-confidence needs topping up from the fact you believe in yourself and all that you can do. Also, don’t let men be your yard stick. They’re a completely different beast.
I’m not here trying to say that you should hate Pantene for creating an advert that prays on the insecurities of women to sell their product, because it would make for very hateful TV viewing and lets face it, it’s why I own the things I own. I guess I’m trying to sell an alternative.
People are going to call you names, they will give you dirty looks. I know I’m guilty of rolling my eyes when the beautiful girl who has just arrived at the bar next to me gets served first, I’m frequently at odds with overwhelming shoe related envy and I did once think about cutting off another girls stunning strawberry blonde curls. Because I get jealous, I’m not perfect, and I let it get to me sometimes. But my primary school teacher told me (as I’m sure everyone’s did) “don’t stoop to it”. You’re a woman, you’re not a man, take joy in that difference, don’t try to measure yourself against them.
Don’t let this empowerment be as shallow as another glossy television ad. Don’t let this empower you to do your hair. Let this empower you to be compassionate to one another, to open your hearts and judge less. So let’s swap the airbrushed, tiny girls of our magazines for women with a little less Photoshop and a whole lot more bad-ass-ness.

People will call you names, Hagar got relentlessly bullied by Sarai, driven wild with jealousy. If you are disenfranchised, despised, or despairing, listen for the voices of angels. You may find your courage is only a prayer away. (and also if you do find yourself staring daggers at the pretty girl across the bar, think of Hagar.)
Rehab, the original tart with a heart, teaches us to use our wiles effectively and with great love. After all, the life you save may be your own. Respect your power and wisdom like Deborah did. While I’m not trying to convince you drive a spike through someone’s head, let Jael’s story remind you that though you may be small in stature you have a lion’s heart, don’t mess. Ruth, the gentle heart, with her steadfast love and loyalty, changed Naomi’s bitter heart and led them both to a glorious destiny. Bathsheba (bear with me, I do have a point here) after God went all kinds of wrath on her unborn, illegitimate child, He then had mercy on her a blessed her with Solomon. She believed in His mercy and began a brave new life. Teaches us that even after our discretion if we repent the Lord will teach us how to live again. Esther was my favourite growing up, she just decided she deserved to be royalty and totally backed herself. This was my mantra as a teenager, I deserve to be royal, so I shall put in the work and act it, and people shall treat me accordingly. But, as a young adult, I find a little more in Esther’s story that I can learn from. She stood up (in the face of possible death) to save the lives of the Jews. “If I perish, I shall perish” she says. She taught me that I don’t always need to fight, I need to be imaginative and courageous in standing up for those who need my help. Mary, the mother of Jesus. I wont go into detail, please refer to everything else I’ve ever said for why Mary is an incredible role model. The woman at the well, smashing a bit of evangelisation early doors. The fearless Mary Magdalene. Mary and Martha! If you want a good balance between being dedicated in your work and in your spiritual life look to this pair. As my twitter bio says (in the words of Augustine of Hip Hop) Martha in my work, Mary in my devotion.

What Would Mary Do?

A lot of people ask me why I chose the confirmation name Blaise. He’s an obscure saint, several people haven’t heard of him. He is the patron saint of sore throats. Traditionally on his feast day there are candles and blessing of throats. Why not, aye?! 

St Blaise was special in meaning to me for one reason, and one reason only. He was a bishop and eventually he was brutally martyred for not renouncing his faith, but he’s not remembered for any of that. He’s not remembered as a martyr. He’s remembered for being a physician. It was said he carried out his duties with “miraculous ability, good-will, and piety”. This is a saint for me. 

So everyone grows up with role models, Amy Childs, for example. Someone who inspires you to do amazing things and gives you a goal to reach. I’m lucky enough to grow up with some amazing role models I’ve also met some people who aspire to strange ideals…

This lent I’ve spent a lot of time reading, my search has taking me into some intriguing directions, from “Mary-Like Modesty” to “P31 Girls” the internet at large had some alarming standards for Catholic Women to have a shot at. While being part of what’s being called ‘The Mary-Like Crusade’ sounds like something I would love to be a part of, it’s all a bit strange. 

“A dress cannot be called decent which is cut deeper than two fingers breadth under the pit of the throat; which does not cover the arms at least to the elbows; and scarcely reaches a bit beyond the knees. Furthermore, dresses of transparent materials are improper.”

–The Cardinal Vicar of Pope Pius XI

To be Mary-like, apparently, you must wear a loose-fitting dress that covers you head to toe and wrists. That’s a lot of material. Seriously, although I appreciate modesty, when the surface area of your dress is greater than the surface area of you, you’re in for disaster. I tried wearing a maxi skirt once and it requires a level of grace and elegance that I haven’t quite mastered yet. This is not withstanding actually doing anything practical with your day, clearly this man has never tried to play ice breakers or even sit on the floor. 

I got further down the rabbit hole; clicking from link to link trying to make sense of this whole thing. It was then that I came across the phrase ‘Modest is hottest.’ Cheesy slogans aren’t really my thing. This one really angered me, like from deep within. 

Granted, it a catchy way of promoting the values that Timothy and Peter spoke about. But does the phrase itself really lend to the values? Or does it actually take away from exactly what it is they’re trying to promote?

The more I read about this slogan and the people who follow it, the more I believe it doesn’t lend itself to real modesty at all. Women who hear this mantra are said to experience “horrible Sunday school flash backs.” In which shame is used as the main motivator to ensure that each girls skirt falls below her knee. Blogs entitled “Modest is hottest” go on to tell me that if my skirt is cut above the knee and my top is tight then the souls of my male friends are at risk. Gutted boys. 

The damage of this mantra goes a little deeper. Girl’s from catholic convent schools will remember having their skirts measured and if they were deemed ‘immodest’ you were made to wear the dreaded ‘ugly skirt’ from lost property. The modern-day version of a scarlet letter. I know that no amount of kneeling in corridors or ugly skirts will stop skirts being rolled up on the train to school, or low-cut tops in the pubs on the weekend (I also know, from first hand experience, that is actually impossible to get served at a busy bar the a top cut two fingers breadth from the pit of one’s neck.) So if Women aren’t being affected by modesty standards in this way how are they being affected?!
Girls are being taught that no matter what you must cover all of yourself up, lest you be objectified by men. Obviously, men are powerless to how they feel when they see bare legs and it is of course your fault for getting them out. There’s an undertone there that says something terrible about the minds of men, and more so something terrible about why we’re teaching our Girl’s to be modest. Girls should glorify God in all they do (dressing included) we don’t dress to ‘Serve our Christian brothers’. This lesson of modesty for girls, however subtle, is a lesson of inequality. Of course it’s inappropriate for men to realise that I have a figure, but it’s perfectly okay for men to wear skinny jeans that leave nothing to the imagination, unbutton their shirts to way below two fingers breadth below their clavicle. I have a soul too!
Mary has been a role model for me for some time now. Her courage before the Angel Gabriel, to not only say ‘yes’ to God in the face of something terrifying, but also to glorify the Lord. That moment in scripture has always reminded me to have courage, not simply to do terrifying things, but to know that we can do all things in Christ.
My problem with Mary-like modesty is that to be ‘Mary-like’ to me doesn’t and shouldn’t start and end with what you wear. Ultimately I believe that “The good of our soul is more important than that of our body; and we have to prefer the spiritual welfare of our neighbor to our bodily comforts.” (Pius XII to Catholic Young Women’s Groups of Italy) This is true, but not just true of women. Our souls, and the souls of our brother’s and sister’s are what is most important. If you are dressing, man or woman, to get people to lust after you then you are not doing everything to glorify the Lord. If you think that modesty makes you ‘hottest’ then you are not doing everything to glorify the Lord. If you wear a dress that hits the floor and cover your head, but aren’t modest in other ways, then you are not glorifying the Lord.
Mary was humble, she knew that all that was given her was a gift from God and she never boasted about it. Mary was always in the background until she appeared on Calvary where she was recognised as the mother of a condemned man. Albert le Grand said “In Jesus’ Passion, the disciples were plunged into doubt, only the Holy Virgin remained steady in her faith”. She lived her life in poverty, obedience and patience, she called herself God’s servant, humbly embracing God’s word.
Obviously, we’re probably not going to become the mother of God. Just like I’m probably not going to be martyred and become the patron saint of sore throats. It’s close to impossible to use Proverbs 31 as a checklist. To become our heroes and role models isn’t glorifying the Lord.
There’s a brilliant line in one of my favourite films, Nowhere Boy, where John Lennon asks his Mum why God didn’t make him Elvis Presley. His mother, infinite in wisdom, as all mothers are, replies ‘Because He was saving you for John Lennon.
Dressing like Elvis Presley wont make you Elvis Presley, it wont make you good at playing the guitar and singing, and it wont make his fans adore you the way they adore him.
Dressing like Mary is not being like Mary. If we strive to obtain the qualities that Mary had we’ll probably fall short (We can’t exactly strive to be born without sin) but if we strive to apply them to our lives then we can have the Values that Timothy and Peter were talking about too. Modesty. Not shame, or guilt.
If we have these qualities then naturally, logically, modesty follows. It can’t be forced upon girls kneeling in corridors, it can’t be reinforced with harsh words or rash judgements.
Mary doesn’t teach us to ensure the lengths of a skirts, or the cut of our tops. She teaches us that we are beautiful, from the inside out, and that’s what counts.