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.