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Modesty in Church

What you wear says something about what you believe.

Sarah Cain

Today is National Beach Day, at which time corporate America will likely fill most of our social media feeds with pictures of scantily clad beachgoers. What we wear on beaches has gradually become more revealing as the decades have gone by, with plenty of female attire now being less concealing than the underwear worn below their regular clothing.

It’s tragic, because the people who dress in such a way to attract the attention of the opposite sex do so while effacing their own dignity. To dress modestly is, in the words of Josef Pieper, a habit of “selfless self-preservation,” which is a demonstration of self-respect that is rightly grounded on the appreciation of one’s body as the temple of the Holy Spirit.

The modern age tends to regard modesty as something of an antiquated notion, as if it were an ancient custom specifically commanding the dress codes of women for the benefit of men. That’s horribly reversed. Modest attire is for the benefit of the person who wears it. It denotes a person’s value, asserts her dignity as something worthy of protection, and prevents her reduction into a display piece for the benefit of strangers.

One area in which modesty is too often forgotten in the modern age is with regard to church. How we dress when attending Mass ought to be considered because our attire affects us and those around us.

Whereas it was once accepted that we should wear formal clothing to Mass, this understanding has been gradually eroded, spurred by those who will (loudly) argue some variation of “Church isn’t a fashion contest.” They are correct: it’s the house of God, and thus infinitely more important than a fashion contest. The acknowledgment that it is his house should entail respect. Similar to how we genuflect in a physical recognition of his presence in the tabernacle, so too should we dress in accordance with that same reality.

Most people, when made aware that they are visiting someone of importance, attempt to dress their best. It’s a token of respect and a recognition of the position the important person holds. And so if we consider ourselves visiting God in a holy place of worship, that will help to provide context as to why dressing respectfully ought to be done.

Some will call the suggestion of dressing formally an assault on the poor, but that is absurd. Nobody is suggesting that parishioners should be comparing name brands of outfits after Mass or contrasting price tags. Rather, simply dress with respect and humility. Most Americans can manage that. The poorest in our society dress as they can. The issue is those among us who do not dress as we can, but impart minimal effort compared to every other respectful occasion.

Shorts and a t-shirt are often not appropriate even for an afternoon golf session. All the more, then,  in the context of worshiping God, on his day of worship, in his house of worship.

How we act (including what we choose to wear) is a reflection of what we believe. At a time when belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is at a record low, we should reflect on whether our actions denote our beliefs.

Here’s a thought exercise: would a child look at me in church and understand that the Mass is an important event? Would the child believe that this event matters deeply to me? Does the way I behave before, during, and after Mass reveal that something special is happening at the altar?

Remember that since the formal attire we choose is to denote our respect for God, it’s not appropriate to wear clothing to attract attention to ourselves. This is one area of differentiation from some other formal occasions. So it’s generally accepted that a woman’s shoulders should be covered, that she shouldn’t wear a low-cut top or dress, and that her skirt length should be below the knee.  Some women choose to wear veils, as the sacred is veiled, because they themselves are sacred as vessels of life. Their share in the divine power of life-giving is veiled, like a sacred vessel, and is revealed under controlled circumstances, rather than merely exposed. Veiling was once the norm but has become a private choice.

If we believe what we say we do, then we should care about the symbolism of our choices. Just as churches were historically designed to remind people of God’s presence therein via grandeur, art, and beauty, individuals should do the same by their dress and behavior.

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