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Modesty is Always in Style
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
If there was ever a strange title for a talk on the Pro-Life movement it is surely, "Modesty is always in Style."
The reason why this title seems so strange is that people just do not associate modesty with the pro-life movement or, as the Holy Father calls it, "the Culture of Life."
Yet the two issues are closely related. Modesty is a pre-condition for chastity, and chastity is the pre-condition for the culture of life.
Our plan for this conference covers no less than five areas. Each in the form of a question that we shall try to answer at some length but always in view of promoting respect for human life from conception to old age.
What is Christian Modesty?
The most basic meaning of Christian modesty is the practice of moderation in one's exterior behavior. We might also call it observing reasonable decorum in externals, especially in our speech, bodily movements, in our dress and adornments of the body.
The injunction of St. Theresa of Avila, "Be modest in all your words and works," implies that modesty spans every bodily expression of our internal possession of humility. A modest person is a humble person. We might almost say that modesty is the manifestation of internal humility.
To be stressed is the natural inclination we all have to be admired by others. We all want people to think well of us, and our natural tendency is to put on our most attractive behavior in the presence of others so as to obtain their attention and admiration: attention by their minds so they will think well of us, and admiration by their wills so they will praise what they see in us.
Even as we begin this conference, we must remind ourselves that the modesty we are speaking about is Christian modesty. Consequently the norms for practicing modesty by a follower of Christ are as much more deep and demanding as Christian morality is more elevated than what the world identifies as propriety.
For our purpose, Christian modesty is the virtue that our faith tells us is necessary for the preservation and the practice of the two most fundamental virtues of the Christian faith, namely charity and chastity.
Why is Christian Modesty so Attractive?
All modesty, by definition, is meant to be attractive. In fact that is its purpose to draw attention to oneself with a view to attracting other people's attention to oneself. Indiscriminate self-assertion; selfish display of one's gifts of body or soul; inordinate self-display of one's intelligence or will power; showing off one's talents or skills; exhibiting one's possession of knowledge or of ability in any field of human achievement - are all examples of what modesty is not. Common sense tells us that flaunting one's natural gifts or abilities is, to say the least, imprudent and in open contradiction to what Christian modesty should be.
We now face the more difficult question that we asked at the beginning: why is Christian modesty so attractive? It is so attractive because it is so true.
The human mind has been made by God to perceive the truth. In the Christian vocabulary, truth is conformity between the mind and reality. So basic is this principle, that the mind is ever restless and never at peace unless, and in so far as, it possesses the truth.
Why, we repeat, is Christian modesty so attractive? It is so attractive because it satisfies the human mind in seeing in a person's behavior what that person really is in the depths of his being.
Let us repeat the question, Why is Christian modesty so attractive? Because a modest person is a reflection of what Christ wants His followers to be. There is one lesson that He taught us to learn from Him, and that was to be meek and humble of heart. We are only as meek and gentle in our external behavior, in a word, only as modest in our conduct, as our hearts are conformed to the humility of a God who lowered Himself to become a man as an expression of His love.
There is nothing that so repels other people than to witness the proud exhibition of a man's gifts of nature or of grace. Humility attracts, pride repels; reserve is appealing, pride is always on display.
How is Christian Modesty Always Attractive?
Having seen something of why is Christian modesty so attractive, we are now in the position to ask the logical question of how Christian modesty is always attractive?
There are two answers to this fundamental question, and they touch on the heart of Christian sanctity.
Christian modesty is always attractive because it imitates the most attractive personality in human history: the person of Jesus Christ.
Could anyone doubt that Christ was very attractive to His contemporaries? They listened to Him by the hour, in fact for days, even to having the Savior work a miracle of multiplying loaves and fishes to feed the thousands who sat in rapt attention listening to Him speak so intently that they forgot to eat.
Was Jesus Christ attractive? He was so appealing that the people followed Him from city to city, to listen to His words and watch Him perform His miracles.
Was Jesus Christ attractive? He was so beautiful that a single glance at His face inspired witnesses into what we can honestly call raptured ecstasy.
If we probe into Christ's personality and ask ourselves why He was so attractive, we could answer in one simple declarative sentence. Christ was so attractive because He was the living God walking the streets of earth, speaking human language and partaking of human food.
In a word, Christ was so attractive because He made no boast of His divinity even as a simple child in Bethlehem or a bleeding body on Calvary, He hid His infinity behind the shroud of His lowly humility.
We now ask our second question: Why is Christian chastity so attractive in other people? It is as attractive as they sincerely strive to follow in the footsteps of the Master and live out His directive to learn from Him, that is from His own meekness and humility.
This is a larger statement then I am afraid most people realize. Greatness is attractive only when it modestly does not display its excellence. The more gifted a person is, the more intelligent and educated, the more skilled and accomplished, the more appealing he is to everyone in the measure that he hides his evident abilities and makes no display of his gifts.
Christian Modesty is the Precondition for Restoring Christianity
We now come closer to the central theme of our conference. We begin by making a positive assertion. There would be no pro-life movement in the world without Christianity. There would be no murder of the unborn and the aged and the handicapped and the infirmed and the unwanted - if Christianity were dominant in the modern world.
There is much more in the foregoing statement than meets the eye. After all the books are written and all the speeches made, why has the most devastating homicidal philosophy in world history penetrated the modern world? In one word it is pride. It is the self-adulation and, indeed, self-adoration which has penetrated one once Christian country after another.
After all, it is one thing to call people Christians and something else to recognize them as Christians who follow the example and teaching of Jesus Christ.
The Savior taught many things and His Sermon on the Mount has three chapters of directives on how those who claim to be His followers are not hypocrites but truly disciples of the Master.
There is nothing that Jesus Christ taught more forcefully or practiced, shall we say, more dramatically than real, honest-to-God humility. Having joy set before Him, He chose the Cross. Being one in being with the Father, He did not cling to His divinity but humbled Himself to become a helpless child in His Mother's womb, and a speechless infant in His Mother's arms.
That is what those who call themselves believers in our day must learn from the Christ in whom they claim to believe and from the Christ whom they profess to imitate.
The culture of death that has become an epidemic in the twentieth century can be converted to the culture of life only by Christians who are willing to follow in the footsteps of their Master and pay something of the price that He paid on Calvary for the redemption of the world.
We shall be only as successful in restoring the sanity which protects innocent human life only in the measure that we exercise our interior humility by the practice of exterior modesty.
No one should doubt that this will take, as I keep repeating, heroism among us Christians to resist the demonic pressures brought on by a world that laughs at Christian modesty and despises those who will not conform to the pagan sexual exhibitionism of our press and our dress, of our books and magazines, of our system of education and our business world of economics.
Without modesty there can be no chastity; without chastity there cannot be respect for human life; and without respect for human life there can be no civilization that can survive. This is the verdict of history. The only problem is that so many people ignore this history and condemn themselves to repeat its tragedies.
Some Practical Considerations
No one gets to heaven alone. We either help others reach heaven or we shall not get to heaven ourselves. In our day, the human body is publicized; the human body is advertised; the human body is magnetized; the human body is literally idolized. Why? Because for millions in the modern world, once the human body dies there in no other life beyond the grave. Since so much of human pleasure here on earth comes from the satisfaction of bodily desires, every effort is made to encourage these bodily satisfactions to the limit of scientific ingenuity. And among these bodily satisfactions, none is more prosecuted or promoted than the satisfaction of sexual experience.
What we Christians call modesty is in open contradiction to the philosophy of the world in which we live. So far from restraining or controlling sexual desires and venereal pleasure, our society does everything in its power to encourage and increase and intensify these desires and pleasures.
By the world's standards, modesty is an enemy of what I do not hesitate calling sexual mysticism.
St. Theresa of Avila left this imperative, "Be modest in all your words and actions." This, I submit, is what we followers of Christ must live out if we are going to attract our contemporaries to follow in the footsteps of our Master and in the footsteps of His Mother.
In the early Church, the pagans of the Roman empire were attracted to Christianity by the modesty of believing Christians. Once converted, these Christians laid down their lives rather than compromise their practice of modesty which they knew was indispensable for the practice of chastity. Their example, of course, caused many of them their lives in three centuries of bloody martyrdom. But their example also served as an inspiration for converting so many of the pagans that by the end of the first century there were no less than one hundred dioceses of the Catholic Church around the shores of the Mediterranean.
What we need today is Christians who are ready to shed their blood in professing their faith, by their practice of modest chastity and of chaste modesty. But, they can expect a marvelous reward, the reward of putting an end to the most homicidal hundred years in the history of the human race. They can also expect the reward of a heavenly eternity for themselves and, please God, the millions they will bring to heaven which is preserved only for those who on earth had practiced Christian modesty.
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