Some years ago, I watched an interview with the late actor Eli Wallach. In a documentary on the legendary Marilyn Monroe, Wallach recounted how he and Monroe had been fellow students in an acting class. One evening after class, they decided to get a bite to eat at a nearby diner. After a friendly supper together, the two stepped outside and were about to part ways when Monroe glanced up and then stood staring with a great deal of sadness on her face. Wallach looked to see what had caught Monroe’s attention. Overhead was a billboard of Marilyn Monroe in her iconic white dress, skirt flying about her waist while she stood on a subway grate in the movie The Seven Year Itch. According to Wallach, Monroe murmured, “That’s all anyone sees.”
This year’s Golden Globe Awards were televised a couple of months ago. During one of the presentations, Jennifer Lopez objected to opening the winner’s envelope, saying that she had “the nails” that presumably could be damaged opening an envelope. Her co-presenter, Jeremy Renner, cracked that “You’ve got the globes too,” a tasteless reference to Lopez’s plunging neckline and partially revealed breasts. After a brief grimace, Lopez gamely let the comment pass with nothing more than a comedic swipe at Renner with the envelope.
A few days ago, I watched an online video discussion between two Catholic men. One man was the editor of a Catholic periodical; the other a speaker who regularly gives lectures to Catholic men’s conferences on the dangers of pornography. The discussion focused on the addictive qualities of pornography, and the destructive potential of pornography to married couples and their families. At one point, the editor referred to a popular female singer and entertainer as “trash.” The speaker he was interviewing did not object.
Modesty, you might say. She’s talking about modesty. And, yes, modesty has something to with all three of these stories. But the one thing that stood out for me in all three of these stories is human personhood and how it is perceived by others.
In the first story, Marilyn Monroe was sad to realize that the public saw her only as a sex symbol, not a person. In the second story, Jeremy Renner thought it would be hilarious to make a lewd remark about his co-presenter based only upon her appearance. And, in the final story, two Catholic men talked a great deal about how pornography affected people they cared about, good Catholic couples and their families. Not once did they mention the men and women exploited by the porn industry—most of whom became involved in porn because they have been abused in various ways and, in some cases, are victims of human trafficking. On top of that, one of the two Catholic men (with the tacit approval of the other) used the word trash to refer to a woman they knew only by her public persona.
A lot of words have been spilled by Christian writers and speakers defending the proposition that how we dress and how we act affects other people, and so we have a responsibility to moderate our dress and behavior accordingly. I would like to approach the modesty discussion from another angle: How we look at people and what judgments we form based upon what we see can affect how they behave—and so we have an obligation to purify our thoughts and moderate our words.
What is modesty?
Let’s look first at how the Church defines modesty. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. Modesty is decency. It inspires one's choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet (CCC 2522).
Notice that clothing is not the first concern. In fact, it is rather far down on the list of concerns that the Catechism notes in its definition. When the Catechism does mention clothing, the emphasis is on how the Christian chooses his or her own clothing, and not on taking offense at what others are wearing.
Far more attention is given in this definition to other aspects of personal behavior: patience and moderation; right giving and commitment between men and women; personal decency; silence and reserve in the face of unhealthy curiosity; discretion.
What is purity?
In response to the Golden Globes brouhaha, some Catholic commentators argued that Jennifer Lopez acted as badly as Jeremy Renner because she chose to wear a dress that showed off her “globes.” In other words, what else could Renner be expected to do but to comment on Lopez’s chest when she mentioned her fingernails?
The dress Lopez wore was undeniably low-cut and revealing. But that does not excuse Renner for crudity. Nor does it excuse anyone who claims Lopez did not deserve to be treated with dignity merely because she wore a dress they consider to be inappropriate. Purity of heart and mind does not depend on the choices others make; it is dependent on our own choices in how we respond to others. While the choices of others can make personal purity more difficult, we remain responsible for our own choices.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states about purity:
The "pure in heart" are promised that they will see God face to face and be like him. Purity of heart is the precondition of the vision of God. Even now it enables us to see according to God, to accept others as "neighbors"; it lets us perceive the human body—ours and our neighbor's—as a temple of the Holy Spirit, a manifestation of divine beauty (CCC 2519).
In other words, purity of heart is not conditioned upon never seeing the skin of another human being. Rather, if we are pure of heart, we will see others as they truly are—”a manifestation of divine beauty”—no matter their current outward appearance.
The woman posing on a red carpet in a low-cut dress, the man disguised in black robes and waving a knife, the slum-dwelling child wearing rags. Each and every one of them is more than their current circumstances. Each and every one of these human persons is “a manifestation of divine beauty.” Purity of heart allows us to see them as God sees them: Infinitely precious, loved by God, destined for glory, and in need of love.
Becoming pure of heart
Developing purity of heart can take a lifetime. As embodied souls, we are extremely dependent on our senses, and it is not easy to look past what we see on the surface. Here are a few suggestions for getting started.
Eye to eye. Eyes have been called windows to the soul. The eyes do not just express emotion, they can also reflect experiences. For example, compare photos of a happy child living in comfort with a photo of a suffering child in a third-world country. There will undoubtedly be a world of difference in their eyes. The happy child’s eyes will be bright, perhaps with laugh lines around the edges indicating joy. The suffering child’s eyes usually dominate his face, in part because of poor nutrition and in part because of a lack of hope.
When you see someone whose appearance rattles you, look into his or her eyes. Focus on the eyes and you probably will no longer notice, perhaps not even remember, what that person is wearing.
Listen for undercurrents. Bishop Fulton Sheen has often been said to have had the gift of “reading souls”—a special grace from God to know things about a person he couldn’t know unless God specially revealed it. I do not know if Sheen could read souls, but I do know he had an uncanny knack for understanding what made people do the things they did. For example, he once asked a priest who incessantly complained about the Church’s wealth how much the priest had stolen from his parish. The priest admitted that he had been embezzling and that he had been rationalizing his actions by figuring that the Church was too rich anyway.
Very few people are given the gift of “soul reading.” But anyone can take the time to listen attentively to another person, to listen for indications that there is more to their story than they are telling. Can you hear hints in conversations with an immodestly dressed woman that she has had her personal boundaries violated to such an extent that she now uses her body to connect with others? Is the assisted-suicide advocate really expressing despair for her future under the surface of her demands that she be allowed to end her own life? Do you hear unacknowledged grief in the angry rhetoric of a pro-abortion activist?
Seek to connect. We tend to stay among “our own.” We hesitate to form relationships with people who are different from us, whether those are differences of culture, religion, political ideology, or moral formation. Over the years that I have been an apologist, I have fielded many questions from Catholics who want to know if they should cut ties with a friend who is politically liberal, or with a family member who is homosexual. They are genuinely worried that such connections will undermine their own orthodoxy or commitment to moral purity.
While there may be rare cases in which prudence suggests a healthy distance when someone proves himself to be either a bad influence or outright dangerous, for most people such cases are more often the exception than the rule. As a rule of thumb, insulating oneself within the bubble of the likeminded is what can be truly dangerous.
Insofar as they are possible, connections that bridge differences between persons will not only rebuild civilization, they have the power to advance the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt. 28:19–20).
Seeing as God sees
There is a story told of a once prominent Christian evangelist that illustrates how the purification of our own senses, of trying to see others as God sees them, can bring people closer to God.
According to the story, as I heard it told, the evangelist and some of his students were out walking around in Paris when they saw a prostitute on a street corner. The students immediately averted their eyes and prepared to walk by quickly, but they were astounded—not to mention mortified—when their mentor approached the woman and asked her price.
The woman named an amount, and the evangelist shook his head. That wasn’t nearly enough. So she named a higher amount. Again, that was too little. She kept naming ever higher amounts until finally she grew frustrated. What was this man willing pay her? The evangelist told her that there was no earthly amount he could pay that would be equal to her value, but that he knew Someone who had already paid an infinite price for her. Would she allow the evangelist to tell her about Him?
There on a street corner in Paris, a prostitute was treated with the dignity and respect due to the daughter of an eternal Father and the sister of a King (cf. John 20:17, Rev. 19:16). I do not know how she responded to the invitation, or how her life progressed from that point on. But for one brief moment in what may otherwise have been a life of hardship and despair, she was treated like the lady she was—no matter what she may have had to do up to that point (or afterward) to survive.
He didn't mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic had made him Real, and when you are Real shabbiness doesn't matter (Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit).