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Modern Western women, to their great shame, have all but embraced a general lack of modesty and, consequently, a brutalizing defeminization. But the obverse is that Western men have failed miserably in maintaining custody of their eyes, with incontinence and unholy curiosity wounding their own masculinity and enabling the fairer sex's self-degradation. But when men seek counsel on how to handle immodesty, most priests and spiritual directors take an unsatisfactory passive tack, advising them to just look another direction or to simply avoid places where exhibitionism is likely to be encountered. While these answers are helpful, they're also imperfect; they're simply not sufficient to re-chasten a culture drunk on sex. We need a more potent medicine: Spiritual direction regarding this issue should focus on the active embrace of a fearless purity of heart, which affords men the freedom to control their looks while still courageously and uncompromisingly moving about the world.
Purity is immature and underdeveloped if it can only be practiced in the context of an isolated and controlled environment. As such, there needs to be a proper and balanced understanding of this virtue, one that recognizes the necessity for man to be "blameless and innocent" (Philippians 2:15) as he "preach[es] the gospel to the whole creation" (Mark 16:15). Purity, and all the other virtues that oppose the sins of the flesh, are often misunderstood to be essentially passive and negative; that is, people typically fixate on maintaining an innocent heart. But the owner of that innocent heart still has the obligation to actively bring about God's Kingdom, "for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control" (2 Timothy 1:7). This combination of self-control and transcendent love is the essence of purity, for it does not compartmentalize the duties of the faithful; rather, it fully integrates all aspects of the Christian mission.
As leaders, providers and protectors, men shouldn't be solely concerned with how to avoid a hypersexualized Western civilization; they must also focus on converting it. Accordingly, the challenge for 21st-century men is to embrace the call to traverse the morally corrupt world pure and unafraid, as Christ did.
The appropriate response to immodesty, according to many saints, is reminiscent of the Proverb, "Avoid it, do not go on it, turn away from it and pass on" (Proverbs 4:15). As sin is the only thing that separates the man from God, he should, of course, always avoid its near occasion. Pope Pius XII harkened back to this truth when he exhorted the faithful to modesty in his encyclical on consecrated virginity, Sacra Virginitas, writing, "Flight and alert vigilance, by which we carefully avoid the occasions of sin, have always been considered by holy men and women as the most effective method of combat in this matter" (§55). Pius XII even condemned the idea of Christians "gaz[ing] at everything" with the intention of rendering themselves "immune to all temptations" (ibid.). This mindset, which "put their chastity to the test," was too risky in the eyes of the pope (ibid.). As such, he did not mince words, branding the practice "wrong and harmful" (ibid.). Throughout the ages, many saints and doctors of the Church have concurred.
One of the most thorough treatments of this matter is found in St. Alphonsus Liguori's 1835 treatise The True Spouse of Christ. Liguori's analysis on this subject holds immense weight — indeed, he's recognized by many as the greatest moral theologian in the Church. And although he was directing his words specifically to those in religious life, his teachings have import to all vocational states.
Liguori began his work with words that should give the modern man pause: "Almost all our rebellious passions spring from unguarded looks" (The True Spouse of Christ, trans. Nicholas Callan [New York: Benziger Brothers, 1888], 130). Sight, the strongest of the senses, needs to be cared for with special attention, according to Liguori. But Liguori's far from alone in holding this position. Saint Augustine, for example, stressed that "the thought follows the look"; St. Francis de Sales taught that "what is not seen is not desired"; and St. Bernard explained how "through the eyes the deadly arrows of love enter" (ibid.). Liguori perhaps went even further than Augustine, Francis and Bernard, instructing his readers that the eyes must be restrained, lest they become "instruments of Hell" (ibid., 131).
In no way, though, was he insinuating people across the board go so far as to never raise their eyes in public. Rather, he contended that the eyes ought to be "directed only to what inspires devotion, to sacred images and to the beauty of creation, which elevate the soul to the contemplation of the Divinity" (ibid., 133). In short, Liguori warned his readers of the obvious dangers of looking at things that don't elevate the mind to God. So he didn't just advise people to swerve the near occasion of sin. He also prompted them to affirmatively practice the virtue of modesty in the world.
The saints are not saints because they escaped every occasion of sin; they're saints because their love for God motivated virtually everything they did. That's not to say they didn't avoid sin and fear God — they did. But they also practiced supernatural charity and pursued "a perfect love" that "casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). The latter disposition, which motivated the saints, was summed up well by Pope Benedict XVI, who said: "Those who fear God are not afraid." This paradoxical Christian truth should be the driving force behind all of the faithful, for in this shameless culture we are urgently called to let our "modesty be known to all men" (Philippians 4:5). And through this, we allow ourselves to be "the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14).
Liguori admonished that man is either "edified or scandalized" by the deportment (e.g., apparel, speech and gait) of his fellows (The True Spouse of Christ, 133). The cure for immodesty, then, for both the victim and perpetrator, is not merely to cower from the sin, for this defensiveness represents only half the battle. Instead, according to Liguori, "Modesty should be made manifest before all" (ibid.). He even recalled the words of St. Ambrose, who spoke well of this silent evangelization: "To men of the world, the modesty of the saints is a powerful exhortation to amendment of life" (ibid., 134). Liguori named several exemplars of the powerful witness of modesty. He pointed to St. Bernardine of Siena, whose mere presence, even as a secular man, would cause his friends to go silent or change the subject of their conversation (ibid.). Saint Gregory of Nyssa and St. Ephrem had the same effect, according to Liguori: "Their very appearance inspired piety, and ... the sanctity and modesty of their exterior edified all who beheld them" (ibid.). As immodesty is a cancer to the soul of any society, modesty has the opposite effect, raising the community to contemplate goodness, truth and beauty.
Liguori (like many of the saints), seemed to integrate an evangelistic mindset into everything he did. For Liguori, avoiding sin (and the near occasion of it) was never just about his own soul; rather, the means by which he avoided sin also served as an avenue by which he could help bring about the salvation of others.
In the 21st century, the pure and modest man will have the same chastening effect as the saints before him; that is, his very presence and demeanor will elevate minds to God and call people to repentance. The pure man, though, must first be a modest man, for the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that "purity requires modesty" (¶2521). And since most people misidentify the modest man as timid, scared or weak, allow me to lay out, in more practical terms, what this saintly and heroic virtue looks like.
The modest man, in broad terms, is one who does not "inflat[e] the importance of being esteemed," since modesty "prevents one from being too easily distracted from what is really important, by an excessive concern for how one is esteemed or for receiving one's entitlements" (Michael Ridge, "Modesty as a Virtue," American Philosophical Quarterly 37, no. 3 : 269–83, 281). The virtue of modesty consists in a carelessness for that which is of no real importance, such as the esteem and respect of men. A modest person cares about accomplishing only things truly worthy of accomplishment, "but not about being evaluated highly for these accomplishments. [He] cares, that is, about what is valuable, genuinely valuable, not about getting credit" (G.F. Schueler, "Why Modesty Is a Virtue," Ethics 107, no. 3 : 467–85, 485). The modest man has similar characteristics to the magnanimous man, for he is one who "completely shuns flattery ... [and] does not allow himself to be concerned with everything that comes along" (Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991], 39). Modesty goes hand in glove with meekness and humility, shunning the base human impulse to peacock for attention.
But what's said of modesty in general can be applied to all species of modesty, especially modesty in dress, which the Catechism defines as "an integral part of temperance ... protect[ing] the intimate center of the person" (¶2521). This moderation in dress "exists as an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man" (¶2524); it "inspires a way of life that is able to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies" (¶2523). In sum, the modest person dresses his part — without violation of his own dignity, without drawing others into sin, and without care for scandalous trends.
Today, the fashion trends for women and girls basically revolve around immodesty. Women's garments are engineered from the ground up to provoke lust, and women habitually dress in such a way as to entice the passions, too often with malice aforethought. Women and girls set on swimming upstream and rejecting this trend ought to turn to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the model of feminine purity. Likewise, men who desire not to have their manhood stripped away from them ought to look to St. Joseph, the most chaste model of masculine purity.
Saint Ambrose once said of the Blessed Virgin Mary, "Her example alone is a lesson for all." As such, she "has been the subject of more thought and discussion about what it means to be a woman than any other woman in Western history" (Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996], 219). Mary, as the woman par excellence, lives to the fullest all the virtues, but perhaps instantiates modesty in particular. Ambrose writes that she was "modest in discourse, ... her ears were modest and her eyes bashful. ... And holy Scripture points out how modest she was towards her neighbors. ... Mary did not go even to the Temple without the guardianship of her modesty." It seems fitting that on today's feast of the Presentation, Mary's purity and modesty be honored — and hopefully imitated in the modern world.
Mary is indeed the "model of faith ... an object of devotion and a model of the godly life" (Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries, 20). And in a unique way, she is the "model of how [women] ought to behave, ... the model of patience, indeed of quietistic passivity and unquestioning obedience" (ibid., 83).
But if women continue to ignore Mary as their archetype, and, thus, continue to rebel against their own womanhood, men cannot follow suit and allow their masculinity to be debased. Instead, they must do what the saints did — convert people by their own stalwart purity and modesty.
Typical spiritual direction regarding sins against the Sixth and Ninth Commandments tends to emphasize what people shouldn't do; that is, it's primarily about how to avoid situations that can bring about impure looks or lustful impulses. As such counsel is passive and defensive, it neglects the active and offensive remedy, which is the embrace of purity to the extent that men are not afraid to walk through the world exemplifying modesty.
Purity is a sine qua non of Christian manhood, or, as St. John Bosco famously said, "Holy purity [is] the queen of the virtues, … a jewel so precious that those who possess it become like the angels of God in Heaven." Because masculinity is, in a sense, only proportionate to purity, men must endeavor to protect it at all costs. But protecting this jewel does not just keep men pure; it also edifies the people around them, as Liguori taught. So the more perfect response seems to consist in protecting purity while letting its habituated practice illuminate others.
Today, men need to embrace what St. Josemaría Escrivá called "a crusade of manliness and purity." Yes, men ought to guard their purity at all costs, but we also ought to let performed outward purity be a catalyst for the conversion of others. Custody of the eyes does not require men to stare at the ground when a pretty woman passes by; rather, it only requires that they exercise the discipline to control what they look at — and then to look with a purity of heart. Men need to embrace the call to be pure, and then carry that purity out into the corrupt world, for we are "ambassadors for Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:20) with a duty to "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Timothy 4:5).
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