Clothing, Virtue, Beauty


September 27, 2013 by lucieromarin

This is isn’t a post about modesty. I’ve written on that topic already, and will probably do so again, but this isn’t it, so save those thoughts for later.

In everything, it’s possible to err both by excess and by defect, and this as true of thoughts about clothes as it is of anything else. You can think too much about it. You can think too little about it. Making appearance one of the most important things in life leads to all kinds of evils, from scruples and spiritual burnout, to sweat-shop labour, to girls bullying other girls at school for having the wrong outfits, to thinking that six-year-old girls need to win beauty pageants. It leads to the bank sending me consumerist literature in pink. At the same time, denying that there is any moral responsibility at all attached to clothing leads to…well, oddly enough, it also leads to no one caring about the sweat-shop labour or the bullying or the selling of lingerie to six-year-old girls.

This post is about the midpoint between the excess and the defect. I want to say that clothing matters, but not as others say it does. Also, not only does it matter what we wear; it matters how we talk about what we wear, because the wrong words about clothing can do as much damage to another soul as can the wrong outfit.

Okay. So, to see any connection between clothing and virtue, we have first to know what virtue is, and for that, we have to know what a habit is. Here’s the definition for you:

Habit: an objectively stable quality, superadded to an operative power, disposing it for well or ill with regards to its activity.

An operative power is your intellect or your will. Remember that these powers aren’t fixed; they’re like the hand of a metronome, swaying from one side to the other, from good to evil, tick, tick, tick. A habit is that stable quality that sits upon the power, pushing it one way or another, so that it leans more consistently towards the good or away from it. The habit that pushes your will towards the good is called a virtue. The habit that pushes your will away from the good is called a vice.

So that’s the first thought – here’s the second. Remember that one of the nine accidents of being is ‘habitus’ – raiment. (In case your Thomism is rusty: a ‘substance’ exists in and of itself – say, an apple. An ‘accident’ exists, but only ever inheres in a substance – say, green. You might say, ‘Oh! There’s a big green apple!’ But you’ll never look up and say, ‘Oh! There’s a big GREEN!). ‘Habitus’ means ‘what a substance is wearing’. ‘Habitus’ means ‘clothing.’ ‘Habitus’, in English, can be rendered, ‘Habit.’

Aha!!! You see? Clothing is your body’s habit. Habit is your soul’s clothing. The habit is what a monk wears. A habit is what your soul wears. And for as long as you are an embodied soul (i.e for as long as you’re not dead) you will physically embody those interior habits. The sound of your words (do you pray or do you swear?); your posture (do you kneel or do you slouch?); the expression on your face (do you smile or do you sneer?) all express spiritual realities in physical form. And clothing can do the same thing. And, in fact, it does this all the time, which is why people advertise political affiliation with t-shirts.

So, here’s a question, then – why doesn’t Catholicism have a uniform? Don’t we all want to tell the world that We Belong, etc etc?  It’s true that, if you know your subcultures really well, you can walk into a room and tell the difference between the Opus Dei, the Regnum Christi, and the traditionalist, but I think we all know that you can’t spot Catholics in the street as you can Muslims, Brethren, or FLDS. Why don’t we have a uniform?

Well, to understand this we have to understand two things: 1) that God is Beauty, and 2) that, if you are in a state of grace, He is in your soul.

1) God is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Called to imitate God by choosing truth and goodness wherever we are free to do so (we don’t confess sins we commit in our dreams!) we are also called to imitate God by choosing beauty wherever we are free to do so (He really doesn’t hold it against a poor person for being dressed in rags, and neither should we. But He does think that the man with two cloaks should share.)

(Choosing beauty is not the same as obsessing about your looks. It is most certainly not the same as obsessing about other people’s looks. Obviously there’s room for another post here! But if you think about it for a bit you’ll see what I mean.)

2) I know you know the bit about being a temple of the Holy Spirit. But it’s important for understanding why we don’t have a uniform, and why it’s unnecessary at best and abusive at worst to insist upon one. There’s only one other place in the world, other than us, in which God dwells, and that is the tabernacle. In other words, in order to think about how we dress, we don’t have to think about lust, but about architecture, about the beauty of the church. How would you design a church? Would you graffiti it? Would you trample mud in it? Would you design it to look like a nightclub? etc etc

Oh…but wait a minute! There’s more than one way for a church to be beautiful! Well, okay, here’s only one way to be beautiful – which is to comprise order, proportion and radiance. But there’s more than one way to be ordered, proportionate, and radiant. Sure, churches should always be cruciform, and the altar should face East, and the tabernacle should be veiled, and the Stations of the Cross shouldn’t be mirrors, but that still leaves you with all the gorgeous variety of our heritage, from the fantastic Gothic cathedral to the little country church.

So, we’ll always have a few basic rules of dress – order, proportion, radiance – and we’ll always have the power to express further choices in dress  – boycotting sweat-shop products, or buying organic, or second-hand – but that’s as far as it goes.  We’ll never have a uniform, because, as St Therese says, there are as many souls as there are faces, and the many beautiful churches in the world show us how diversely the beauty of the Divine Indwelling can be expressed.





3 thoughts on “Clothing, Virtue, Beauty

  1. Cojuanco says:

    Ah, but not every beautiful church is cruciform (what about St. Peter’s?) And east-facing altars are really only used during the EF/TLM/Vetus Ordo/whatever they call it these days. Yet would you say that they cannot be beautiful?

    But I agree that modesty should not be about concerns of lust, but about promoting beauty. This is, of course, largely culture-centric, the way beautiful churches have all variety of architecture and adornment, but the intention usually shows clear.

    • lucieromarin says:

      I concede! I guess I was just looking for a way to say, “A church shouldn’t look like a spaceship or a bank,” and I thought ‘cruciform’ and ‘east-facing’ sounded more positive. But it’s true – you only have to visit a church of the Oratorians or attend Mass there to see the how reverent and beautiful post-Conciliar worship can be.

      Also – ‘whatever they call it these days’ – chuckle! I too would love to know what the best term is!

      • Cojuanco says:

        Ah, tis OK. I agree that places of worship should look like places of worship. LA Cathedral for all its original faults actually in its present form is actually a good blend of modern and traditional, for example. And my main objection to the Park 51 mosque, for example, was that it looked less like a house of God and more like a merchant bank’s Manhattan headquarters. The same result obtains in San Francisco’s cathedral. It seems people are losing a sense that holy places should if possible evoke holiness.

        And I’m kind of confused, too, but my outline of the terms is this:

        Latin Mass: sure, but the Pope’s Masses are in Latin, but they’re not what most people using the term want to imply.
        Traditional Latin Mass: But the Missal of Paul VI is in conformance with capital T Tradition…
        Extraordinary Form: Good enough compromise name, used by Benedict
        Vetus Ordo:…but Francis prefers this term, even though it started life as an insult (though some of the mad trads started it when they called the Pauline Missal “No Mass” (cringe))

        N.B. I am somewhat Trid-sympathetic.

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