CHAPTER XIX — MODESTY AND MIRACLES
The Miracle of modesty: Modesty and sophistication:
Actually there is much more than amusement and tolerance in that smile of the sophisticate. Modesty is a kind of miracle to the sophisticate; it does to the heart what a miracle does to the eyes and to the mind. It focuses the heart, startlingly, on things long dreamed of, a focus that makes the rest of the world disappear for just an instant. The smile for modesty has a touch of remembrance in it, of regret, of envy, and even a little of inspiration. In the face of modesty, the human heart goes a little home-sick. Sophistication’s greeting to modesty is a tribute; for modesty is a realization and a statement of what men would like to be, because that is what men were meant to be.
The innocence of modesty
In a sense, modesty is innocent. Its goals are the clean, windswept goals of virtue, goals whose reflection gives a calm, clear quiet to a face. It is innocent in the sense that it does not seek dark corners, secret rendezvous, it does not start with guilt at discovery or blush with shame in remembrance. But it is not ignorant. Rather, it is very wise, very learned in human things. It is saturated with rationality: contact with it is as refreshing as the deep, eager breaths of sea-air by a man coming from the heat of an inland city. It gives us a sense of freshness, of cleanness, as though we had just been scrubbed inside and out.
The wisdom of modesty
Its real characteristic, however, is rational balance. It is not lop-sided as is the sophisticate, the play-boy, the libertine, and, sometimes, the scholar.
All modesty has the quietly satisfying qualities that we associate with the atmosphere of home. Its joys do not intrude themselves violently on our attention; they penetrate us comfortingly as the warmth of a fire on a raw evening. Modesty works unobtrusively for a happiness that is almost unnoticed until it is gone; like lost innocence, or the unheard noises of summer whose absence make a winter day so deathly still.
Personal graciousness by modesty
It is extremely difficult to describe the part of modesty in human life; that part is so elusive, intangible, yet so solidly real. Perhaps we could call it “personal graciousness.” The air of it has been caught in Chesterton’s melodious phrase: “as on a stairway go in grace.” It has the serene beauty of unhurried movement, the mysterious penetration of a deep chord of an organ. It becomes almost tangible in the face of a saintly old priest, or the eager unselfishness of a very young nun. Perhaps all this may seem much too figurative to be of great help; but, as a matter of fact, we realize the difficulty in everyday life and, in trying to describe the possessor of modesty, we fall back on such utterly simple statements as “wholesome”, or, with very special emphasis, we say “he is good.”
The material of modesty
Perhaps the root of the difficulty is that the pleasures with which modesty deals are really an undercurrent in our lives. The pleasure of reasonable hope, of knowledge, of sincerity, of affability, of play and of dress are all a background without which life would be an empty, barren thing. But they are only a background; they are not the principal figures in thr finished tapestry of life.
Modesty of mind — studiousness: Its nature
Obviously some regulation is necessary for our appetite for knowledge, for here there are two natural inclinations, either of which may well pull a man off the road of reason. Long before he can rattle the change in his pockets, a man starts to ask “why”; he has a natural inclination to truth. But just as truly he has an inclination to avoid the labor inevitably bound up with that vehement inclination of mind which is the one road to knowledge; study is hard, hard work. As a very humble testimony to the truth of these statements we have such institutions as truant officers and report cards.
Still there are some things which a man must know; at least in their regard, his distaste for labor must be moderated. There are other things that man should not try to know by his own powers, so the inclination to knowledge must also be reasonably directed. Both of these ends are achieved by the quiet operation of the virtue of studiousness, steering a man safely past the stagnation of stupid negligence and the restless uneasiness of curiosity.
A doctor is seriously obliged to know something of surgery before he throws open his beautifully equipped operating rooms to defenseless patients; a priest must know moral theology before he opens the confessional slide; and a wife should know something of the fundamentals of cookery before she serves up the products of her art. In other words, if his distaste for the labors of study escapes the control of reason, with the result that man is ignorant of what his state in life obliges him to know, he may be guilty of sin. Indeed, the sin may easily become mortal if the missing knowledge is of serious obligation. Normally, the civil authorities insist upon adequate knowledge where ignorance will have serious social effects; except perhaps in the matter of cooking. But curiosity is not taken very seriously.
It is true that, in itself, there can be nothing wrong with knowledge. It is one of the highest works of man; evil in connection with it is quite accidental, as in the man who sins by pride in his knowledge or uses it as a means to further his sinning. But the appetite or desire for knowledge can be, and frequently is, evil. That is, it can become curiosity.
Its opposites — curiosity and negligence
The man, whose zeal for knowledge is merely a tool of pride, can lay no claim to the rewards of virtue. On a less spectacular, and certainly more futile, scale, curiosity shows itself in the mother of ten children who spends hours learning the intricacies of bridge, leaving the children with the impression that they are orphans. This sort of thing particularly disgusted St. Jerome; he voiced his disgust in no uncertain terms in his complaint against priests who were putting aside the gospels and the prophets to read plays and to sing songs.
Knowledge and sin
In both these cases the necessary studies have been neglected for the study of that which certainly is less useful, often only possibly useful. The thing is unreasonable; but still it is not quite so unreasonable as the attempt to know a truth above our powers. Thus a philosopher might madly attempt to comprehend infinity by natural reason; or a man with no mathematical ability might give himself a headache studying Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Men do not particularly care for headaches as intellectual rewards, even when they are overreaching themselves in the field of knowledge. To contrive the one and avoid the other they have sometimes allowed curiosity to take another and more dangerous form; namely, that of superstition by which, under the guise of knowledge, they sit at the feet of diabolic masters. This is the curiosity of the ouija-board and the seance room that gives man a preview of hell and starts God on His way out of a man’s life.
Curiosity did not really kill the cat. It died from some other cause, for curiosity is a human ailment, the exclusive property of the being who can abuse his faculties. It is a distinctly human affair and it can exist in almost any walk of human life. The ubiquitous little sister, the pest of the household, who does not miss a thing about the house, not for any particular reason, but just because she has to know, is not so far removed from the scholar whose knowledge is rigidly divorced from God and is an end in itself. Both are curious; and the scholar is very much more dangerously curious than the child.
Knowledge and the occasion of sin
Neither the corner loafer, who subjects every passing woman to his critical scrutiny, nor the old lady in her rocking chair on the front porch tabulating every activity of the people across the street, do themselves any good. Rather they are setting the stage for the prompt appearance of sin; they also are curious, and dangerously curious. In fact, we can see too much for our own good, particularly when we meander about the universe like a woman who saunters through a department store “just looking.”
It was with this in mind that Chrysostom, and Thomas much later, warned against the danger of indiscriminate theatre-going. Their argument was that we shall have trouble enough avoiding temptation under any circumstances; at the very least, idle curiosity will furnish us with just so much more material for trouble. In going to the wrong kind of play, or going to all plays indiscriminately and with unreasonable frequency, we indulge an idle curiosity in finding out things that would never have entered the course of our ordinary life. We are feeding ourselves with materials for trouble.
Modesty of body: Of bodily movement in serious action
Of course the family across the street and the woman who has just passed the corner do not imagine that they move in a world of the blind. They know their external movements are not somehow mysteriously invisible; nor do they take offense at others for looking at them. They realize, at least dimly, that their external movement serves the double purpose of mirroring their inner life and of putting them in social contact with others. These aspects of external movement are taken for granted. But it follows from this that these externals, too, must have their share in the beauty of moderation that reason’s rule gives to the things of a man. From the social angle, this beauty of moderation is effected by affability or friendliness; from the personal angle, by veracity or sincerity, always with an eye to the particular person and the particular circumstances. The effusively silly greeting of a none too bright high school girl would be a little astonishing coming from a bishop; yet we do not expect the bishop to wear his pontifical robes in swimming. We demand that a man be reasonable in his external actions; but he need not carry dignity to the point of absurdity.
However, we do make a constant mistake in this matter on the basis of veracity or sincerity. We feel rather proud of ourselves for following the deceptive maxim “be yourself”, more classically stated as “to yourself be true.” But the maxim is a little too easy; it tucks the excuse of temperament into our vest pocket to be readily presented as sufficient explanation of almost any eccentricity. It is good to be true to one’s self; but that should not mean that there is nothing to be done about the peculiar individual one happens to be at this particular stage in life. We are not always as God made us; “sometimes we are a great deal worse.” Thomas insists that there should be an element of the studied in our voice, our laugh, our walk, our conversation. The nuns presiding over a girls’ school, insisting that there is a correct way to sit, to walk, a cultured modulation of voice, and so on, are not necessarily snobbishly rigid formalists. Rather they maintain that even in these things we have a right to expect the beauty of moderation that is our privilege as reasonable beings. It does not follow that a man’s actions should have that theatrical deliberation that shrieks for a spotlight; but it does follow that into those actions should go an earnest weeding out of defects, a campaign of elimination which makes for personal graciousness and which is nothing more than an insistence on the beauty of reason’s order breaking through all of a man’s life, even through the externals of that life.
In recreation — eutrapelia
Perhaps nowhere in all his works does the humanity of St. Thomas appear more clearly than in his defense of the universal sway of reason, a sovereignty that he argues must extend itself even to the play of men. Here in this tract on modesty St. Thomas gives his philosophy of fun. He has compressed it into three articles; an extremely brief treatment that is yet a noble human document, worthy of the tribute of familiarity from any age.
The purpose of play
It seemed obvious to the greatest scholar of the most scholarly century that fun is necessary to human life. When a man has pushed a wheel-barrow all day, his body is tired. If he is to do the same thing the next day, he must do something about the bodily fatigue; he must give his body some rest. Exactly the same thing is true of the soul. Even though there are no such things as spiritual wheel-barrows, there is a weariness of soul that is exactly proportionate to the intensity of a man’s mental efforts. It is true that speculative work causes a greater soul-weariness than does practical thinking; but the latter, precisely as thinking, has the same, though a lesser, wearying effect. In other words, man’s mental powers, like his physical powers, are definitely limited. When a man reaches, or goes beyond, those limits, he becomes tired — tired both mentally and physically, fot in the labors of the soul the body must also work. If he expects to continue that mental work, he must give his soul a rest: and the rest of the soul is called play or fun, that is, words or action in which we seek nothing but physical or animal pleasures.
It is a very human thing, when we are loaded down with work and we see another stepping out liltingly for a good time, to feel very virtuous in our condemnation of such frivolous waste of time. There are so many serioug things in life, so much to be done that it is childish and silly to fritter away precious time in amusement. To combat that notion St. Thomas records the story of St. John the Evangelist. Just such a serious-minded person caught St. John one day playing a game with his disciples. The saint was roundly rebuked for activities so unworthy of an apostle. Instead of arguing the point (people as serious as this will argue forever), St. John picked up a bow, handed it to his reformer and asked him to shoot an arrow at a target. The man did. St. John asked him to shoot again and again. Finally he asked what would happen if arrows were shot indefinitely from that bow. His critic, in some irritation at so obvious a question, answered that of course it would break. St. John said that exactly the same thing would happen to a man; unless he gives his soul a rest, he too will break.
The whole idea of amusement is really an application of the orator’s technique to individual human life. Cicero gave the counsel, entirely approved by Thomas later, that when an orator talks over-long, when he notices his audience getting restive, he should say something novel or, in keeping with the circumstances, something ridiculous. In other words, the orator must give his audience a let-down, a rest, a break from the mental effort of following his argument. Amusement gives a man a let-down, an interruption of the mental effort of thinking.
The very purpose of fun, then, indicates its need for regulation. Fun should clearly interrupt the labors of the soul, but not upset rational balance, not induce hysteria or stupor; it is meant for a rest. It cannot turn about obscenity or crime without defeating its own ends; these things do not give quiet but torment to the soul. The general term human activity is a description of man’s play as well as his work; even in his play there must be the human note of fittingness to persons, places and time. We are right in our judgment of the man who relaxes by shouting operatic scales at three o’clock in the morning. He is not only lacking in a sense of humor, he is beyond question lacking in the virtue which regulates fun, the virtue of eutrapelia; for surely such relaxation is not rational.
Sin in play: By excess
It is to be well noticed that the whole purpose of play is to rest the soul. It presupposes work and looks forward to more work. In the absence of that mental activity which makes play necessary, amusement becomes a terrible bore, as distasteful as a steady diet of spinach or six months in bed. Even too much of it in one dose destroys the sparkling relish of it. Of course the retired business man promptly lies down and dies; he has nothing to do but rest. While rest is fine as a recuperation from work or a preparation for work, rest for the sake of rest is really a killing thing.
The wit whose humor is discourteous, scandalous or obscene is clearly not practicing virtue, any more than the man whose relaxation consists in murder or theft. Obviously amusement is not always virtuous. These things cannot be excused on any grounds, let alone on the flimsy grounds of fatigue. In fact, the possibilities of sin in play are considerably varied. Thus, for instance, fun can become such a fever in a man as to destroy all else, inducing a man to sacrifice his family, his work, even his God for such trifles as a horse race, a golf or a poker game. Then it is a vicious thing with none of reason’s beauty about it.
In a less ugly, but more undignified manner, we can sin in play by a disregard of reason in the circumstances of our amusement. The things that are done may be just clean fun, and highly amusing; but somehow we do not expect a President to sneak into a dark alley at night to shoot dice, or a portly matron to skip rope by the hour in front of the parochial school.
For most of us, the work of the virtue of eutrapelia is to restrain fun from getting out of bounds rather than to coax us into taking some relaxation. In other words, a man is much more liable to sin by excessive play than by lack of all recreation. After all, a little fun goes a long way. Recreation is a seasoning of human life; a little touch of it is sometimes exactly what is needed to give a tang to a flat day. But we cannot live on recreation any more than we can on seasoning: and too much fun can spoil a human life as completely as too much seasoning spoils a meal.
Yet fun is so necessary to human life that the total lack of it is unreasonable and vicious. The wet blanket at a party is a burden to himself and to others; he takes no pleasure himself and cramps the pleasure of others. In fact (and the phrase is that of Thomas), the man, who never says anything ridiculous and is a nuisance to those who are joking, is vicious. He is not to be complimented for his serious frame of mind but to be condemned for his lack of reason.
Modesty of dress: Virtue in dress
A recent biography of Phillip II of Spain gives a little incident indicative of the wide, sympathetic understanding of the Spanish people. Towards the end of his reign, the king decided to determine by law the amusements of his people, their titles of address, even their very clothes. Instead of rising up in anger against the tyranny, the people smiled at one another and said: “His majesty is growing old.” While there was solid reason for resentment, there was also solid reason for sympathetic love; he had long been a just, thoughtful, hard-working monarch. While it is true that civil legislation must remain general, since no government can descend to the intimate details of personal life without becoming ridiculous, the same is not at all true of the legislation of reason, of the moral law. We cannot smile tolerantly and say that reason is growing old because our conscience descends to the smallest details of life. Reason must descend to such details, for even the details must be reasonable, that is, they must be human. Even here, in these small details, we shall find virtue and vice, reason or unreasonableness.
Naturally reason takes in such a detail as dress. And that very statement is a declaration that virtue plays a part in dress. Indeed, this is clear from the innate dignity of man, as well as from the natural inclination of his sense appetites to disregard reason. If that were not enough to convince a man, there is concrete confirmation in the prompt action of the police against the man who goes to certain excesses in dress.
This moderation in dress is the task of that virtue of honesty of which we spoke in an earlier chapter. Then we noticed its necessity for an appreciation of the beauty of temperance. It seems particularly fitting that the virtue which is appreciative of beauty should have the details of human dress under its wings. In other words, the regulation of dress is not in the name of shame alone; but also in the name of dignity and of beauty. Here our modern judgment is correct.
Sin in dress: By offense against custom
The appearance of a man in full dress on a South Sea island might be just as shocking as the appearance of a South Sea islander on Fifth Avenue in a costume of leaves, a very few leaves. In either case, the costume would be as out of place as a sour note in a symphony orchestra. Such a man simply would not harmonize with the whole of which he is a part; and we can sin in dress by open violation of custom. This, you understand, is not a condemnation of variety in dress; for the very variety may bc a part of custom and custom is something to be respected.
The business of legislating details of dress is extremely tricky; St. Thomas, with the profound wisdom that was his peculiar excellence, was much too wise to attempt it. He gives no measurements, names no high or low limit, hands down no pattern. What he does do is to give us general principles which form the basis of the reasonable in dress.
By excess and defect in affection for dress
The woman with a gown long out of style is not a willing sinner against custom, whatever her nonchalance; and no secret police are necessary to insure the prompt discarding of straw hats on the day appointed by custom. For most of us there is little temptation to sin in dress by opposing custom. We are much more likely to offend by vainglory, a silly sort of offense that proceeds on the presumption that our very clothes give us a title to esteem. A man can, of course, sin by the inordinate sensual pleasure he gets from clothes; by his overzeal for personal comfort in dress; or finally by sheer foppishness. These are, respectively, violations of the virtues of humility, of contentment (that is, satisfaction with the suitable) and of simplicity. At the other extreme, is the sin in dress by sloppiness or raggedness; a condition that is a product either of effeminate neglect or of a thirst for attention as strong as that evidenced by the fop.
The apparel of women
All of this general doctrine on clothes will also hold for women’s apparel; but over and above these principles, some special consideration is necessary for women’s clothes because, says St. Thomas, they may serve as a means to arouse the lust of men. Actually, St. Thomas’ article on women’s clothes is a defense of reasonable fashion, in contrast to the devastating condemnations of the Fathers. The Fathers were often orators, thundering against the abuses of their time; St. Thomas was a theologian, considering things in a calm, clear, objective light. He spoke quietly and with the strict accuracy of a theologian.
It might well be wondered what a friar of the thirteenth century could have to say about women’s clothes that would be of any interest to the twentieth century. Well, no one can say that St. Thoma, did not have his eyes open; there was little of Europe and life in the thirteenth century that he missed on his slow journeys by foot up and down the land; he moved freely in the greatest courts of his day, What his own eyes did not show him of woman’s dress he could well learn from the thundering of the Fathers against the corruptions of a decadent Roman Empire. Not even the twentieth century sophisticate could tell the ladies of that era very much.
St. Thomas saw it as reasonable for a woman to adorn herself with an eye to men if she had a husband, if she wished to have a husband, or if she merely had an open mind on the subject. But a woman who had no husband, did not want a husband and did not mean to have one, or whose state in life forbade marriage, had no business aiming her dress at men. But of course the thing happened. If it was to arouse the interests of men, then her sin was mortal or venial according as she seriously intended to arouse lust, or merely acted from frivolity, vanity or ostentation. In other words, St. Thomas understands the Fathers as forbidding, not moderate, reasonable adornment, but the excesses of sinful, immodest and unreasonable ornamentation.
Some of the Fathers inveighed against the defacing of God’s work by yellow paint, black powder, rouge and dye. There must have been some ghastly make-ups in those days. St. Augustine considered the accomplishment of a paler or rosier complexion by means of paint as a lying counterfeit.
Thomas approached such a touchy subject cautiously and humanly. He admits that St. Augustine has something in his contention of counterfeit, presupposing of course the optimistic intention to deceive by an extraordinary painting job. But even so, painting one’s face is not a mortal sin, unless it is done for seriously evil ends. But getting back to the counterfeit idea, St. Thomas notices that it is one thing to counterfeit beauty and quite another — and a lawful — thing to hide a disfigurement. It is a very neat distinction which suggests that accuracy would demand a change in the name of those shops that in our age are called “beauty parlors.”
This completes the tract on the virtues. It finishes the long statement of the principles of the fullness of human life; not only of human life, but of that divinely human life in its incredible abundance, reaching out to divinity and eternity, the abundant life that Christ came to bring us. The virtues, natural and supernatural, are the instruments of personal perfection; they make life personally successful. In a word, they make a man good.
Apostolic graces — the boundlessness of work
Horizons such as these would seem wide enough; but they are not wide enough for God. From time to time He gives men more startling glimpses of His divine power and generosity through the graces that are ordered, not principally to personal sanctity, but to the sanctity of others; the apostolic graces. They do not make the individual good, but they do make him a powerful instrument for the salvation of others, executing the divine plan as the brush materializes the dreams of the artist. Here all the limitations to human operations seem to be done away with; here the true boundlessness of work is hinted at, for here it is God that is working more than man.
Apostolic grace of mind alone — prophecy
Thus the apostolic grace of prophecy allows a man to know infallibly and to predict with certainty what is unknowable itself to anyone but God, that is, such future contingent things as the free acts of man. Natural gifts are of no help here; there is no preparation or disposition possible, not even the state of grace. This can be done only by supernatural light from God Himself. Man is God’s instrument pure and simple.
The prophet may realize his instrumentality or he may be ignorant of it. Prophetic knowledge may come to him in sleep, when he is awake, in ecstasy or without his realizing it at all. This is not something personal but something apostolic, something for the salvation of others. Sometimes such prophetic knowledge is given by a physical apparition, at others by phantasms of the imagination; or, in a higher form, as a purely intellectual vision, But it will always be a passing thing, like a note struck from a violin. It is a shaft of divine lightning striking the mind of man, easily seen by all, a certain sign of divine revelation and a confirmation of divine truth. There is a note of human stubbornness and of divine generosity here that must not be missed. It is our hesitancy and our weakness that make such confirmations of prophecy necessary; it is God’s generosity that makes such things possible. Generosity is exactly the right word; for it demands a divinely generous heart to give these unutterable truths and then, when they have been so graciously given, to coax us into accepting them.
Apostolic grace of mind and emotion — rapture
The apostolic state of rapture is a kind of divine violence that plucks a man out of himself, as St. Paul was snatched to the seventh heaven. It is a divine flight as contrasted to the slow crawl to divine things naturally characteristic to man. Here man is abstracted from the sensible world, from the senses, from the imagination; it is as though for a moment he was only a mind, to which the divine secrets are laid bare, and a will enthralled by the joys to those secrets.
This rapture is not to be confused with physical afflictions such as catalepsy or with diabolic possession; it is not the trance of emotion, the overpowering movement of sense love or wild passion. It is a divine scorning of human limitations of the depths of knowledge and a divine outpouring of divine joy. It is primarily intellectual and altogether supernatural; in rapture, mere men, with St. Paul, see the things that are not given to the tongue of man to speak, things which flood the human heart with an overpowering joy that disrupts all normal channels of communication. Rapture is a species of prophecy with the same divine mark of infallible knowledge of inscrutable things.
Apostolic grace of speech — the gift of tongues and speech
The men whom Christ sent to convert the world were poor, ignorant, powerless; yet they were sent as teachers of men. That they might get a hearing wherever they went, that they might be able to instruct, that their work might not suffer that fatal slowing down or falsification that comes through the use of interpreters, it was most fitting that God give them the gift that so startled the audiences of the first apostles — the gift of tongues. By it the apostles spoke and understood the languages of all peoples; an incredible thing in the eyes of men, but child’s play to the Author of all speech and the Reader of all hearts.
When, in the wisdom of God, it became necessary to speed up the apostolic work of the Church, this gift has been given, though usually in a form different from that of Peter’s first recorded address. In this second form, the preacher speaks his own language but is understood by men of all languages; he understands all men, but understands them in his own language. It is as though a divine translator was busy on the word as it travelled from the mouth of the speaker to the ear of the auditor. It was in this form that the gift of tongues played such a prominent part in the life of St. Louis Bertrand, the missionary of South America; it surpassed all calculation in the life of St. Vincent Ferrer to whom this gift was apparently as much a personal characteristic as the shape of his nose. It is always a startling gift, designed not only to bring truth but also to overcome the obstacle of incredulity by its very unusualness.
This gift of tongues was not given as a curious exhibition; it was to be coupled with the gift of speech to attain the ends of divine oratory. The Holy Ghost used the tongue of man to win hearts; men were not only to hear these truths but to love them, to embrace them, to live them. This gift of speech furnished a divine oratorical fire that made a holocaust of the hearts of men.
Apostolic grace of operation — the gift of miracles
In order that absolutely nothing might be lacking to win men to happiness, the burning words of divine oratory were given the unanswerable confirmation of miracles. And here we have another example of the divine thoughtfulness stooping to human nature. It is natural to man to come to the truth through sensible effects; just as in the natural order he comes to a knowledge of God through natural effects, so in the supernatural order he is led by the hand into the divine presence through unquestionably supernatural effects which yet can be perceived by the senses. There is no question but that here man is a mere instrument of divinity; indeed, in confirmation of a divine truth, God may make use of an enemy, thus showing even more clearly the unlimited sway of divine power. If, however, the miracle is worked in confirmation of the sanctity of the miracle-worker, it can be done only by a saint; obviously a miracle is not worked in confirmation of a lie.
These apostolic graces show us just such a combination of divine power and divine thoughtfulness as permeated the life of Christ. They open our eyes to the infinite pains God takes to bring us home, the depths to which He will stoop to accommodate man’s nature. Yet looking at the apostles through whom the graces worked, we are breathlesg at the sight of what a man can do under the power of God: his feeble mind, his wavering will, his stuttering tongue, his weak hands, even the shadow of his garment or the dust of his grave produces results proper only to God.
Modern immodesty: Extreme of immaturity; extreme of senescence
Perhaps we could best sum up this chapter by pointing out that modesty is not a matter of dressing in the dark but of living in the light, in the light of reason’s moderation and beauty. Modesty turns the floodlight of reason on the internal and external activities of man; his word, his play, his dress, every detail of his life. From this point of view it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the twentieth century pagan world is an immodest world. We are, in fact, living in a world of paradoxical extremes: on one hand we see all the sign of immaturity — giddiness, an unbalanced interest in sex, a restless rush of childish ignorance and activity, a world without poise, without serenity, without that personal graciousness that is the mark of reason; on the other hand, there are unmistakable signs of senescence – – the world is bowed down with hopeless burdens, a world that in its less giddy moments is inclined to be desperately serious, a world chained to knowledge for its own sake, a world as much inclined to shroud itself in blankets of respectability as it is to throw off all slightest pretense of respectability and go entirely animal.
The fruits of immodesty
To say that such a world is an immodest world is to say that it is a world without high hopes or a world doomed to the crash of despair because of its impossible hopes. It means that it is a world which neglects the knowledge it should have, throws away the possibility of having any knowledge, or puts itself in the absurd position of maintaining that its knowledge is supreme. As immodest, it is a world bereft of the affability, truthfulness and sincerity that go into the making of that serene poise and beauty established by the moderation and proportion of reason. An immodest world means a world that is either so serious that it can find no room for fun, or so giddy that it can see no reason for anything but fun and where eventually fun itself becomes labor. It means a world where the quiet beauty and joy of dress is submerged either in a gloomy ugliness that parades as respectability or an exhibitionism whose tailor is sex.
Modesty, miracles and achievement
But our human world, after all, is not the silly world of an adolescent nor the dark, disillusioned world of a grumpy old man. Rather it is a world in which the brilliant spark of reason’s order gives beauty, proportion and vitality to all the things that touch on a man’s life. It is, briefly, a modest world; a world of vigorous youth and wise serenity that is a reflection of eternal horizons. Modesty, as a matter of fact, is not a matter of hiding. Rather all immodesty is a matter of obscure, narrow places that hide its innate ugliness; it does not, in fact, ever see the world for the world is much too wide for it. Modesty is not an impediment to labor or a phase of life from which we shall probably recover; but, like all the virtues, it is an indispensable condition for supreme labors and progress that end only at contact with the infinite. It is only in proportion to his loyalty to the commands of reason that a man can be said to have achieved.
In the natural order modesty completes virtue’s natural equipment for the attainment of the fullness of human life. When modesty and its companion virtues are lifted to the supernatural order, they are the equipment for that incredible abundance of Christian life which was the purpose of God’s coming amongst us. When we go a step further into the order of the apostolic graces, man’s achievements outstrip the bounds of the ordinary both in the natural and supernatural order. It is significant that the supernatural does become ordinary: and that is a tremendous statement of the full play given to the works of man. He has such a wide scope for his powers that he accomplishes the supernatural almost as a matter of course; but under the apostolic graces, even that boundless field of the ordinary supernatural is too narrow. Here the achievements of man are astounding even for the supernatural order, for here he is the mere instrument of God. To search for any limitations is to attempt to trace the boundaries of the goodness and omnipotence of God.