The Modesty Discussion: Nuns Edition

I was reading a post on WDTPRS that concerned an article written on the Religion and Politics website that compares “conservative” nuns (as exemplified by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia) and “liberal” nuns (as exemplified by the Sisters of St. Joseph). The article has its own point and conclusions, but what leapt out to me from the page was this:

“Their simple, sensible-shoe, old-lady garb was, in its way, more modest than the bright white habits of the Dominicans.”

Did your jaw drop, too? Did you just flinch back and think What?! quite loudly, too?

For a very long time I have been reading the volley back and forth in the discussion of modesty. Sometimes it’s pleasant, a gentle game of badminton. Sometimes it devolves into a harsh battle of racquetball, with both opponents aiming not at the other’s actual position but at something else entirely, both missing – or at least not directly addressing – each other’s points.

Part of the discussion of how to be modest is what modesty actually entails. There are a few working definitions out there but the three prevailing ones are:

1. Make sure X, Y, and Z are adequately covered. Exactly what constitutes X, Y, and Z are hotly contested (thighs, knees, elbows, neck, wrists, hair?) as well as what “adequately” means.

2. Modesty is a matter of the heart. It manifests in one’s attitude, demeanor, and behavior. (This is generally used by people who are defending the shaky position that clothes have nothing to do with modesty, usually because they wore strapless gowns at their wedding Mass and they feel personally attacked.)

3. Do not attract attention to yourself. If everyone’s in jeans and a t-shirt, that’s what you wear. If everyone’s in bikinis, that’s what you wear too. This is often used as a bludgeon to shame women who wear skirts and dresses, and who cover their heads at Mass.

The author of the article is obviously working with the third definition of modesty. For comparison’s sake, let’s see pictures of both sets of nuns.

Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia

Oh look, someone took a picture of a bunch of grandmothers on Mother’s Day! How sweet… Oh wait those are the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Someday I should make a contest of “Nun or Grandma?” rather like the “Church or Not?” one I did awhile back. Hmmm, I should probably post the answers to that one at some point.

Where the heck was I?

I suppose that if you take as a premise that modesty is determined by how well one does not attract attention to oneself, then a shaky case could in fact be built that the Sisters of St. Joseph dress more modestly than the Dominican Sisters. However, it’s a house of cards.

First: With whom are the nuns supposed to be blending, anyway? They definitely have the upper-middle-class-grandma look pegged. But the thing is, they’re all nuns. Their core community is the other Sisters of St. Joseph. You’re going to compare yourself the most to the people you see every day, right? The Sisters of St. Joseph all look different from each other. And how do they choose their clothes? Comfort, fit, price, yes but also – but alsoDoes this look good on me? Do these shoes go with my wardrobe? Does this color bring out my eyes? Clash with my hair color? (Oh yeah, and should I let my hair go grey or dye it a bit? Perm or blowout? Curling iron or straightener?) Does it wash me out or make me look orange? Does this outfit flatter me in all the right areas and conceal all the wrong ones? Me, me, me, how do I look, does this make me look good? And then there are the stray thoughts – Oh that looks good on her. Oh dear… that doesn’t. Dressing with the intent of looking attractive is, dare I say, dressing with the intent of calling attention to oneself. Perhaps not a brass band parade. But if you’re trying to be attractive… then by definition.. you are trying to attract… SOMETHING. Ditto often goes for trying NOT to be attractive because everyone loves a good train wreck.*

Contrast this with the Dominican sisters. Within the same subgroup (postulant, novice, fully professed sister, and whatnot) they all dress alike. Competition? POOF. Gone. Concerns with what one should wear, whether it “goes” with eyes/hair/skin tone/shoes/jewelry/corsage, what it accentuates/conceals, whether it looks nicer than something else in the closet, POOF… Gone. It;s like the idea behind school uniforms, except it actually has a prayer of working since it is so much stricter. No choice of shirt color or how much it can be tucked in or not. No skirts to roll. No kneehigh socks of questionable color. No choice of shoes. No collars to pop. No hair to decorate (because it’s covered, not that there is no hair at all). No makeup, no nail polish, no earrings. They blend. Most of the differences in silhouette are softened into conformity. No Dominican sister will ever tell another Dominican sister that her skirt looks cute and ask her where she got it. Their faces shine through, with the rest of the worldly concerns stripped away. Not attracting attention via garb in the Dominican convent? They’ve got it in the bag.

Second: More about blending in. There is a telling quote from the article which I will use to illustrate this next point:

“At the hospital, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been approached,” said Sister Catherine Marie [one of the Dominican sisters]. “A woman once asked me, ‘My mother just died. Will you pray over her body?’ They unzipped the body bag right there. If I weren’t wearing the habit, that wouldn’t happen.”

When a person is looking for a nun and sees a nun in a habit, they see a nun. Just a nun, an anonymous nun, part of the big collective of nuns out there. When a person is looking for a nun and sees a nun who is not in a habit, that person has to know that particular woman to know she is a nun. She is not part of a vast collective; she is an individual first and a nun second, whereas the nun in the habit is, to the casual observer, a nun first and an individual second. Talk about not calling attention to yourself! This point may be rather subtle and I am having a hard time nailing it down so I hope you understand what I am trying to convey. When that nun was approached at the hospital, it didn’t matter who she was. What mattered was what she was, and that was clear. It sounds sort of heartless, but to an extent she was interchangeable. To me, there is a difference between someone in need saying “You are a nun. Please help me”, and someone who looks like someone else’s grandmother inserting herself into the situation by saying, “I am a nun. Can I help you?”

Third: Are nuns really supposed to blend in with the rest of society, or should they stand apart as a testament to the Gospel and as witnesses to Christ? Is it even right in the first place to say that nuns should look like everyone else? They live lives set apart from the rest of us, even when their apostolate puts them square in the middle of us. Lots of people wear uniforms to mark their job so other people can identify them. Why should nuns be invisible? Isn’t that somehow… counter-productive? I think it does call attention to nuns when they shed the habit and go around proclaiming, “See? We’re dressing just like you now!” because the natural reaction is to reply, “But you’re NOT just like us.” The fact that they seem to try to hard to be that way while remaining not is a source of conflict, and nothing attracts attention like conflict.

The Dominican sisters, on the other hand, stand out, but only as sisters. They don’t stand out as individuals, and they don’t have the air of someone trying very hard not be to who or what that person is. A nun who dons a habit is very much not saying “I am here!” She is saying, “We are here.”


About kittenchan

I'm a Roman Catholic, conservative creative writing major with a penchant for cooking, crafting, and geek subcultures. View all posts by kittenchan

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