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Caitlin Kennell Kim, seminary grad, baby wrangler, ordinary radical, writes about the life of a convert in the Catholic Church and explores how faith and everyday life intersect.

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January 20th, 2013

Sinners, Saints, and Skin: A Lesson on Modesty at Mass from St. Mary of Egypt

 
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Once upon a time there was a Mary. No, not that Mary. A different one. This Mary lived in Egypt at the end of the fourth century. She made her way across the better part of the ancient near east by trading sexual favors to pilgrims for food and lodging. She boasted heartily about her ability to seduce and, if legend bears any truth, her licentiousness knew no bounds (seriously).

Once she followed a procession of pilgrims bearing a piece of the True Cross through Jerusalem to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Donned in clothes meant to advertise her sexual availability, she sauntered among the pilgrims in search of her next conquest. When the procession reached the door of the church, she was barred from entering by a powerful and inexplicable force. Her eyes fell upon on image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her heart instantly overflowed with humility, love, and repentance. Mary of Egypt (St. Mary of Egypt, to be precise) was suddenly able to enter the church where she worshipped God fervently and joyfully. She was allowed in as she was — dressed in a way meant to elicit lust. She was compelled to enter by that same force which, only moments before, had prevented her entry. She came in with a heart clothed in contrition, adoration, and surrender. She came clothed in dignity.

I have heard many good and holy people express a myriad of prescriptions for proper and modest dress at Mass. Some have told me that it is immodest for a woman to show her shoulders at Mass. Others baulk at hemlines above the knee. Still others suggest that any blouse that reveals a woman’s collarbone is unacceptable. I have heard a few suggest that pants and uncovered hair for ladies is tantamount to scandalizing the clergy. Immodest dress — especially at Mass — is offensive to God. (At this point I am just barely containing my overwhelming desire to launch into a lengthy and unapologetically venomous diatribe about how all of these prescriptions are for WOMEN and, I might add, insulting to men … who apparently lack the wherewithal to avoid the allure of collarbones, kneecaps, and shoulders for an hour at a time. I digress.) I have every confidence that the folks who hold and put forward these ideas do so out of sincere reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. I understand and share their concern that we treat Mass as an exceptional time in our week markedly different from a quick visit to the grocery store or an evening of drinks and dancing with friends.

HOWEVER …

I don’t think it matters. Not really. Not ultimately, anyway. I don’t think that God is offended by kneecaps or low cut blouses or jeans or sweatpants. God is not a petulant gossip hawk-eyeing us from on high poised to take offense at our fashion faux pas. Our God is the God of hospitality … the God of welcoming the stranger, of touching the untouchable, of embracing the social outcast, of claiming the abandoned, of looking at you and me and all of us for what we are deep down in our marrow (where there is no hiding behind hemlines and sport coats and other outward demonstrations of our supposed piety) and saying, “This is good. I can work with this.”

Just as God compelled St. Mary of Egypt to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre clothed in a way that made her occupation abundantly clear, God desires that all people draw near to him … now. Not when we’re perfect. Not when we finally have our, um, “stuff” together. Right now. Just as we are. Praise God. If you find yourself being critical of the way someone else is dressed at Mass, take a moment to remember the story of St. Mary of Egypt. Say a prayer thanking God for that person’s presence. You might be in the company of a great saint.

 
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The Author : Caitlin Kennell Kim
Caitlin Kennell Kim is a full-time baby wrangler, writer, and ponderer of all things theological. She earned her Masters of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry and Theology from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She currently lives in Northeast Ohio with her husband and their four small children.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • http://www.facebook.com/papa.hadzellis Papa Niko Hadzellis

    St. Mary of Egypt, after receiving communion, being completely transformed abandoned the world for the desert to battle her passions, and repent of her sins for 17 years. Roaming the desert naked and skin burned by the sun, until the Priest Zosimas finds her to which she asks for his robe to cover herself.

    Truly repentant, clairvoyant and even having the ability to walk on water (the Jordan), She venerates the priest who brings the blessed Eucharist and received communion after 17 years of fasting, praying and repenting. She asks the priest to return to her the following year where they first met the previous year. As he does, he finds her lifeless body, perfectly preserved with an inscription in the sand indicating that she fell asleep in the Lord the very night she received the Eucharist.

    St. Mary of Eygpt is more than a woman who dressed scantily in church, but a Saint who devoted her life in prayer and fasting to Christ, fully repentant of her previous life and sins.

  • Kiefer

    Excellent article. I have often felt uncomfortable (mostly harsh looks) in Church because my fashion is a bit different than the average Catholic in my city. The difficult question is, who gets to decide what is appropriate, conservative, or non-distracting dress for Mass? If I wear a ‘members only’ jacket, stretch jeans, and a colorful t-shirt, in my mind that IS looking good for Mass. Who decides that kakis and a button-up shirt are what God finds more pleasing? Or if we are only concerned with the comfort level of our fellow church goers, why is it a majority rules? I feel that if everyone at the Mass is full of love for God and are in a spirit of unity and love for each other in that special moment, than everyone could be wearing a Snuggie and it wouldn’t matter one lick.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=557761829 Janet Marie Smekar

    I would rather see people wearing a nice clean pair of jeans/trousers and a casual top compared to some of the stuff I’ve seen where people look better dressed for a party, the pool/beach, the bar, the club and/or an athletic event compared to the Mass which is the wedding banquet of the Lamb. I wish that I could attend the Latin Mass more often as people make a better effort to dress decently for Mass.

  • http://www.facebook.com/caitlin.k.kim Caitlin Kennell Kim

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I wanted to respond to your thoughts, so I used my latest post to do just that (click the link in the Convert-sation blog that begins “Modesty at Mass (the sequel)). Let’s keep discussing! God bless.

  • Michael

    As a Coptic Orthodox Christian and regular reader of Busted Halo, I was very touched by the fact that you included Saint Mary of Egypt in one of your articles. I am not sure if Mary entered the church, however. She probably did, but the story, as it is told in the Coptic Church, says that whenever she tried to enter the church, she felt as if someone was preventing her from doing so, and right away she realized it was because of her uncleanliness and impurity. She lifted up her eyes with a broken heart, and she wept interceding with the St. Mary and asked her to intercede on her behalf before her Beloved Son. She stood before the icon of the blessed and pure Virgin, and asked her fervently to guide her so that she might save her soul. A voice came out of the icon saying: “If you cross the River Jordan, you will find rest and salvation.” She rose in haste and when she left the courtyard of the resurrection, she met a man who gave her three small coins with which she bought bread. Then she crossed the Jordan River to the wilderness where she lived for 47 years. Satan fought hard against her those 47 years, but she overcame him with the grace of God and survived by eating the herbs in the desert.

    This is just a small portion of her story, but as you can see, encountering the gift of God changed her so profoundly that she was willing to leave everything in the world to right a life that she had so wronged before. She did not continue to enter the church in a provocative manner, in fact, she considered herself unworthy to even be in the proximity of a church since she fled to the wilderness for 47 out of 67 years of her life. This is what happens when you meet Christ in a true and sincere way. I cannot fathom anyone coming clothed to church in a disrespectful way after they encountered Christ like the Samaritan woman or St. Mary of Egypt. If we know that during liturgy we can encounter Christ in the exact same way either of these saints did, surely we will dress for the occasion. Yes, Christ accepts everyone as they are, but the least we can do is show Him our respect the same way we do during a job interview or wedding reception. Surely we can do this if nothing else.

    The last paragraph of your article touched me deeply. When it came time for all the monks in his monastery to go and judge a fellow monk, they called on Saint Moses the Strong, who filled a sack with sand and carried it on his back saying, “How can I judge a fellow brother when the sins that I have committed are as innumerable as the grains of sand I labor on my back?” I do not say any of these words in a judgmental manner whatsoever, as I have come to understand that anyone we judge in this world can be Jesus in disguise. Like Saint Paul said, I am the chief of sinners.

    Let us learn from the humility and repentance of St. Mary of Egypt and devote our lives to our Lord Jesus Christ the way she did after meeting Him through the ever-Virgin Holy Theotokos Saint Mary.

    Please remember to pray for the Coptic Christians of Egypt who are being persecuted each day.

    • http://www.facebook.com/caitlin.k.kim Caitlin Kennell Kim

      Michael, thanks so much for your perspective! I used Roman Catholic sources for the story of St.Mary of Egypt… perhaps we have a different tradtion in terms of this saint? I love the story of St. Moses the Strong… thanks! I will pray for Coptic Christians in Egypt. What an important reminder. God bless you too.

  • Pat

    Amen, Caitlin…thought-provoking article and many articulate and thought-provoking comments…I will keep you all in my prayers…peace and good

  • BeadyK

    Many years ago I was attending Mass at Ft. Rucker, Alabama. It was the middle of summer. People would come into Mass and ‘how’ they dressed seemed to be an afterthought. The priest made a comment during the homily regarding dress saying that shorts, flip flops, ‘just coming from the lake’ clothing were inappropriate for Mass. If we would dress up to attend a party at a Colonels home, why wouldn’t we dress the same way coming into the Celebration of the Mass? Do we reallyt think that God doesn’t care that we don’t think enough of Him to dress out of respect to Him?

  • Luke

    I have been attending weekday Mass in my city. There is an individual who attends everyday. He wears no shoes to service and his clothes consist of gym shorts and a shirt which are usually dirty. Now this sounds fairly like ‘disrespectful’ attire for Mass. But this man is actually homeless. He doesn’t have a wardrobe full of clothes which would be ‘suited’ for Mass. He’s there to receive God’s love. We all come from different backgrounds and our clothes don’t show the whole picture.

  • Erin Pascal

    Matthew 7:1-5 “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

    We all have the tendency to judge other people and label their actions as improper, immoral or ungodly. But God does not want us to be criticizing Christians. Criticism often leads to nothing but conflict and hatred; whereas prayer and sincere compassion has always been proven to win souls for Christ.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sonja.flater Sonja Flater

    Good article, especially the part about the microscopic focus on female attire. (I could tell you stories.) I worked for the Church for many years. Yes, we should not judge others. However, I do think that our dress is a part of our focus and respect of God. Would you wear sweats to a wedding? To meet the President? To meet the Queen? I always told the children who were preparing for First Eucharist that they should dress to feel special, to feel important, and to feel handsome/beautiful. It’s a life changing event! Exactly what we hope Mass will do for us, renew and invigorate us. How would you dress for a life changing event? I’m going to wear my very best clothes!

  • Captcath

    I am a Christian, not Catholic, although my extended family is. I often read Busted Halo with great interest, most of the stories are God centered and well articulated.
    I don’t think the issue here is what we individually wear to church or mass. You should wear what God puts on your heart to wear. Do you have the ability to dress up, have special Sunday clothes that you save to honor God with during worship? That is what you should wear. Does Satan try to deter you from attending weekly services, so that getting there is a struggle? Come as you can, just come! The point I think is more that it is not for us to be concerned what others are wearing, but how we individually come, ready to worship the Creator of Life, His Son and His Spirit. If part of your reverent praise is to dress in your best, then do so, but the person in the next pew may not yet be there in their journey. Focus on your own journey, God will move the other parishioners to where He wants them to be in His time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jane.pettinger Jane Pettinger

    I think the point here is to not judge others. Accept them for who they are and where they are in their faith life. We do NOT know their hearts as God does. Praise God that they are on a faith journey and welcome them warmly. “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.”

  • Maureen Coleman

    Laura, I’m sorry that you feel the comments here are uncharitable. I don’t think they are meant that way. However, I have seen young girls in dresses that they have to constantly pull down or showing midriffs or too much cleavage. I know this is common dress for young girls now, however, I think it should be pointed out by the parents that it is not appropriate for Mass. I don’t judge those people, I am happy that the young person is there, at Mass. But they need to understand what is appropriate in what places and what is not. With regard to Mary of Egypt, yes in that circumstance she wore what she had on because that was the circumstance. However, I will bet you dollars to donuts that she dressed more appropriately the next time she entered a church.

  • Tim

    I understand what you are saying and agree with it in premise, but I feel that the main issue many have with the “look” of some at Mass is a respect issue. It is one thing to accept that some are not as able as others to afford themselves special “Sunday Only” clothes that are meeting these standards, but when it becomes an excuse of “I don’t feel like getting dressed respectfully for church because God sees me all the time and knows what I believe.” that it becomes an issue. I remember once going to Mass before a birthday party for one of my daughter’s friends. All the teenage girls were meeting at 5pm Sat mass and then going to the party. The birthday party invitation stated specifically that a certain dress code of modest party dresses and the acceptable accessories were required. Fine. Well, the girl whose party it was and most of the girls going to the party were dressed in denim short shorts and tank tops or t-shirts for Mass and had to change clothes to go to the party. My daughter and only a few of the girls just wore their normal Sunday church clothes to the party, as it fit the dress code. I found it ironic how the parents (very good friends of mine and very Catholic in their beliefs) did not see the irony of this situation. It is the same for many Saturdays/Sundays throughout the year for me. I am not saying that God will banish you to Hell for wearing jeans to church, but find it extremely disrespectful to see people just wear whatever to church and then have to go home to get dressed nicely to go out to eat or attend an after church function. I don’t understand it.

  • Laura

    Caitlin, what a wonderful article. Unfortunately, the comments here reflect exactly why I no longer feel compelled to be a part of the church. God may not be judging the outcasts, the poor, women, gays, etc, but the vast majority of his worshippers still seem to.

  • Rachel DB

    I always like reading your posts Caitlin, probably because we usually agree on the same things. Of course I would think that all of us here would praise God for the miracle of someone, anyone, entering our churches to hear the Word of God. To be embraced by the community. To participate in Sacrament.
    I am particularly thinking of that scene from Sister Act where the people come flooding in, and the Priest waves them in.

    I guess it seems that we have a problem with that person who consistently shows up in their sweats. It’s one thing to praise God for the miraculous one time conversion of a prostitute, a homeless man, the guy on his way home from the gym. But I guess it seems we have a hard time to continuously praise God for that continuous small conversion that we are all called to.
    I would wonder what your readers would think about the Gubbio Project in which homeless are invited to sleep in the pews of the church daily. while Mass is going on. …How is that conversion different from every human who is just trying to make it to Church for that Community, Sacrament, God?

  • Doug Renze

    …and a quick PS to my previous message: Substitute the words “at work” for “at Church” in what you wrote. Would you say the same thing about that in a work environment? I work in a professional environment, and everything you said about modest dress applies in that environment too, with the exception of the fact that we have a published dress policy and (in my office) a manager would certainly go up to somebody and say “that outfit isn’t in compliance with policy.”

  • Doug Renze

    Caitlin – For the most part, I agree with you. But for anybody (male or female) to act in such a way at Mass as to be distracting to others is to act inconsiderately toward them. God knows what’s in your heart, but if you let your child run around in Church during Mass (we have people who do this in our Church) or if you dress in such a way as to be distracting to others, this is definitely inconsiderate. Additionally – what are we teaching youth (male and female) about proper sexual respect for both themselves and others if we, as adults, are dressing in a way that might be considered as immodest. And yes – I’m sorry, this does disproportionately impact women with the modesty issue, but it does impact both genders as far as dressing in a reverent fashion.

    Just my $0.02.

  • http://www.facebook.com/catherinemontalbo Catherine Montalbo

    Of course God doesn’t care what you wear to Mass. But He’s not the only one there. What about dressing appropriately out of respect for your brothers and sisters at Mass? And I don’t just mean “modestly,” but differently than you would at the gym or the beach. It boils down to respect for others, for the place, and for the occasion. A quality in short supply everywhere these days, sad to say.

  • bilski

    Nevertheless, we should still try to hold ourselves to a standard of dress that conveys proper respect for the Sacrament. In my anecdotal experience, it is often ignorance or laziness on the part of the people combined with temerity of the clergy that results in a church full of tshirts and gym shorts.

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