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

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.


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.

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.