Red High Heels in Church: Some Thoughts on Modesty

I was unstoppable on Wednesday morning. Despite the vampiric sleep schedule my job has inspired this summer, I was up early enough to bake pains au chocolat for an office World Cup party the next day. Then, I put on an adorable outfit that I hadn’t worn to the office yet, and headed off to daily Mass before work. I was hyped until Communion. As I passed through the pew to the aisle, I tried to shake off the wave of self-consciousness that suddenly came over me, as if something about me was impure or improper, and not worthy to be seen by our Lord. Embarrassed, I looked down, and I saw the suspects: my cherry red, faux-suede pumps.

I had put them on that morning thinking they added a much-needed pop of color to my black-and-white dress. But now, I was convinced, the people around me must think I was going to hit the bars after Mass! Why, oh why, I asked myself, didn’t I stick with sensible flats? Why couldn’t I be more MODEST?

Hitherto, I’ve avoided talking about modesty on this blog because I was never sure how to go about it. It’s a topic that is under frequent discussion in women’s ministry, and it can very easily be mishandled, or in extreme cases, dissolve into blaming and criticizing our sisters in Christ. Then there are conflicting ideas about what constitutes modest dress: Should I not wear makeup or jewelry? Can I still wear shorts in the summer? Throw in the recent discussions in the media about sexual assault on college campuses and sexist dress codes in middle and high schools, and the word “modesty” becomes almost as despicable as the word “patriarchy.”

Let me be clear: A short skirt or a low-cut top is NOT an invitation. NOBODY, no woman, ever “deserves” assault. Period. 

Moving on. Recently I’ve discovered how much I hate the popular phrase “modest is hottest.” I don’t choose to dress modestly because I think it’ll attract more guys, nor because I’m ashamed of my body. I choose to dress modestly because it makes me feel comfortable and beautiful — not “hot,” beautiful. And guess what? Modesty is NOT just a “women’s issue.” That’s right, men should strive to be modest as well, in their dress as well as in their thoughts and actions. I also don’t think that dressing modestly makes me better than anyone else; trying to “out-modest” other women completely misses the point!

What point is that? Well, I should get back to my story at Mass. I went through Communion as usual, acutely aware of the clomp-clomp my heels made on the tile floor. I was mortified. After Mass was over, I walked to the statue of our Blessed Mother. My Confirmation name is Marie, and in every church I visit, I look for a statue of Mary.

I hadn’t even finished my usual Hail Mary before I heard a voice in my heart say, “You’re thinking too much about your heels. I would rather you focus on being a bride of Christ in your heart.”

I was stunned. I looked up into the statue’s face.

“My daughter,” the voice continued. “Don’t you know that you are beautiful? That you are a bride of Christ?”

“But Mama Mary,” I protested. “How can I be a bride of Christ if I don’t dress like one?”

“Even if you were wearing the skimpiest and shabbiest outfit in the world, you would STILL be a bride of Christ, a daughter of the King of Kings. Therefore, stand tall, hold your head up, and act like one.”

True modesty is not covering up to give the illusion of holiness; it is allowing our inner life, our spiritual life, to manifest itself on the outside.

Coincidentally, the Gospel that day was the passage from Matthew, Ch. 6 where Jesus talks about hypocrisy: “When you dress, do not be like the hypocrites who break out a tape measure and compare the width of their neighbors’ spaghetti straps to their own, or the length of their neighbor’s skirt to their own. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.”

OK, that’s not actually what it says. But the same ideas expressed in that chapter can be very easily applied to modesty. If we don’t act, think and feel modestly in our “inner room,” how are we supposed to show true modesty to the rest of the world?

I’m not saying that modesty should not be talked about, but that it shouldn’t be just a dress code; it should be a code of honor.

We are the daughters and sons of a King. We have the dignity of royalty. So let’s hold our heads high and act like it.

And I’m totally wearing my red heels next year on Pentecost Sunday.

A plus!

– Vicky

How do you practice modesty aside from your physical appearance? Share in the comments below!

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Two Tongues, One Spirit

Happy Pentecost, everyone! At Mass this morning, we heard from the Acts of the Apostles. I was reminded of a talk I gave on my college Catholic community’s fall retreat in October, in which I used the same reading. I’d like to share with you an abridged version of that talk, as my personal Pentecost reflection. Veni sancte spiritus.

I’d like to start by examining what community is, and why the global community of Catholics is a special one. Think of some of the communities you’ve been a part of: a team or club, a staff at a job, etc. In all of these cases, people come together to strive toward a common goal. They have different backgrounds, personalities and beliefs, but there is something bigger than all these individuals that unites them. What do Americans say when we recite the Pledge of Allegiance? “One nation, under God.” We are united. In the global community of Catholics, the Holy Spirit is our uniting force.

Let’s look at a reading from the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-11):

“When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, ‘Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
of the mighty acts of God.'”

Frustrating pronunciation aside, this reading exemplifies why the global community of Catholics means so much to me. How many of you have ever attended Mass at a Catholic church that wasn’t your home parish? I’m willing to bet that most of you had little to no trouble following the order of the Mass. You knew the prayers, when to stand, when to sit, when it was time for Communion, etc. No matter where you are in the world, Catholics celebrate Mass in almost exactly the same way. When we listen to the readings on Sundays, millions of other people are hearing the same words in their own language at the same time. Think about that. Millions of people all over the world — many who you will never meet in this lifetime — are joining together, praising God in one voice. Isn’t that amazing?

The word Catholic comes from the Greek word catholikismos, meaning “according to the whole” or “universal.” This etymology became more meaningful to me over this past year. As many of you know, I studied abroad in Nantes, a large city in the western half of France, during my junior year of college. On Jan. 9, 2013, I arrived alone in a foreign country, loaded down with two huge suitcases and fighting off the remnants of a fever. Even my eight years of French classes couldn’t have prepared me for that moment. The first few weeks were much more difficult than I could have imagined. I missed my family and friends. I missed my life at school. And I missed the Catholic community there. I felt like I didn’t have any roots, or anything secure to hold on to. There were several nights where I cried myself to sleep. I couldn’t leave then; my parents had already bought my plane ticket home for May. I knew I had to live there, but how could I fit in?

My saving grace that semester was my host family. That first night, five pairs of brown eyes stared at me from around the dinner table as I tried to introduce myself in broken French. It was terrifying, but they were patient with me. After dinner, the family gathered in the living room, and Madame explained that the family’s tradition was to read the daily scripture and pray together before bed. I was amazed. I knew my host family was Catholic because their youngest son went to a Catholic high school, but until then, I hadn’t known to what degree they practiced their faith.

I don’t remember what passage Madame read that night, but even with my limited French, I had few problems understanding it. I remember feeling a warm glow sputtering inside my chest. It seemed as though the Holy Spirit was speaking to me, to all of us, in a language that was beyond words and cultural barriers. After she finished the reading, Madame prayed out loud for me, that I would have an easy adjustment to life in France, and for the family, that they would receive the strength and grace to help me as best they could. Afterward, we said the Our Father and the Hail Mary in French, and surprisingly, I could follow along. For the first time since I had arrived in France, I felt like I was home.

As the weeks went by, my faith strengthened me, and I grew in my relationship with God. I learned to say the Our Father and Hail Mary in French. My host family took me to Mass every Sunday and brought along their missal so I could learn the responses. When we visited Paris, we attended Mass at the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal and I got my own medal blessed by the sisters there. About a month and a half into my stay, I started attending meetings of the Catholic community at the local university. Their potluck dinners reminded me of Catholic community soup suppers back home, and I did make some friends there.

I can remember my prayer walk that I did on the last fall retreat before I left the States, where I asked God if He would be with me in France. He said, very clearly, “I will be with you wherever you go.”

Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” But wherever my walk with God has lead me, across state lines or across oceans, I have never been under the impression that a Catholic church has taken me in out of obligation, but out of Christ’s love. It is true that the Church is God’s house, but God’s unconditional love and acceptance and community does not stop at the church doors. As the hymn says, we take the love of God with us as we go. We are called to share that love with the rest of the world. There is no maximum capacity in heaven. God welcomes everyone of every race, language, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, everyone! And we are called to do the same.

If any of you have seen the musical Godspell, the opening number, “Tower of Babble” is a good illustration of this. At the beginning of the number, each ensemble member represents a different philosopher — Socrates, Nietzsche, da Vinci, etc. — and sing their different philosophies loudly, trying to drown out the others. In the next number, John the Baptist enters and tells them to prepare the way of the Lord, and baptizes the whole cast. The Word of God is powerful enough to bring together people who, just moments before, wouldn’t listen to each other or who couldn’t understand one another.

This weekend I pray that we will grow in communion with each other, and through the courage of the Holy Spirit, share that communion with the rest of the world. I would like to close by bringing my host family’s tradition to you. I will be reading from the Gospel of Luke, offering a short prayer, and then closing with the Our Father in French.

A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Luke (6:12-16):

Jesus went up to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. When day came, he called his disciples to himself, and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named Apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called a Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

Loving Jesus, we ask you to open our hearts to one another and to Your word, that we may grow in discipleship with You. Send down your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth. I ask all of this in Your name, Amen.

Notre Père qui es aux cieux,
que ton Nom soit sanctifié,
que ton règne vienne,
que ta volonté soit faite
sur la terre comme au ciel.
Donne-nous aujourd’hui notre pain de ce jour.
Pardonne-nous nos offenses,
comme nous pardonnons aussi à ceux qui nous ont offensés.
Et ne nous soumets pas à la tentation,
mais délivre-nous du mal. Amen.

bientôt!

– Vicky

Have you ever met any Catholics from a different country, or attended Mass in another language? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Multiplying My Smallest Gifts

It’s my first weekend off since I graduated college.

I know, it sounds bizarre, considering that graduation was almost four weeks ago. I am blessed to have been able to spend a Saturday afternoon touring my new hometown — at least for this summer — in Florida. But God lead me through some rough spots over the past few weeks in order to bring me to a place of tranquility.

Back in November, I was offered a copy editing internship through the Dow Jones News Fund. It was a huge shock for someone who has never taken a journalism class. I was excited beyond belief to spend a summer in Florida working for one of the most prestigious news organizations in the world.

After I graduated college, I raced home to pack up my life in two days, and then headed to Temple University in Philadelphia for a week that can be best described as “journalism boot camp.” Imagine cramming a semester-long introductory course into just a week. I, along with 12 other interns from all over the country, had eight hours of class every day, and at least six hours of studying to do every night. We were tested on Associated Press Style, New York Times Style, spelling, geography, headline-writing and countless other subjects. I’ve always considered myself a good speller, but bombing my first spelling test eradicated that notion.

There was only one other non-journalism major in the room, and from my perspective, he could rattle off terms like “pica” and “refer” with as much finesse as any of the others. I was so intimidated, so afraid that whatever I said in class was insipid or wrong. I was terrified that, because of my lack of a journalism degree, I would personally be responsible for the undoing of a prestigious internship program that has been running for more than 50 years.

I know, it sounds dramatic, but we all have been in that situation of feeling inadequate, especially when we are surrounded by the best in our field, any field. We feel like our own God-given talents are insufficient to distinguish us as the best, the brightest or the most talented of the group. And we get angry at ourselves, even at God, for our lack of perfection in a culture that thirsts for and esteems it.

I was brought to this low point after the second day of class. I needed Jesus, but He seemed so far away. Then, I remembered something I had packed in my suitcase.

It was a little blue pamphlet, “The Catholic Devotional,” that I had thoughtlessly picked up at the church downtown in my last few weeks of college. The final prayer in the book caught my attention:

‘My Jesus, how often I feel very small and inadequate before great tasks and responsibilities. What can I do but bring all that I have, even though it isn’t much, and place all this in Your hands, wait for Your blessing, breaking, thanking and receive back again with amazing power to reach all who depend on me, fill them with goodness and still have more than what I started with. May I never hold back my gifts from You. May I believe that Your blessing multiplies my smallest gifts to maximum powers. May I rejoice that You return the task to me and I have the personal thrill of seeing many satisfied by my ministrations. I adore Your wisdom, Your power, Your sharing. Amen.’ – Father Gerald Keefe

I said this prayer out loud once, twice, and was filled with strength and peace. I may not be the most talented or most informed journalist, but God can still use me. And He has been using me, even in my first week of work. I haven’t been as harsh on myself as I tend to be because I know that the job will get easier as time goes on.

And my limited journalism experience hasn’t hindered me or made me lose credibility at work. As it turns out, many of my colleagues never took a journalism class either! They just saw an opportunity, worked hard, learned as much as they could, and got to where they are today.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about the idea that God did not give us our gifts to glorify ourselves, but rather to use them to spread the Good News. The Bible is filled with little people making a big difference, simply because they had faith that God would multiply their simple gifts for His glory. Even one of our greatest saints, Paul, knew that God chose the weak things of the world to conquer those which are mighty (1 Corinthians 1:28).

If you are feeling small and unworthy, remember that Jesus died on the Cross for the small and weak because He knew they were worth it. God gave you gifts. Use them.

A plus!

– Vicky

What is your go-to prayer or verse when you’re having a bad day? Let me know in the comments, and let’s give the Internet a dose of inspiration and love!

P.S. I haven’t been able to find any information on Father Keefe, who wrote the above prayer. If anyone knows a good resource, please share it in the comments. Thanks!