Staying on the Road
Mark Shea quoted C.S. Lewis today:
The use of fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere “understanding.” Cruel ages are put on their guard against sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make liberalism the prime bogey.
Well, I was freaking out quite a bit about that pants thing, I agree. But is the above really the case? Yes, we are a society of skimpy outfits. But we are also a society of folks who think every woman must be covered from head to foot. Yet, even then….
I have a friend who lives in Chicago, and likes to dress in all sorts of kicky little fashions. She got hold of a beautiful silk scarf, used it in various ways, and eventually decided (solely for fashion and wind reasons) that she liked wearing it as a head covering. Since she has dark hair, dark eyes, lives in a very diverse neighborhood, and will cheerfully toss back “Aleikum salaam!” to darn near anybody, a lot of her Muslim neighbors assume she’s a Muslim when she wears the scarf on her head.
Now, she has gotten the vaunted effect of respectfully being greeted as “sister” by Muslims far and near. But she has also learned that wearing a head covering doesn’t protect you from Muslim men’s advances; it exposes you to them. Pretty crude come-ons, too. She was shocked, because she felt that if she were Muslim and devout, they should know she wouldn’t be interested. But they didn’t know that. They live in a society where women are trapped and demeaned so much that they don’t know what a woman might think. Hey, worth a try, right?
Now, our society has gone downhill, and sure, there are meatmarkets out there and drunken fratboys and just plain crime. But on the whole, wherever I go in the US or in a Christian country, I can walk around in normal clothes and pretty much never be molested. Certainly people in my neighborhood are not going to come up to me and make advances as crude as my friend advised. If I don’t get that respect, people wouldn’t be really shocked if I hauled off or called the police. Have you ever heard of a Muslim woman defending her virtue that way? No, and they seem to assume that authority will assume they were inviting the attack, and doing anything will make matters worse. (From what I’ve seen, anyway. And of course Fatima swung a notorious sword; but I’m not talking about battle here.)
And I have to say that any time the tide of fashion turns to austerity and covering nearly every bit of a woman from sight, the ordinary rights and respect given to women seems to be swept away by that tide.
So how do you tell people to pull their pants up and put on some clothes without allying yourself with the Burqas R Us crowd of any persuasion? Well, I saw some nuns from Egypt tonight on EWTN, and they seemed to be managing it. They wore a habit and a veil — but the veil was pulled back just far enough to expose a good-sized hank of hair. It seemed to say, “I’m doing this for God, and I’m not doing it for the Koran.”
I liked that. They weren’t giving up their Catholic heritage, but they weren’t letting themselves be dhimmified, either.
So I think that’s what was behind my rage — being treated like a pushmi pullyu by this wonderful society of ours, and not even being able to live an unharassed life among my brothers and sisters of St. Blog’s — too nunny for some, too much of a hussy for others. (Well, actually that part makes me laugh.) I’m not a happy warrior. I reacted exactly the same way during that memorable conversation when I was told both that Catholics were too full of guilt and that Confession made Catholics too free of guilt. (Well, okay, I didn’t scream at anybody this time and demand they pick their accusation and stick with it.)
But I really need to get used to this sort of thing. As the good Chesterton says in Orthodoxy:
And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. Old bucks who are growing stout might consider him insufficiently filled out; old beaux who were growing thin might feel that he expanded beyond the narrow lines of elegance.
Perhaps Swedes (who have pale hair like tow) called him a dark man, while negroes considered him distinctly blonde. Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad–in various ways.
The necessary thing is not for the Christian woman to defend herself from charges of being a skank by dressing with ultra-modesty, or from charges of looking sexless by wearing dental floss to the beach. The necessary thing is to stay on the road that is Christ, not falling off either to the right or the left. If Christ’s road itself leads us right or left, then that’s the way to go.
That doesn’t mean that we have no standards. It means we don’t take on the standards of people with no rightful authority over us. It means that we don’t throw the prudence that God gave us back into His Face.
Chesterton also says:
Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite….
The Greek had spoken of men creeping on the earth, as if clinging to it. Now Man was to tread on the earth as if to subdue it. Christianity thus held a thought of the dignity of man that could only be expressed in crowns rayed like the sun and fans of peacock plumage. Yet at the same time it could hold a thought about the abject smallness of man that could only be expressed in fasting and fantastic submission, in the gray ashes of St. Dominic and the white snows of St. Bernard.
This means that those who sincerely feel themselves called to ultra-modesty shouldn’t be so much demanding from their sisters as practicing it themselves as much as they can, for the love of God. They should regard it as a strenuous form of devotion and self-mortification, and maybe they shouldn’t ask it of their kids until they’re old enough to decide for themselves. Similarly, those who feel themselves called to peace shouldn’t go telling soldiers that God has nothing to do with war and all those psalms are a typo, though they should do their best to live as peaceful people themselves.
There are a lot of ways to love and serve God. As long as those ways stay obedient to Church teaching, and don’t claim to supersede all other ways, I don’t see why we shouldn’t pursue what suits us. In fact, to do otherwise would be to get in the way of the Holy Spirit. And if anybody says otherwise, some of us are called to fight him to death and some of us are called to love and pray him to death; but either way, the unlawful restriction has to go. (And if some of us were smarter about their own gifts, certain persons like myself would know better than to freak out unhelpfully.)
But restricting yourself is a lawful and laudable gift, just as every other form of doing more than what’s required is. It is the lawful gift of ourselves to God and each other that sets us free, and the taking away of others’ lawful freedom that makes us sad prisoners.
More Chesterton and Orthodoxy:
And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.
…St. Francis, in praising all good, could be a more shouting optimist than Walt Whitman. St. Jerome, in denouncing all evil, could paint the world blacker than Schopenhauer. Both passions were free because both were kept in their place… By defining its main doctrine, the Church not only kept seemingly inconsistent things side by side, but, what was more, allowed them to break out in a sort of artistic violence otherwise possible only to anarchists. Meekness grew more dramatic than madness.
…All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colours coexistent but pure. It is not a mixture like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk, for a shot silk is always at right angles, and is in the pattern of the cross.
…Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? THAT is the problem the Church attempted; THAT is the miracle she achieved.
…the balance was often distributed over the whole body of Christendom. Because a man prayed and fasted on the Northern snows, flowers could be flung at his festival in the Southern cities; and because fanatics drank water on the sands of Syria, men could still drink cider in the orchards of England.
…Last and most important, it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world.
…Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.
This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic… The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable… It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic… It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.