How Necessary Modesty Is for the Edification and Profit of Our Neighbor

by admin on November 28, 2010

THE modesty of which we are now to treat consists in such a government of the body, such a guard over our senses, such a way of conversing and dealing with others, and all such movements and gestures on our part as may cause edification in all who see and have anything to do with us. In this St. Augustine includes all that he has to say about modesty. It is not my intention to descend to particulars of those points in which modesty must be observed, nor to note what would be an offense against modesty; sufficient for the present will be this general rule laid down by the glorious Augustine and common to all the saints and masters of spiritual life. This is his rule: “Take care that all your actions and movements be ordered in such sort that none may be offended, but all edified”— In omnibus motibus vestris nihil fiat quod cuiusquam offen-dat aspectumj sed quod vestram deceat sanctitatem. Let there ever shine out in your comportment humility along with religious gravity and maturity, and in this way you will preserve all becoming modesty. My only aim here is to show how necessary this modesty is, especially for those whose end and institute it is to attend to the salvation and perfection, not only of their own souls, but also of those of their neighbors.

Always Preach the Gospel, and Sometimes Use Words

On the first head, one of the things that do greatly edify and win over our neighbor is a religious and edifying com­portment. Men do not see the interior, but only the exte­rior, and it is that which moves and edifies them, and preaches better than the noise and din of words. So it is told of the blessed St. Francis that he said one day to his companion, “Let us go to preach,” and so went out, took a turn in the city, and returned home. His companion said to him: “But, father, are we not preaching?” “We have already preached,” he answered. That sedateness and mod­esty with which they went through the streets was a very good sermon; it moved people to devotion and to contempt of the world, to compunction for their sins, and to the rais­ing of their hearts and desires to the things of the next world. This is a sermon in action, more effectual than one in word.

We Call It Psycho-Somatic In Today’s Times

In the second place, this modesty and happy composure serves and helps greatly for our own spiritual advance­ment, as we shall say presently more at length. So great is the union and tie between body and spirit, between the outer and the inner man, that what there is in one is forthwith communicated to the other. Composure of spirit leads nat­urally to composure of body also; and, conversely, if the body is restless and wanting in composure, the spirit at once is discomposed and restless also. Hence it is that out­ward modesty and composure is a great argument and sign of inward recollection and of virtue and spiritual advance­ment to be found within, as the hand of a clock tells of the harmonious movement of the wheels.

Hereby we have a further illustration of the first head, for this is the reason why men are so much edified by mod­esty and external composure, inasmuch as they thereby understand and conceive the interior virtue that there is in the soul, and esteem and value it accordingly. St. Jerome says: “The face is a mirror that reflects the soul; and according as eyes are modest or loose and wanton, they reveal the inmost secrets of the heart.” And it is the pro­nouncement of the Holy Ghost: As clear water reflects the countenance of them that look into it, so the prudent man knows the hearts of men by the cast of their exterior (Prov. xxvii. 19).

There is no mirror in which a man is so well seen as vir­tue and peace of mind are seen in the exterior. By the movement of the eyelids a man is known for what he is, says the Wise Man. The look of the face revealeth him who is sensible and judicious: a man’s dress, his way of covering himself, of laughing, of walking, discover at once what he is (Ecclus. xix. 26) : And marking the signs of an apostate he says: He talketh with his finger, winketh his eye, stampeth his foot (Prov. vi. 12-13).

Our Actions Speak Louder Than Words

St. Gregory Nazianzen, speaking of Julian the Apostate, says: “A great many knew not the ways of Julian till he showed them by his actions and the sovereignty that came into him; but for my part, when I set eyes on him and con­versed with him at Athens, I knew what sort he was. I never saw any mark of goodness in him. His stiff neck, shrugging shoulders, his eyes lightly rolling in every direc­tion, his fierce look, his nostrils ever ready to sneer or scorn, his feet never still, his tongue practised in malice and buffoonery, his boisterous laugh, his readiness in allowing or denying the same thing with the same breath, his remarks without order or reason, his ill-timed questions, his unmeaning answers—but why run minutely through his qualities? Before his works, I knew him; and by them I have come since to know him better. Seeing in him such indications, I burst out into the exclamation: ‘Oh, what a poisonous serpent the Roman Republic is rearing for her­self!’ This I then said, and at the same time heartily wished I might be mistaken; and without doubt it had been much better that I had been so, since then we should not have seen those evils which have set the whole world on fire.”

As an ill-regulated and ill-kept exterior is a mark and sign, an evidence and token, of fault in the interior, so is modesty and due composure a sign of virtue within, and that is why it so much edifies and impresses men. For this reason we of the Society are particularly bound to secure this virtue with great care. For, our end and institute being to move our neighbor to good by our ministries of preaching, hearing confessions, lecturing, teaching Chris­tian doctrine, reconciling enemies, visiting prisons and hos­pitals, and so forth, this outward modesty and good com­portment is one of the things that give greatest weight and efficacy to our ministries, that they may be received and work fruit in souls. Great authority with our neighbor is hereby gained from the idea of virtue and inward holiness which they conceive of us, and then they receive what is said to them as coming from heaven and take it to heart. Surius tells us that Innocent II, accompanied by the cardi­nals, came to visit the Monastery of Clairvaux. The monks, with St. Bernard, who resided there, all went out to meet him. This sight of the monks, the story goes on to say, moved the pope and the cardinals so much that they wept for joy, all marveling at the gravity of those in that holy convent, who, notwithstanding the solemnity of the day and that extraordinary occasion of receiving his holiness attended by the sacred college, kept their eyes fixed upon the ground, without once turning them anywhere; and while they were eyed by all, they looked at none.

This modesty and religious composure serves not only to impress and edify externs, but also those of the lower secu­lars are much edified to see a religious assisting at Mass, never moving his head all the while from side to side, or again walking in the street in great modesty, never raising his eyes to see even who has passed close by him, and are confounded and moved to compunction, and conceive in their hearts great esteem of such religious. So also here among ourselves he gives great edification who goes about in modesty, silence, and devotion. So also St. Jerome, among other fruits of this exterior modesty and composure, puts this: Do you know, he says, what one of those religious does by his silence and modesty? He is a strong and effec­tual rebuke to any chatter-box who goes about with little heed of modesty and recollection; it is a rebuke to such a one to see that he is not like his brother. These are they who people religious houses; these are they who sustain and keep up virtue and sanctity, since their example attracts and moves all the rest to devotion, and awakens them to desires of heaven. This is what our Father says to us, asking us to proceed in this matter in such a way that by mutual consideration of one another all may grow in devo­tion and praise God our Lord.

It is told of St. Bernardine that such was his modesty and composure that his mere presence put all his companions on their good behavior. It was not necessary to say more than “Bernardine is coming,” to make them all behave properly. And of Lucian the Martyr, Metaphrastes and Surius relate in his Life that the mere sight of him con­verted heathens and moved them to be Christians. These are good preachers, imitators of the glorious Baptist, of whom the holy Gospel says: He was a bright and shining light (John v. 35), that burned with such great love of God and gave much light and illumination to his neighbor by the example of his marvelous life. This should be a great motive to us to walk always with much modesty, so as to edify our neighbors and brethren and produce in them the fruit that we have said; for where is the zeal and desire of the greater glory and honor of God and of saving souls, so proper to our institute, if we do not try to do that whereby they are so much edified and won over, it being so easily in our power?

Excerpt from Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues by Alphonsus Rodriguez, translated by Joseph Rickaby (Loyola University Press, 1929). Reprinted with permission.

This excerpt on Christian Modesty helps to define modesty and tell the reader what is modesty according to the modesty definition, including Catholic modesty.

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