There is a story about Baroness Catherine De Heuck Doherty, Servant of God, that--if I remember it correctly--goes something like this. Catherine's ministry began as a call to truly go and be with the poor, without reservation. She went to live in the slums and worked at various menial, low-wage jobs. The story as I heard it was that at one point she got a job as a cocktail waitress alongside women who knew nothing of her past wealth or privilege. She lived in the same sort of cheap housing as her coworkers, and was known to them merely as “Katie,” the waitress.
And that’s the entire story, almost. She spends a short season of her life as a waitress, learning to know love the working poor around her, before gathering others to begin the public ministry of Friendship House.
But the person who told me this story included a (possibly apocryphal) detail that stopped me in my tracks. I was told that Catherine was so concerned with making the women she was befriending comfortable with her that, knowing they were for the most part self-conscious about their lack of education and wanting them to be at ease with her, she went so far as to avoid having any of her books out on display in her rooms.
This is a woman who loved the written word. Catherine loved to read and loved to write, and published many books herself during her lifetime. But for love of her neighbours, in order not to put herself forward and make others feel their disadvantages too keenly, in an act of modest self-abnegation, she put her beloved books aside.
I think of that and look at the shelves of books I have carted from state to state and between countries, the friends whose appearance on my shelves marks the point a new habitation becomes “home,” and my mind boggles.
“The virtue that moderates all the internal and external movements and appearance of a person according to his or her endowments, possessions, and station in life. Four virtues are commonly included under modesty: humility, studiousness, and two kinds of external modesty, namely in dress and general behavior.”
I was looking for definitions of modesty for a discussion I’d come across on Facebook. The complete context and content of the discussion is not terribly important, except that it was instigated, as so many discussion of modesty are, by people publicly calling women at an event out for their “immodesty,” explicitly making a connection between immodesty and sexual sin.
But if you read over the definition of “modesty” at the above link, you’ll notice something it doesn’t do. It doesn’t mention sex at all.
And it is a definition of modesty that is larger than the realm of clothing. The virtue of modesty, says this definition, can be expressed through humility, studiousness, and moderation in dress and behavior. All four of these are concerned with what is appropriate for a person’s station, responsibilities, standing, and community. All are expressed through moderation.
From a personalist vantage point, I noticed another commonality. All of these sub-virtues have the effect of setting a person on equitable footing with those they most often interact with. You should know yourself, strengths and weaknesses, and not be preoccupied with desires to stand out and be special (humility). You should know what you need to and be as educated as befits your abilities and responsibilities---but without nosiness or meddling in things that aren’t your business or are outside your competence (studiousness). You should dress appropriately and moderately for your occupation, setting, and company, avoiding not only what will be actively offensive, but also what would just be superfluous and attention-seeking. And you should behave with moderation the same way, not seeking to cause offense, but also not seeking acclaim or undue attention.
This is all about being conscious and considerate of the value of the people around you and not seeking to set yourself apart from your peers as more important or worthy of attention.
It's about not trying so hard to be special.
And all that made me think of Catherine the Baroness, who became Katie the waitress because God told her to be one with the poor, setting aside whatever might divide her from them. Setting aside her books for love of them. Desiring more to know her companions than to be known by them--a strange thought in this era of over-sharing.
I am sure Katie the waitress was a witness to Jesus’ love among her new friends. I imagine she laughed and cried with their victories and sorrows. I know she gave sound advice and encouraged her coworkers to seek virtue—in dress and in other things--and to recognize the counterfeits the world offers in place of God’s love. There was nothing that could have made Catherine stay silent about the love of Christ for his poor.
But first, she shared their lives.
First, she loved.
I read so many words about modesty and clothing and what other people should or shouldn’t do on Facebook today.
Sooooo many words.
And I can’t imagine the Baroness, for all she loved words, having much patience with it.
What use is modesty, if it is not love? Not abstract love, but love-in-action, the love that is patient and kind, that does not boast and is not rude.
What is any of it for, if we are not loving our neighbors, the real actual people before us, in our homes and in our neighborhoods, in our streets and in our inboxes?
I don’t want to settle for a pale, preachy imitation of modesty. I don’t want to settle for loving mankind at a distance, setting myself above and apart from my neighbors.
I want to love like Katie did.
Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.
Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you..
Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
Love... love... love, never counting the cost
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour's feet. Go without fear into the depth of men's hearts. I shall be with you. Pray always.
I will be your rest.
—The Little Mandate of Catherine Doherty
Old Books by Tom Woodward from Richmond, VA, US (IMG_9792) [CC BY-SA 2.0 ([url=https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0]https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0[/url])], via Wikimedia Commons