“So, what about modesty, compassion, altruism and genuine appreciation?” Joy Brighterday stood behind the podium centrally situated on the sanctuary floor, just in front of the front pews. “Four important qualities, or virtues, to be sure … four among many, but this evening we modestly begin with modesty.’ Several folks among the group of about 120 smiled; some chuckled. Justin Case was present, as promised, sitting about midway up, at the end of a pew he shared with four college students, (or young folks who looked very much the college-type).
“First, modesty is best and most simply defined as ‘the quality or state of being unassuming or moderate in the estimation of one’s abilities.’ It is ‘behavior, mannerisms, and appearance intended to avoid impropriety, indecency, or insult.’ Some opposites of modesty, besides immodesty, are ‘impropriety, conceit, arrogance, vulgarity, impudence, barbarism…’ You get the idea.”
Joy Brighterday’s Wednesday SSS classes had become quite popular in the community, with quite a number of non-members (of her church, or no church at all) attending. She usually presented four to six week series on varying topics not quite so common to typical Wednesday night “prayer meetings” or “Bible studies.” For example, she had just wrapped up a series on the Epistle to Diognetus, an early second century work of Christian apologetics. And usually her SSS series focused on either background and/or contextual material rather than exposition of Scripture, through Sacred Scripture was certainly, importantly tied in with her lectures.
“So we have our working definition, and we have some good antonyms to flesh out the definition,” Brighterday continued like an university professor. “Now let’s introduce a passage of Sacred Scripture that we will use as our ‘tone-setter’ this evening. For this series, as is usually the case, I will not expound so much, or make commentary, on our Scripture readings. Since our series has to do with four interesting virtues, I will focus our attention upon these.”
“Let me say a word again about this series, too, as I did Sunday, because the series may seem a bit odd. We could easily have a series on, say, the classical Roman virtues, or the classical Christian virtues, which would be even better,” she chuckled. “But these four in particular arose out of an interesting conversation I was having with an intelligent, sharp-witted man who challenged me to better explain these four qualities I had mentioned more than once in our conversation. He specifically challenged me to both explicate and provide substantive examples as in, one might say, case studies to, hopefully, show how these qualities, or virtues, work out in real life. So … I took him up on his challenge and here we are, moving on to our ‘tone-setting’ passage of Scripture.” Justin wriggled in his seat a little, wondering if anyone knew he was the one who laid down the challenge.
“Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians, the Apostle admonishes the believers there to ‘make my joy complete by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in harmony and of one mind; doing nothing through envy or through pride, but with humble thoughts of self, let everyone take others to be better … not looking everyone to her own private good, but keeping in mind the needs and goods of others.’”
“We will, of course, come back to this Scripture at appropriate times, but let’s begin with the most common, contemporary idea of modesty, and that’s easy,” Joy grinned a contagious grin. “It’s the old-fashioned dad looking at his teenage daughter’s first choice for prom dress and saying, ‘hell no! Over my dead body!’ Right?” Quite a bit of understanding laughter followed, as well as moms and dads and daughters looking back and forth at each other. “Maybe it’s mamma telling her good-looking, athletic, teenage son, ‘You know, you can dress nice and casual without always showing off your muscles.’ More laughter followed with a few strong, athletic types hunkering down in embarrassment. ‘The girls know you’re good looking and strong; you don’t have to go to school half-naked to prove you work out every day!’ Or better yet, ‘Yes, you will wear pants that fit, and you will pull them up all the way, and if you give me any grief about it, I’ll make you tuck your shirt in and wear a belt, too!’ That brought some rip-roaring amusement with a few strong ‘amens’ from the crowd. “We could go on and on with examples. The 13-year-old has suddenly become hair stylist and cosmetician, while you’re looking at a Medusa-type hairdo with an otherwise pretty face that can no longer be seen behind the globes of make-up.”
“Yes, modesty has to do with our clothing and apparel, and this is important because it does say something, at least, about who and what we are, or who and what we may want to be; something of who and with what we want to identify. So this leads naturally to the question, ‘who and what are you?’ And ‘with whom do you want to identify?’ As Christians, this will certainly have some effect on how we clothe and ‘make-up’ ourselves … if we really need to ‘make-up’ ourselves to begin with; after all, as Christians, we are ‘made up’ in Christ, but anyway… I want to move on beyond this because the virtue of modesty runs deeper really.”
“Yes, it is trying to avoid impropriety, indecency, or insult. To put it another way, it is striving genuinely to be kind, courteous and polite. Loving and revering God first, others secondly, and yourself lastly really is the Christian standard of self-assessment, and it flies in the face of modern, pop-psychology and the teachings of self-help gurus.” Joy was steady, straightforward and plain spoken. “Guess what, though? This standard of self-assessment is not unique to the Christian faith, and is in fact as old as the recorded history of world cultures. All of the great teachers, across the continents, in every generation taught lowliness of spirit, genuine humility as one of the cardinal virtues of the truly good life.”
“And here is where we really come down to it, to the first part of our definition, captured so well in our Scripture reading. We are to cultivate humble thoughts of our self … taking others to be better or, at least, having that attitude and acting accordingly. Of course, this involves having an honest appraisal of ourselves, being moderate in our estimation of our own talents, gifts, abilities and whatnot. You see modesty, when you really think about it seriously and deeply, drives down to your very heart, mind and soul. It’s the big question: Just what do you really think about yourself, anyway? And that can be a difficult, painstaking question to answer, and you know what? If you spend time in prayer and meditation, really asking the Spirit of Truth to help you answer the question, you might be in for some real shockers!”
“Let me back off from this, however, and offer an equalitarian answer for all of us that should not be shocking, but might be offensive to some, I don’t know. However…” Joy paused for a few heavily pregnant moments, “there is one fundamental truth we all – each of us face – that is expressed very simply but poignantly in the Book of Beginnings, and that is: ‘you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ Let me submit to you that it is within this context of awful, terrifying finitude that we must understand another great truth, that is: ‘God shows no regard (or favoritism) of one over another. Anyone, anywhere who reveres the Lord and strives to do what is right is acceptable to him’ … in any and every nation, no matter the ethnicity or other concomitant conditions, as the Apostle St. Peter taught. The Apostle St. Paul reechoed this truth in his Epistle to the Romans, when he declared simply, ‘With God there is no partiality.’ Period.”
“Every single one of us has an unexceptional beginning and commonplace ending, and between these two fundamental points, each and every one of us stands before almighty God, the Everlasting One on equal footing as children of the Most High, the Divine Progenitor of the Cosmos, our loving and nurturing Lord and Redeemer, who fills those who believe with the Spirit of Life, Light, Love and Truth. Capturing and truly understanding this reality is, or leads to, genuine modesty … modesty as an heavenly virtue.”
“Now, my conversational challenger also urged me to provide examples, or ‘case studies,’ as he called them.” Justin tried not to look at Joy, or anyone else, really. “Well, I’ll admit I could spend the rest of this evening and well on into the night regaling you with the stories of a multitude of saints, but allow me to mention just a few ‘case studies,’ and then end with some wrap-up comments on modesty and its opposites. But first, the case studies! In our own very well stocked church library, which is constantly being expanded, as should be the case with every church library, we have material on each person, or ‘case,’ I will now mention, to wit: Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Amy Carmichael, Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., St. Francis of Assisi, Bl. John Paul II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and of course St. Gianna. It would take hours for me to present even a brief summary of their lives, and I could add so many, many more names to the list!”
“Anyway, each of these individuals were modest people. They were not weak. They were not cowardly. They were not clueless or without purpose. In fact, these people were really very strong, wise, purposeful, resourceful, determined and courageous. This is why we remember and honor them, but they were modest. Going back to our antonyms of modesty, they also were not licentious, conceited, arrogant, vulgar, or sordid. They were modest and exemplified genuine modesty in their lives in an especially saintly way. It would be well-worth one’s time and effort to visit our church library and check out two or three brief biographies on some of these persons, and actually read them!”
“But now, with that, my part has ended and yours has begun! It is time for questions…” Joy looked straight at Justin Case, who only smiled slightly and nodded his head. Evidently, he had no questions … this go-round.
Put on therefore, as the expressly chosen of God, holy and beloved, the clothing of mercy, kindliness, humility, modesty, and patience; bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another. Even as the Lord has forgiven you, so do you also, but above all of this, have charity – divine love – which is the bond of perfection. (The Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians 3:12-14)