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Ritual Modesty: A Response

A professor at my university posted this piece on twitter (he’s orthodox and this is a thought-provoking piece of relevance to modern orthodoxy) and it raised for me a number of thoughts concerning our own traditions too. First, go read the original article because much of this post was prompted by it or is in response to it and it’s nice to be on the same page for any discussion.

I work in a tradition that encourages head covering (of both men and women) during religious rites. I want to emphasize that it is encouraged, not required. Working in a blended tradition as I do, I find that in cultus deorumpractices, we almost always cover, and within Heathenry, generally only for ancestor stuff but this may vary depending on the way in which one is devoted to one’s Gods. I’ve known Heathen women who covered once they married, and Heathen men who do so out of respect for particular Gods but within Heathenry it’s not a common thing. In cultus deorumit was tradition for both men and women to cover their heads during offerings and religious rites, and that is one that at least within my branch of the tradition, we maintain. There are also times in which one might cover for purification purposes in general.

This piece piqued my interest, however, because over the past ten years I’ve come across a growing number of polytheists across traditions who are choosing to cover their heads, not just during religious rituals but out of modesty and piety, all the time (and kudos to any woman who can do this with a migraine. I’ve always wondered what those who veil or cover do when they get a migraine because I sure as hell can’t stand anything on my head then!). I think we should be encouraging modesty in our people (which does not mean that one need to cover one’s head to be modest) as a general rule, whatever that might mean.

One of the things that I very much appreciated in the article, which I otherwise found rather vexing, is the comment that modesty wasn’t about how long one’s skirts are or whether or not one covers one’s head, it’s a “line in the heart.” Some time ago, I read a Christian article on modesty by a mother of a young child. She said that her child had put on a new dress and was standing in front of the mirror commenting that she could not wait until her friends saw her and how nice she looked and the mother despaired. She despaired because she realized that no matter how modest the dress might be, the child wasn’t: her heart wasn’t modest. She wanted to show off for others and receive attention that way. It was one of the more nuanced discussions of modesty that followed, one that wasn’t about clothing, that I’ve read in a long time).  Our ancestors had a deep sense of morality and propriety. Unlike so much of modern Paganism, it wasn’t an ‘anything goes’ culture where every manner of sexual impropriety was encouraged. Multiple partners, promiscuity, immorality, molestation – all of which seems way too rampant in modern Paganism (Kenny Klein anyone? Or better yet, find me outspoken monogamists within the community—please. We need more of them.) were not held up as licit in the ancient world. Of course, all of these things may have occurred (we are a terrible species), but they did not represent the accepted norm. Instead, decorum, gravitas, piety, and modesty (for both men and women) were encouraged. What the hell happened to us? We have a culture in which women are proud to be called “sluts” and marriage is considered outmoded, young people are ‘hooking up’, a culture in which devotion is ridiculed, but reality TV a cultural pastime and we call this progress. I’m not going to rant too much on this – I think y’all know my feelings on these matters and I want to get to the article in question – but suffice it to say that I think in restoring our traditions we have a seriously uphill battle and not just because of monotheism, but because of the utter lack of focus on character building in our culture. We’re starting so far behind the starting line that I wouldn’t be surprised if our ancestors were  appalled.

To get back to the article, it discusses head-covering in Orthodoxy, past and present, between converts and cradle practitioners and the politics thereof. My initial reading of the piece is that the author elides what should be a nuanced and complex topic into something more black and white. She accuses converts who choose to express their piety by actually obeying the customs of their religion, as dismissing the experiences of grandmothers and older generations of women within the faith. In doing so, I think she dismisses the religious experience and devotion of the converts to which she is referring. Covering one’s head is not just a political act. It’s not about feminism or assimilation. First and foremost, in the context in which she’s talking it is about an expression of piety and submission to one’s Church/church doctrine. By presenting it in one light alone, she’s not only attacking converts, but eliding the deep complexity of this practice, turning it into a social or political action rather than a licit expression of devotion. She is asking (or rather demanding) that converts place political considerations and submission to the experience of other women, above the dictates of their conscience and faith. I find that…misguided to say the least. And, as one commenter on twitter noted, she’s turning this practice into a fashion statement (if others around you wear the scarf, wear it, but if they don’t, then you don’t either or you’re self-aggrandizing – my paraphrase) rather than an expression of religious piety.  Her own experience of wearing a headscarf (in Egypt) was one of convenience that she quickly abandoned when Egyptian women pointed out the struggles they and their mothers had endured in fighting against growing fundamentalism is not, in my mind, analogous to covering in Orthodoxy. She was covering in Egypt to avoid harassment, not as a religious mandate for herself.

To abandon a religious practice like covering one’s head in church because it is not popular, because it marks you out as religious, because it is not feminist-approved, or for any other reason, is ceding sacred space to modernity. It is saying that devotion and our Gods are not important enough that one is willing to be a bit uncomfortable. Devotion is always an embodied practice: through song, dance, ritual gestures, clothing choices, bowing our heads in prayer, prostration, and so forth. The act of putting on a head covering for some women can be a significant indicator that they’re shifting into sacred space and I wonder if some of the objection to that isn’t some of the author’s discomfort with drawing boundaries and elevating personal piety as a priority.

It always comes back to what takes precedence: the Gods or our own human bullshit. The author of this piece cannot even seem to conceive of a motive in the converts to which she is referring beyond wanting to draw attention to themselves and she focuses on them as a way to delegitimize the practice, a practice she herself apparently finds personally offensive. I do think that when we do those things that mark us out as pious we have to be careful that they are actually done for the Gods and out of devotion and not to draw attention to ourselves. She has a point there. One shouldn’t cover because it’s popular, not cover because it’s unpopular, but one should do what brings one closer to the Gods and what is mandated by one’s tradition. Next, she’ll be suggesting we engage in sacred dance by twerking in the aisles before the monstrance.

As to women who cover all the time, quite often it’s a desire to maintain some sense not just of appropriate modesty, but of connection to the sacred. It reminds them to privilege that, it brings their bodies into a space of accommodation with their devotion. Yes, we must charge ourselves to avoid immodesty, to avoid spectacle, to avoid showing off, (I’m all in favor of these things in devotion, when it’s for the Gods, but not ever when they are for the glorification of the person). but that doesn’t mean abandoning practices that have served since antiquity. Finally, if women are to have self-determination of practice and being-ness, which they should!—then we have to accept that sometimes they’re going to make choices with which other women may not agree. It’s never as easy as this author wants to make it.