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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.

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On Modesty

(This is an old post I made several years ago. I’m recycling it to give some preparatory food for thought as I work on my next piece dealing again with pollution, piety, and maybe, just maybe right behavior. I’m closing this to comments – tomorrow’s article will not be—so that I actually have time to work.)

Modesty is such a troublesome concept, at once somewhat nebulous and yet highly charged. I have seen both men and women become rabidly angry at the mere mention of the word, particularly when it was noted as a virtue, and moreover, as something worth cultivating. I would go so far as to say that there’s probably no other virtue so prone to misconception, misapprehension, and deep seated ambivalence. For all that, I do very much believe that not only is modesty a particularly polytheistic virtue, but it is one that both men and women would indeed do well to cultivate.

Let me take a moment to discuss precisely what I mean when I use the word ‘modesty.’ Being lazy today, I went to the dictionary  and looked up the word. It comes from the Latin modestia and I’m going to get back to that in a moment.(1) For now, suffice it to say that the given definition (drawn, or so dictionary.com says, from Collins English Dictionary) is as follows:

  1. the quality of being modest; freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc.
  1. regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc.
  1. simplicity, moderation. (2)

Perhaps there are different types of modesty. It is predominantly a cultural convention and construction after all, and standards of modesty are culturally determined. Regardless, it’s primarily with the second definition, that of regard for decency of behavior and deportment, that I am primarily concerned.  I want to be clear about one thing: I do not think that modesty necessarily has anything to do with one’s attire. Appropriateness of dress is a matter of context. One may be half naked and completely modest, or wearing full hijab and completely immodest. It’s a matter, to my mind at least, of personal integrity and integrity of behavior.

I look at modesty as a way of interacting with others in our world, a way of presenting ourselves. Whenever discussions of modesty come up, two aspects seem to garner the most attention: physical dress and sexual behavior. Certainly no less a personage than Honore de Balzac called modesty the ‘conscience of the body’ and British essayist Joseph Addison referred to it as ‘a guard to virtue.” While I don’t disagree with that necessarily, I think we do this virtue a disservice by relegating it solely to the realm of sexual mores. We diminish the quality of modesty when we focus solely on sexual expression. Certainly in the polytheistic world, it meant much more (and this holds true for Greece and Rome but also for Germania. Read your Tacitus, folks).

I suppose there is a physical, sexual component to modesty. I can’t help but think of a documentary about indigenous religion in the Ivory Coast that I had the pleasure of recently viewing.(3) I was struck, forcibly, by the contrast between the women who maintained their ancestral ways and those who tried to mimic western styles. The former practiced their religion, honored the gods and spirits of their land and people…they were magnificent, powerful, and respected to the point of veneration within their communities. It was blatantly, delightfully obvious (nor was I the only one to notice this; the friend with whom I was watching was also struck by precisely the same thing). The latter, largely those living in the rapidly westernizing cities, dressed provocatively, behaved outrageously and were treated like trash. It was clear that they thought of themselves as nothing more than ornamental. They treated themselves like trash. They had abrogated their ancestral connections; they had abrogated their power, and instead attired themselves in the shallowness of exploitation and mimicry of a culture that historically has brought nothing but spiritual desiccation wherever it colonized. It was exhibited by the way these women were behaving (and in turn by the way the men behaved toward them) but I think that was only the most obvious and outward expression of a deeper dynamic. The problem wasn’t their behavior; the problem was that such behavior, in this particular instance, was a manifestation of a lack of self-regard.

Whenever the discussion of modesty comes up, inevitably modesty becomes linked with feeling shame about oneself or one’s body. I can think of nothing more diametrically opposed to what modesty actually is. True modesty has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with valuing both oneself and the quality of one’s interactions with family, friends, the world at large, and most of all within the realm of one’s spiritual obligations, i.e. with the Gods and ancestors, the Holy Powers. Remember when I pointed out that modesty comes from the Latin? Well in Latin it’s primarily associated with discretion, sobriety, correctness of conduct, moderation, and propriety.(4) These were the virtues, in this polytheistic community, that an adult was expected to cultivate (likewise in many other parts of the ancient polytheist world, including Germania). Latin has another word pudicitia which encompasses the shyness – bashfulness the dictionary says – and emphasis on chastity that we so commonly ascribe to ‘modesty.’(5) Moreover, modesty in Rome was not something that women alone worried about. Most of the references that I’ve come across on my reading (in Pliny, Sallust, Cicero, and Suetonius primarily) have referred to the proper modesty of men. (Cicero does not approve of your skinny jeans. LOL). Nor did this modesty usually have anything to do with their sexual behavior. It was, however, not unusual to see it linked to piety. I’d go so far as to say that modesty in the ancient world – i.e. in many polytheistic cultures (and I know I’m focusing on Rome here largely because I’ve been immersed in that source material of late. That is not to say this idea was found only in polytheistic Rome.) went hand in hand with piety. That’s an important point and I’m going to say it again:

Modesty went hand in hand with piety for all genders.

 Perhaps for this reason, authors like the younger Pliny recommend it as the most shining of virtues. (6) It has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with the acknowledgement that there is something greater (to a polytheist many somethings greater) than we out there and to whom just maybe, we owe a modicum of decorum; and behaving with that appropriate decorum enhances not just our interactions with the Holy but with each other as well. It augments who we are as human beings. An apologist for modesty would say that we enhance our lives by cultivating modesty because valuing and cultivating modesty is a way of cultivating ourselves as well. It’s a way of saying “I value the gifts the Gods and ancestors have given me too greatly to squander them for public consumption” (or by behaving like a fool). I would say that not only is modesty a guard to virtue (though what I as a polytheist mean by that term has nothing to do with sexual repression and everything to do with the development of character) but it is an essential, perhaps the most essential, component toward developing dignity and personal integrity.

Someone who cultivates modesty as a virtue would, I believe, be unlikely to behave with complete and utter disrespect in a ritual. Even if he or she did not know the proper protocol, modesty is a good teacher of behavior. The modest person is not going to rant and rave about how he or she would never, ever bow their heads before the Gods. They know better. The cultivation of modesty has taught them [not to act like they were raised in a barn]. Moreover, there are times when it is appropriate to feel shame for one’s actions. This too is a lesson modesty teaches. When we behave in a way that diminishes who we are both as human beings and as children of the Gods, as inheritors of our ancestral blessings, we ought to feel shame. It is the right and proper state of being. When we behave badly, we ought to feel ashamed of ourselves. That’s called conscience, something that I believe modesty hones. Being polytheist does not relieve us of every moral obligation after all. It actually enhances them.

In the connection between modesty and piety, one often encounters the idea of taboo: those things one is not permitted to do without violating both modesty and the bounds of proper piety. This is the reason that ancient Roman polytheists  -men as well as women – would cover their heads when performing rituals. It’s the reason while certain types of priests from Egypt, to Greece, to Rome, and quite probably in the North lands as well, lived prescribed lives, lives full of ritual and personal taboos that cultivated modesty, enhanced their personal connections with the Holy Powers, and enabled them to avoid miasma.(7)

This is the reason that a growing number of polytheists today are choosing to veil themselves, to cover their heads, some only during rituals (as I was taught to do) and some all the time. It is a way of reminding themselves to behave properly, of nurturing their spiritual connections, of keeping themselves clean of the filth of the monotheistic world, and for a thousand other reasons. It cannot be denied that doing so sets the person apart, and perhaps that is part of it too: it implies a different standard of living, a different standard of behavior and as in all things that so many of us do, carries with it a certain didactic function. I’m not going to belabor the point of head-covering here. I mention it here largely because there are extant polytheistic sources that note men covering in Roman temples so this is the example that came to mind of an outward expression of both piety and modesty.

So what is modesty? It’s examining potential behavior and saying to oneself : I won’t do that. I do not believe it will do honor to me, my Gods, or my ancestors. That will not enhance me as a human being. Or maybe it’s being in a situation where you are the only one behaving respectfully and you do so because of your modesty and piety combined, regardless of what others around you might think. Ultimately, I think modesty is the choice to consciously avoid doing that which diminishes us; be it by commission or omission. Take that as you will. I believe it is an essential spiritual virtue.

 

Notes:

  • (modestia, ae, feminine)
  • See here.
  • See here.
  • Langenscheidt Pocket Latin Dictionary, see entry on ‘modestia.’
  • Ibid, see the entry on ‘pudicitia.’
  • He goes on in several of his letters about the virtues of modesty, praising people he admires for their modesty. Letter 1:12, iirc, is a good example.
  • See yesterday’s article for more information on miasma.