A Disappearing Word

A word, full of significance and meaning, disappearing in our culture, before our eyes . . .

A tall, graceful young mother of two young daughters, moving to sit in the booth just behind ours, accompanied by her young husband, carrying her 6-month old and trailed by her two year old. This woman, at the Einstein’s in Speedway, was sitting to enjoy her morning coffee with her family. I was thankful that she sat with her back to me, guaranteeing I couldn’t stare at her . . . at her eyes.

I had seen eyes like hers before, but only a few times in my life. Women walking by the Steinway piano at Nordstrom whose eyes, for only a brief moment, would meet mine and then cast quickly forward as I played Gershwin for the shoppers. In that brief human encounter, a thousand and one thoughts would flood my mind, questions, wonderings, imaginings, and yes, judgments. Because that human encounter allowed me only to see one thing: their eyes.

Like those women walking by, this young mother too was clothed from head to toe in a burkha. She presented only occasional glimpses of her slender hands attending to her daughters. Had she been sitting facing me in her booth, I confess I would have been tempted to see if she would make eye contact with me.

As I reflected this evening on that encounter, I found myself wading through those same questions, wonderings, and yes, judgments. I concluded that I knew at least one thing for sure: her religion has impressed on her a word which has almost completely disappeared from the modern western lexicon: modesty.

I remembered a time or two as a young boy in the 50’s following my dad into the garage where the family car was being repaired. I remember staring, as only a young boy approaching adolescence can do, at the pin-up calendar hanging over the tool bench: a beautiful and shapely woman dressed in a bikini. Reader – understand: this bikini by today’s standards was HUGE, easily seven or eight inches wide on the top, and a pants bottom just barely beneath her belly button. It wasn’t entirely unlike what NBA players used to wear back in the day. I think my dad noticed me noticing and probably urged the mechanic to hurry so I wouldn’t dwell on that image.

Modesty still held sway in the vast consciousness of America . . . mechanics’ garages and perhaps an occasional barber shop were the only places such scandalous images could be seen.

And now, right in front of me in this coffee shop, an expression of modesty, which, of course even in the fifties would be seen as extreme. I thought of the tremendous courage this woman demonstrates given the climate and perception of dangerous Muslim terrorists perhaps living all around us. Are you kidding me? How many blatant and often angry stares does this woman endure every time she ventures out?

At a visit last year in the home of a wonderful priest who serves in St. Paul, MN, and who was originally from South Africa, I asked what he made of the tremendous spread of Islam the world over. What did he think was behind this religious movement attracting so many millions around the world. I will never forget his answer. He surmised that perhaps some of it is what people in many countries observe when they see western culture plastered on the internet, in movies, in TV commercials, and just about every other public arena: the absolute and total death of modesty, of public decorum, and a loss of the innate sense of the dignity of human beings, now replaced by debauchery, drunkenness, lewdness, and a thorough-going debasement of human persons. In prime time. In just about every TV commercial interspersed between the most humble or modest of shows (if you can still find one.)

Forgive me if this seems flippant or irrelevant, but I ask us: if we had a choice between burkhas or thongs as a predominant image we would prefer the world see in us, which would it be? Two extremes of course, and a resurrection of cultural modesty would certainly not require women to show only their eyes in public. But when a pin-up of the fifties is now looked upon by many (most?) in our culture as laughable, amazed at how “repressed” women were back then, do we mourn the loss, not just for women but for men as well of the true and essential virtue of modesty? Does it greatly distress us that women are more and more seen and often used solely as objects of pleasure, existing as non-persons to be cast aside when youth and physical beauty fade? Do we really want our beautiful and innocent daughters to grow up being laughed at because they wear skirts at knee length or a little lower, IF you can even buy such skirts any more . . . my daughters assure me it is almost impossible to find such dresses in any stores anywhere.

When I see women dressed as she was this morning, I still have questions, wonderings, and I am unable to grasp her mindset or religion. But judgments?  St. Ephraim’s Lenten prayer reminds me daily to “look at my own sins, and refrain from judging others,” and I usually add “at any time and for any reason.”  Is a burkha, as strange and extreme as it is, perhaps a prophetic call from our Creator Who, I believe, deeply mourns the loss of this word modesty? Blessed, simple, dignified modesty, fit, yes even essential for all who are created in His blessed image, male and female alike.