Post 13

Sitting Pretty: Reflections on Duties

Catholic women are rather divided on the issue of how much they should care about their appearance, and even the same woman will often be conflicted within herself about where to draw the line.  Isn’t it vain and superficial to direct our time and energy into our looks? Aren’t we supposed to be thinking heavenly thoughts, instead of thinking about such worldly concerns?

And so it’s not uncommon to find that within Catholic circles of married women, many aren’t very concerned about how they look. They’ve got my grandmother’s mentality – she would say, “Eh! Who looks at me anymore?” Or maybe it’s a variation on, “What’s inside is what really counts,” or “I don’t want to be the cause of anyone’s sin,” or “My husband loves me just the way I am.”

The women of Opus Dei, however, always struck me as a little different in this regard, and on the whole, they were a lot more put together. I remember watching DiligentOne as she struggled with the straps or something on her new gigantic purse. I think I asked her why she had that one in the first place. She sighed, “Ah, trying to be fashionable.” I could tell that these women were of a distinct mindset as to how to approach this issue. They didn’t ‘look’ religious or holy, and I found that interesting.

But it makes sense when you read the writings of St Josemaria Escriva, Opus Dei’s founder. This man was obviously brave to dare to venture into the topic of a woman’s appearance. His words were in the context of his homily, “Marriage: A Christian Vocation.”  The points I’m focusing on were just an aside, not the main thrust of the homily.

He says it’s not only okay for a married woman to be putting some effort into her appearance, but it’s actually a good thing. In fact, he says it’s part of the duty of a married woman:

Wives, you should ask yourself whether you are not forgetting a little about your appearance.  Remember all the sayings about women having to take care to look pretty.  Your duty is, and will always be, to take as good care of your appearance as you did before you were married —- and it is a duty of justice, because you belong to your husband.

Can you imagine the scene if he showed up at the wrong address the day he gave this homily?  Hordes of angry women would’ve tried to push him off the edge of the cliff right after he said this. But before everybody becomes indignant at such sexist notions, we have to note that he gave a corollary duty to the men, and he says the husband also belongs to the woman, so it’s Even-Steven here; it’s just that from the men, he asks for something else, arguably more difficult:

And husbands should not forget that they belong to their wives, and that as long as they live they have the obligation to show the same affection as a young man who has just fallen in love. It would be a bad sign if you smile ironically as you hear this; it would mean that your love has turned into cold indifference.

(Interestingly, in his biography of St. Francis, Chesterton says that St. Louis, who was a king, said, “Vanity should be avoided; but every man should dress well, in the manner of his rank, that his wife may the more easily love him.”)

The word ‘duty’ is one that you don’t hear very often nowadays. In fact, it would be on the list of words repugnant to the modern North American ear. We bristle at the thought of anyone daring to tell us that we have any duties.

We will accept other reasons for acting the way we do, but not this one! When we keep to the speed limit, we are doing it because we want to avoid paying a fine, or because we want to avoid an accident, but are we doing it because we recognize a duty to observe traffic laws? It’s a word that nowadays suggests a lack of personal freedom and choice. If my parent lives in a seniors’ residence, I visit because I want to; I’m not doing it as a duty.

We think and talk as if it is far superior to do things out of desire, instead of duty, but this unconscious hostility to the word mirrors a hostility to the behaviour, and we act less and less from motives of duty.  We stay ‘real,’ ‘honest,’ ‘true to our feelings’ and in the end, the parents sit neglected in their seniors’ institutions.  I’m sure they would have far preferred the visit from the son or daughter that started out as a routine fulfillment of duty than no visit at all!

And I’d wager there isn’t a single person who attends Mass on Sunday who hasn’t occasionally or often or almost always brought themselves there out of a sense of duty. But duty is in fact a wonderful thing; a strong sense of duty will get us doing what we should be doing in the first place. It’s kind of like a fleshed-out voice of conscience. And doing the right thing, although it occasionally or often or almost always feels wretched at the beginning, almost always feels so right afterwards. I’m not sure if exercising is a human duty, but it would make a good analogy here.

But to return to this quotation, I think that it wouldn’t mean that a woman should aim for the same end results as she did in her single days, or use heroic Botox-esque efforts to approach that, but that she would maintain the same attitude — that it matters — and that she is trying (as Mother Teresa said, we’re not necessarily called to be successful).

And interestingly, if the standard is the same level of care shown during the pre-marriage days, then perhaps those women who were never very image-conscious would rightly continue with their pre-marriage practices?

Anyway, I think the duty would still exist even if the husband didn’t notice the most excellent results of his wife’s efforts. After all, some men are engineers, and far be it for them to notice that the wife has spent 5 minutes of her precious life doing her eyelashes or, for that matter, that she even has eyelashes. Appreciated or not, the appearance of the women still is a reflection on the marriage and it’s still a statement that the normal male-female dynamics are operative and important.

Once again, St. Josemaria Escriva shows that even something so small, like the act of taking care of one’s appearance, can and should be motivated by these more lofty considerations.

[May 9, 2015]