As Catholics, we know that we have a call to be “in the world, not of the world.” I find that many use this catchy phrase as a way to relieve some of the burden of living in the world, reminding us that living in the secular world is temporary and we can make it. I believe many lay Catholics have forgotten that this phrase is a missionary calling as well.
To be in the world is to accept the situation in which God has decided it is best for you to exist, recognizing that God ordered all things around you being here, now. You have a specific calling to this time and place. The timing of your life is as integral to your salvation as your vocation. That is being “in the world.”
To be “not of the world” means that regardless of our surroundings, we recognize Heaven is our true home and we live in that state of mind; as visitors on our way back home. When the two go together, we recognize Heaven as our home, but Earth as a vital pit stop along the way, one we must embrace if we are to make it to our final destination.
The idea that we may have a call to be in the world is something many Catholics struggle with. We get too hung up on the latter part. We belong in Heaven, and begin to despise or be worn down by the secular “detour” we’ve been forced to take before we arrive at our destination. This seems particularly so when Catholics realize that being a lay Catholic, they have a unique way living in the world that Religious do not.
A Religious points to God by standing out, while a lay Catholic points to God by blending in – our very existence being defined by experiences with the world that present opportunities for silent witness to others. As fellow Ignitum columnist, Bob Waruszewski, has been speaking of in his recent articles on being Catholic in the cubicle, lay Catholics have a mission ground surrounding them in the world they are called to live in.
We aren’t called to just work and function in this world and then retreat back to our Catholic circles. We must embrace this world. If by doing so we may bring even one soul to Christ, then isn’t it worth it?
There are many ways in which Catholics are called to make the world an active mission field. One way Catholics have a strong impact is how they conduct themselves with their fellow man, doing, as St. Francis used to say, “evangelizing always and when necessary, using words.”
For women, this is especially the case when it comes to dress. It’s no doubt that clothes give women a unique way of making Christ known in the world, especially to other women. There are numerous articles floating around the Catholic blogosphere about this topic. However, I think we must have a basic philosophy of dress before we can begin to think about how to dress in the practical sense.
In Mother Theresa’s writings she speaks of the ways in which her order will work. She emphasizes repeatedly the nature of her sisters’ clothing, saying, “in the order girls of any nationality should be taken – but they must become Indian-minded – dress in simple clothes” (emphasis mine).
She expands on this arguing that it is only by being fully in Indian culture that the sisters will be able to minister to the Indian culture. If sisters come in who act, speak, and look odd, they will have less of an impact on their world because those around them will not accept them as one of their own.
She made it a point that whichever culture her sisters went in to, this was to be the norm. They must take on the culture in order to impact the culture, specifically, in their form of dress. Therefore, she argued that her sisters would not be uniformly dressed the same across the globe; they must embrace whichever “world” they live in.
I think Mother Theresa was on to something, and I believe it holds true for modern Catholic women as well. If we are called to be in the world, then we must be in the world in a way that reflects that we know what time and space we reside in.
We are 21st century residents. We must dress in a way that demonstrates we understand that fact, yet respects and emphasizes our dignity as women made in the image and likeness of God.
It is a beautiful thing that modern Catholic women strive to respect their dignity as woman, but in an attempt to protect our womanhood, we often hide it. That does little good when we are trying to interact with the world on a missionary level.
There are a couple of potential issues that I think Catholic women should bear in mind when developing a philosophy to guide their clothing choices and establish a middle ground of dress.
The first is how the rest of the world will interact with and perceive you. In some ways, yes, we don’t really care if others accept us or not. We should be more focused on attaining Heaven and living out our morals. What other people think doesn’t matter. Yet we should also try our best not to alienate ourselves from others.
There can be a way in which we present ourselves to the world that does not immediately estrange us from our fellow men. If we dress in a way that does not flatter our figures or makes us look behind the times, we risk losing the social respect needed to impact others via conversations or actions. People don’t listen to those they consider to be “weirdos,” and that’s especially true for women. This means that we must reflect a knowledge and acceptance of the culture in which we live.
Coming off of this, a second issue at hand is that if people do not accept us socially, if they see as odd, outdated, or worst of all, if they perceive us as looking down on them because of their dress, then they will not accept us into the sphere of influence where conversion takes place. This will undermine our social confidence and success.
Part of ministering to others is that you are not thinking of or worried about yourself. True ministry happens when one is so wholly able to forget about himself that everything he does is then ordered towards the betterment of another.
If women feel insecure or unaccepted socially, they are less able to minister to others because they are too busy feeling self-conscious. Being self-conscious is probably the worst thing that can happen when showing Christ to the world because it only points back to the person, never to God. When we are too busy fussing over our appearance, wondering if we’re accepted, or if what we’re wearing feels right, then we are unable to meet the demands of defending the faith when necessary and loving others when needed.
We must be able to forget about ourselves so that we can interact normally and with a degree of respect that allows us to develop influence in our social sphere. We must be careful not only to protect our own social confidence, but also the confidence of those around us. We should be aware that others may see us as unapproachable because they perceive us as prideful if we are dressed in an overly-stated or outdated fashion.
We must inspire the confidence in others that allows them to respect us and approach us. Besides, having a lack of confidence does nothing to show the hope and joy we take in our faith, and does little to give us the boost we need to defend the faith in tough conversations or situations.
Perhaps if we take an approach to dress that is one of true style — of recognizing the beauty that comes with womanhood, of presenting ourselves to the world in a way that accents our natural femininity, and view this all as a gift to God, that in dressing well and flatteringly we bring glory to God by showcasing His beautiful handiwork — we may have a better impact on the world of women. If we demonstrate to other women the art of stylishly accepting our role as woman without provocatively diminishing our dignity, we may ignite in other women the same desire to show true beauty and style to the world.
Perhaps our approach to style should be one of acknowledging the world in which we live, yet refusing to let that sidetrack us from our final destination. If we take this approach to dress, we may be able to more fully live in the world, but not of the world, and in the process direct souls to Christ.
In my next article, we’ll explore some of the practical ways that this approach to dress can work and talk about simple things women can keep in mind when putting together an adorable, stylish, appropriate, 21st century, Catholic outfit!