Thursday, May 06, 2010

Not Having to Dress Up for Church


Why I'm Ambivalent When I Hear Other Catholics Say We Should Dress Up for Church

Saturday I was driving home from a casual trip out and thinking about stopping at a store to browse, when a glance at the clock suggested that, if I skipped the store, I had time to get to vigil mass in time to go to confession beforehand. So I did. As it turned out I didn't go to confession because the line was too long (mass was late starting without my adding to the line), but it was good anyway: I got to be at mass, to hear the scripture readings and make a spiritual communion, and (presumably because it was May Day) to hear some Marian music I don't get to hear often. This included a lovely Ave Maria sung by a man in the choir loft and Salve Regina as the recessional; I'm no singer, but I enthusiastically joined in on the recessional.

This experience was the highlight of an already good day, and it couldn't have happened if I had had to "dress up" for church, rather than being able to go as I was. Which was in blue jeans and a pretty, new-to-me knit top and tennis shoes.

Catholics online often bemoan the way contemporary Catholics dress for church, and I agree with them that we--or at least we here in America--can and should do better. But at the same time I am really glad I have the freedom not to worry too much about how I'm dressed when I go to church. I'm glad that I had the freedom to just go Saturday, knowing that noone would turn me away or talk about me viciously behind my back.

When I was growing up (Baptist), we had to dress a certain way for church services; this seemed to be the case in all the churches around where I lived (Bible Belt). Everyone had to dress up to the best of his ability; women couldn't wear pants, however nice, to Sunday services; and blue jeans were verboten, especially for women. Shorts were only for the small children at Vacation Bible School, not older girls. The first instances of women showing up in pants suits for Wednesday night prayer meeting or, worse, a teenage girl in blue jeans for Sunday night service were occasions for talk.

My mother paid a lot of attention to dress for church. I can't say if she was representative of others or not (I hope she was not), but she placed what I consider an excessive amount of importance on dressing for church. It was more a matter of vanity and pride for her than a matter of being decently clad for worship. I'm sure that, had anyone brought such a thing up, she would have given verbal agreement that just being clean, respectable, and there was more important than being expensively dressed, but that's what it would have been--verbal agreement. In actual fact she fretted about not having clothes and shoes nice enough to make a good showing among the other women and about her daughters not being as expensively dressed as the children of some other families. She fretted about it to the point she considered not having nice enough clothes to be an excuse to stay home. What does that say to a child?

My sister absorbed just enough of this attitude that, when I once suggested she visit one of the local Catholic churches, her "considering-it" question was, "How do they dress?" I understand the desire to be approriately dressed, but somehow that didn't seem like the most pertinent question to me.

For me, church could never be about clothes. One of the things I like about mass is that it is centered around Jesus; it is not about the minister or the quality of the preaching or the socio-economic status of the worshippers or my appearance, but about Jesus. If it were about me and my appearance, it wouldn't be worth going.

Now, because it is about Jesus, it is worth dressing up, even if we don't always do it. I don't wear immodest clothes to church, nor do I wear anything dirty and torn or anything that might reasonably be distracting or offensive to others. I would insist on similar minimal standards (probably higher) if I had children I was responsible for, and I would complain if my husband said he was going to wear, say, his Viking World Tour tee-shirt. If I'm too casual too often--and I am and I admit it's largely laziness--I at least try not to be a total slob in my dress. I also make sure I am clean, hair combed, etc., because I do know I am going to meet Jesus in the Eucharist. (Also, as a matter of charity, I don't want to become a form of involuntary penance for my pew-mates, due to bad breath, body odor, or head-swimmingly thick cologne.)

An interesting thing, though, is that we meet Jesus in the Eucharist in every mass, not just Sunday mass, and people saying we should dress up are usually talking about Sunday mass. I think everyone expects people at daily mass to wear their daily clothes, whether it's formal business wear, business casual, uniforms, or the stay-at-home mom or retiree look. (Or maybe they just expect daily communicants to know how to comport themselves.) Personally, I like that expectation--that idea that worship can take place every day and is not just something that happens when you are dressed a certain way. Mass happens, whether it's Sunday or not, whether you are dressed in your best or not, whether you feel like it or not. I smell a bumpersticker: Mass Happens. ... Eh, maybe not. My "Haiku Happens" idea was a lot better.

Oh, and in the unlikely event any non-Catholics want my advice on clothes before visiting a Catholic church, here's what I told my sister when she asked: "It would be more respectful not to wear anything skin-tight or low-cut but other than that, wear whatever you want. I can pretty much guarantee that no matter what you wear to a Catholic church, there will be someone there dressed better than you and someone dressed worse than you."

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