Recently a response was made to my article “An Old World Mary Poppins beats my postpartum blues,” by a female member of the Bruderhof community. Both the conversation that I had prior with the author and the article itself allowed me to think in volumes on the idea of Christian dress, which seemed to be a focus of the response.
Clearly the article hurt the author (whom I had never met) personally, as she referenced Matthew 18:15, which states: If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. While I am still unclear on the sin toward her in my article, it is unfortunate to have appeared to her as such. Perhaps it was the idea that the Bruderhof women are “backward and un-worldly.” Yet let us recall that when Jesus prays for the disciples, he says: “I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (Jn 17:15-16). Therefore, being “un-worldly” is certainly not something that is at odds with Christianity, and perhaps even something to aspire toward.
The Bruderhof women, which are the only members able to be distinguished outside of community by their dress, hold this outward sign as the answer of God’s call to live in this intentional Christian community. I certainly respect that. This is however vastly different from that of a Catholic priest or nun, who vows marriage to Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. A nun wears her wedding gown from the point of her vows to the end of her life, to show the world her spiritual marriage. As far as I can tell there is no such vocation recognized in other intentional Christian communities, and certainly no physical appearance distinguishing that person from any other community member.
I think we can all be in agreement on Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” At the time, the Jews and Gentiles had quite a hard time assimilating into one Christian community, considering that their dress and practices were so different. Jesus tells them time and again that these things don’t matter. In fact, St. Paul worked toward quite the opposite. We as Christians do not need to “look” a certain way, we need only to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.”
Christians should certainly cling to modesty, but modesty itself must be determined individually, based on a cultivated moral code of virtue moving the soul to desire further union with God through such an act. I found the quote by comedian Dick Gregory, comparing how one could recognize a prostitute immediately by the way she dresses and walks, yet not a Christian, to be outrageous. There is no set Christian “dress” or “walk” as Christ and later St. Paul tried to convey over and over again as he helped establish Christian communities. “Nor is true circumcision something external and physical…real circumcision is a matter of the heart” (Rom 2:28).
The beauty of my own Catholic faith pervades many cultures and style of dress. A woman in traditional African garb, Indian sari, or business suit may all be Catholic, and in so being united by something far deeper than their outward recognition. What unites Catholics is the Eucharist; the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, which we receive into our own bodies both physically and spiritually, and this is the deepest union a community can have this side of heaven. This alone should pervade all that we do and think and act. If it cannot, then nothing truly can.