Choosing what to wear for Mass one morning, I asked the sacristan why he had chosen a vestment that was rather cheap in design and fabric. He replied that it would be more comfortable. Comfort has become the criterion for dress and for manners in general. Film footage of men at ballgames 60 or 70 years ago show them better dressed than most people today are for almost any occasion.
On Sundays my father would adjust my necktie when I was too young to do it myself, for it was unthinkable to attend church without a suit. The common excuse today is that “God doesn’t care what I wear.” That exercise in self-justification assumes that one knows God’s opinion, when in fact the only hint we have to go by is His parable of the Wedding Garment, describing people thrown out of the banquet for not being properly dressed (Matt 22:1-14). Of course, this parable was about the interior disposition of the soul, but the outer garment is a sign of reverence.
Fashions are of secondary importance, but the issue here really is humility. For to place personal comfort above the sensibilities of others is a sign of selfish pride. It is also a lack of respect for the dignity worthwhile we are given by grace in baptism. This also applies to the “gravitas,” or seriousness, with which one exercises official duties. A judge wears robes for the same reason a priest vests in a Eucharistic chasuble: he is involved in something more important than himself, and he is subservient to his office and task. When George Washington became president, there were no protocols for such a novel office. He could not dress as a king, and yet he embodied the seriousness of responsibilities entrusted to him. Courteous to everyone, he was also austere in the way he carried himself and woe betide anyone who dared to slap him on the back.
As a youth, Washington studied a book called Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior which had been compiled by French Jesuits in 1595 and translated by a twelve-year old boy in London. The rules were of common sense and had nothing to do with pomposity. They harkened back to the best Greek philosophers who defined virtue in terms of piety, dignity, courage, and gravity. Saint Benedict (480-547) linked these virtues with the fundamental one of humility, of which one indication is speech that is not boisterous and coarse. True humility of manners also disdains insults and vulgarisms, while false humility often pretends to be authentic by theatrical gestures like “dressing down” and advertising poverty by rejecting the customary forms of etiquette.
It is arrogant and not true friendliness for official mailings from a bank or business to address the client by a first name. The man who says, “Call me brother call me pal” would not have to sloganize that way if he really were a brother and pal.
G.K. Chesterton recalled how Saint Thomas Beckett wore cloth of gold on the outside to please the people, and kept a hair shirt next to his skin where no one could see it. Today, he said, the modern millionaire does the opposite.
Our Lord was deprived of everything in His Passion, save His dignity. This greatly disturbed Pontius Pilate, even when He was dragged before the governor dressed mockingly as a fool. There was something ineffably royal in the Master, surpassing the ceremonies of Caesar. So the Roman governor ordered that a sign be placed on the cross calling Him a king. When the crowd objected, haunted Pilate said, “What I have written, I have written.”
FR. GEORGE RUTLER is pastor of the Church of Saint Michael in New York City, and author of 33 books – including Grace & Truth: Twenty Steps to Embracing Virtue and Saving Civilization; and A Year With Father Rutler – a compilation of nearly 400 of his most brilliant and beloved homilies and writings (both recently released by EWTN Publishing). Father Rutler was national chaplain of Legatus from 1991 to 2001.