Thursday, November 3


Mel Gibson's Beard, Plaid Jumpers, and Other Thoughts on Living in the World

I was recently informed that Mr. Mel Gibson is making another dead-language movie, this time in Mayan. What struck me most about this announcement, excepting my wondering whether it will have the built-in traditionalist audience that the superb Latin-language Passion did, was the accompanying photograph of Mr. Gibson, and Mr. Gibson's beard.

I'm pretty sure birds were nesting in it. Really. The guy looked eerily like he was about to film a TV movie about Saddam Hussein coming out of the bunker. I don't care if you're Amish or what, that's never a good look for a gentleman.

Mel's a great guy, despite his schismatic tendencies (I do not know the present details), and he's staked a lot on his faith and the Faith. He's got a bit of an odd reputation in some circles--perhaps because of this, perhaps because of his oddball dad, which he can't be faulted for. However, the man's a movie star, a hunk, and that means the folks in the street pay attention to him. He looks like a normal, pretty clean-cut, everyday kind of guy, in his movies, when he's not kicking the crap out of the Redcoats or Uncle Claudius. So people think, hmmm, he's a Christian, this guy I could imagine myself knocking a few beers back with. Maybe this Jesus thing ain't half bad.

Now, they see Mr. Saddam Lumberjack Beard Crazy Amish Man, and think, wow, the rumors are true: the guy's gotta be nuts. Yes, that's bad judgment: it's shallow, it's silly, and it's superficial, but the world's shallow, silly, and superficial, and stealth evangelization has to sneak under the radar somehow.

We're all called to be icons of our faith to the world and preach to the masses through our lives. Sometimes shock therapy works. Sometimes you need St. Francis to go strip himself naked in the town square, or Diogenes to tell Alexander he's getting in the way of his tanning session. That's why priests and nuns wear habits, that they show themselves in their bridal garb to the world in plain view, and people see their smiling, young faces above the collar--if they look long enough--and think, they're not so different from me. That's how that works. They stick out like sore thumbs, and I wouldn't have it any other way. It's easier to spot them doing good works and charity and getting their hands dirty doling out God's grace.

With the laity, it's a bit different. We've been struggling with our role as layfolk for thirty-odd years now since Vatican II, and we'd been struggling with it for nineteen hundred years before that. What makes our current identity crisis so frustrating is our desire to show the legitimate dignity of the laity by illegitimate means--dressing up as priests, taking over clerical duties, making ourselves something we're not in the name of power. It's like women demanding to be priests--it's a huge insult to their own unique power and charism.

Let me remind you, though, that I am talking to both guys and girls here. (Oh, and allow me one superficial outburst: Guys, would it kill you to learn not to button the bottom button on your blazer?)

I don't think one could take this analogy too far, but the ostentatiousness of what might be deemed radical-traditionalist chic is, on a subconscious level, a desire to be set apart and look different from the ordinary folk around us. One runs a slight risk of false humility. (We should, in a small way, not look entirely like the world, if the world is wearing micro-minis, but there's a long way between that and jumpers). Some of my friends like to joke that they wish there was a "lay cassock," and there's something rather amusing about the idea--but the truth is, such a fictive vestment would be disastrous. We're supposed to blend in and look, well, normal. It helps not to alarm the pedestrians.

I was at St. John Cantius last night, for a beautiful and inspiring Requiem Mass full of the earthy physicality that is the great heritage of our Faith, and the crowd looked--well, they looked quite mainstream, in a good way. Not much in the way of baggy sweaters. Big families, all in their Sunday best, and not looking too Victorian, either. Mantillas, of course, but paired with clothes I wouldn't give a second glance to, otherwise, and quietly modest, too. (I even saw a few girls in pants. Fancy that.) To the man in the street, there's not a big step, subconsciously, from "big Catholic families can look normal" to "big Catholic families can be normal," or are normal, and with time, asking himself "Why aren't there more big Catholic families?"

I don't have any good answers to the modest bathing suit discussion (slowly approaching rigamarole status). I'm a guy, and we can get away with a tee shirt and trunks and have no practical experience in the matter. But looking outlandish or downright weird is not going to help things. This doesn't mean you have to follow fashion down to the minute...but also don't look like you walked off the set of a Merchant Ivory period piece. Ladies and gentlemen, try to look clean-cut and classic.

And by looking clean-cut and classic, there's also a bit of counter-culture thrown in here. Our age is one of egocentric sloppiness. Dressing up requires an explanation, and if the answer is Mass, you have a nice teachable moment. (I am a bit of a hypocrite here--if I had more time I'd wear a tie every Sunday, but I try to at least look presentable). And dressing up ourselves, such a pain in today's horrid casual-Friday universe, can remind us there's something supernatural going on on the altar, and that we are paying a visit of homage to the King of Kings.

We are, sadly, judged by our appearance. St. Francis de Sales advises in Part III, Chapter XXV of his Introduction to the Devout Life, "St. Paul desires Christian women (and he undoubtedly includes men) to adorn themselves in decent apparel with modesty and should avoid all dirt or untindiness. Outward purity is as it were a type of that which is within... Study to be neat, and let nothing about you be slovenly or disorderly. Adhere as far as possible to modesty and simplicity, which, doubtless are the best ornaments of beauty." (No reference to plaid jumpers.) He then goes on to say, "For my part, I would have devout people, whether men or women, always the best dressed in a group but the least pompous and affected...I would have them adorned with grace, decency, and dignity." There's a happy medium between guys in Speedos and Mel Gibson's crazy beard. Let us, with God's grace, find it. Looking normal may aid our credibility in tough situations, and it certainly won't detract from it.

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