God’s Masterpiece: The Body as a Work of Art

(Setting: Lucia and Erica recline in the armchairs in Lucia’s study). 

Erica: Wow! I love the aura of your study. The paintings on the wall add a lot to the atmosphere.  

Lucia: Ah I’m glad. I’ve been collecting paintings for a few years now. They really do set the tone.  

Erica:  Yeah, art is pretty cool. There’s something so–ah, what’s the word–symbolic—about it.  

Lucia: Hmm, that’s a good point. Art is a sort of sign, you know? It points to some truth or reality beyond itself. It is a representation of something else. In addition, it points to certain truths about its maker. A keen imagination. A sharp eye. A deft hand. Such aptitudes are needed to create such a beautiful piece. 

Erica: Wow, a short philosophy of art. I like it! Maybe “symbolic” was a relevant descriptor after all.  

Lucia: Yeah, I think it fits. Anyways, I imagine you didn’t come here to talk about paintings or art. I’m aware that you have some questions about the Catholic faith?

Erica: (With sudden fervor) Yes! I’m quite interested in deepening my understanding concerning the Catholic teaching on modesty. It’s one of those things that seems to be quite important. But it’s so hard to grasp fully. 

Lucia: It sounds like this has been on your mind for awhile. 

Erica Yeah it has. I guess I could use some perspective. 

Lucia: Well let’s jump right in. What is it about the teaching on modesty that troubles you? 

Erica: Right. So I’ve always heard that we should be modest for the sake of guys since they can’t control their thoughts about our bodies. But that seems to be their problem not ours. 

Lucia: Hmm, yeah I hear that concern a lot. And I imagine you typically hear the response about being “charitable” toward our brothers? 

Erica: Yeah! And again, it’s like it makes sense. But isn’t that too much work? Are we really required to go to such lengths? They always seem to make it all about them which is just so self-centered.    

Lucia: Well if the purpose of modesty is to help keep others from impure thoughts, then that means modesty primarily has to do with other’s thoughts. But here’s what I’m wondering. Do you think the purpose of modesty has to something to do with your body too?   

Erica: Well, I suppose that modesty helps me to cover my body so that it isn’t a temptation to men. I guess I just hate thinking of it like that because it makes me feel like my body is evil and is therefore the problem.    

Lucia: Wow! You bring up some great points. Let’s investigate by starting with that last point you made!  Do you think the body is evil?  

Erica: Honestly, I’m not sure. The body just seems to be the source of so much temptation and evil. So it’s hard to say that the body is good because of that. 

Lucia: What if I proposed another perspective? What if we say the body is like a work of art? Kind of like the paintings? 

Erica: What do you mean? 

Lucia: Well think about it. God is the Creator of the body, right? The body is one of his works of art.  

Erica: Yeah, that’s right. Oh! Wait! I see where you are going with this. It’s kind of like your philosophy of art. A work of art reflects its maker. So our bodies are like works of art that tell us something about God.

Lucia: Exactly! 

Erica: Right but that doesn’t say anything about whether the body as a work of art is good or evil. 

Lucia: Great point. Well let’s start with what we know. We know that God is good. And in addition, remember in Genesis how God calls everything he creates “good.” This must include our bodies since he created them too.  

Erica: I can see the argument. But that seems to lead to a contradiction insofar as the body seems to bring about so much temptation and sin and stuff. How can a good thing such as our bodies bring about any evil at all?  

Lucia: That’s a great question. But let me ask you. Is the problem with the body itself? Is the body the cause of such sin?  

Erica: Well if it isn’t, I’m not sure where the problem lies. 

Lucia: Let me pose it to you this way. What if the problem has little to do with the body? Instead, what if we are bad viewers of art?

Erica: What do you mean?

Lucia: What I mean is this. When we look at another’s body, do we see the body as a beautiful creation fashioned most excellently by a good Creator? Do we see it as something extremely valuable? Do we see the truths about the person and the Artist which it reveals? Or do we see it in a more negative light?

Erica: Well in my experience, I often feel like other guys look at my body in a judgmental or lustful way. And on the other hand girls are always comparing their body to mine. It’s just obvious in the way they look at me that they are judging my clothes and my appearance.   

Lucia: But does that mean your body is actually bad or evil?

Erica: I’m still not sure. Yet what I do know is that those experiences still make me feel like my body is bad. 

Lucia: But you just agreed that God didn’t create the body for that purpose. It seems that instead the body is to be valued in itself not used from what we already said. 

Erica: It’s just so hard to believe that. 

Lucia: No kidding! Beliefs are powerful things. And they are hard to change. But we have to start somewhere! You know, this conversation makes me think of the beatitude where Jesus tells us that the pure of heart will see God.  As God’s works of art, our bodies reveal something about God. But those who lack a pure heart won’t be able to see what is revealed. 

Erica: So the person with an impure heart is like someone who frequents the art gallery but doesn’t understand the way in which the art points to some truth about the artist?  

Lucia: Exactly. Sometimes even we are that gallery goer. Sometimes we buy into the belief that our bodies are merely objects for other people’s pleasure. That’s the crazy part!  

Erica: What you’re saying then is that the problem has to do with the heart not the body? In other words, it’s not our bodies that are bad but rather the way we perceive or view our bodies. Is that right?

Lucia: Good! Exactly! Bingo! That’s the point I’m trying to get across. In fact, it seems that it’s not only guys who struggle to view the body properly. Sometimes, as women, we also view the body improperly. We see it as evil or bad like you said.   

Erica: Hmmmm….that really resonates. I mean like I said, even I struggle with viewing my body as good. A lot of this stuff rings true, but you know, I kind of feel like we kind of got off topic. I mean, how does modesty fit into all this? I can’t quite see the connection yet. 

Lucia: Ok sure. Let’s talk modesty. Don’t worry! It relates to the other things we have been talking about. But let me start with a question: what do you understand modesty to be?

Erica: Isn’t it a list of rules about which clothes are acceptable to wear or something?

Lucia: Not quite. You aren’t wrong. There’s just a lot more to it than that! Modesty certainly isn’t a list of rules. Rather it is the virtue whereby we intentionally acknowledge the immense value and beauty of our bodies. It includes how we dress, how we speak, our attitude, and how we treat our body. 

Erica: I never thought it involved so much. 

Lucia: Well that’s one of the amazing things about Catholicism. There’s usually more to it than we think! 

Erica: Hmmmmph. It certainly seems that way! But then again, why is modesty necessary if the body is so good?

Lucia: That’s a great question! But again, the problem is with our hearts not our bodies, remember? Thus, we should strive to develop the virtue of modesty to help others and even ourselves to come to see the body as good.

Erica: My goodness this is hard to take in.

Lucia: Modesty isn’t about hiding what is bad but rather promoting what is good! And it’s about helping us to see the body as good.

Erica: Yet modesty seems so restraining.  

Lucia: Sure! But everything that restrains or limits us–whether it be not saying certain things or thinking certain thoughts or wearing certain clothes–has a positive meaning too. By abstaining from certain actions, we witness to something higher. When we say no to one thing, we are saying yes to something else. In particular, modesty is the way we witness to the truth that our bodies are good and beautiful and valuable. Modesty also helps us witness to the goodness of God as the Divine Artist. It actually helps us to see the goodness of our own bodies.    

Erica: It’s hard not to think of it all as platitudes.  

Lucia: But what if it’s true? Oftentimes platitudes reveal the most fundamental truths. In fact, statements become platitudes because they are so obviously true. 

Erica: Ok, I guess. This is the sort of thing that takes awhile to sink in. I guess I’ve struggled with my body image for so long. The theological points are good. I just don’t think I’m quite at a place where they will really change things for me yet.

Lucia: But see, that’s ok. All that I can do for you is bring you to water. I can’t make you drink. You know the old saying. It’s a truth that you have to come to on your own terms. It must be through your own prayer and reflection that it comes to sink in. It takes time. And that’s ok!  

Erica: Yeah, I guess it will take a long time to break patterns of beliefs about my body. It’s like, I want to. I just don’t know how.

Lucia: Well let me encourage you to action. I mean, sometimes we just have to choose to do something differently. Perhaps just choosing to dress well perhaps could be a deliberate step in helping you to overcome your negative self-image.

Erica: Yeah, perhaps.

Lucia: Actually, would you mind if I asked what it is that contributes to the whole negative self-image thing?

Erica: Ok I think I have an idea. It’s kinda strange though. It’s probably the fact that I often compare myself to other girls and what they wear. And there’s always pressure to look cuter or more attractive than other girls. I guess the competition with that is just exhausting. I guess it’s because I feel like other girls are so much more attractive than me that I view my body so poorly.

Lucia: Hmmmm. Comparison really is at the center of so much of our struggle. It’s truly one of the deepest hardships for us as women. In fact, it’s kind of like comparing the pieces of art on the wall. Yet such a comparison is silly. Each piece is brilliant in its own way. Just like each woman is beautiful and unique in her own way.

Erica: Hey the analogy pops up again. But anyway, it’s definitely frustrating. It’s hard when guys think modesty and the way women dress and all that stuff is all about them. I know plenty of them probably really care, but whenever they talk about what constitutes modest clothing, I usually can’t help thinking that the body is the problem.

Lucia: And I assume that’s why it’s the sort of topic that is really hard to talk about with guys? Especially because they don’t understand the intensity of the way in which we compare ourselves to other girls.   

Erica: Yeah. Perhaps they just don’t understand how sensitive the issue is. I’m not sure whether they realize how powerful their words are. I just wish guys were more prudent and sensitive in bringing up certain issues. They don’t understand how modesty in dress hits to the very core of a woman’s self-image. Like I have friends who treat it like a theological issue not a personal one. The way they talk about it is so frustrating. It’s like hello, I’m a person you are talking about.   

Lucia: And I imagine whenever we aren’t approached as persons, it makes us feel like objects.

Erica: (Sighs) Yeah, that’s right!

Lucia: It’s fascinating that you should bring that up the importance of language. Remember how I said modesty also has to do with our speech? What you are talking about indicates that you wish guys would be more modest in their speech. You want them to recognize you as a person when they talk about things like modesty. In other words, you want them to be charitable in their speech. Kind of like they want you to be charitable in the way you dress.

Erica: Woah….wow! Now that is an amazing thought. Lightbulb moment!

Lucia: It’s a strange thing. Guys generally seem to be more visually oriented so that’s probably why they often advocate for modesty in dress. But one thing that isn’t talked about enough is modesty in speech. Which is something that we are women wish guys were more attentive to.  

Erica: Me too! If they were more sensitive, it would certainly help me to see my body in a more positive light. When they go around talking about girls like objects and comparing them, it really doesn’t help. It just makes everything worse. And then they act like it’s all our fault because of the way we dress.

Lucia: I can imagine how frustrating that is for you. It would be a lovely thing if guys made more of an effort to promote modesty for the sake of women rather than for their own sakes.

Erica: Wow that would really be helpful.  

Lucia: We are all called to charity. And modesty, whether in speech or dress is one particular form of charity isn’t it! Perhaps more modest dress would promote more modest speech. And perhaps in turn, more modest speech would promote more modest dress. We are all in this one together as members of the body of Christ, you know.

Erica: Man, my head is swimming. You certainly have given me so much to think about. 

Lucia: That’s fantastic. Changing our beliefs is hard and slow. Changing our beliefs about our bodies is even harder. But chewing on it from a new perspective is a great way to start. 

Erica: Yeah, that’s so true!  

Lucia: In the end it comes down to our choices really. What we do reflects what we believe about our bodies. Modesty is a choice to recognize the truth about our bodies: that they are beautiful works of art wrought by God. When we believe that truth, we will desire to witness to it. Dressing well is part of the witness. Speaking well is part of the witness. It’s almost as if we are naturally led to love the virtue of modesty when we come to believe this about our bodies. And simultaneously it’s in embracing modesty that we come to believe it.  

Erica: Yeah, I think I’m beginning to see that now. (Looking at watch) Oh wow, time really does fly. I must be going soon. But I will definitely be chewing on this conversation for a while. If I think of any other questions, would it be alright if I stop by again?

Lucia: Of course! Any time! The armchair will be there waiting for you!