Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Keeping House Book Study: Chapter Four

(vintage kitchen by janet hill)

We now move to Chapter Four of Keeping House:  A Litany of Everyday Life.  This chapter is one of a pair.  Chapter 4 is about Clothes to Wear and Chapter 5 is called Clothing a Household.   In fact, the middle part of the book is structured so that the chapters come in pairs, with the first in the pair being a sort of meditation on context and Scriptural background, and the second being more about application.   I am only noticing this now, on my second read-through, and me an English Litearture major!  I guess that's why it's good to study a book rather than just read through it.

 Points emphasized in this chapter.

Clothing and Scripture

While animals and plants are already clothed in their beautiful and suitable garments, humans are naked without clothing.   I once read an article by Mark Shea on Clothing the Naked that "nake" is an obsolete verb meaning "to strip."  In other words, to humans after the Fall, nakedness is a humiliating privation, not a natural state.   Obviously, we unclothe ourselves for certain situations like taking a bath, but then we are sort of "clothed" with privacy and seclusion, as if our surroundings were our garments. 

Clothes have symbolism that invest function and decorum with meaning.   Adam and Eve clothe themselves with fig leaves, surely an inadequate covering, out of shame at their sin.  God gives them animal skins to wear, in a way restoring them some dignity as continued stewards of Creation even though brokenly so, and also showing them His intention to continue to provide for them even in changed circumstances.

We all remember how Israel's favoritism towards Joseph was expressed in terms of a fine and rich garment.    The garment becomes a symbol of injustice for his brothers, and later, a symbol of violence when it is stained with blood and shown to his grieving father. Clothing can symbolize grief, as when Israel rent his garments when he thought his son was dead.   Clothing can also symbolize one's role in life -- the prophets wore distinctive garments that set them apart from others.

Prophecies are sometimes rendered in terms of clothing:

“Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion, put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city” (Isaiah 52:1).
The Proverbs 31 woman is shown in terms of clothing as provision and care

She shall not fear for her house in the cold of snow: for all her domestics are clothed with double garments. She hath made for herself clothing of tapestry: fine linen, and purple is her covering.
The meditation also includes clothing in terms of providing for others, including the poor and needy, and keeping busy with the spindle.   In this way, we see how our humble earthly missions can be reflections of how God provides for us. 

The basic point seems to be that clothes are an extension of oneself and one's relation to the world.    In some ways, they are deeply connected with one's body and one's inner self and one's outer self -- how one interacts with the outer world. 

New Testament and the Plan of Salvation

Later, in the New Testament, garments are often thought of sacramentally, as outward signs of spiritual things.  When the woman with the humiliating bleeding issue touches Jesus's garment, she is healed, and He feels the power leave Him and is thus aware of what she did.   When Jesus is transfigured, His clothes are white and too bright to look at.   His Shroud is cast aside when He is resurrected, and the women find it lying in His tomb, discarded. 

Of course, we are all aware that one of the Corporal Acts of Mercy is to clothe the naked.  More than practicality is involved here -- we are acting in proxy for our Lord, restoring dignity and giving loving concern to those who have been divested of those things.

Then there is the mysterious parable of the bridal guest, who is thrown into the outer darkness when he comes to the wedding feast wearing his old tattered clothes rather than the wedding garments provided for him.  Here, we notice that appropriate clothes are a mark of respect for others, not just showing our own dignity but also showing what we think of those around us.

I don't want to get out of my theological depth, but I notice that in these New Testament examples, garments become more than symbols or signs.   They are actually deeply associated with God's grace itself, and our participation in His Life through that grace.    Another example of this might be St Paul's use of the idea of the "armor of God" in Ephesians 6,  where the armor referred to is righteousness, faith, truth, peace, salvation, and the Word.     These are directly spiritual gifts, realities of God's provisions for our souls. 

Now on to how we clothe ourselves and how it matters -- these are sort of scattered, because I couldn't find the "pattern" in Mrs Peterson's order of considerations, but you could say that basically she considers clothes in terms of:  Personal Identity, Social or Group Identity, Geographical/Seasonal Context, and Tradition.   At least, that is how I would sum up the different categories.  

Clothing as extension of self.    Clothing can be like housing in that we show our personal character traits by what we have in our closet.   Many of us have a lot of clothes we don't wear.  Some wear wrinkled, unflattering clothes, while others take very great care with their appearance.  I usually wear jeans and simple loose tops reflecting that I don't want to be bothered and that soft clothes don't irritate me like newer or crisper ones.

You can tell a lot about someone by what they choose to wear.  My daughter has been fascinated by the topic of modesty and how it relates to the inner self, ever since her teenage years, and has written about it extensively on her blog.

Clothing and Personal Identity.  We dress according to who we are or sometimes who we would like to be.   Sometimes our jobs or roles have a particular style of dress -- a judge wears a robe, a priest wears a collar.  Sometimes  our choices are aspirational:  we aspire to be something we're not yet -- say, a movie star or a rich person -- and our choices are a reflection of that.

Clothing and group identity.  Because our society emphasizes individuality, sometimes we resist things like dress codes that try to focus on group rather than personal identity.    In California at least, people tend to dress casually for things that were formerly formal -- like churchgoing and restaurants.

Clothing and family.  When we are mothers or wives, our family's clothes may add up to an extension of ourselves too.  Mrs Peterson describes the tensions that can ensue when a preschooler or teen wants to wear things that we don't think are suitable.    Personally, I give my kids a lot of range except where their clothing choices seem to reflect disrespect either to the situation/company or to their own bodies.   My children tend naturally to err on the side of privacy and modesty -- I think largely because they are introverts with introverted parents.

Clothing and climate.  We dress according to where we live.  The Swedes reportedly say that there is no bad weather, only bad dress for the weather.

Clothing and season --  young children generally have to be instructed in what kind of clothes are appropriate for what season.   I come from Alaska where we get out the summer clothes when the temperature is above 50 so sometimes my family shocks Californians when the kids are jacket-less in what seems like winter weather to valley-dwellers.

Clothing and context.  The author makes the point that people who seem dressed completely cluelessly reveal a lack of connection to the outside world.  This seems just to me.   Aquinas talks about modesty not just as wearing clothes that aren't scanty, but as appropriateness to what is around the person.    So a person who showed up at a ball in severe black clothing would be somewhat immodest, unless there was a modest reason for doing so (I suppose if one was a religious or a prophet or in deep mourning).

So in that way, clothing has a kind of justice to it -- it respects both what one owes to oneself and one's dependents, and also what one owes to the occasion and to the other people. 

Clothing and Integrity.  The author makes a point that clothes should probably have some truthfulness in them.   For example, the modern trend towards "distressing" new clothes seems in some ways to make a false statement.   Another example is when older people try to dress as if they were much younger.

 Clothing and ceremony.  She also makes the point that "ceremonious" clothing shows a link to tradition (or a disrespect of it).  For example, people involved in a wedding or funeral or graduation traditionally wear certain types of clothing.   When people violate the traditions, it probably does indicate either cluelessness, or a lack of concern for tradition.

On the other hand, I think it's probably possible to be over the top and excessive in concern for tradition and convention, to the point where we might become excessively fixated on having just the right appearance, and judge uncharitably those who don't meet our standards.   This type of thing isn't very common in central California where I live, but I'm sure it exists, especially since I seem to have a fictional spinster great aunt in my head who makes horrible silent criticisms whenever I dress my family for some "occasion".  My own spinster great aunts were very jolly and never criticized others' clothing, so I don't know where this voice comes from! 

Clothing and the DIY tradition.   Many of us, she mentions, find it much less expensive to buy clothes than make them, while the reverse was true in past times.   More of this next week, but one solution I've found is to buy from thrift stores and repurpose.     No need to give away the sewing machine and knitting needles quite yet, especially if you enjoy the creative aspect of clothing your household.

The next chapter goes into more detail about how we clothe our households -- details such as shopping, laundry, and so on.    In the meantime, it might be valuable to ponder how our closets and laundry piles look.

Some thought questions:

  • Do we have too much that is unused?
  • Do we have enough of the right types of clothes? (such as good outfits for special occasions, worn clothes for play or work).
  • How do we care for our clothes considering that they may be passed on to others after we have outgrown them or realized they are unnecessary?
  • Do your kids, like mine, actually ask for socks and underwear for gifts since their mom doesn't always keep up with the level of entropy for these things?
  • How does clothing relate to provision and care, both in material and spiritual matters? 

There may be more things to consider.   These are areas that have been stumbling areas for me in the past.  I used to have all kinds of trouble reserving a "best outfit" for my kids;  I often acquire too many clothes (just because you can get them cheap at yard sales, thrift stores and as handmedowns from generous friends and relatives, doesn't mean it's OK to have too much).

I also have traditionally had trouble respecting clothes and keeping them in good condition so I can pass them on (especially boys' clothes -- and definitely, that can be challenging territory, especially when clothes in the US aren't always made to last through more than one child!).

Only recently have I become aware that clothing is a sign -- that choosing good clothes for special occasions (for example) is not just a tiresome social duty,  but a sort of testimony as to the importance of that occasion.  

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