1. We are told that one day in the presence of St. Francis de Sales the beauty of a certain noble lady, his cousin, was being described. (Spirito P. VII, c. 10) The Saint described with simplicity: “I’ve heard this said by others also.” Somebody remarked that he himself often saw this young relative of his and therefore there was no need for others to tell him about her. The Saint replied with the same holy simplicity: “It is true that I see her often, but I never stare at her.” This simple but wise reply underlines the difference between seeing and looking.
We are often obliged, in the ordinary course of living or by reason of our position, to see many things which could be dangerous to our spiritual welfare. There are many ugly things around us, although sometimes externally beautiful, which we cannot help seeing. At home, on the street, in society, almost everywhere, we meet persons and things which constitute a threat to our virtue. What are we to do? We must see, because very often we cannot help it, but we must never stare.
In other words, we should never fix our eyes on anything which would seriously disturb us. If we experience the beginnings of any such disturbance we should look elsewhere at once, raising our minds to God in silent prayer. Delay could cost us our purity. To guard it we need the holy virtue of modesty, which St. Thomas calls the moderating virtue. (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 160, a. 1) Not only, the Angelic Doctor observes, does it moderate, but it also directs our internal actions as well as our external ones, in such a way that he who possesses this beautiful virtue has perfect control over his outward behaviour and over his inward dispositions (Ibid., q. 160, a. 2).
2. It follows from the doctrine of St. Thomas that modesty has two aspects, internal and external.
The former, which is the foundation of the latter, consists in a firm resolution, relying on divine grace, of preserving constant self-control, so that it will be impossible to think or do anything contrary to the law of God. Since everything in us will be directed towards God, it will impossible for us to be led astray through the lower impulses of the flesh or through the external appearances of persons and objects surrounding us. Once the virtue of modesty has been perfectly developed, the control which we exercise over our interior faculties will be reflected in our external behaviour. This outward expression is the necessary complement of interior modesty. Let us examine ourselves and see if we are really modest, both internally and externally, for this lovely virtue is the most solid foundation and the best safeguard of sanctity.
3. The virtue of modesty is necessary in that it regulates all our actions, internal and external, and saves us from everything which threatens the purity of our souls. It is also an inspiring example to the people around us. The Saints often converted sinners and incited others to lead better lives simply because their conduct proclaimed their purity and sanctity. We should endeavour to do the same, without affectation however, but in a simple and natural manner. The continual mastery which we exercise over our interior and exterior faculties should be reflected in our appearance, in our conversation, and in all our actions.