Clothing? As Missionary Work?

Two days remind us this month of the Venerable Grand Duchess Elizabeth: October 11, the day of the finding of her relics, and November 1 (October 20, old calendar), her birthday. When I look at lifetime photos of the saint, not even icons, I admire how beautiful she looks, both in exquisite princely attire and in a modest monastic garment. This theme comes to my mind every time I attend a church service. Have you ever noticed what the people who pray there look like? More precisely, what are they wearing?

Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna It would seem that for a believer the question, “What should I wear?” is so insignificant and non-essential compared with the problem of salvation of the soul that it isn’t even worth the discussion. But still... What would be truly pious: not to care at all about appearance for the sake of spiritual growth, or to glorify God with your inner and also outward beauty?

One of my grandmothers lived on a farm. She was busy all day doing household chores: tending the vegetable garden, livestock, and the house. But every Sunday, all she strove to do was to attend church, and for this she dutifully tried to wash herself (besides having neither a bathtub nor bath house). Instead of dirty work clothes, she would put on a festive dress and a headscarf. When she went to the House of God to meet the Lord and receive Communion, she was dressed in the best attire she had!

But in our days, the attitude of church-going women towards clothes they wear has oddly changed… I have often observed that people who have only recently become Christians develope gross disregard for their appearance. But it can also happen to those who have long been faithful believers. It seems that this is one of the manifestations of a unique perception of spirituality that has to do with the categorical rejection of everything worldly.

Faithful Christians often grossly disregard their appearance

Who will argue with this? Our world is infected with the spirit of vanity, and it is full to the brim with narcissists. But neophytes often come to learn Christianity not from its basics, but from say, from the Philokalia; that is, they read the writings of ascetics and desert-dwelling monks who reached such a degree of disregard not only for their clothes, but even for their bodies, that they did not need to wash themselves at all… Hence the logical conclusion: The more spirituality there is in a person, the less his attention to his mortal self (i.e. body and clothes). That said, we live in the world and we have relatives, acquaintances, and co-workers, so we have no opportunity, or we even shouldn’t, completely resemble hermits in the desert. We don’t live in the desert!

Sure, we should admire the deeds of great ascetics of faith who managed to give up not only all the benefits of this world, but even the basic comforts and clothing. But we are unlike them, and we are far from them! I think it is very important to realize that spirituality doesn’t necessarily mean asceticism. In general, the ascetic way of life is only a means to reach spiritual heights and obtain the grace of God. This is what the holy fathers wrote about. But, as spiritually inexperienced as we are, we are always attracted to extremes. Go and try to divide the concepts of “spirituality” and “asceticism”!

Is it really necessary to turn your life into a monastery and make a hermit out of yourself to achieve the salvation of your soul? Over many years of attending church services, I formed the opinion that a layperson who finds excuses for his neglect of personal appearance for the sake of achieving spirituality must be either deceitful or deluded....

Look at the church calendar. Not only the hermits, fools-for-Christ, and monks are saints. There are also princes and princesses, kings and queens. They spent their entire lives in the luxury of royal chambers. But despite all this, they were able to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Church revers them as saints, suffice it to recall the Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Empress Helen.

There are also those who went to live in the monastery at the end of their lives, exchanging luxurious garments and vestments for modest monastic garb, like Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna. However, having renounced the splendor of high society and becoming an ascetic of piety, she retained, and never got ashamed of displaying, a truly royal and exquisite sense of taste with which she shone in society. Anything that received her creative attention and everything she created for her convent of mercy was designed with impeccable aesthetics and beauty, beginning with the Church of Sts. Martha and Mary and ending with the vestments for the sisters there.

Poverty is the state of our wallets, while sloppiness in dress is sadly the state of our souls

Of course, the financial resources of many Orthodox women are not the same as those of the Grand Duchess. However, a wise woman in my parish has said it well: poverty is the state of our wallets, while sloppiness in dress is sadly the state of our souls. One can find a decent, good quality and, at the same time, inexpensive outfit at any salary level. It’s just that you will probably have to work, and spend some time looking for it. Nothing is done in this world without applying some work and patience. As for finding excuses for our laziness, we can find a ton of those “pious” reasons.

Certainly, monasticism always filled people with awe and the desire to imitate it. But the Lord predestined only a few chosen ones to follow the monastic path (that is, a path that differs from the worldly path) to the Kingdom of Heaven! So, if we live among people, and for them, as the proverb says, first impressions count, then we should rather not neglect it.

How do we testify about our faith? Could it be purely by words? No, we do it with our appearance as a whole, and how we looked after we had encountered God! Looking at the sad and weary, even gloomy faces (joy didn’t shine upon them for some reason), their creepy scarves, and boring, gray clothing (worn based on the principle of, “Ah, this one will work just fine!”), no one in the wider public would want to follow such Orthodox people. Much less, to become one of them…

Sure, as Christian women, we should not be maniacally dependent on fashion and wear extravagant and provocative clothing to church. No one urges us to do so. It is always good to bring to mind the wondrous words of the Apostle Peter:

Let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price (1 Peter 3: 3-4).

In the sight of God...

I think it is worth paying attention to the way we dress for the sake of love for our neighbor, out of respect for him, so that we don’t discourage from Orthodoxy the ones who have not yet learned the wisdom of the words of the Holy Apostle. We should also learn to fuse together modesty and propriety in dress with taste and neatness. It is true, but for some reason there is an unspoken rule in the church and parish communities that a carefully and tastefully dressed woman cannot be a good Christian. Why not? They say she does so “trying to attract attention, to “embarrass” etc. But is this really so? Is it just that?

Spiritual culture means physical culture as well

Archbishop Artemy (Kishchenko, †2023), who was able to wittily and accurately set the semantic accents in any conversation, once commented on my observations on the appearance of “particularly pious” parishioners:

“In general, spiritual culture means physical culture as well. A person negligent in his dress, unkempt and indifferent, cannot, I think, have an exalted soul. Inner harmony should show in everything. Everything in a human being should be beautiful.

“We see many examples in asceticism, when monks wore rags and never washed themselves. But, first of all, that was the East, and secondly, how many thousands of years ago was it? The level of culture they had, their worldviews, their desert dwelling, and after all, their living conditions…

“That people worship their bodies and spend more than half of their lives in front of a mirror is also quite an unhealthy fact. It in turn spawns another extreme, when all mirrors end up broken. You don’t need to break all the mirrors, just leave a couple, as you may need them. But you should avoid adding mirrors on every wall! Like Seraphim of Sarov said: Just follow the middle way.”

Elena Nasledysheva
Translation by Liubov Ambrose


Mary10/24/2023 4:36 am
I’m glad this was addressed! My father was from a large , dirt poor family so they had few clothes, On Saturday night they bathed, washed their hair, and ironed their Sunday best. They have had only one outfit, but it was neat and clean every Sunday, no excuses. Poverty was not an excuse to look like a bum before God. In Europe I was told that you dress well, in part, because we’re flowers in a garden and should not be an eyesore to others. That goes double for God! And it’s a discipline in itself; because sometimes you don’t feel like dressing up, but you do it for God and those who must set eyes on you. Why make people flinch?! Dressing sloppily or inappropriately is a distraction, embarrassing (guests are puzzled sometimes) and most importantly, just seems like a missed opportunity to honor God.
Jessica10/22/2023 9:33 pm
In 2002 I travelled to Kenya. We drove around Nairobi and then to Tsavo National park and Lake Naivasha. What really struck me was how clean and well dressed children and adults were. In the midst of profound poverty, too. Whereas, in the largely Godless UK there were and are, plenty of people, with money, walking the streets with trousers barely covering bottoms etc...interesting that many people in African countries adhere to Christianity...Faith in God brings a respectfulness towards ourselves and others, and this can and does show itself in dress.
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