How Changing What I Wear Changed My Approach to Mass

(photo: Shutterstock image)

There's a new link-up that's getting a ton of traction in the Catholic blog world: It's called What I Wore Sunday, and participants link to posts on their own blogs with pictures of what they wear to Mass (so far it's only women, but I know that Mark Shea is thinking about jumping in next week). This online party has grown by almost 500% in a little over a month, and has been getting a lot of buzz in certain corners of the blogosphere. What is it about this idea that people find so appealing? Kathryn Whitaker described it well over at Austin Catholic New Media when she said of her own participation in the virtual festival:

Ever since I started the link up, I've found myself consciously thinking about preparing myself for Mass, not just physically, but spiritually. There's been a bit more time to pray when we arrive, I've even scanned the Magnificat App on my iPhone for the readings. I can't recall the last time I did that. When you prepare the body, you also prepare the mind. 

That last line jumped out at me, since it perfectly encapsulates my own experience. Though I haven't yet participated in What I Wore Sunday, I too have been drawn to reconsider my Sunday wardrobe choices lately.

It started a few months ago, when I was frantically digging through my closet, per my pre-Mass morning routine. I frowned at most of the choices, wondered once again how my closet could be so packed yet have so few things I actually want to wear in it, and then I paused when my hand rested on a nice blue sweater. It's one of my favorite tops, and works perfectly with a black skirt. It's classically stylish, modest, flattering, and I feel great every time I wear it. After examining it I pushed it aside with the thought:

I should save that one for a special occasion.

I ended up throwing on another outfit, some ill-fitting slacks and a blouse that mildly resembled a crumpled potato sack. I thought about that decision all the way to Mass. As much as I tried to tell myself that the clothes don't make the woman, I could not deny that my careless attire was dragging down my mood. And, more importantly, what message had I sent to myself by saying that I didn't want to wear a "special occasion" outfit to the holy sacrifice of the Mass?!

The decision came from a good place, I think. It was borne of a feeling of familiarity with Christ, and a reliance on God's fatherly love. The Lord knows that my life is totally chaotic, the thinking went. He's undoubtedly far more pleased by my efforts to focus on him during Mass than whether or not these pants look like I'm borrowing them from my grandfather.

There's certainly some truth to that, but as I fidgeted in the pew, pulling at the fabric on my shirt and adjusting and re-adjusting my pants, I discovered a problem with that line of thought: What I wear has a direct impact on my ability to focus on God during the Mass.

Once I thought about it, I was surprised that it had taken this so long to click. After all, we're the people of the Incarnation; Catholics understand better than anyone that we're not disembodied spirits, that the body and the soul are inextricably connected. It's almost heretical to imply that the way you clothe yourself has absolutely no impact on your inner life.

With this in mind, the following Sunday I pulled that blue sweater out of the closet, and paired it with my best skirt. Because I had decided ahead of time that I was going to look my best for Mass, I got up earlier to leave time to fix my hair and put on some makeup. Like Kathryn Whitaker, I found myself with a few extra moments before we left (a big change from the usual pre-Mass fire drill), and was able to look over the readings and prepare myself to receive the Eucharist.

At the Mass, the difference this new ensemble made was startling. In a surprising-but-not-surprising turn of events, I found that I paid more attention to God and less attention to myself now that I was dressed well. Like all good outfits, this one made me feel great, but it disappeared: It was modest enough that I didn't even think about what I was wearing, yet it was flattering enough that I could relax in knowing that I looked my best. With that frumpy outfit I'd worn the previous week, I was plagued by a vague but persistent urge to make ESP excuses to the people around me about how I looked: Despite what you might think, I am not headed to an MC Hammer costume contest after Mass, it's just that I don't have the budget to buy new pants that fit. Also, I hope y'all know that my upper torso is actually not shaped like a lumpy balloon; that's just some weird thing this old shirt is doing. Taking the extra time to choose my attire carefully reminded me of my dignity as a woman and a child of God; and, most powerfully, wearing my favorite pieces on Sunday hit home the message on both a conscious and a subconscious level that I would never find an occasion more special than this one.

I've been making an effort to dress well for Mass ever since then, with varying levels of success. It's never easy to get a family of seven out the door, and there are still plenty of mornings when I need to throw on the first thing I can grab while shouting over my shoulder for everyone to get in the car. But on the occasions that I do make the small sacrifices necessary to transform the way I look on the outside, I find that it transforms me on the inside as well.