I was recently reading Augustine's On Christian Doctrine, and at one point while offering examples of Christian writers using different rhetorical styles, he quotes (at length) some really interesting passages from St. Ambrose and St. Cyprian on women's use of makeup.
Now--disclaimer--I'm not saying that I agree with the Fathers on this topic. Honestly I don't have an opinion; this isn't an issue I've really considered.
But I like this because it's provocative in the best way: it provokes us to think about those things that we never supposed needed any second thoughts. The things that we do mechanically. Anything that we are that comfortable with and yet have never really considered simply must be evaluated. We need to stop and remember to ask questions like Why am I doing this? What are my motives and my aims? Am I loving God through this? My neighbor? What does this communicate about my beliefs about myself--or about my God?
Let's look at St. Cyprian.
I think that the saint is a little over-the-top at times (on purpose--which is precisely why Augustine quotes them). You'll see what I mean. But don't let that keep you from thinking about his words.
This is from his treatise De Habitu Virginum ('On the Dress of Virgins'):
If an artist had depicted the face and form of a man and indicated the quality of his body with colors rivaling those of the original, and when the likeness was complete and finished another set his hand to it, as if being more skillful he would reshape the picture already made, this would be seen as a grave injury to the first artist and a reason for just indignation. Do you think that you can with impunity commit such a rash and wrongful act offensive to God the artist? Even though you may not be shameless concerning men nor defiled in mind by alluring rouges, you make yourself worse than an adulteress by corrupting and defiling those things which are God's. What you think ornaments you, what you think makes you more beautiful, is an attack on the divine work, a corruption of the truth... Are sincerity and truth [a reference to 1 Cor. 5:7-8] preserved when those things which are sincere are polluted and truth is changed into falsehood by adulterating colors and the tricks of cosmetics?
I think this is a fascinating--even if not convincing--argument.
What strikes me about it, other than the way Cyprian uses the artist imagery (which is awesome), is how clearly the saint's worldview shines through a practical consideration like this:
- God is the creator, the artist, who made us.
- We are, just in the way we exist (made by God), somehow true and good--presumably because we reflect the image of God.
- Any distortion of truth, any falsehood is a sin and an affront to God.
- Sin is to be taken seriously and to be confronted.
How many considerations are behind our activities, our habits?
What am I saying about God and man when I send money on a movie ticket, maybe a movie rated R for violence?
What beliefs are evident when I'm willing to buy the homeless man some food, but I don't care to spend any time with him?
What is said when I don't speak at all, if I don't think to tell my parents that I love them?
I think that these kinds of considerations--really no more than a mindfulness of how our actions portray our beliefs--are crucial for following Jesus.
How can you love the Lord with all that you are if you are not even considering how your life depicts him? After all, as Paul told the church in Corinth (2 Cor. 3:1-3), the people of God are "a letter from Christ... written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts."
Faith, in one sense, is an activity--it is a thing intimately intertwined with works. It is a taking up of the cross. With that being the case, we would do well to imitate the saints before us in how they 'girded up the loins of their minds,' how they earnestly pursued, in all areas of life--even the most mundane--a holiness that would reflect the faith which they received.