At Mattins on the Wednesday and Friday of the Advent Ember Days, we read lections from S Ambrose's Book 2 in Lucam. Here are a few extracts.
The Angel went in to [Mary]. Learn that she was a virgin by her way of life; learn it by her modesty; learn it by the Angel's word; learn it by the Mystery. It is the characteristic of virgins to tremble, and to be afraid whenever a man enters; to fear every utterance of a man. Women should learn to imitate the resolve of her chastity. Alone in the innermost parts of the house, so that no man might see her, that only the Angel should find her; alone, without comrade, without a witness, lest she be corrupted by any ignoble address, she receives the greeting of the Angel ...
... When Mary heard this, not as if unbelieving concerning his words, nor uncertain about his news nor doubtful about his example, but joyful for prayer, religious for duty, hasty for joy, she went to the hill-country. For, indeed, being now full of God, where should she go with haste except to the higher places? ... Mary, who previously lived alone in the most private recesses, was not delayed by the modesty of virginity from going out into the public realm, nor did the harshness of the mountains keep her from keenness, nor the difficulty of the journey from her duty ... Virgins: learn not to run around (circumcursare) other peoples' houses, not to hang around in the streets, not to gossip together in public. Mary was late leaving her home, but speedy once she was in public, and stayed with her cousin for three months.
Presumably, the habits S Ambrose castigates did exist, or he would not have wasted his time criticising them. It is the assumptions he can share with his hearers about what constitutes modest and decent behaviour that I wish to highlight.
Our society has lost, it seems to me, the entire concept of female modesty. This has been replaced by the bizarre notion that women can dress themselves and conduct themselves as shamelessly as they please and as publicly as they desire, but that a man who is misled into drawing inept conclusions from this is self-condemned.
I do not think our Christian forebears or the Greeks for whom Homer wrote or the Italian congregations to whom S Ambrose preached would have had any doubt that our society has been driven completely and incomprehensibly insane ... barking mad. To our shame, our Islamic neighbours are more likely to understand Christian and pagan antiquity, Homer and S Ambrose, than we are.
We are the strangers, the crazy misfits, the arrogant out-of-place tourists who plant our inappropriate and unwelcome feet in every other country, in every other culture, on every other age of history.
And we are so pleased with ourselves.