Sunday, February 02, 2014

Am I pretty? - The Instructor on women embellishing the body

This is a continuation of my series on Clement of Alexandria and his book, "The Instructor." If you are new to this series or are unfamiliar with Clement and his book, you may want to first read the introduction to this series.
"It is not, then, the aspect of the outward man, but the soul that is to be decorated with the ornament of goodness; we may say also the flesh with the adornment of temperance. But those women who beautify the outside, are unawares all waste in the inner depths, as is the case with the ornaments of the Egyptians; among whom temples with their porticos and vestibules are carefully constructed... and there is no want of artistic painting... But if you enter the penetralia of the enclosure, and, in haste to behold something better, seek the image that is the inhabitant of the temple... he will give you a hearty laugh at the object of worship. For the deity that is sought, to whom you have rushed, will not be found within, but a cat, or a crocodile, or a serpent of the country, or some such beast unworthy of the temple, but quite worthy of a den, a hole, or the dirt." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 3, Chapter 2)
True intimacy is never formed nor sustained based on outward beauty. Intimacy grows and flourishes based on the nature, character, and quality of the inward person. As we grow to know who people are on the inside, then we grow in our intimate relationships with them. Those we find wanting, we end our inward pursuit and our quest for intimacy, but those we find inwardly beautiful, we continue to develop and seek for greater intimacy with them.

Clement compares the women of his day with the Egyptian temples around them. The temples were beautiful and exquisitely constructed. Yet if you ventured in to find what such an ornate temple housed, assuming that it would be of greater value than the temple, you would be surprised, disappointed, and a bit amused. For all that was inside was some poor animal that was more fit to run around outside then to be hidden in an ornate temple.
"But if one withdraw the veil of the temple, I mean the head-dress, the dye, the clothes, the gold, the paint, the cosmetics,—that is, the web consisting of them, the veil, with the view of finding within the true beauty, he will be disgusted, I know well. For he will not find the image of God dwelling within, as is meet; but instead of it a fornicator and adulteress has occupied the shrine of the soul. And the true beast will thus be detected—an ape smeared with white paint." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 3, Chapter 2)
The women of Clement's day were very much like those Egyptian temples. If you dared to pierce the plastered on "beauty" to view the person within, you would not find what you expect, but rather someone hiding from the light, trying to look beautiful without actually having to become beautiful. Beautifying the outside will never make the inside beautiful. However, when someone is beautiful on the inside, that beauty can never be hidden. True beauty is when we have the Word of God living inside of us and when we allow that living Word to conform us to God's image.
"And that deceitful serpent, devouring the understanding part of man through vanity, has the soul as its hole, filling all with deadly poisons; and injecting his own venom of deception, this pander of a dragon has changed women into harlots. For love of display is not for a lady, but a courtesan. Such women care little for keeping at home with their husbands; but loosing their husbands’ purse-strings, they spend its supplies on their lusts, that they may have many witnesses of their seemingly fair appearance; and, devoting the whole day to their toilet, they spend their time with their bought slaves." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 3, Chapter 2)
What a comical and painful picture Clement paints. When we begin to value show over substance, we begin to drink poison that will, over time, destroy us from the inside out. When we care more about people desiring our outward appearance than affirming the truth of our inward person, then we have become little different from the harlots; wanting to be desired more than wanting to be loved. We want the illicit desires of others to prove to ourselves that we are beautiful and desirous; all the time ignoring the one who loves us unconditionally and who can turn our ugly heart into something beautiful. The love of show is a deceitful path from which many never return.
"Unawares the poor wretches destroy their own beauty, by the introduction of what is spurious. At the dawn of day, mangling, racking, and plastering themselves over with certain compositions, they chill the skin, furrow the flesh with poisons, and with curiously prepared washes, thus blighting their own beauty. Wherefore they are seen to be yellow from the use of cosmetics, and susceptible to disease, their flesh, which has been shaded with poisons, being now in a melting state. So they dishonour the Creator of men, as if the beauty given by Him were nothing worth." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 3, Chapter 2)
Here in lies the real issue. God has created us, yet many believe that He has created them ugly. We feel the want of beauty so we go to great lengths to supply what we feel we lack from God. We disdain how God has created us and instead try to conceal it with cosmetics, jewelry, and fine clothing. However, for all our efforts, we only succeed in marring our own true beauty. Clement said that to know ourselves is to know God. If we truly understood that we were created by God and that we are precious and lovely to Him, then maybe our outward appearance would not matter so much to us. God created us just as He pleased and He gave us our own unique beauty. Let this beauty suffice for us.

David Robison

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