Or: The one where Luke stumbles into the ladies’ bathroom and writes a blog post about it.
Honest, real, human. There seem to be few words that are used more in reference to literature these days. And yet there are few words which have acquired a stranger meaning with repeated use. Today, a tale of a wife leaving the responsibility of a family to “find herself” in a casual Italian fling is described as honest. A sociopathic man engaging in domestic imprisonment is considered real. And a graphic depiction of dehumanising violence – sexual and otherwise – is celebrated as “all too human”. Sure enough, between The Fall and the Beatific VIsion these scenarios may be honest, real, or even human in a way. But our tired usage has confined these words to a narrow corner of meaning that excludes just about anything vaguely virtuous – even to the point of treating it with suspicion.
It is with this long-winded introduction that I find myself happy to read a book that kicks down the walls which we have been set around the honest, the real, and the human. Style, Sex, & Substance is a beaming smile of mirth in the face of the botox-induced smile of hedonism and celebrated vice. It is a genuine account by 10 Catholic women of the ups and downs of “the things that really matter”, in all their fleshiness.
I know, this is a book by women, for women, about women – with a pink and purple decorative cover to match. Needless to say this was not the kind of book I read on a peak-hour train. But nonetheless I shall push forward with my thoughts from the perspective of the Catholics with a Y-chromosome.
Topics in Style, Sex, & Substance range from the relatable (making time for prayer in a busy life), to the incomprehensible (balancing good fashion with modesty), to the mildly uncomfortable (preparing oneself for sexual intimacy) – and everything in between. It’s a fairly comprehensive overview of most aspects of the life of a Catholic lay-woman (married or single), arranged into ten chapters written by ten prominent Catholic writers.
What is most immediately apparent in each chapter of Style, Sex, & Substance is the joyful, down-to-earth fleshiness of it all. I don’t mean a Stepford Wives artificial joy – as one may expect on stereotype from a book written mostly by stay-at-home mums. I mean the thoroughly Catholic passion seen in the movements of the Easter Triduum: a whole gamut of emotions from lamentation to celebration underpinned by the joy of the risen Lord. Each author tackles issues from loneliness to near marriage-breakdown with an authentic passion that in no way undermines the darker experiences, but rather are enhanced by the women who experience them as part of following He who came that we “may have life, and have it to the full”.
Which brings me to the second great element: an anchoring in the Christian faith. For the authors, being Catholic is not simply the added extra to their life as the adjective may suggest. It is their life in a way that is more profound than a mere private practice or belief. The women provide a witness to something I learned around two years ago: following Christ requires giving everything to God. It’s not – as the secular view may say – a mask we put on now and then, like being football fan, or an accountant, or even an Australian. These women want to be saints, and it shows.
As a book that is part reflection, part teaching: the authors take the approach that their readership are practising Catholics, and write accordingly. Whether the topic is clothing, marriage or motherhood, frequent reception of the Sacraments is the cornerstone of most advice in this book – as it ought to be. So while this may not be the best book to give to your protestant sister in Christ, it contains a great collection of advice that is not suffocated by an imperative to water down important realities for common-ground purposes.
What Style, Sex, & Substance really highlights is the importance of the lay apostolate. Lay people are not just called to raising children and being involved in a ministry at a Sunday Mass – but to live their baptism where priests and religious can not: in the family, at the workplace, and even in the parish through family or mothers groups. Style, Sex, & Substance not only supports the lay apostolate of women, it is a fruit of it. Here’s hoping it proves as a catalyst for other Catholic women to come together and share their advice for living as a daughter of God!
While this book is not aimed outside a readership of practising Catholic women (and me), it is still a great piece of evengelisation. Both in its content and delivery, Style, Sex, & Substance is a ray of sunshine through the smog of destructive sexualisation, materialism, and hedonism found in any given women’s magazine. When modern women get sick of the rubbish fed to them about themselves, their relationships and their lives – something that is certainly already happening – the witness of these authors and their readers can go a long way to showing them that the dumpster is not the best that’s on offer. And that’s a key part of evangelisation right there.
So I say congratulations to Hallie Lord and the rest of the Style, Sex, & Substance crew. Us guys certainly need to pick up our game…