Saturday, May 02, 2009

Veiled meanings...?

I didn't get much quality computer time on this lovely Saturday, but since tomorrow is Good Shepherd Sunday (and hence the "World Day of Prayer for Vocations"), I thought I'd write a follow-up to an interesting blog post by Sr Julie Vieira. Her blog, A Nun's Life, focuses on aspects of religious life. It is a great place for vocational lurking by people who may not be quite ready to admit that they are considering religious life. The other day, Sr. Julia raised the question, "Is the habit the answer to vocations recruitment?" It's odd to suggest that a habit could just be taken on as a recruitment strategy (wouldn't that be somewhat hypocritical?), but you do hear people say that any vocations crisis would be resolved "if all the nuns would just wear habits again." A few of the comments on that post dealt with the actual question, but most seemed to hover around the place of the habit itself, and the experiences of the women who do or do not wear them.
My own experience, of course, is dated (!), but I think it has some relevance. After all,when I entered religious life (in 1975), it seemed as though all women's communities I knew had shifted from full monastic attire to completely secular dress. Only the sisters in my high school (SCVI's)wore a short veil with the teacher's uniform of light blue blouse and dark blue skirt. From my very youthful perspective, it seemed as though the sisters were just being silly, and that the dismissal of the habit could hint at a cavalier attitude toward orthodoxy, too. (Please remember, this was in the '70's when liturgical and other aberrations abounded on all sides.) I had no way of knowing or understanding that the Church had called for some modification of the exaggerations in the inherited styles, and no clue (living in a completely Catholic environment in New Orleans) that the habit could sometimes function as a barrier to ministry.
When I met the Daughters of St. Paul as a senior in high school, I hated the habit the sisters wore at the time, especially the veil, which clung closely to the forehead without any softening by hair or the like. (The veil seemed more a helmet than a woman's headpiece!) But the fact of the habit, even in 1975, communicated to me that the sisters were standing with the Church and not running with the culture. And that allowed me to trust the sisters enough to let myself entertain the idea of religious life for myself.
In other words, the habit was not only a uniform, not only a sign of consecration, not only a concrete form of the practice of poverty: it was a means of communication. A kind of media, if you will. And from my 30+ years of experience in wearing the habit, I have to say that for the most part, the message people seem to draw from this "medium of communication" is that the wearer is, precisely, a "sister" to them: that they and I have an established relationship and that it is a familial relationship. People feel free to walk up and initiate a conversation with me out of the blue--something which happened yesterday while I was outside of a snowball stand with my Mom enjoying a giant cherry snowball. Once, when I was in Italy, an old lady grabbed my arm on the tram and shanghied me to walk her across the cobblestones to her front door. There were a dozen nuns on that tram, but I was the only one with a veil. I was by no means the kindest, most pastoral and caring nun on that tram, but I was the only one who was visibly "available" for a need I was not even aware of. The old lady "read" that in my habit. I have already written about the distress I feel when the street people in Chicago see my habit and assume it means I can give them money! (They understand the connection with "Church" and "service" but not with poverty!)
In Ireland in 1979, Pope John Paul II had urged religious not to "take God off the streets by adopting a secular mode of dress." This hints that the habit may have its chief role not in Catholic circles, but in the wider culture. After all, in ministry settings, people have a relationship with the women religious they meet. They can identify their charism, service, virtues, and so forth. But in the wider world, a more visible sign is called for. Is that why people will ask modestly dressed women wearing a cross if they are nuns?
What I find worth investigating is the noticeable increase in devout women across the religious spectrum who are opting for some form of head covering. Not only are more and more young Muslim women in hijab, but young orthodox Jews, Eastern Christians and even more and more Catholics are adopting forms of head covering. (Creating these things is becoming a cottage industry, for crying out loud!) For most of these, it is a return to an earlier practice. Is there some connection with the wider culture? Is this movment possibly a response to the dismissal of God from public life?


Anonymous said...

Dear Sr. Anne, you might like to participate in the "head covering blog carnival" hosted by a young American muslim woman at .

She's inviting women of various faith traditions, who cover their heads for religious reasons, to share why and what it means to them to do so.


Anonymous said...

Headcoverings? Yikes! A simple coif should suffice, once the other accoutrements are donned unless, the habit resembles a can-can outfit!

Though the headgear covers a multitude of 'bad hair days', there may be more than personal reasons of itchy scalps or hairdressing of one's adorning glory to allow doffing or donning of the veil in different places of nun work such as in hospitals, colleges, or in social worker settings. In public, if a nun likes to wear a hat, then why not the veil, but there is a small but increasingly vociferous minority of those out here that decry headcovering of any kind. Bald pates of the world unite.

Besides, I like to see the Sisters with their prematurely grey hair, and receding hairlines. It makes them more human and approachable.

A decently attired women (wearing a cross on a necklace, and even a longer, modestly designed dress of the durable material that the nuns' habit is constructed) should not find it insulting to be mistaken as a person of faith, and vice versa, and why then shouldn't a nun without a veil find it insulting to be mistaken for a member of a religious order? (Unless, a nun attempts to pull the wool over Mother Superior's eyes by wearing Jimmy Choo oxfords and Victoria Secret underduds. There is still a good argument (though subtle) for stealthy conversion and reminders those that those in nunlike attire might be called to witness or be present?

Now, the idea of a wimple, hmmm, it might serve some usefulness for the catching of meal crumbs for those with larger bosoms.

Sr Margaret Kerry fsp said...

vocation - to call - to call to what or to whom? The habit and veil are symbols of saying yes to a call that we presume is to Jesus first and order as it expresses the mutuality of that call. However it is the call above all - to be human (so one can't hide behind any adornment) to be Christian (and so simplicity is reflective of this) to be consecrated (and this could be in the single life or in a community) and to be holy (and nothing can separate us from the love of Christ). So the habit is an expression of a lot of the above and cannot deter from any of the above.

Katie P. said...

Hi Sr. Anne,

I couldn't restrain myself from weighing in. Admittedly (possibly surprisingly), I think a lot about this issue as I continue to move forward in thinking about religious orders sociologically.

I actually think, at this point, that the habits are very important. It seems to me that it acts, as Sr. Kelly notes, as a symbol but also as you mention, as an identifier that people need to place sisters in some kind of social context. It clues people in to "who you are." I also think the symbol is doesn't have to be a veil or habit necessarily, but it's become the tradition, so that's what we expect. What gets tricky is that our expectations can lead to a misuse or misunderstanding of women religious as some huge monolithic, homogeneous force, all because y'all wear veils. (And then, of course, it differentiates between orders that wear them and those that don't and often assigns value to you're "more serious" than the orders that have chosen to dress differently.) I really dislike and disagree with huge oversimplifications of people.

So, now I have a question for you: How do you view the habit you and your sisters wear? Is it important to you? If so, how? What purpose does it serve for you?
(I'm sincerely asking...I have my theories which I can always bore you with later!)

xaipe said...

Spot on, Katie: it places us in a social context. That's what I meant by speaking of the habit as something that evokes a relationship that is already in place. It also helps keep things clear: Among other things, men have an interpretive key for our words--we're not coming on to them (!); people generally relate to us as from an already established "place" even though we have (usually) never met them. But it's a two-edged sword. Sometimes, people have expectations of us based on earlier experiences with sisters, whether personal (do you know how many "rulers on the knuckles" stories I have heard?) or from the media (the saintly sisters or the evil, hypocritical nuns of movies and TV dramas). Sometimes, when I am treated with extreme hostility, I also get the impression that people identify me with the entire Roman Catholic Church, whose teachings they do not really know or understand, but dislike or feel affronted by.
Interestingly, the veil is the part of religious dress that most people identify as the "habit," but when we made vestition (received the habit in a ceremony), the veil was not part of the garment that was given to us. The dress is actually the habit, and in vestition, the habit is blessed, along with the belt (cincture) and rosary beads. These we were given, one by one, and then we went off to another room to don them. The veils were waiting in that other room.

La gallina said...

I'm a couple months late for the discussion. Found you by way of the Anchoress.

I was a little Protestant girl (going to an Evangelical university) spending my junior year in Spain back in 1989-90. Despite the evangelical family etc., I had zero interest in religion or God or any of that. And the thought of Catholics and nuns had certainly never entered my mind.

During my Christmas break during that junior year I travelled to Rome with a Catholic friend. And that's when I fell under the enchantment of those ethereal creatures known as Catholic nuns. I had never seen a nun wearing the full black habit, veil and all. I thought they were absolutely obsolete. But I was so moved by these angels in black, gliding through the streets of the ancient city.

A few weeks later, traveling solo in Spain, (looking lost and confused, I'm sure) two of those angels in black habits glided up to me, took me by the arms, and led me onto my waiting train. (They had no idea I had gotten hopelessly lost, and gotten on the wrong train at this very same train station the last time I'd been there.) They flanked me like two guardian angels on either side once we arrived in Madrid, among various shifty-looking characters at 2 a.m. If it weren't for them miraculously showing up, and taking care of me, my trip may not have ended so well!

I was hooked on nuns ever after. I still had no interest in religion etc., but my family and friends always bought me nun trinkets, cards, etc. to add to my collection.

Some 16 years later, I became a Catholic. I'm no nun, but 4 of my 5 children were delivered at a Catholic birth center founded by a (veil-less, yet lovely) sister. The founding sister has had to retire due to health. The birth center's future hangs in the balance. (Know any religious orders who specialize in midwifery and are looking for a home?)

Anyway, thanks for keeping the veil alive and well in the modern age, Sister Anne. By the way, I cover my head for mass, but that's another long story which is already in the Anchoresses comments on veiling.