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?