day 15 – nuns`veils, simply a habit?

In my growing years, I was fascinated by a nun’s habit. It was romanticized in The Nun’s Story and even had aerodynamic capabilities in The Flying Nun. And, yes, I had a nun doll complete with wimple and veil.

As a history student, I had the privilege of doing some archival research at a Benedictine Priory. I was studying the process of community discernment during the heady days after Vatican II. The habit was a major issue and a difficult one for many. The younger sisters happily embraced the modified habit (shorter veil and skirt) and eventually removed the veil altogether. Meanwhile, some of the older sisters were adamant about retaining the full, traditional habit – wimple and all. What I admired the most was the freedom that was given to each. When the sisters gathered in chapel, there was a sense of acceptance amid the diversity.

There is a lovely Australian mini-series called Brides of Christ (1991) which chronicles these same struggles in a teaching convent during the years following Vatican II. (It features a very young Russell Crowe.)As with my Benedictine friends, these fictional sisters showed a true sense of collegiality and subsidiarity in their discernment process. Decisions were made as a community, with respect for each individual sister to make her own choice in the end.

I read an interesting book last year called Unveiled: the Hidden Lives of Nuns by Cheryl L. Reed. In her travels, Reed interviewed diverse religious women from sisters living and working in down-town neighborhoods to fully cloistered nuns. A whole chapter is dedicated to the “Politics of the Habit”. And there is nothing subtle about the politics. Many people have pre-conceived notions about a woman wearing a full habit and veil in today’s society. It is often seen as an intentional statement of traditionalism. Conservatives love this. Liberals not so much.

Veils and/or full traditional habits don’t have to be a political statement. Many orders allow individual sisters and communities to choose their dress. Many sisters involved in apostolic work choose simple, secular clothing. Some cultures still prefer some form of modified habit with the veil. The diversity is reflected in international congregations when sisters gather from around the world. And, women can also choose to join an order which gives them the full meal deal with traditional garb.

As with all things catholic, there is room for diversity. There should be no room for judgments. Respect, love, and support is given to the vocation and good works of our vowed religious women, not to the clothes that they wear.

9 thoughts on “day 15 – nuns`veils, simply a habit?

  1. Something “magical” happened when SISTER floated past your desk…a wonderful fragrance came with it. I can close my eyes now and imagine Sister Philip Neri and reap the benefits of the freshly laundered eggshell colored linen.

    And, if you were privileged to do some volunteer work at the convent, you could see these duds hanging on long clothes lines to dry in the basement…and the large mangles that rotated and ironed the habits.
    Today we use a number of softeners and sprays in our caring for our fabrics so they smell freash…even the one called “fresh linen” can’t compare to “sister’s linen.” Thanks for the memories you spured with this one, Isabella!

  2. The baseball team the Yankees is not to identify with the crowd and wear “civies”; I find it ironically superficial for nuns to take off a habit and veil and break the symbolic union with nuns who have passed on—this symbolic clothing points towards mystery and, therefore, is an immediate reminder of God. Instead, you wear what points towards the secular.
    It is incredibly stupid to dedicate a life towards God and not mirror it in your clothing. Padre Pio in the hours before his death refused to take off his habit in order to breathe better. To me, nuns without habits or veils are like the pride of the Yankees dismissed by removing your baseball uniform and telling Babe Ruth to go take a walk. Modern spirituality continues to reveal a symbolic walk away from mystery, tradition, and union with all those who went before. Yuk!

  3. Thank you for your comment, Geoffrey.

    Our church is universal enough to allow for many and diverse charisms, spiritualities, and traditions. For me, the issue is a simple one. Religious orders have the freedom and the right to embrace `secular` clothing or a full, traditional habit. But it is wrong, and even foolish, to judge the righteousness or holiness of a person by the clothes on their back.

    The mystery of the Incarnation centers on the fact that God took on flesh and became one of us. What you call `modern spirituality` has deepened our understanding of the Incarnation; God`s active presence in our world and in our lives. God enters into that which is secular and makes it divine. We, too, are called to bring the presence of Jesus into the everyday in our words and actions. Truly living the gospel is a greater challenge than choosing a uniform to wear.

  4. Thank you for a lovely post. There are a lot of politics about the habit! I am a sister who wears a habit but it is comments and sentiments like the one by Geoffrey that make me want to take my veil off (my community has the option). Lay and ordained OFTEN judge us based on our clothing and it denies the individual behind the clothes and the spirit of community behind clothing. I like wearing a habit because it makes me available to people. They feel like they can approach me anywhere. What I don’t like is that I’m expected to be very much like that doll you described (I’m not hating on the dolls, we have them too!). When I’m in my habit people expect me to be docile, polite, gentle, and all around nice. That perception leaves no room for the Gospel which often calls for passionate action, prophetic work and words, conflict with structures and people who commit injustices, and disappointment and anger with the culture around us. If, in the habit, I could be that woman, I would gladly wear it. Now, I am stuck though… it is not an easy decision to wear or not to wear the habit. Much thought and discernment goes into these decisions and those outside of religious life should NOT be judging this fragile balance and decision making process. God bless you. I really did enjoy this post. I hope this brought a new perspective to this issue.

  5. Thank you, dear Sister! Yes, you have not only given us a new perspective, but a valuable one because of your honesty. It’s so important for us all to know of the careful thought and discernment that is required in so many of our lives decisions. And you have shown us how the discernment can be ongoing. Our world certainly needs less judging and more honest dialogue. God bless you!

  6. I presently live in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where Mennonites don’t hesitate to identify themselves w/ headcoverings (prayer bonnets, they call them). Back in my native NJ, Muslims wear hijibs. So why shouldn’t nuns look like nuns?! Are they in hiding?! And don’t even start me on what I think nuns in so-called “street clothes” look like …

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