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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Habits, Clerical Dress, and Witness for Christ

Over at Father V.'s blog, I happened to read a post about those priests/religious who wear habits or clerical garb.

Think of a pan of a crowd in a news segment that catches a priest or sister in religious garb. For that instant, thoughts of Church, God, and Catholicism pop into mind.

When I was a baby priest, occasionally I would be walking down the street and catch a glimpse of myself with my collar on in a store window. It would jolt me into remembering that I was living a very public Catholic life involving powerful symbols and that my actions meant something to other people. It is not about me, a humbling lesson to learn, but about that collar and what it is supposed to represent.

AMEN, Father!

As my regular readers know, I discerned a call to religious life and I would not consider communities that are not in habit. Why in the WORLD would I want to go live in a house with a bunch of gray-haired women who lived out the worst misinterpetations of Vatican II, and continue to dress worse than I do?

No, the habit is necessary; it is not just symbolism; it is reality. Those who give up the world for God, but to live in and to serve the world are set apart and should be recognized as such.

(Aside: There are parts of the world where this would mean immediate death; please exclude those extremes from my commentary).

I spent a semester in Mexico during a time of my life in which I was desperately seeking God but holding on to the world for all it was worth. Turns out, not much.

But God is faithful, and when I did pray, He answered. God rewards with grace even the most confused.

I was about to start a practicum and I had the address but I didn't know how to get there from where I lived. We had just gotten back from a "Study Trip" and I was begging God for help because I was down to 5 pesos and a cab minimum fare was 8-10. I had Traveller's Checques, but I had to be there before the Casa de Cambio opened...and I didn't know the nearest one to either my house or my destination! What to do?

I prayed.

On my way home from the bus station that evening, the Combi (VW van common to Mexican public transportation) that I flagged down happened to contain two Sisters in full habit. I will never forget them because I immediately recognized them for what they were; representatives of Christ. Brides of Christ. Mothers of us all, and women to be respected, as well as a refuge for confused female travellers.

In Mexico, public transportation routes are not published. I had already asked everyone I knew what bus to take to my destination. No one knew. There was no central office I could call. The only way to find out what bus when where was to flag every bus on every road down and ask, or find someone who knew the right answer.

I was an American in Mexico, I didn't know anyone, and I did not want to ask perfect strangers what to do. Amazingly, to all those who know me, I used to be a very shy child and even as an adult, I still retain some of that shyness. Speaking to perfect strangers is always difficult for me. Most people don't realize this. Mexico was one of those experiences that helped me to overcome this detrimental facet of my personality.

Anyway without published bus routes, I didn't have a choice but to ask perfect strangers for help.

Then I stepped into the Combi, sat down, and realized that God's grace had just opened a door for me. When I saw those black-and-white habited religious sisters, I knew that even if my Spanish was bad, even if someone found out I was American and they happened to dislike Americans, it didn't matter. Because 2 Sisters were present, no one would laugh at me, no one would give me bad advice, and rather, people would be more inclined to help.

Their presence gave me courage, so I asked my fellow travelers how to get to the Delegacion, which was the nearest landmark to my destination the next morning.

A conversation ensued, most of which I did not understand; even after 6 years of Spanish, one month of immersion in Mexico was not enough to make me fluent.

Finally, they described the bus to me, what it looked like, and where to pick it up. The Sisters didn't have much to say during the conversation, but I have a sense they might have realized what was happening in front of them. It probably happened all the time.

The reality is this; people badmouth the Church and her representatives all the time. But when someone marked as belonging to the Church is present and in person, no one wants to offend them, nor anyone who respects them or their presence.

Those Sisters were an immediate answer to my prayer. Had they not been in habit, I don't know what I would have done. What I needed was only directions, but were it not for their presence, I would have been terrified of asking perfect strangers with unknown motives how to get where I was going. Now, most of the people I met in Mexico were wonderful human beings and I found the country to be far more welcoming and friendly than anyplace in the United States. But I also met people who freaked me out and most of them were riding around on combis; even driving them. (long story, let's just say that God is good and protects the frightened traveller.)

The clericals or habits provide a very visible presence of God in the world, and there has never been a time during which such a witness is more needed. Our culture is increasingly secularized, while those seeking God in a godless society is increasing exponentially.

I've worn uniforms, and I know what it's like to stand out, and the microscope those who are so identified are under, but at the same time, I also recognize that those who give up the world for Christ are doing in order to be recognized SO AS TO SERVE HIM! Just as I wore a police and firefighter uniform so as to be recognized as a person called to help others, so a priest or religious wears a habit to identify themselves as servants of God through the dedication of THEIR VERY LIVES.

There is nothing more powerful, and perhaps many of them don't realize that their presence in such dress isn't necessarily about apologetics or sacraments (ie impromptu Confessions), but about an oasis for a lost traveller in a strange land.

And in the end, isn't that what we all are - lost travellers in a strange land?


Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree--full habits are such a great witness of complete devotion to Christ!

Now, where did you study in Mexico? I studied back in the 80's in Colima for two semesters and ended living in Mexico (off and on) for 3 years. I taught high school Spanish for 6 years, but now I homeschool my four children.

The sad thing is that when I lived in Mexico, I can count the number of times I went to Mass. I was more than a relapsed Catholic--I was a complete mess.

Thanks be to God that he brought me back!

Adoro said...

suzanne ~ I lived in Puebla, Mexico, a city of about 2 - 4 million at the time.

I NEVER attended Mass while I was there, and I will regret that until the day I go to my judgment. We went into several churches, of course, but never for Mass. How sad.

Anonymous said...

I have been a religious 20+ years and have worn my Habit all of these years. I think the funniest expereince for me was in a Doctor's Office. I when in signed in and had a seat, then I noticed no one was talking anymore, they were all looking at me. I live in the South (USA) and I am the only religious that wears a Habit here. It really is sad some of the children even in my Parish have no idea who or what I am. They have never seen a religious in a Habit. All the Sisters wear street clothes here, no one has any idea who they are, most, think they are social workers. I am a Hermit and I pray for my Bishops intentions and only leave my hermitage for things that are necessary for life. God Bless you all ! Pray for me. I am Brother Vicent de Paul, hermit, living in Central Georgia.

Anonymous said...

Dear Brother Vincent de Paul, thank you so much for your comment, and I will DEFINITELY keep you in my prayers! God bless you!