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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Inspiring Ire

Just recently,while doing coursework for my class in Spiritual Theology, I read an excerpt on Moses from St. Gregory of Nyssa. He spoke of the clothing of Moses being washed clean as a "habit", significant because the exterior of a human being reflects upon the interior. It was an allegory, to be certain, but I suspect, not having done other research, that the term we use for religious garb likely dates back to that usage by St. Gregory of Nyssa.

To Wear or Not to Wear

This topic seems to always get people up at arms, and truly I don't understand why. We all have opinions. We all have clothing. We all have opinions about clothing. Why does the use or non-use of the Habit inspire such ire?

Last spring, I attended an Archdiocesan training event, and shared a table with a DRE from another parish. Somehow, the topic of Vocations arose randomly, and I mentioned a friend of mine who was entering a Benedictine Cloister. The DRE was shocked and stated that she thought women no longer chose that kind of life. She sincerely wanted to know why my friend, and other women, would choose not only to wear a habit, but to live that kind of life?

I responded that it was a Call of Christ Himself, to give herself radically to Him, to pray for the Church, for Priests (their charism) and us all. I mentioned the other communities that are EXPLODING with Vocations, such as the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, and the LA Carmelites, as well as others that wear habits. The DRE's confusion was growing; this was beyond her worldview. She truly wanted to know what would inspire young women to give up all that they had to wear a common form of dress and live in community?

She literally stated, "I didn't think anyone wanted to do that anymore!"

It was MY turn to be shocked. Even though I and the people I knew were well aware of the tide of Vocations to the Priesthood and Religious Life taking place all over America, this woman, a DRE, hadn't a clue. This information completely took her by surprise. She'd never heard of the Sisters of Mary or the Nashville Dominicans from which they had sprung. She'd never heard of the LA Carmelites. She didn't even know that there is a Carmelite Cloister just east of St. Paul!

I did my best not to reveal my shock, but I think I failed, even as I earnestly shared with her my friend's Vocation story, and the reaons for it. I encouraged her, as a DRE, to look up this information and present it to the young men and women at her parish, so that they would see this great opportunity open to them, to give their lives to Christ.


That DRE was from a parish known to be somewhat left-leaning, although in our exchange there was no hostility; only surprise. Yet I have made the acquaintance of a woman who was once a Sister with a local notoriously-left-wing-nearly-pagan (if not outright) commmunity...and that meeting didn't go so well. I had innocently brought the use of a habit as a prop into our conversation, and she immediately went on the attack. I was taken off guard until she identified herself. Had I known, I would have made my point in a different way, but as it was the "war" was engaged and I did my best to be diplomatic in response to her verbal and rhetorical attack.

She made some good points, and some with which I agreed; her community was originally formed to look just like the people they served, so as not to stand out. So it was that they returned to this, and I have no quarrel with that.

Indeed, many missionary communities cannot wear identifying garb, for if they did, they would be executed, or at the very least, harassed. I know of one situation where, if the community wore religious clothing they would be misidentified with a certain governmental oppression, and the people would not trust them. These Sisters, then, even if they in other places wear a habit, don't in that location for the habit would literally be a barrier.

While persecuation has been our lot as Catholics from the Cross itself, we have to realize, that in some countries or locales, to obviously identify ourselves could mean that the mission is not spread, and the slaughter of the only evangelists in a thousand mile radius does not bring Christ to that community.

So let us at least be willing to admit that the Habit isn't synonymous with survival of the Gospel. Nor does the Habit automatically signify orthodoxy; there are habited communities that are faithful to their clothing, but not to the Gospel. It is important to recognize this.


I'm going to admit it; I'm back to thinking I have been called to Religious Life. Now, don't go getting excited. Please don't comment it on that at all. Even my family doesn't know, most of the people closest to me in my life don't know, and I prefer it that way. I did it wrong the first time around, and I don't need a whole bunch of people giving me their preferences, sending me links, etc. I know what I need to do next, I have communities I want to visit, and I know what I'm giving up. Or not giving up.

I'm further going to admit that the Habit is part of my discernment; for I will not consider a community that doesn't wear it 100% of the time.


From past experience in discernment. It seems that, consistently, the communities that have entirely left the Habit behind have also left De Fidei issues of the Church behind. I am not willing to substitute contemplative prayer or the rosary or Liturgy of the Hours on behalf of Yoga or Centering "Prayer" or classes in Reiki. I've already gone the route of Tarot and other Occult things...I'm not willing to revisit those practices.

Even further, there is the issue of Discipline; if a community is lax in discipline, without a clear head, clear obedience to that head through a hierarchical system, well, I have to wonder what poison may be introduced...and not confronted. As I have read in the works of St. Catherine of Siena, the virtue of Obedience is the key to Heaven, and if obedience is not necessary, then where is there a foundation of Humility?

I find, objectively, the virtues lacking in many of the Orders that have lost the Habit. I can't speak to the holiness of the women, individually, but I can objectively observe disobedience to the most basic tenants of the Catholic Faith, and I can objectively discern that they have nothing to inspire me to be anything other than a secular social worker.

Yeah. I already have a degree in Criminal Justice. I can already be a secular social worker. I want something more. God wants something more of ME.


I'm not slamming all Orders that have shunned the habit; as I said, there are legitimate reasons for not wearing it. I respect those reasons, (some of them), and condone others outright. The habit does not make one Holy; nor does it make one Naive.

Oh yes, I went there.

Some people level the charge that those Sisters that are now taking Vows in habited Communities are doing so out of naivete, or a sense of romance or nostalgia. Some suggest they are "immmature" or will "grow out of it" and the habit "phase" will fall into oblivion.

I read an account of a young woman who was at a discernment retreat involving both habited and non-habited Sisters. She sat down at a table with some non-habited Sisters and became engaged in a conversation. During this exchange she mentioned the habit, innocently, and that she wanted to wear one...immediately the conversation changed, the Sisters got up and abandoned her. She was confused and hurt by their reaction as she'd never indicated a rejection of their communities or their lack of a habit. The girl was literally not aware that the habit was a point of contention; and on that day, she, a sincere seeker, experienced a definitive lack of charity that could have destroyed her Vocation.

I've read many accounts of people, Catholic and non-Catholic, who have fond memories of Sisters in Habit. I've heard stories of people who have been drawn to these women who wear a visible symbol, even though the people drawn to them may not be Catholic themselves.

Our world today, more than ever, needs a visible manifestation of Christ among us, and the Habit provides that, just as we see it in the Roman Collar of the Priests who move among us. It was Sisters in black-and-white habits who once gave me courage through their presence and idendification alone to ask for help in a foreign country, where I wasn't even sure someone would be willing to help. If those Sisters hadn't been in habit, I would have been lost. And it was their presence that inspired respect in the people who shared our Combi that evening, for I've never seen such charity, even after the Sisters had departed. And that's saying something, for in Mexico, the charity I experienced on a daily basis has NEVER been equaled in my entire life in America.

It's legitimate to suggest that not all Orders began with a Habit in mind, however, the way our Spirituality has developed over the years, and in the way our culture has become so secularized, it is clear that we need "sound bites" in the form of identifiable dress so that people will be able to see a manifestation of Christ before their very eyes.

Just today I read an accusation suggesting that women who choose the habit do it "for attention". I must STRONGLY disagree!

Been There, Done That, Still Have the Shirts

I have worn many uniforms, and can't say I was truly comfortabe in any of them. I knew that my uniform identified me, and indeed, people came to me to address their problems, hoping I had the answer they needed. They also looked judgmentally at my uniform, projecting upon me any problems they'd previously had with someone else in the past who had worn the identical patches. I've been the juxtaposition of being a perceived savior even as I've represented oppression, all while someone else was breathing down my neck, defining me in yet another way.
So it is that I regard the idea of taking a habit through a lens of having been there before. It's much more comfortable to blend in, to not be noticed, to not stand out from the crowd. I am a very ordinary-looking person and I like it that way. I don't like standing out or being recognized. When I wore a uniform, I felt the stares, and felt the depersonalization, realizing that every action I took did not reflect upon me as a person, but upon the entity I represented in that dress.
So is the Habit, although the Entity represented is God, and the standard is much higher.

The accusation of "attention" is another one that astounds me, for it's also one of the reasons I have hesitated. For I almost fear being "swallowed up" in a sea of people who look just like me. I fear to lose my own nothingness being absorbed into greater nothingness. On the other hand, I know that in donning a visible symbol, I will again enter a world of discomfort, of the inability to be invisible.

Yet I'm willing to do this because in donning a Habit, I am dying to myself, I am putting on Christ...and I am becoming a living symbol to a world that desperately needs a visible sign of hope. It's not about me, but it is all about God, and about His Only Son. God is He who Is...I am she who is not. The Habit makes this reality tangible.

Certainly, God could call me to a community that does not wear a Habit, and I am willing to accept that. Yet I believe that He is calling me to die to myself, to allow myself to be "lost" so that I may become all I am supposed to be, known to the world or hidden forever, to be known only by Our Lord. Or perhaps I will be forced to accept all souls who come my way, responding not to me...but to God manifested through me, identifying me not individually but by whom I represent.

We all have to remember; we are not here on earth to glorify ourselves, but rather, to glorify God. And I would rather be hidden in a Habit through which Christ becomes known to others, than through myself, a pitiful Minnesota woman with an unforgettable name and unforgettable face.

Let us all put on Christ every day, for it is He who lives in us, and He who must reign.


Mrs Doyle said...

Great post Adoro!

During WYD, there were some Australian nuns who were genuinely surprised to see such young nuns (usually from the US) who were proud to wear their habits.

Some spoke wistfully about a bygone time when their order did wear them, and some got angry!

On one occasion, one particular nun was so gobsmacked at the questions that the young pilgrims were asking her 'why don't you wear a habit?' that she just couldn't articulate WHY she and her community choose not to!

Some of them just don't seem to get it!
Why would I, as a young woman, pledge myself to such a life changing calling and not be proud to show the world (through a change of dress) of my calling?

I could just stay the same, and become a social worker, which unfortunately some of them have now become.

Anonymous said...

You were too kind in your comments. Let me put it plain and simple, the way Fr. Corapi would. The former nun you encoutered and all the rest that don't wear a habit are full of it. They are rebelloius just like Satan and when they refuse to wear a habit they are using his same words, "I will not serve". Fortunately, as I have said before, they are a dying breed. It may take years but we will again see them in Catholic schools, habits and all.

Adoro said...

Vianney33 ~ I wasn't too kind. I was honest. The reality is that there are legit reasons in philosophy for not wearing a habit; some communities DID begin by wearing exactly the same clothing as those they served, and if that was their roots, so be it. The habit doesn't make orthodoxy.

But that reality doesn't change present reality that most communities that go without the habit have also given in to the winds of change. It's not because of their clothing, but their philosophy. And it's in their philosophy that they are flawed and full of it.

Anita Moore said...

I can see where, at least in theory, circumstances may dictate discretion in the matter of habits. But otherwise, the public appearance of religious in street clothes has become a symbol of laxity and heterodoxy. Where that is the case, resumption of the habit seems to me imperative.

Incidentally, I don't think this is the first time in the history of the Church that this issue has come up. I suppose it will cycle in and out until the end of time. Still, it seems to me we have a duty to do the right thing in any age.

Adoro said...

Anita ~ In this country...definitely. Some heterodox communities have even taken out vintage photos of their sisters to use for Vocations marketing...because it draws prospective Sisters. How long they expect that deception to last, I don't know. It may get women there...but when they see the reality, they won't stay.

Mark said...

Excellent post! As someone who (mutatis mutandis) is engaged in a similar process of vocational discernment, I found myself agreeing with everything you said.

I've definitely noticed a correlation between habit-wearing among nuns, monks and friars and orthodoxy on doctrinal, liturgical and moral issues.

Obviously I've never encountered cloistered nuns, but I've had plenty of contact with habitless nuns, and, while they were lovely people in many respects, quite a few of them have been (to put it bluntly) new-age liberal-protestant marxists.

Such orders, of course, receive practically no vocations these days, while orders (male and female) which have rediscovered something of their original charism and discipline are starting to attract increasing numbers of vocations on both sides of the Atlantic.

Melody K said...

Adoro, very thought-filled post. As a teenager, I considered a religious vocation. Of course back then was when everyone was getting rid of the habits, and that disappointed me. It turned out that I wasn't called to that life, anyway. But it has been interesting over the years to watch the pendulum swing back. I think it is probably good that most orders that have retained the habit have modified it somewhat; fewer yards of fabric, easier care fabric, modifying or dispensing with the wimple and coif. You could spend a lot of time sewing and caring for all that material! Plus now that I am fifty-something, I understand why it would be a burden to wear multi layers of wool, with layers around the face. You would spend a lot of time in meltdown mode. But a habit that identifies you as a nun, I think is a good thing.
P.S. Prayers for you.

Lillian Marie said...

I have similar accounts of meeting Sisters without the Habits. One of whom is our chancellor. We have talked on numerous occasions about her decision not to wear a habit and if she misses living in a community. It was such a pleasant conversation and gave me a true picture of her faith. Others I have talked to have immediately come on the defensive.

For me, I am drawn to the Habit and the community life. Although I am not fond of trying to keep the white habit 'white' (lots and lots of cleaning & bleach), I am drawn to their charism.

You have been in my prayers mucho mucho times...and will remain there...especially during this discernment process. God will lead you to where you are to go..I have not doubt in that. He led me back to Him after 20+ years away (a friend of mine sums it up well - eventual obedience. I'm still trying to fight, although I've noticed not as hard).

Lots of prayers coming your way!

Anita Moore said...

Thing is...if you want to attract vocations to the priesthood or the religious life, you have to demonstrate that there's some point to it. There has to be something about it that makes it different from anything else. If you fix it so that there's no perceptible difference between entering the religious life and being in the rat race, then what reason have you given people for joining?

I think it's the same with joining the Catholic Church. We have to present to visitors and inquirers a clear and visible alternative between where they are now and where they could be. We used to do that with our churches and with our liturgy. Then we started getting rid of everything that makes us distinctive as Catholics. How many Protestants have we failed to attract because we tried to look like just some denomination? (And how many of our own did we lose because we sent the message that important things like the Eucharist didn't matter anymore?)

Adoro said...

LM ~ It's wonderful that you've been able to have a civil conversation on this topic with a non-habit-wearing Sister. That speaks to her own maturity, that's for certain! (And I'd never expect less of you!) And thanks for your prayers...much needed. I need to send you a pic from this last weekend....

Anita ~ You and I agree. In this post I was trying to be fair, and I do still hold that there are places in the world that do make the habit a literal target or an obstacle, but I don't believe those same conditions apply in the US; thus I do think that even those communities that have shunned the habit claiming their original roots should reconsider it for different reasons today.

Then again...given that most of the communities that don't wear it are voting for Obama, believe abortion is a "choice", and that homosexual behavior is fine and dandy, and have no problem with occult practices...well, I say let them continue to not identify themselves. That way those who are orthodox and faithful Catholics will continue to grow while the others who have left ALL their roots behind can die a graceful death.

I feel so sad for the Founders and Foundresses of those Orders and many are Saints, how they must weep for their faithless sons and daughters.

But Conversion is possible for them all...if they would only abandon the ways of the world and return to Obedience.

Anita Moore said...

Then again...given that most of the communities that don't wear it are voting for Obama, believe abortion is a "choice", and that homosexual behavior is fine and dandy, and have no problem with occult practices...well, I say let them continue to not identify themselves.

Well, actually, they do identify themselves: just look for the business frump polyester pantsuits.

Adoro said...


The Ironic Catholic said...


That's good!

Interesting post, Adoro. And we've been so good about not commenting. I think we should get a thank you! :)

If I were discerning religious life, I would probably want a habit--or maybe just a veil (which I have some Franciscan friends who do this--simple dresses/jumpers and a simple veil--it really fits for them, apostolic work with a small but real marker). But to voice a concern that doesn't come up on the blogs so much, I have a couple of friends who are wonderful religious sisters, and their communities do not do the habits. But they get positively harassed by some people because of that, and I know them well enough to say it hurts them (statements like "You're not a real sister" etc.)

I like the balance and respect of your piece (and the trademark honesty), but I often these days I think, you know, we have a ton of work to do in the world. Could we get over being mean to each other already????

(I'm not saying you're being mean--I say that lots of people use the habit issue to make mean statements to some women, either side of the issue).

Adoro said...

IC ~ I didn't make that word up...which I had. I don't know the original coiner. :-)

And yes, thank you for not commenting.

I'm with you...I do know Sisters who don't wear habits, and I would never say they are "not real Sisters". Of course they are! It's not the habit that makes the distinction. There are groups that have left their roots and are engaging in pagan practices...they don't even identify themsleves in Christ anymore. THOSE aren't real Sisters, but clearly that as to do with their theology, and not their clothing.

I do wish people would be more kind; if so, the "debate" wouldn't be so heated, and people could actually get on with understanding each other rather than making rash judgments.

The Ironic Catholic said...