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Grayer about the Sleeves

On wearing a habit.

Many years ago, when I was a novice and my habit was still dazzlingly white, I said to one of the older sisters, “I think we should all get wimples.” She replied, “That’s because you have no idea what you’re talking about.” I was a little surprised by this answer. Being, as I was back then, briefly, twenty-four years old, and having only been recently been clothed in the habit myself, I was firmly of the opinion that female religious garb existed on an simple, straightforward, continuous spectrum—belt-rosaries and flowing scapulars at one end, cardigans and visible shins at the other—and that the same principle that had guided my initial discernment of the religious life also held true for the living of it: where orthodoxy abounds, there fabric abounds all the more.

I argued my case with the older sister. Our community had a manifest commitment to common prayer, common life, and living the riches of our spiritual tradition to the fullest; why, then, did we not have a bit more veil to show for it? Why were our local Benedictine nuns draped in material from (quite literally) head to foot, while I had to make do with a veil that looked like a windsock sewn to a headband? The older sister continued her catechesis on the outward signs of consecration in, to my relief, a slightly more conciliatory tone. “Give it a few more years,” she said, “and tell me then if you feel we need to reform the habit. I dare say you’ll be a lot more interested in the other regular observances by that time.”

Several years later—no longer a novice, and noticeably grayer about the sleeves—I was sent on a silent retreat with a cloistered community in a neighboring diocese. I was overjoyed by what I discovered. Though they were not Dominicans, the witness of the nuns put me in mind of lines from the Rule of Saint Augustine by which I and all Dominicans live: “dwell together in unity in the house and be of one mind and one heart in God,” living “not as slaves under the law, but as free women under grace.” I began to wonder how my life might have been different had I come across this incredible community as a nineteen-year-old discerner; I might have ended up as an enclosed contemplative instead of an apostolic sister. But then I realized with a jolt that, in fact, my younger self would never have considered joining this community. Why? For the simple reason that she wouldn’t have liked their habit.

The nuns with whom I spent my retreat wore a highly modified version of the traditional habit of their order, having presumably given it a brutal short-back-and-sides in the aftermath of Perfectae Caritatis, Vatican II’s decree on the religious life. My younger self would have been instantaneously and conclusively put off, having vowed only to discern with communities who were serious about their habit. To be honest, I don’t recall having equally strong views on any of the other regular observances by which a religious community makes concrete its commitment to its Rule (silence, enclosure, the cell, common work, and so on) and which could also be used to judge the authenticity of its life. Just as my older sister had predicted back when I was a novice, it was only after living the religious life myself for several years that I could fully appreciate that the wearing of the habit is simply one of many possible signs of a community’s spiritual health.

Nowadays—seven years into religious profession, shabby and disheveled, and longing in ever more concrete ways for the eschatological robe-washing of the Lamb—I find myself occasionally being asked by young women if I will give them some advice on discerning a call to a religious life. Often, in the course of our conversation, these women will tell me enthusiastically that they would never settle for a community that didn’t wear the full habit. I find it increasingly difficult to match their enthusiasm in the way they want and expect. The religious habit is a tool and, like any tool, it belongs in a well-stocked toolbox owned by somebody with a basic sense of what she is doing. In practice, what this means is that a habit will do little to hold together a community riven by mutual jealousy and disdain or purify the heart of a sister whose obedience to the Church is compromised; it cannot make up for unobserved silence, breached enclosure, or reluctance to live and work together. Of course, when an outsider looks inside the proverbial toolbox, the habit is usually the tool that lies glinting on the top of the pile. But that does not mean it is the only tool worth examining and it is unfair, I think, to give the impression that it is.

In retrospect, I entirely understand why my sister wouldn’t indulge my wet-eared zeal to reform the habit. The nuns with whom I spent my silent retreat were not the first religious I encountered who lived a rigorous and well-balanced religious life without an impressively traditional-looking habit, and they haven’t been the last. By all means, we should support and admire religious communities who are committed to the wearing of the habit. It is a powerful sign of consecration and a daily reminder of the call to unity of heart and mind in God. But we should also ask if, under that habit, there lives a free woman under grace—the woman which I, and all consecrated religious, are called to be.