The Habit of Witness
Cheating the Habit of Being: The Habit of Witness
Patheos' "The Habit of Witness" series features essays written by consecrated Catholic women and men sharing their experiences while dressed in the habit. In this seventh installment, the writer recalls a 40-year-old discussion and comes to a new conclusion about the value of silent, visible witness.
In the mid-1970s, asked about her move from an updated habit to ordinary clothing, the teaching sister who ran our parish CCD program declared that the shedding of religious habits was a good thing because it emphasized that sisters were "nothing special, that we are all special in God's eyes."
This sister gave an example: "When we were in our habits, a fellow with an Italian ice barrow would always insist on giving us free ices, but why should he? Why shouldn't we pay like anyone else? Why should we deprive him of his living because we were in a costume?"
Putting aside how unlikely it would be for an Italian ice seller to go broke because he gave away a few free scoops of sugar-water, it is striking, thirty years on, to comprehend how fully horizontal and earthbound was her thinking; it had some breadth, but neither height nor depth. As with the "horizontally-focused" masses and hymns that over-emphasized the humanity of the church while diminishing the transcendence of its liturgy and purpose, Sister was embracing the beam of the cross—humanity and church reaching toward each other—without considering that the stationary vertical, heaven-focused post is vital, if anyone is to be raised up.
Sister was operating under a willful delusion; she justified forsaking the habit with appeals to solidarity, compassion, and humility, but her story illustrated egoism and presumption. She bemoaned a possibility of cheating a man out of his wages. In fact, she was cheating that man, but not in the way she imagined.
The ice-barrow man was not giving sister a free ice because she wore a habit, but because a man who revered (or at least respected) God saw an opportunity to demonstrate his regard in a little way that St. Thérèse might have applauded.
And she was cheating others, too. Her habit was a reminder to the community of faith, and to everyone else as well, that we are all called to simplicity and sacrifice; that for all of our Martha-instincts to work ourselves to death and carve our identities from what we "do," we must cultivate our inner Marys as well, and embrace the challenge to simply be. Sister might correctly say that she was "nobody special," but her habit was a witness to "being," and it confirmed Christ's covenanted life among us with a reassuring immediacy.
Perfectae Caritatis, the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, wisely counseled in favor of adapting religious habits in practical ways, but never decreed that habits should be discarded.
The religious habit, an outward mark of consecration to God, should be simple and modest, poor and at the same becoming. In addition it must meet the requirements of health and be suited to the circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry involved. The habits of both men and women religious which do not conform to these norms must be changed.