The Habit of Witness
Cheating the Habit of Being: The Habit of Witness
The "outward mark of consecration" was meant to be a sign, but the habits were also a means of self-effacement. They were paradoxically meant to obliterate a sister's uniqueness and make her one of many, one part of a collective hive. In truth, religious life is socialism the only way it can truly work: on a small-and-voluntary scale.
Taking off the habit may have (in the parlance of the day) helped sisters "celebrate their individuality"—and that is not a terrible thing, in and of itself; we are each fearfully, wonderfully made—but the embrace of ordinary dress over the religious habit also made the ordinary world more ordinary. Suddenly, there were no daily outward indications that anyone was praying at all, no reminders that we could and should pray, too. Suddenly, there was nothing to make a workingman remember Christ, and share some frozen sugar-water in gratitude.
When she eschewed the habit, the ice-man lost a marker that brought his awareness to God at random moments of his workday. Sister thus helped the man to become substantially poorer.
Desiring fellow-kinship, humility and "unspecialness," Sister Nobody Special ironically wound up thinking about herself quite a lot. The Italian Ice was for God, after all, not for her.
Sister didn't cheat the man of his living. But she cheated God of a small devotion. She cheated a man of his chance to demonstrate that devotion. It would have been much more humble simply to say "thank you" to a free cup of ice, given and accepted in the love of Christ.
Rather like Holy Communion.
Habits are not necessary to the life of a religious; that is absolutely true. But perhaps when sister referred to the garb as "a costume," it was a clue that she had lost touch with the deeper meaning of such a powerful social identifier. In doing so, she cheated herself of the privilege of reminding the world, by her mere presence, that all creation is extraordinary and beloved. She cheated the rest of us, too, because we loved being reminded of that; it meant we each really were special, after all.
Habits may be worth re-considering, now, even by the most "progressive" of communities. The scratchy and starched architectural gear of past eras is impractical to the 21st century, but at a time when Christian witness is often received cynically, as caricature or hysteria, the adopting of the simplest of habits would give silent testimony of lives unified in purpose, being lived in simplicity and dignity, for something greater than material or political concerns. Such witness may well be necessary for the life of the world.