My husband recently rode a train between Cambridge and Edinburgh. A fully-habited sister took an empty seat next to a middle-aged businessman. In a somewhat-clueless, English surfer-dude tone, the businessman broke the silence and addressed her: “Hey. Are you a nun?” The sister replied, sweetly, “Well, yes.” And a quiet conversation ensued between the two of them.
So what is the purpose of the habit? For that matter, why should priests wear a collar outside of celebrating the sacraments? Why shouldn’t the ordained and religious among us be at ease, blend in rather than stick out, do their good work without the fanfare of a “costume” that references the hierarchy of the Church?
Well… passing a priest in a cassock immediately makes me proud of my growing family, makes me want to go for broke, giving more than my all in whatever way Our Lord asks. Seeing a habited nun urges me to silently recommit myself to faithfulness of heart and mind toward my husband, and to aspire to a life of deeper prayer. But when Father sheds his vestment after the final blessing in exchange for a flannel shirt and Birkenstocks, my feelings are in a different ballpark.
Elizabeth Scalia describes it beautifully in her piece published on Tuesday at First Things: On the Square (below is a small excerpt):
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?”
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. Therese might have applauded.
When it comes to living out our Christian vocation, all of us here are well aware that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. But another great obstacle to holiness is a failure of imagination. How can we try to be heroes if we don’t know what one looks like anymore?
All human beings are fallible and imperfect—and of course the cloth does not magically purify the men and women underneath it. But it is a visible sign of a heroic commitment. One that is renewed for them as much as for us whenever God grants them the humility and audacity to wear it again. There goes one person who was willing to venture it all for God—a vision that can startle a businessman and move a soul.
Happy Feast of St. Thérèse!