Nuns and Sisters: To Inhabit the Habit, or Not?

The old-fashioned habit that was worn by women religious for several hundred years is a romantic garb.

It is, in its own way, more high fashion than anything coming out of Paris, Italy or New York today. It harkens back to the days when Europe was going through a prolonged cold streak, when buildings where the common folk lived went mostly unheated.The habit began as the fashion of the day and, as time moved onward and the fashions of the days changed, it became an icon of religious identity for the women who wore it and those who saw them.

The habit meant something rather grand, speaking as it did of the mysteries of the sealed-off world of the convent and lives lived according to vows of lifetime commitment to Christ and His Church. The habit, when worn by Ingrid Bergman or Audrey Hepburn, was not only living religious icon, and high fashion; it was high Hollywood, as well.

No wonder the laity longs to see its return and many young girls like to wear it. But given that it is bound to be a rather uncomfortable and hot dress for today’s climate and an altogether unwieldy one for much of today’s work, no wonder so many other nuns were only too happy to shed it.

Fifty years on in this experiment of habit-less nuns and sisters, the question remains: To inhabit the habit, or not? Should nuns and sisters wear this garb as it always has been, or should they wear a modified version of it, or, should they abandon it altogether?

I am not a nun or a sister. I don’t, as we say here in Oklahoma, have a dog in this fight.

What I want from sisters and nuns is the same thing I want from priests: Authenticity of purpose and fidelity to Jesus.

I do think that it serves an important purpose for God’s vowed ones to be identifiable in public. Priests wear the collar. But they don’t wear it on the basketball court or the swimming pool. They take it off to go out for dinner with their friends and family.

From what I’ve seen, sisters and nuns try to wear their habits at all times, even when they are engaged in physical enterprises which make it clumsy or even dangerous. I think that is kind of extreme.

Maybe the question should be more along the lines of what should nuns who are active in the world wear for a habit, rather than if they should dress like civilians. As I said, this isn’t my fight. The only reason I’m writing about it is because I see a crying need for sisters who will engage in ministries such as human trafficking, prostitution, and other crimes of violence against women. 

The truth is, many of the women who escape from these things are unable to relate to any man in a healthy way, and that includes priests. They are deeply wounded, maimed even, on a spiritual and emotional level. They need people of God to work with them, and it would be very helpful if at least some of these people had the authority of religious vows.

It can’t be men; not in the early stages. It has to be women. That, to me, means sisters. The reason I bring up the habit is that I can see that a full-bore, head-to-toe habit might be a barrier between a sister and the people they are ministering to. Victims of this kind of terrible violence have enough survival barriers they’ve created inside themselves without adding more with something like the clothing you wear.

To me — and I’m going to say for the third time that I’m out of my depth here — but to me the question about whether or not to wear a habit should revolve around what purpose it serves. I think women religious should wear something that is uniform to their calling and that distinguishes them from the laity. But I also think that transporting middle ages fashion to the 21st century may not always be the best way to go.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to wear this type of habit. It’s fine. But for certain kinds of ministry, it would interfere with the sister’s ability to minister. On the other hand, dressing like just anybody who walked in off the street would hamper that ministry, as well.

I mentioned the collar and black and white clothes that priests wear because I think they are a good solution. It is a distinctive and uniform look that anyone who sees it recognizes as clerical garb. At the same time, it does not inhibit a priest’s ability to walk, run, sit or drive a car. Priests even wear short-sleeved shirts in summer, which seems kinder than wearing a full habit to me.

Priests also take their clericals off when they want to play golf or go jogging. They even take them off for private social occasions.

Why can’t sisters and nuns exercise the same common sense in their clothing?

I’ve read that the orders which use the full habit are growing while those that don’t wear a habit are declining. I don’t know if that has to do with the habit or with the spiritual practices and mission of these orders or what. I would like to think that young women are joining religious orders for much more important reasons that what habit they wear.

As I said, my interest in this comes from what I see as a crying need to have women religious in certain ministries. The lack of women religious to help in the fight against violence against women is a sadness to me. I know that they could make a profound difference for the good, but there are not women religious to do this work, at least none that I know of.

This is a rambling post that goes off in several directions and doesn’t come around to any conclusion. That’s because I’m thinking this through as I type.

What do you think about all this?

Also, do you know of an order of sisters who might be interested in the kind of work I’m talking about?

The Church needs nuns and sisters. It has to have them to do the work of evangelization that it has set for itself.

Book Review: Joining the Present Day Abolitionists

 

Join the discussion on Refuse To Do Nothing or find a link to buy a copy here

I serve on the board of directors of All Things New. All Things New is dedicated to helping women come out of sex slavery, which ranges from trafficking to prostitution.

That position brings me face to face with the reality of what we are doing to our women and children in the name of “victimless crimes.” It has made me aware of how our culture glorifies pimps, excuses johns and victimizes the women and children these predators use and degrade.

Refuse To Do Nothing was written by two women, Shayne Moore and Kimberly McOwen Yim, who had heard similar stories and found that they had to “refuse to do nothing” about the suffering present-day slavery wreaks on both the victims and the victimizers.

I recommend this well-researched book. Instead of just telling us how horrible the problem of present-day slavery is, the book gives simple, do-able ideas for actions that ordinary people can take to help in the fight to end it. There is nothing over the top in any of the ideas these women provide. Each of them is simple, easy to do and, if enough of us do them, effective.

Slavery ended in Great Britain and America largely as a result of Christians, particularly Christian women, who understood the Gospel claim that every human being is beloved of God. They could not abide the contradiction of Christian people owning and using other human beings as chattel.

That understanding is just as true today as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. Then as now, slavery was big business. Avarice and sloth fueled slavery just as avarice, sloth and lust fuel it today.

The idea that prostituted women and children are somehow less than fully human is the basic philosophical underpinning of sex trafficking and prostitution in our world today. The authors of this book rightly identify that sex slavery would go away if men stopped buying women and children. I think that most men would stop buying women and children if they saw what they were really doing.

It is so easy for any one of us to become someone else’s nightmare. All we need to do is subscribe to the world’s opinion that there are human beings who are less than human and we may do to them what we please with no moral harm to ourselves.

However, this idea of the disposable human is entirely opposed to the message of the Gospels. It refutes the meaning of Calvary, when Our Lord died for each one of us. There can be no worthless people to anyone who truly believes the Gospels of Christ.

We have an obligation to the God Who made us to treat one another as fully human. When we do less than this, we separate ourselves from Him in a profound and deeply sinful manner.

I recommend Refuse To Do Nothing to everyone who has a heart for the Gospel value of human life.


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