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

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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

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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.

Sex Week at Yale University: Teaching Misogyny at $54,086 Per Year

One of my best friends is a former prostitute/drug dealer/drug addict/alcoholic.

Despite this, I don’t think she would be a star lecturer at Yale.

Prostitutes/porn stars/pimps are welcome to lecture at an annual Yale event called Sex Week. According to an August 21 article by Nathan Harden in The Daily Beast, prostitutes, porn stars and other sex industry promoters are not only welcome at Yale, their “lectures” are billed as “sex education.” The article, When Sex Isn’t Sexy: My Bizarre Education at Yale University, says in part:

And what do porn stars Sasha Grey, Ron Jeremy, and Buck Angel have in common? They are just a few of the many sex industry personalities who have been invited to lecture or “educate” Yale students in the last few years.

When the average person thinks of Yale University, sex probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Nevertheless, in recent years Yale has positioned itself as a leader in a radical new form of sex education, complete with sex toy pageants, porn star lectures, sadomasochism seminars, and fellatio demonstrations. What does any of that have to do with the mission of Yale University? That’s the question I set out to answer in my new book, Sex & God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad

Based on Mr Hardin’s article, Sex Week sounds as if it’s all about porn star power and sex industry self-promotion. However, the event organizers do attempt to put an occasional gloss of balance on the proceedings. 

For instance, Gail Dines, professor of sociology at Wheelock College, and Carolyn Bronstein, professor of communications at DePaul University, debated the issue of pornography with various sex industry representatives in 2011. Sex Week hosted another debate in 2008 in which Pastor Craig Gross who runs a support site for pornography addicts debated a pornographic film star.  

My friend might be invited to debate a porn star in an isolated event demonstrating that all viewpoints are allowed. But I don’t think her overall message would be given any serious platform at Yale’s Sex Week. 

The reason for my doubt is that she is a “fallen” prostitute.  

She had an encounter with Jesus Christ. You know — one of those knock-you-flat-in-the-middle-of-the-road conversion experiences that prove to those who experience them that God is real, He’s here and He does care about us. 

In one moment of grace, she lost her cravings for alcohol and drugs and became a new person in Christ. She “fell” from the glitzy glam of the sex industry straight into the boring straight life of love, fidelity, trust and giving to others. 

It’s an old story; two thousand years old, to be exact. My friend the former prostitute is now an anti-prostitution crusader. She founded a ministry, All Things New, that is dedicated to rescuing women who are trapped in the degrading, destructive world of prostitution.

All Things New helps women escape from the pimps and porn-pushers who beat, sell, use and discard them like yesterday’s garbage. She shields women who have been trafficked, women who are running from pimps, women who have lived their lives as things to be used and abused for so long that they’ve lost all knowledge of themselves as full human beings. 

She doesn’t require these women to convert, to profess Christ or to accept any faith. All that they need to get her help is a desire to get out. And they come. More than she can house, more than she can help; they come. Women who were grabbed off the street, those who were lied to and forced into prostitution then trafficked from one country to the next. Other women who slid into it voluntarily because a pimp they thought was their boyfriend seduced them, “groomed” them, then “seasoned” them into it. 

If they let my friend near at mike at Yale a whole lot of ugly truth about what prostitution really is would come rolling out. Those who heard her would have three choices: Ignore her, shut her up or change their ways. 

She would be a major downer at Sex Week, no doubt about it. But anyone who told the unvarnished truth would be. How many cheering studs would want to hear what “sex work” really is?

Do they want to know that according to the FBI,  between 200,000 and 300,000 children in America are forced into prostitution at any given time, that the average age of these new recruits is 13? Do they want to hear that their life expectancy is 7 years? 

How many lecture halls would fill with eager students if they heard about the beatings, the rapes, the murders, the dreadful fear of being caught talking to anyone but a john, the punishments for trying to escape? Who wants to know that by buying porn and backing prostitution they increase the market for international sex trafficking of women and children? 

How much truth is actually spoken at Sex Week? Do they manage at this elite university to make the point that the sex industry is a glitzy front and promoter of a massive, world-wide violation of the human rights of half the people on this planet?

Not according to Mr Hardin:

 … Sexism. I encountered plenty of that at Yale. During my time at Yale, the university hosted porn film screenings in its classrooms that included glamorized sexual violence and “fantasy rape.” Meanwhile, outside the classroom, frat boys were caught chanting “No Means Yes!” and “We Love Yale Sluts!” Yale has suffered a long series of embarrassing high-profile cases of sexual harassment and assault. Therefore, I was hardly surprised when a group of my female classmates filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights last year, complaining that Yale had allowed a culture of sexism and intimidation to persist on campus. It doesn’t take much to get from “fantasy rape” in the classroom to “No Means Yes!” on the campus quad.

These things happened, mind you, at a university that supposedly prides itself on its liberal concern for women’s rights. Never once did Yale officials have the courage to step forward and say that materials that glamorize sexual violence weren’t acceptable in the classroom. Instead, Yale officials claim that these things fall within the bounds of “academic freedom.” And they tried to wash their hands of it all.

Sex Week debases what was once a great educational institution into a base driver and promoter of darkest misogyny. 

There is one issue that Mr Hardin raised in his article that Yale has noted:

Yale’s cozy relationship with corporate interests in the sex industry—including numerous major porn production companies and some of the nation’s largest sex toy companies—has been the backbone of its infamous “Sex Week at Yale” event for the past ten years. Other elite universities, including Harvard, Brown, and Northwestern, have begun holding sex-themed events modeled on the corporate-backed events at Yale. Yale’s leaders say that academic freedom requires them to allow these activities. But I think they need to learn a basic business lesson: When a company comes into a classroom to market and sell its products, that’s called advertising, not education.

Simply put, academic freedom isn’t the same thing as having no academic standards. No one, for example, would say it was acceptable for Yale to host a week dedicated to denigrating blacks or gays. That would be hideous, not to mention completely irrelevant to Yale’s mission as a training ground for future leaders of the world. Yale officials would never allow such a thing. So why should events that repeatedly denigrate women be hosted year after year?

Criticisms such as this must have taken a bite. Yale ended the sex industry’s corporate sponsorship of the event. However Sex Week itself goes on. I would guess that the Yale idea of female exploitation and misogyny masquerading as education and academic freedom continues along with it.

As for my friend, I don’t expect that a message like hers will be given serious consideration at Sex Week anytime soon. Her message is not what they’re selling. 

She talks about the saving light of grace; about life and love, about living clean and whole in Christ. 

What they’re selling, at $54,086 per year, is the pit. 


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