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. 


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