To Veil or Not to Veil

To Veil or Not to Veil January 30, 2012

Not too long ago, Fr. Longnecker put up a hilarious guest post on his blog. Mantilla Amontillado wrote about why she thinks American women should wear the mantilla:

Sometime I visit in America and when I go to Mass I can’t believe my eyes. Girls coming to Mass wearing shorts and flippy floppies or what you call them? Sometime they are wearing tops with little thin straps over the shoulder and you can see their underwear. Hon. This is not good. Sure, it is not too modest, but to tell you the truth, usually the girl who wear these clothes is not too sexy anyway. You know what I mean? So it’s not only no modest, it’s not nice to look at anyway. They should cover up. Then sometime they are chewing gum as well! Madre de Dios! They are looking like cows chewing the cud you know?

So I think maybe if some girls wear the veil, then they dress the right way in those other clothes too you know? You never see girls in veils wearing halter tops…(read the rest here)

The “to veil or not to veil” debate was something I was wholly unaware of upon entering the Church. Like the “skirts are for sinners” argument, it’s one of those things that, pre-conversion, might have made me call the whole lot of Catholicism crazycakes and run for the nearest Unitarian hill. (Just kidding. Unitarians actually are crazycakes.)

Luckily, the only hugely insane Catholic hurdle I had to jump was the ban on birth control. And that was a big one. There was also the whole “we eat God” thing and the “Mary was without sin and bodily assumed into heaven and oh yeah YOU CAN PRAY TO HER” shocker, but those were more a matter of faith and less a matter of my fear of many children.

So on the day of my baptism, confirmation and first communion I showed up at the church in a white, high-necked, sleeveless dress with my hair all uncovered and not a one of my friends, nor my godparents, nor my in-laws, nor my priest mentioned that my shoulders and my hair should be covered if I wanted to show God proper respect.

I had encountered the veil from a distance, as a few girls at UD wore one, and when I asked why most of my friends said that it was a pre-Vatican II thing that some people still hung on to. When we moved to Vegas our friends from UD had lots of traditionalist friends who wore the veil, and she and I talked about it quite a bit. Mostly our conversations revolved around horrifying reasons she had heard people give for wearing the veil. One mother had chosen to “give it a try” one Sunday, and stuck to it after her five-year-old told her she looked “beautiful, like the Blessed Mother.” Her reasoning was that anything that made her look more beautiful like the Blessed Mother was something she should always do.

Even then, though, I mostly discounted the “veil” thing as a fringe Catholic  movement. But since entering the blogosphere, I’ve come to realize that it’s actually still a very prominent subject among the faithful.And while I’ve totally come around to the “don’t show your shoulders in Church” thing, the veil debate still mystifies me.

It isn’t that I don’t understand why some women chose to wear the veil. I do. It’s just that I’ve never come across an argument for the veil that convinces me personally that it’s either necessary or prudent.

Let’s start with the above argument that wearing the veil makes one look like the Blessed Mother. This isn’t something I’ve ever come across in the blogosphere, but it was so bizarre to hear about that I feel I must address it. It’s a very odd reason to wear the veil. Personally, I would like to be more like Our Lady. I’m pretty sure that looking like Our Lady is utterly out of  anyone in contemporary America’s reach, given that A) we’re not pre-Christian Jews from the Holy Land and B) I read somewhere that people are like, two feet taller now than they used to be 2000 years ago. So unless you are an extremely petite Palestinian/Israeli with a face that conveys your utter purity, my guess is you’re not going to look like Our Lady, regardless of your veiled or unveiled status.

But that’s not a serious argument for the veil. The one that Mantilla gives on Fr. Longnecker’s blog is much more common. That’s the “if you wear a veil you’ll be less likely to wear a tank top and stripper shorts” argument.

That argument makes sense to me…sort of. I think that yes, if you wear a veil you would probably hesitate to put it on over a shelf-bra tank top and some daisy dukes. But honestly, anyone who would wear a shelf-bra tank top and daisy dukes to Mass probably doesn’t even know what a veil is, or where to get one. And they probably don’t care. So unless the veil is made compulsory again, which I don’t see happening, that argument seems to me to be circular and pointless.

Then there’s the “I wear a veil because the Bible tells me to” argument.

Oh man. As a recovering Protestant, any argument that begins with, ends with, or contains the phrase “the Bible said so” is automatically viewed with suspicion, distrust and loads of eye-rolling. The Bible also says, in the same passage, that it is shameful for men to wear their hair long. My husband has long hair. I’m not seeing anyone pulling him aside to chastise him for being a disgrace to himself. In the same passage the Bible says that if it is a disgrace for women to have their hair shorn, they should cover it. I haven’t seen any arguments since the 20’s about the bob being a moral sin. But perhaps someone out there does think that having long hair for a man is disgraceful, and women cutting their hair is shameful. Well, how about this. Three chapters later, in Corinthians, Paul commands the people of Corinth that, “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two, or at the most three, should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.”

Er. Well, that’s awkward. I haven’t met many Catholics lately who advocate the speaking of tongues, let alone any who insist that only three people at the most may speak in tongues during Mass. Also, have you met many “tongues translators” among the faithful lately?

Much of the Bible, I have found, must be read as it was written. That is, Corinthians was written for a specific audience at a specific time. It was a letter. To the Corinthians. Not to the postmodern Americans. That doesn’t mean that we can summarily ignore the whole of the New Testament, but it does mean that we ought to keep in mind the culture of those to whom Paul was writing, and how vastly it differed from our own.

The last two arguments I’ve heard are the ones that I find the most convincing and also the most esoteric. (For the uninitiated into English-major-speak masses, esoteric basically means that I don’t completely understand them.) These are the arguments that head coverings should be worn by women A) as an outward sign of an inward humility before the Blessed Sacrament and B) as a symbol that there is something holy within women (the potential to bear life) and women ought to cover their heads just as other holy things are veiled during the Mass. Cam’s wonderful blog does a great job explaining the first one here, and this blog which I have never read before but which is totally going in my reader explains the second one wonderfully here.

Here are my thoughts on the first argument. While I understand, theoretically, the idea that a veil shows that you are submitting oneself before Christ, when I see a woman with a veil on I mostly can’t stop looking at her. Not because I think she’s purposefully drawing attention to herself, but because at every parish I have attended, veiling is quite out of the norm. And so attention is drawn. And even if it isn’t intentional, which I’m sure it never is, what I get out of seeing someone wear a veil in a predominantly non-veiled parish is less “that person is humbling herself before the Blessed Sacrament” and more “I’m extremely distracted by the pretty lace on her head and also keep wondering if that veil makes God like her more.” Now I realize that this is my own failure to focus and is not the fault of the veiled woman in any way, but having been on the receiving end of the distraction, I would feel very awkward indeed putting a veil on.

As far as the second one goes, I also understand that, theoretically. And theoretically I think it’s lovely. Practically, though, my own potential to bear life makes me feel less like the bearer of holy potential and more like I suck at Creighton. I hate to say that, but that’s where I’m at. I do pray often that I will have a more gracious attitude toward my apparent super-fertility, but so far that’s not forthcoming. So basically, if I put on a veil as a symbol of my life-giving potential, I would feel like a giant fraud.

I think that last sentence sums up the reason I choose not to veil, actually. All of the reasons to veil make sense to me theoretically, but none of them spark any sort of inward understanding. If I put a veil on I would feel like I was pretending to understand something, or feel a certain way, or be a certain way that I’m simply not. And somehow I don’t think that anyone would condone “veiling as a means to pretend your way into being more holy”.

Also, please please please please please understand that these are my personal reactions to the veil. I have nothing but respect for women who, like Cam, choose to veil on Sundays or every day! I think their reasons are noble and that they have experienced some sort of inward understanding of the veil that I have not. Oh yes, and even when I was the most feminist-ey of feminists, I found the idea that a veil is oppressive to women both unconvincing and laughable. It’s not a burqa.

Dare I check my combox now? I feel both fear and trembling.

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