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

Nuns and Sisters: To Inhabit the Habit, or Not? April 27, 2013

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.

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24 responses to “Nuns and Sisters: To Inhabit the Habit, or Not?”

  1. I am part of a non-residential religious community for mature women. We wear a common dress (mid calf skirt, blouse, top, and a cross) at church services and occasionally in other settings .We have chosen a flexible approach. Although we always try to wear the common dress at church services, it would be inappropriate for most of us to wear it when we are working or out in the community.

    We did not intend to have a common garb at all, but I wore a similar outfit to what we adopted and began to be approached by people who wanted to share their stories or ask for prayer. Several members of the group adopted the outfit and had similar experiences. There seems to be a need for some people to be able to identify us as a resource for them but when and where to wear the common dress requires careful discernment.

    We’ll include the problem of human trafficking in our prayer and be alert to situations where we might be helpful. In our city, we are seeing more instances of this horrible practice. I have no scientific basis, but it seems that respect for women is plummeting, with these terrible consequences. I have great respect for those who serve in this difficult and often dangerous area. Thank you for raising awareness of this serious problem.

  2. I really like your article in how you look at various angles briefly in terms of whether or not to wear the habit. I am called to religious life and am so thrilled, grateful, and excited! One big part of my discernment is that the community I love (very tied to all kinds of issues, including end to violence) does not wear the habit and that’s something that is deeply on my heart. I continue to discern this, knowing fully that I will not leave a community I am drawn to and can thrive in, simply because of how they dress…your article encourages me to keep reflecting on the ministries and being fully able to serve others..thank you!

  3. i am married, but need to heed the Lord’s call to join a convent thats not cloistered, that does wear the traditional habits, does good works for the community, since we were not married in the church, we were married by a civil ceremony done by a justice of the peace.. are we married in the churches eyes? would i need to get an annulment or wait to become a widow which i do not want to do since i am only 46,husband is 48 or since we werent married in the church can i just walk away?. what what religious orders would take me?

  4. I am 33 years old and I am looking on
    become a sister and they should wear the
    habit and the pirest that is helping me feels the same way

  5. Some nuns are social workers, or physicians, artists, teachers, and so on. A religious vocation signifies the way one is called into relationship with Christ. There are many ways to live out that relationship, social work being one that allows the opportunity to minister to the most vulnerable.

  6. I would think that someone who is “badly dressed with a rotten haircut” has given up their addiction to worldly appearance!

  7. You are married in the eyes of the Church. But I believe that it is possible for a married person whose partner is still alive to take vows, at least I know of priests who have done that. You do sound a bit young – the priest I remember best was something like 67. If I am correct – but you need to speak with your diocese, because it’s your bishop who has ultimate jurisdiction – you would of course need to take a vow of chastity and effectively separate from your husband.

  8. That doesn’t follow. The charisma of an order member is not the same as that of a priest, and many order members are lay brothers or tertiary members, not ordered. And many priests are “secular” and not members of any order. The issues, the services, the point of the vow, are different.

  9. Beautifully said @4ce2bd379b392816f38fd0a3ad4eaf4c:disqus . Sisters and nuns must sacrifice all worldly things and appearances, and how can they do this if their clothes appear similar to a high school principal or a secretary at an office?

    I believe all religious should wear habits, regardless of their work or ministry. Suffering from heat or discomfort should not be seen as a burden to avoid, but rather one to be accepted as a sacrifice to offer up for Christ. As a young Catholic, would it be better to wear a tight tank top and short shorts than to wear a knee-length dress? Absolutely not; yes, I may be more uncomfortable, but in staying modest I am fulfilling God’s call to chastity by wearing the dress.

    When you sight a nun in a full habit, there is a serene reverence and respect you feel you must show her, taking in her purity and complete chastity. I believe outward appearances have much to say about the beauty of a soul yearning for Christ.

  10. Well good for you. I hope you find a habited order that will accept you. That said, do you think religious life is only a fashion statement? Would you be dedicated to Christ if you didn’t receive the special attention offers?

  11. The desire to be seen as pure and serene because of the habit one wears can also be an addiction to appearance, and a need for attention. Generally, pre-vocational psychological evaluations try to weed out those who view a habit as a badge of honor.

  12. There are many types of work you could do without going to a cloistered convent. Are you sure the Lord is calling you or you want to walk away from an unhappy marriage? Are you an active Catholic already, there are many ways to serve God without becoming a nun. I would consult your parish priest about your desires, and problems and I hope you find peace.

  13. I just spent some time with a group of Dominican nuns (they wear all white with black recovering when fully initiated) and they were the most gregarious, fun and sweet women I’ve ever met. You don’t understand that they are excited and honored to wear the habit, it’s not something they’d ever want to change. They teach K-8 and I’ve frequently seen them out on the playground running around playing kickball, basketball, etc. and aren’t hindered in any way . Don’t feel sorry for them, they are very happy with their choice and more than honored to dress the way that they do Just be happy for them and support them.

  14. God gave a woman the most elevated position in history: the Mother of Jesus, Queen of Heaven queen of the universe . I think it’s fair to say that God has a very high opinion of women . Being a nun is not “less than ” being a priest it is a different calling. Men cannot be called to be nuns either. Need to focus less on feminism and more on the Holy mystery of God and the fact that His son died for you and all of us

  15. you could look into something called a third order (or I believe tertiary order?) These are “orders” for lay persons (essentially?).

    Here is just one website I found, with a “snippet” from it… but google “third order” to see many more websites…

    “3. What is the purpose of the Third Order?

    The SSPX’s Third Order is an “Order set up to secure for souls living in the world a school of sanctity.” Sanctification of individuals and those for whom members of the Third Order are responsible for; such is the purpose of the Third Order. Like the old traditional Third Orders (Carmelite, Dominican, Franciscan…), the SSPX’s Third Order is a state of life midway between the cloister and the world, or to put it in different words, a religious Order which will penetrate into Christian homes in the midst of the world.”

  16. I disagree that habits cause problems. I was a member of habited Sisters for several years…. the habit was made of a cotton-poly blend that made it comfortable to wear in all seasons. I never found my habit (though full length) to be a hazard or dangerous in any way — it was easy to “pin-up” for soccer or jogging – it was easy enough to take off the rosary when participating in active sports or say, cleaning the gutters on the roof. So no issues. I also found it EXTREMELY useful when dealing with people in vulnerable situations — because they would seek me out, to ask for prayers, counsel, or when they had no one else they figured they could talk to. It was almost as if the habit gave them the permission to dive right into their problems and a sense that I would be discrete, kind, caring and non-judgmental. The shear volume of people who took such liberties from every walk of life taught me I had a huge responsibility in wearing the habit – to be properly informed, educated and trained in my work and not to go beyond my competencies but have excellent people to refer others to – so instantly was I trusted. Now that I am not a Sister but still work for the church I find it harder to reach out. Strangers do not seek me out and in tough situations it takes more to establish trust — even though I might have more training under my belt. My experience tells me – especially being involved in the same kind of work – without being a Sister – that the habit actually _breaks down barriers_, fosters dialogue and friendship. Barriers are created by stuffy and arrogant personalities. Not by clothing. I don’t think any of my Sisters felt forced in any way to wear the habit on a regular basis – I certainly didn’t. And for certain tasks, certain layers did come off.

  17. I’m discerning the religious life and one of the clearest moments I had in my vocation story were seeing habited sisters. To visually see their witness was huge and really moved my heart. I was a teen living in a visual world of constant distractions and sin; however, the habits, the smiles and the joy that the sisters radiated really spoke of authentic beauty that is hard to put into words. It was like looking at Christ.

    Also I remember time when I was on a retreat with my Confirmation program. It was at a retreat house run by the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles and they’re habited. My friends were amazed, and so many people were running around saying, “Hey, did you see that nun?! I’ve never seen a nun before!!” They were excited just to see a sister! My generation thirsts to see truth and an authentic beauty, instead of the images and lies the world constantly feeds us–through the media, peers, even homes. For me, and those friends, the habit spoke volumes, in no words at all.

  18. Why are you not a sister any more? I know it is a calling from God did you feel that you should have a family or was it you knew in your heart that God was calling you to do his work for the church as a lay poison?

  19. No religious life is not fashion. You feel it in your heart. The habit is a sign you gave everything over to God. Yes I would gave thing over to God even if I do not receive the special attention offers. I am sorry I did not reply sooner.

  20. Good for you Lisa!!! My daughter just made her First Profession, after 3 years, and one of her criteria WAS she wanted an order in habit and it was NOT a fashion statement. When we visit her and take her out, the number of people that approach her and THANK her for her service or tell her what a positive impact Sisters have/had on their lives is countless. I often wonder how often this privilege of having people thank you and ask you for prayers happens to unhabited Sisters.

  21. It is a little more complicated than you would think. Having just counseled someone on this EXACT subject and spoke with a Sister who has extensively studied canon law, 1. You would have to get a divorce, 2. You would have to get your marriage annulled, (regardless if you were married in the Catholic church or not) and not all annulments are a guarantee 3. If you have any kids or people legally dependent upon you, you would have to wait until they are 18 and no longer in high school, EVEN IF you do not have custody, 4. Due to your situation, many orders would than make you wait and possibly seek counseling first. I think those that have suggested Third Orders are right on in the direction you should take.