There seems to fall a habitual silence when pro-habit and anti-habit nuns meet. Each has passionate reasons for doing that which they do. Long time readers of Adam’s Ale know that I have a pension for habits and collars in a country that is increasingly symbolically and visually oriented. But non-habited nuns did not discard their striking robes without heavy reason and debate and did so hoping to bring advancement to the cause of the mission of the Church.
One nun states, “Though it never succeeded completely, the habit was intended to mute personality, erase individual difference, short-circuit vanity, keep the world at a distance. At the same time, it placed the Sister in a position of high symbolic visibility. "Nuns were always on stage,"’ was how one wise veteran of the era put it. "That was what the habit was for." By adopting contemporary clothing, women religious made a deliberate choice to move off that stage, into the audience so to speak, and toward individual responsibility. "Moving into modem dress had dramatic impact," former nun Mary Griffin recalled in her memoir Courage to Choose, "It revealed to the world in general the human being underneath the habit. But more important, it revealed the nun to herself: it was an experience in recognition.”" (The rest of the article may be found here.)
I have come to realize that my desire for nuns to be habited was just that, my desire for nuns (and religious brothers) to be habited. Does it matter what I desire? No.
In the long run it will not matter if one thinks that wearing a habit is dangerous nostalgia or not wearing them makes them invisible and non-consequential, it will be what works, what promotes the kingdom that will prevail. After all there are many organization and lay movements that meet without outward signs and their activity in the world attracts others to their gatherings. Why could it not be the same with nuns?
Yet I see the large orders of our diocese, the backbone of the burgeoning, growing ages now fading away and the young women searching for religious life not joining these once flourishing orders but choosing to leave the state in search of something they are not finding here.
In contrast to the quote above here is an excerpt from a letter a newly habited nun of our parish wrote recently. “Taking the Holy Habit has really been such an honor, although I honestly feel much too young to have it on. But to be clothed in the white of purity, virginity, baptismal and bridal gown, wearing our weapon the Rosary at my side, covered in Our Lady’s Mantle and protected by her Scapular leaves me really humbled and ecstatic at the same time. To be living witness to the world, to be a sign of hope that there is more than the temporal is a gift. I am really a reminder for myself first that there is a God who loves me intimately, who chose to create me, and is thinking me into existence at the very moment, and then for everyone else of that same reality. And finally as my response to Him is complete YES, I cover my head, to reserve myself for Him only.”
I am almost moved to tears over this statement. Coming from her I know it is authentic. But the question is which life is sustainable; which order will grow over the next 15 years, the former nun's or the latter?
Peppered throughout this post are pictures of religious men and women. They were taken early in the day at the vocations tent at the FEST. I found myself wondering if the people at the other tables were actually religious or not and as I only had about 10 minutes between tours to take pictures, I didn’t have time to inquire. There may be a lesson here. But only time will tell.
Lastly, I do not wish to disparage any of you who are out there quietly plugging away at your vocation as a religious without a habit. We as Catholics get beat up enough without turning on each other. Thank you for your vocation. Thank you for the life you bring to the Church. Thank you for taking God's call in your life seriously enough to take vows as a religious. May God bless you and your mission.
Once again, here is the new site for religous vocations in the Diocese of Cleveland.