Veiled in Mystery: The Holy Habit If there were a purely natural order of sacramentals, I think “the dress” would eminently qualify for such a category. Let me explain… Growing up, I, like so many little girls, loved clothes. Hand me downs were exciting because in each bag of goods some treasure would inevitably be found which, no matter how big or small, just had to be worn. One of the best times with girlfriends was trying on our mothers’ shoes or old dresses. Shopping? Always a thrill. Simply looking at all those outfits was exhilarating. And even better was buying something and bringing it home. But of all apparel, I have to say, there was something extra special about “the dress”. There comes a moment in every female’s life when this particular garment wields a power far beyond that of the colored threads of which it is woven. The mystic moment may occur early, while yet a little miss hopping about in Easter finest or at a first Holy Communion veiled in angelic white. It may come later, at a dance, on a date, during a holiday, or simply on a warm and breezy day. Whatever the occasion something extraordinary happens. She knows it, and so does everyone else. A transformation takes place and a glimpse into a reality beyond the ordinary is seen. A certain glow rests on the young lady or woman. And deep within, she perceives and radiates the incredible truth – that to be a female –is to be a queen. She is springtime and summer, lilies and roses, sunshine and moonlight all at once. Such is the power of a dress. Is this a supernatural power like that of the sacraments? Certainly not. But like sacraments and sacramentals, a mere material substance is used to lift the spirit to the awesome awareness of God’s work in creation. In this case, God’s crowning piece, woman. This article seeks to explore the meaning of one very special dress, namely, the holy habit. While ordinary dresses possess a natural power to inspire, the habit, which actually is a sacramental and one particularly bound up in the mysteries of the faith, expresses the mystery of femininity on levels beyond imagination. The Bride of the Lamb While clothing may often be thought of as something worldly, in God’s scheme of things it holds a very noble position. Scriptures reveal that clothing has a religiously symbolic function. It can represent restored dignity (as in the animal skins in which God dressed Adam and Eve), adherence to the covenant (prayer shawls and head covering), consecration to God (elaborate priestly vestments), authority over God’s people, (resplendent royal robes), etc. Clothing in the scriptural context, therefore, serves to exhibit externally some inner reality of God’s work The holy habit also functions in this way. It physically manifests some very important spiritual realities. So, in order to really understand the habit, the inner meaning it represents must first be established. We turn again to the scriptures. Revelations 21 provides a passage which perhaps better than any other encapsulates the sublime mystery behind the habit. Though short, this passage is rich with meaning. It reads:
Then came one of the seven angels… and spoke to me saying, “Come I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And in the Spirit, he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel…” (Rev 21:9‐11) Here we have the Lamb, His Bride and the glory that adorns her. An extraordinary exchange, an exchange of garments so to speak takes place. Christ the Son of God, moved with love for humanity, clothes Himself in her shame and in her very flesh to become her sacrifice. He appears then, not in His divine glory, but as a Lamb. In consequence, humanity, made clean by His pure blood, is able to shed her robes of frailty and guilt. Sanctified humanity becomes His chaste Bride and appears resplendent in the garments of Christ’s Divine holiness. She is the most radiant, most pure, most exquisite, and absolutely perfect dwelling for the Lamb who illuminates her from within. This outstanding mystery, the mystery of Christ and His Bride, is the inner reality behind the habit. The Bride in the passage above represents the Church corporately but also every soul individually, for redeemed by Christ all are called to this most intimate communion of love imaginable. But the nun and all religious whether male or female participate in this communion in a special way. These souls, with the hearts of true lovers, want to share everything, possessions, affection and will, with the Beloved. And so they assume lives of radical gift beyond what is necessary for salvation through vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Thus they become powerful representations of the relationship all are called to with Christ. A woman religious, however, is able to symbolize even more completely this union for though her feminine nature she more fully represents the soul as bride. In God’s order of things a woman is one who receives love in order to bring forth life. She is, as Alice VonHildebrand says, “The one created to be loved.” By embracing religious life then, she realizes the feminine design far beyond what she could on the natural level. For she is queen, bride, mother, sunshine and joy to no mere man, but to Jesus Christ, perfect man and Son of God. And thus she becomes the image par excellence of the soul as bride of Christ, revealing just how tremendously loved every soul is. The habit she wears then is the outward manifestation of this love. It is a visible reminder of the radiant garment, Christ’s own glory, with which he clothes those wedded to Him in faithfulness. The Holy Habit The symbolism of the habit is a natural outgrowth of its inner reality. Beginning with the veil we see a powerful symbol which itself means “mystery”. In Scriptures the things that were veiled were those most sacred. For example, the Holy of Holies, the most hallowed of all places for the Jews, was separated from the rest of the temple and the outside world by a huge veil. Only one priest could enter there one time per year, and then only after much prayer and preparation. In Catholicism we carry on this symbolism by veiling our tabernacles and sacred vessels which hold the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. So the veil of a woman speaks of her mystery and intrinsic worth. She is a “garden enclosed”(Song Chapter 4; Verse 12) for within her is the mystery of life.
This understanding unfolds a three‐fold character common to all women, virgin, bride and mother, whether realized physically or spiritually. The veil of a nun bespeaks this feminine beauty primarily through its spiritual realization. As virgin, she veils herself to indicate that she has kept herself for her Beloved alone. As bride, she is veiled to show her belonging to the Beloved. And as mother, she is veiled to symbolize the protective care she give to the life within, which is the fruit of the love between her and her Beloved. The other elements relate closely to this. A knotted cord and wedding ring indicate her bond to Christ through her holy vows. A scapular and a rosary indicate her association with the Mother of God who perfectly fulfills what the religious strives after. A crucifix reminds her that she may reign with Christ as His queen only by being identified with Him in humility, poverty, renouncement of the world and self and sacrifice. The garment is of ordinary wool, brown, as in our community, serves to remind the nun that her Spouse chose the way of lowliness as His path to glory. A cloth band around the forehead reminds her of the crowning virtue of her Lord, obedience. Sometimes women get a bad rap for their affection for clothes. The criticism is not entirely unfounded as such an affection often leads to materialism, a terrible sin. But as St. Thomas Aquinas emphasizes, any human pursuit, even that which is disordered, always involves the seeking of some real good. Perhaps then, women are really seeking something deeper, something even holy, in their love of clothing. Perhaps the “something deeper” which women seek is God, Who is Beauty, and the full flowering of their role as His beloved. And perhaps the habit, worn by women who faithfully live all it represents can help to inspire this truth in hearts everywhere. For as Hans Urs Von Balthasar said so well, “Every experience of beauty points to infinity.” ‐ a PCPA