Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Veil Wars--Skirmish

It has been about a year since I started covering my head at mass. What started out as a difficult exercise in humility and an exploration of tradition has become a comfortable norm for me. These days, I feel oddly bare on the days when I forget to bring my lace, a bit our of kilter, if only in passing.

That's why it was interesting to read that the Cathedral in Columbo has asked women to cover their heads in an effort to improve the propriety of dress among modern young women who don't seem to understand that a mini skit and halter top might not be the most respectful garb for church. I was surprised by the edict, and more surprised (though I should not be) by the howls of protest that it elicited in comments to a blog that brought it up.

Angry women (and a few men) compared the veil to the burqua and railed against any sign of submission in women. Militant feminism and moral relativism at it best, on full display. As my kids would have said in their teen years: PUH-LEASE.....

I continue to be amazed at the strong feelings that a tiny bit of material on the head of a Catholic woman can stir up, perhaps because I missed the napkin on the head phase of strict observance. I admit, I've never been tossed out of church and berated for lack of a head covering.

That said, it's time for a certain amount of perspective on this. For a woman to decide that it is an asset to her devotional life and a sign of respect to God and the Church to cover her head does not mean a wholesale retreat into the dark ages. For a priest or bishop to request it is not an egregious abuse of clerical power, and more than it is for that same priest or bishop to ask a man to remove his hat.

But the language this engendered! My particular favorite (the allusion to Moslem women forced to wear the burqua was just silly) was this: I won't submit to any man other than Jesus or my priest!

Setting aside for the moment that it was a priest in this particular instance doing the asking, I wonder how that's working our for her? I find myself having to submit to all sorts of men in the course of my daily life: to the demands of the clerk at the store that I pay for my goods, to the police officer who (only occasionally)_ asks for my license, to the comptroller who sends me my tax bill, even to the guard in my building who demands to see my identification before I enter.

I comply (submission is such a loaded word these days) because the demands are reasonable, the one making them has the power of office, and ultimately, because they are for the good of the greater whole. Stores don't stay in business long if customers don't pay. THe policeman needs to be sure I am who I say I am and that I am properly licensed to drive (and don't have a raft of unpaid tickets in the well...). The city needs tax dollars to run its business, and this is they way we have chosen to collect them. The guard has interests in protecting my safety. The worshipping community--and the priest responsible for it-- has an interest in a certain amount of decorum and respect in the liturgy. Our posture informs our minds, and our minds, in the liturgy, are to be on God, not ourselves.

The strident nature of the protest strike me: I will not! Not a good posture to start out a response to a spiritual issue. It sounds precariously too close to the Non serviam! that set this whole world to falling in the first place. It's taken me a few decades t learn this, but it's generally a measure of my own pride and failing when I respond so vehemently to a simple request. There are larger meanings, indeed, to everything, but they are often not what I think on first, disproportionate, selfish glance.

Even in the areas where I should not submit, I often will; best not to exclude off the mark areas in which my compliance might actually make me grow.

A friend who started following the blog at the time of the last round of veil wars stories was nonplussed by them. She dismissed my desire as harmless enough, indulgent of a new Catholic wanting to explore the old days...but dismissive at the same time of the whole idea that covering might have meaning in any sphere. Another silly rule that we can do without. Another silly rule that drives people away.

Perhaps. But I don't think it's the rules that make people leave the fold of the Church, I think it's coming face to face with the demand that we change that makes people uncomfortable. Just like the woman who railed I will not, we are reluctant to give over any part of our imagined self-determination. The change we are expected to make is far greater than deciding to wear a veil or put aside a hat. It's a change in the heart, and that is so very frightening to us. Even as we know how miserable we are, misery is at least familiar to us. This giving over to God can be intimidating, frightening, even as it draws us in our deepest core. And so we search for excuses: veils, hats, tithing, scandals, music, liturgy, personality--any reason to leave the place that we are drawn to and that makes us so profoundly ill at ease.

But the unease is just the first part of it, as I discovered with my veil. Live through it and it becomes a different experience, not because the act of putting on a piece of lace that will make one stand out like a sore thumb in a crowd of bare heads is any different, but because eventually, the wearer becomes different. In my case, it's been a means to a wonderful end. I can feel myself centering as I pull my scarf or my mantilla over my head. I am preparing to meet my Lord and the Love of my Life in His place, on His terms. And His terms are generous indeed. Difficult--but generous.

It's time we adopted the attitude of permission in these matters. Wearing a veil does not make me some sort of inhibited,unthinking, retro-Catholic throwback who endangers all of Vatican II by my obstinate adherence to an outdated dress code. Worshipping bareheaded is not a sign of militant disrespect. In this matter, as in so many others, we should be free to express our personal devotions without incurring the wrath of others. No one is obliged at this point at least not outside Sri Lanka and St. Peter's, but no one need be discouraged, either.

It has been an interesting year. When I started, I feared snide comments; if there were any, they have been said behind my back. The people who speak to my face have only good things to say. Little girls (always discerning in matters of taste) find the veils pretty. Older men are nostalgic about their mothers. And last week, one of the women greeting after mass told me she really liked seeing my veil.

I reminded her: They still sell them.....


  1. "Another silly rule that drives people away"? That's totally not backed up by studies. While some leave because they cannot accept obedience to rules, God's rules, others leave for the lack of reverence in some new Churches. The loss of the sense of the Sacred leads to a loss of the sense that it IS sacred. The veil is a sign of reverence, not "submission". When I look at the three or four veiled women at morning mass, or the ones who enter the adoration chapel, I KNOW they revere God, and are not there out of some social obligation. They KNOW Who He is, What He is, and Where He is. And they respect Him and His house.

    I admire them.

  2. We're not in the habit of asking God what He thinks.... or to consider what we already know is His opinion. It's still very much the same as it's always been... I want my life my way, even if it means I'm tempting some poor weak man who can see up this mini skirt or down my shirt...that's HIS problem, not mine.

    Sigh. Sad, selfish world.

    Great post!