Saturday, April 10, 2010


The Anchoress has a blog over on First Things, and a while ago she posted on the practice of wearing a veil in church, asking her readers what they do and why. She got a lot of comments (101 at last count). I started writing one of my own, but lo, it was too long for a combox-- and then it occurred to me that I have my own blog anyway for just this sort of thing. So here's my story of how I learned to stop worrying and love the veil.

At the end of 2006 I was becoming Catholic and looking around for a good parish. I found St. Peter Chanel (SPC) and loved it so much I started going to Mass every day. A few of the women there always covered their heads in church, sometimes with hats but usually with lace veils like in this picture. I liked it. It made the church look churchier, like something special was happening (and at Mass, it is!) But I never considered taking up the practice myself; I didn't feel I had a good excuse to do so.

Then in September 2007 the restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass were lifted and SPC started having one every Sunday. Most women cover their heads at TLMs, so there was my excuse. I jumped on eBay and bought the most inconspicuous veil I could find-- a brown one, close to my own hair color. On the appointed day I pinned it on and went to Mass, and from then on I always wore one at the TLMs and liked it very much.

By now I knew more about the practice of covering one's head in church-- that it was a long-standing Christian tradition and that the 1917 Code of Canon Law had explicitly required it:

Men, in a church or outside a church, while they are assisting at sacred rites, shall be bare-headed, unless the approved mores of the people or peculiar circumstances of things determine otherwise; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord.

My Protestant mom remembers owning a mantilla in the 1960's specifically for her summer trips to Europe, since they were required for tourists wanting to enter the magnificent old Catholic churches. But customs changed, and when the 1983 canon law came out it didn't mention veiling at all. So of course I knew that there was no longer any requirement for a woman to cover her head in church, but the fact that it had been the practice for nearly 2000 years got me thinking about why, about what the purpose and benefits of such a custom might be.

There are lots of viewpoints on this from women who wear veils-- try a blog search if you want to be inundated with posts on the topic. I read that a veil is about humility, or about modesty, a sign of a woman's submission or a sign of her elevation, a mark of something sacred or of something specially consecrated (what else is veiled at Mass? The Tabernacle and the chalice.) I read arguments that veiling is actually still required by 1 Corinthians 11, by immemorial custom, or by the abrogated 1917 Code. I saw a post from a man saying he wished men had a counterpart to the veil, something to wear at Mass like a banner to display allegiance to traditional Catholicism as opposed to modern cafeteria Catholicism. I saw a post from a woman with a bum knee, saying that she can't genuflect or kneel for the Consecration, but the veil gives her a way to pay visible homage to God. I read that wearing a veil improves prayer, concentration, bad hair days, the attitude of the wearer, and the attitude of everyone else in church.

Some of those reasons seemed good to me and some of them didn't, but none of them were quite powerful enough to make me to do something as foreign and intimidating as veiling. What did motivate me was this short line in the old canon law:

Women shall have a covered head... especially when they approach the table of the Lord.

Why especially then? It's the moment in Mass when everyone walks down to the front of the church to receive Holy Communion. This, in Catholic teaching, is not just bread and wine symbolizing Christ's death, but is actually Christ Himself, presented again to God as a sacrifice for our sins, and given to us as the food of eternal life. Jesus Christ, who as God is present everywhere, is present in a special way, physically, as the consecrated Host. Knowing who He is, knowing the amazing fact that He is there, made me want to do more to show reverence in the presence of the King of Kings. And one way Catholic women through the centuries have shown their adoration is by covering their heads.

So I was happy when the TLM gave me a chance to start doing that. It was partly because of the veils that I loved the TLM more than the regular Mass. My distracted mind is incapable of the kind of worship I'd like to render, but every little bit helps.

However, now my behavior was inconsistent. Our Lord is just as present and just as worthy of adoration at a Novus Ordo Mass (although the NO Mass does not demonstrate this fact nearly as well), but I was veiling only on Sundays and not for the other six Masses of the week.

Of course this was because there weren't very many women wearing veils at the NO Masses, and I was worrying: What will people think? My great fear was that folks would see me walk in with a veil and think that I was making some grand STATEMENT, something like "Tradition rules and you're all Novus Ordo heretics!" or, "I wear a mantilla and I am holier than thou," or else, "The Bible says to cover your head, sinner!" or even just "Pay attention to me!" I wasn't an older woman who could claim to be nostalgic for the customs of my youth, nor was I from Korea or the Philippines or some place where veils are more common. I was young and a recent convert from a casual jeans-wearing Evangelical denomination; everyone would know I was self-consciously and deliberately adopting a tradition that had never been mine before. I was afraid people would snort, "What does she think she's doing?"

Of course I wasn't trying to make any of those statements. I don't think every woman needs to cover her head in church, and I'm certain there are many women at my parish who don't wear veils and are much holier than I. But those statements are out there, and there are also people on the other side (readily found on the Internet) who seem to get irritated at the mere thought of a veil and aren't slow to impute bad motives to those who wear them. Fear of being unfairly judged prevented me from trying it for a long time. But in the end I tried to set the shy feelings aside and remind myself:

3) Most likely, nobody cares whether I veil or not.

2) Really, they're never looking at you or thinking about you nearly as much as you think they are.

1) If I want to do this to show reverence for God, fear of others' opinions shouldn't stop me. Which is more important?

So I started wearing a veil at the daily Masses too. I felt really awkward and self-conscious about it at first, and had to keep reminding myself, "I do it because I'm in God's presence; now stop worrying about what other people think!" After a week or so I relaxed. No one made any negative comments. A few people complimented me, and most had no reaction at all. It was perfectly anti-climactic. Now it's been more than two years, and these days it would be weird if I didn't wear a veil.

That's how it started. And though I do it to try to show reverence for God, I've found numerous other benefits to wearing a veil. Let us list them:

1. Slowing down to put on a veil on before walking into church reminds me: I am entering the presence of God.

2. There's zero temptation to wear anything grungy, sleeveless, or low cut-- it'd look weird with a veil.

3. I saw this TV show once where a character killed himself, and the moment his suicide was discovered, a blue filter went over the camera. For the rest of the episode, as the other characters worked through their denial and grief, the blue cast to the picture helped the viewer feel the unreality and shock that the characters were experiencing. Similarly, when I wear a veil it's always in my peripheral vision and it gives a certain cast to the world. It frames everything I see at Mass, but instead of a blue "tragedy" filter, it's a lace "you're in church" filter that helps me stay recollected.

4. It's true: no bad hair days. I just stuff my hair into a clip and I'm good to go. Who's going to see it?

5. I used to fidget with my hair in church, too, always worried about how it was looking from behind or whether it was smooth on top. Now I can sit still.

5. Privacy. This is so nice: if I bow my head the veil falls forward and blocks the view of my face from the sides. I can pray or sleep meditate deeply with my eyes closed, and no one sees. Not that anyone's looking anyway, but this way I feel that they're not looking-- the rest of the world is shut out and I can focus on God.

6. No peripheral vision = fewer distractions.

7. Cold morning and I forgot my scarf? I wrap the ends of the veil around my neck. Better than nothing.

8. If there's incense at the Mass the veil catches the scent, and for the next few days it seems like the incense is still there.

9. It renders me unrecognizable from behind to people who are supposed to meet me in church and go looking for my red hair. That's happened twice now-- oh wait, that's not really a benefit.

10. Okay, how about this: if an assassin ever comes looking for me at church, he'll scan the backs of heads, conclude I'm not there, and give up!

11. Other fabulous benefits to be added to this list as they occur to me.

Now to increase the gravity of my post, here's the Shrine on Technically Permissible but Inappropriate Substitutes for the Mantilla.

The veil seems to be catching on, at least among my friends. There were five of us who'd often get together after evening Mass to read encyclicals and such. At first only one of our group had a veil. Now four of us wear a veil to Mass, and the fifth wears a veil all day as a Dominican nun.

I read most of the comments at the Anchoress' post (the first one I linked to above; here it is again), and a lot of them are from women who like the idea of a veil and would sort of like to wear one but are inhibited by what others would think, exactly as I was. It's interesting that what women do or don't wear depends more their desire to conform than on inherent preference. I guess that's obvious; we wouldn't have identifiable fashion trends otherwise. But it just goes to show: the fact that the vast majority of women do not wear veils doesn't mean that the vast majority are opposed to it.

Okay, there was another reason I hesitated to wear a veil, and it's a reason I've never seen mentioned anywhere else: I was worried about the guys. Back then I was hoping to run into some great Catholic man who'd say "Oh my goodness, I'm glad you converted!" I wondered, would a veil seem so weird and embarrassingly backward to potential suitors that they'd be scared off? In the end I decided not to let even that stop me. After all, I figured, an ideal man would like it. This optimistic thought has since been borne out by experience. I've been approached by men at church who seemed to want to know me better, and that never happened before I wore a veil, not once in all my years of going to Protestant and then Catholic churches. Of course, by the time it did happen I'd decided to be a nun. But you ladies who are considering marriage and would like a man who's proud to be Catholic, don't worry that a veil will drive him off; it might be the opposite. I'm just sayin'.


Mary Rose said...

Sweet strawberries, I just caught on to your vocation! Oh, Rachel, I am filled with joy for you! And I wear a veil, also. I've worn a headcovering at many N.O. Masses that usually have been scarves. (On a few colder days, my knit cap.) There have also been times I haven't worn anything and you know what? Those are the times I felt weird.

When I was attending non-denominational churches, I had (and still do have) a deep love for Israel. I attended a Messianic congregation a few times, also. During that time, I purchased a Jewish prayer shawl. I used to drape it over my head as I prayed alone at home. It made the reverence and awe of God more real, as Moses himself had veiled himself after witnessing the Glory of God.

I know this may be entirely inappropriate, but I keep hearing Justin Timberlake singing, "I'm bringing Holy back!" As more women start to veil across the world. ;-)

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

You shall be incensed later :p

Warren said...

I'm as much in favor of women choosing to do this as I am against women pressuring others to do so.

Abrogated canon laws have no force over anyone's conscience, and are a historical memory. I believe that a thorough historical reflection on this matter should be attempted by someone who is neither a cheerleader or a denigrator of the mantilla.

I was reading a novel which explained that all married women in medieval Norway, wore a wimple.

So is that the meaning of the traditional nun's wimple? That she is a married woman. Married to her Lord.

Kind of cool.


Rachel Gray said...

Thanks Mary Rose! :) Though I haven't figured out which order to join yet, so things are still a bit uncertain. "Sweet strawberries" is a great phrase; I should use that myself.

You know, I might start using a veil at home myself on days when I can't pray in church... I have a harder time getting recollected at home.

"Thanks" for the Timberlake image. :)

Joe, I've never been so incensed in all my life!

Warren, I have noticed that some of the headgear women wear in those medieval paintings looks pretty nun-like. :) That would be an interesting study, though it might be hard to find someone who loves the subject enough to do it, yet hasn't formed either a positive or negative opinion himself!

Pam H. said...

I have a good friend who wears a veil, as do all her daughters, and I thought about it, but I decided I look much prettier in a veil than without it, and as I'm not very vain about my hair, which I almost never think about, I might be courting temptation to wear something so flattering.