Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On nuns wearing habits

I thought this was a great read, and tangentially related to my last post.  (I'd better add that I don't think that any nun who eschews the habit is doing so for bad motives.)

I have a neat little story about this.  Earlier this year I got to spend five days living with the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church (SMMC).  They're located in Spokane, Washington, which was a desert as far as traditional Catholic life was concerned-- "progressive" catechesis, annoying trendy Masses, a huge collapse in the numbers of people going to church, and so on.  In the whole diocese the only nuns left in habits were some cloistered Poor Clares and three or four Missionaries of Charity who'd just moved in (in answer to the bishop's plea about the "spiritual poverty" of his diocese.)

But there was also a big order of nuns up at Mount Saint Michael, who were sedevacantist and not in communion with the local diocese.  There were fifty of them wearing full traditional habits and embracing all the traditional practices of Catholicism (except, of course, that little thing about the Pope-- they believed he was an imposter.)  Then (it's a long, interesting story, but I'm super-condensing it for my purposes), some of the sedevacantist sisters considered their position and ended up leaving their order in 2007 and forming a new one in communion with the Church and under the auspices of the local bishop.  That was the start of the SMMCs; they began with eleven sisters.

Anyway, back in 2007, these recently sedevacantist but newly reconciled nuns, who were of course used to the traditional Latin Mass and all, found themselves living at Spokane's diocesan retreat center.  An older priest was the there, the retreat center's chaplain, and he was kind to them but didn't necessarily see the point of all the traditional stuff.  They told him they needed to make themselves some new habits, since of course they couldn't go on wearing the habits of the sedevacantist order they'd just left.  "Oh, sisters, you don't need to wear habits!" the chaplain told them.  He thought that kind of thing was outdated.

Not long after that a few of the sisters were telling their story to a group of laypeople at the retreat center.  Mother Catherine Joseph happened to mention, "Oh, and we won't be able to wear these habits any more, because they're the habits of our old order."  The laypeople misunderstood and immediately began to protest: "Don't stop wearing habits, sisters!  We need nuns in habits; we don't have any here any more!"  The retreat center's chaplain was there and he saw the laypeople getting distressed and realized that the habit meant a lot to them.

That chaplain ended up buying the material for the new habits as a gift to the sisters. :)

Here's a recent picture of their four new novices with the novice mistress.

When my visit with the SMMC sisters was over, some of them drove me and the other girl who was visiting to the airport.  We hugged them all goodbye and then the other girl and I were in the process of saying goodbye to each other when a man approached us.  "Who were those nuns you were with?" he asked.  He was a Catholic who'd lived in the area and knew its troubles, and he was very surprised and happy to hear that this was a new and growing order right in Spokane that the other girl and I had been visiting because we were thinking of joining them.  He sounded like he hadn't encountered such a thing since his childhood.  It was another little confirmation of how encouraging it can be for Catholics to see habits out and about.  I think it might be good in some way too for those who are distanced from religion and see it as bizarre and unbelievable.  It's silent testimony that there are those who perceive God as so real and religion as so important that they dedicate their whole lives to Him.

I sometimes hear that sisters should dress like everybody else because they're more approachable that way, and it always makes me think, "If they're unrecognizable, who's going to approach them?"  A few times I've found myself walking the streets of some town with a priest wearing his collar.  It very often happened that total strangers stopped the priest to ask a question, or to ask for his prayers.  No one's ever stopped me on the street like that, and there's no reason to expect that anyone would.

There's much more to say, but you know, if I wait till I've said it I'll never publish this post. :)  Gotta go get some other stuff done.


Anna B said...

PP and I were staying at a certain monastary of English Benedictines that has since moved to a new location, a couple of years ago. We were, of course, chatting the guest mistress' ears off (which is why they wear a wimple. Safety reasons).

She told us how, despite the Papal enclosure, she once needed to go somewhere. The train she was on staid at the station for a long time, and somehow it became clear that an elderly lady had become unwell on the platform. Sister noticed people glancing at her from the corners of their eyes, and started thinking "should I? Shouldn't I?"

In the end, of course, she went outside. Turns out that the ill lady had gone to Catholic school back in the day (not *that* common in Britain), which had been a positive experience - when Sister walked up to her the lady just stuck her arms out and said "Sister! Sister!"

Sister held her until the paramedics arrived, at which point she got up, straightened her habit, and went back on the train.

That was more or less the point where I understood that if it were to be religious life for me, it was going to be full habit :)

ignorant redneck said...

All I know for sure is this--orders and houses of women religious that have kept the habit, and who have kept the traditions of religious life are still receiving the gift of vocations from the Holy spirit, those who have not--not so much.

if you are ashamed to be seen as what you are, you probably arent' what you think.

Can you imagine if the marines decided not to wear their uniform any longer? After all, we are called the Church Militant!

Lee Gilbert said...

Lee Gilbert says:
Unlike most of our separated brethren, Catholics speak not only with words, but with signs, and one of those signs is the religious habit which is a sign of consecration to God.

When you were clothed with the habit, Sister, you were made very aware of all that it signified. And when you took it off, I have always felt that you meant to unsay what you said by donning the habit.

When, finally, you removed your veil, I pulled my children out of the school of which you were principal. I no longer knew who you were.

Rachel Gray said...

I loved that story, Anna B, thanks! It does illustrate how difficult it might be to be known as a sister whenever you're out in public. But you can't be consecrated part time.

IR, great point about the Marines, and Lee, I'm guessing that most orders that ditched their habits had reasons for doing so that seemed persuasive. But the reasons weren't as powerful as the sign. Applies to a lot of other post-VII changes too.

Anonymous said...

I think this is the problem with vocations today - we no longer recognize the priests and nuns. And we have had newly ordained priests refer to their vocation as "job'
And maybe some dont want to be recognized because of their attachments to EARTHLY THINGS!