In the mid-1970s, asked about her move from an updated habit to ordinary clothing, the teaching sister who ran our parish CCD program declared that the shedding of religious habits was a good thing because it emphasized that sisters were “nothing special, that we are all special in God’s eyes.”
This sister gave an example: “When we were in our habits, a fellow with an Italian ice barrow would always insist on giving us free ices, but why should he? Why shouldn’t we pay like anyone else? Why should we deprive him of his living because we were in a costume?”
Putting aside how unlikely it would be for an Italian ice seller to go broke because he gave away a few free scoops of sugar-water, it is striking, thirty years on, to comprehend how fully horizontal and earthbound was her thinking; it had some breadth, but neither height nor depth. As with the “horizontally-focused” masses and hymns that over-emphasized the humanity of the church while diminishing the transcendence of its liturgy and purpose, Sister was embracing the beam of the cross—humanity and church reaching toward each other—without considering that the stationary vertical, heaven-focused post is vital, if anyone is to be raised up.
Sister was operating under a willful delusion; she justified forsaking the habit with appeals to solidarity, compassion, and humility, but her story illustrated egoism and presumption. She bemoaned a possibility of cheating a man out of his wages. In fact, she was cheating that man, but not in the way she imagined.
The ice-barrow man was not giving sister a free ice because she wore a habit, but because a man who revered (or at least respected) God saw an opportunity to demonstrate his regard in a little way that St. Therese might have applauded.
And she was cheating others, too. Her habit was a reminder to the community of faith, and to everyone else as well, that we are all called to simplicity and sacrifice—that for all of our Martha-instincts to work ourselves to death and carve our identities from what we “do,” we must cultivate our inner Marys as well, and embrace the challenge to simply be. Sister might correctly say that she was “nobody special,” but her habit was a witness to "being," and it confirmed Christ's covenanted life among us with a reassuring immediacy.
Perfectae Caritatis, the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life, wisely counseled in favor of adapting religious habits in practical ways, but never decreed that habits should be discarded.
The religious habit, an outward mark of consecration to God, should be simple and modest, poor and at the same becoming. In addition it must meet the requirements of health and be suited to the circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry involved. The habits of both men and women religious which do not conform to these norms must be changed.
The “outward mark of consecration” was meant to be a sign, but the habits were also a means of self-effacement. They were paradoxically meant to obliterate a sister’s uniqueness and make her one of many, one part of a collective hive. In truth, religious life is socialism the only way it can truly work: on a small-and-voluntary scale.
Taking off the habit may have (in the parlance of the day) helped sisters “celebrate their individuality”—and that is not a terrible thing, in and of itself; we are each fearfully, wonderfully made—but the embrace of ordinary dress over the religious habit also made the ordinary world more ordinary. Suddenly, there were no daily outward indications that anyone was praying at all, no reminders that we could and should pray, too. Suddenly, there was nothing to make a workingman remember Christ, and share some frozen sugar-water in gratitude.
When she eschewed the habit, the ice-man lost a marker that brought his awareness to God at random moments of his workday. Sister thus helped the man to become substantially poorer.
Desiring fellow-kinship, humility and “unspecialness,” Sister Nobody Special ironically wound up thinking about herself quite a lot. The Italian Ice was for God, after all, not for her.
Sister didn't cheat the man of his living. But she cheated God of a small devotion. She cheated a man of his chance to demonstrate that devotion. It would have been much more humble simply to say “thank you” to a free cup of ice, given and accepted in the love of Christ.
Rather like Holy Communion.
Habits are not necessary to the life of a religious; that is absolutely true. But perhaps when sister referred to the garb as "a costume," it was a clue that she had lost touch with the deeper meaning of such a powerful social identifier. In doing so, she cheated herself of the privilege of reminding the world, by her mere presence, that all creation is extraordinary and beloved. She cheated the rest of us, too, because we loved being reminded of that; it meant we each really were special, after all.
Habits may be worth re-considering, now, even by the most "progressive" of communities. The scratchy and starched architectural gear of past eras is impractical to the twenty-first century, but at a time when Christian witness is often received cynically, as caricature or hysteria, the adopting of the simplest of habits would give silent testimony of lives unified in purpose, being lived in simplicity and dignity, for something greater than material or political concerns. Such witness may well be necessary for the life of the world.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer for First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress.