Have you ever noticed that even something done for a good and holy reason can have unintended consequences? Last year I began to cover my hair before going into Mass. The whole thing started as an experiment: I remember discussing with my advisor the reasons Catholic women had suddenly stopped covering, after having done so for more than two thousand years.
My question was this: Why, given the teaching of the Apostle Paul, did Catholic women not cover their “glory”?
He was, as usual, unfailingly kind and patient. “If you were to cover your hair at Mass,” he observed, “It could be a sign of humility, and a good thing.” And so, I decided to start covering, and during that time, I discovered it to be a source of true blessing, as I wrote in a previous article on Catholic Exchange.
For six months I draped my scarf or put a hat over my head unobtrusively as I stepped into the sanctuary. Of course, doing anything unobtrusively is next to impossible with my two rambunctious little ones. Three-year-old Sarah was fascinated with my covering, and kept tugging at it to see if she could dislodge the thing. She especially liked playing with it when I was on the kneeler, leaving me in a less-than-prayerful mood.
About five months into my six-month experiment, I took a class on “Women in the Gospels” at seminary, and the priest teaching the class informed us that binding up one's hair was considered by some to be an acceptable alternative to the covering. Still, I decided to stay the course.
The final straw came at the six-month point, when I arrived late at church for a teacher's meeting, and realized that the others had gone in to a special Mass. I had left my purse (with the headcovering) in the car, and had a choice to make: Go in to Mass without my head covered, or sit outside and wait for the others. I knelt down outside the day chapel and followed along… where Father Gordon found me a few minutes later. He looked at me, surprised and puzzled. “Go on in,” he urged me.
“But I'm not prepared,” I protested. He shook his head and kept going.
It was then I realized things had gotten out of hand. In my effort to do the right thing, I had gotten so caught up in form that it had gotten in the way of my taking my place in the public prayer life of my community. Remembering my advisor's words, I realized that, just as wearing a covering can be a sign of humility, it can also be a source of pride.
Three Indispensable “Body Parts”
As the “body of Christ” on earth, we have members with a variety of personalities, charisms, and gifts. We also each have a different purpose to serve even within the prayer life of the Church.
The human body has three layers: The inner core with its delicate vital organs is protected and carried by the skeleton. The brain and heart, the lungs and stomach none would last long if they were outside the body, exposed to the elements. This corresponds to the mystical aspect of Church life: the contemplatives and intercessors and mystics that sustain the life of the Church by the vital connection to the Spirit.
The next layer, the skeleton, provides structure and support. Without this structure, we would not survive, either just as, within in the Church, we need the structure that is provided by Tradition and the ongoing teaching authority of the Magisterium. There are also “skeletons” in the pews, members who are diligent in drawing the attention of the community back to the core teachings of the Church contained in the Catechism and Magisterial documents, and ensuring that, as a community, we do not wander too far afield in the liturgy. These men and women who have often invested their lives in writing, speaking, and teaching in the name of the Church are often “walking encyclopedias” of canon law and Church history. Catholics in America in particular are indebted to these brothers and sisters and their zeal for the New Evangelization.
And yet, the internal organs and skeleton do not comprise the whole body: a third layer is also needed. This fleshy, “huggable” outer layer is comprised of the ordinary Catholics in the pews who live out their faith in daily life through their relationships. Through corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and daily perseverance at work and within the faith community, they are lights in a world of darkness. They preach a wordless Gospel of love, sometimes because they know it is the most effective way to convey its message, other times (let's be honest) it’s because they don't know the nuts and bolts of the faith as they should. They are like the widow in the Temple, who gave everything she had and became a symbol of faith immortalized by Christ in the Scriptures because of her silent witness.
Many Parts, One Body
What do these “layers” have to do with headcoverings? As I talked with other women (both Catholic and Protestants) about their attitudes toward this practice, I found that there was often an interesting correlation between what motivated a woman to cover (or not) and her attitude toward the Church in general and her own faith community in particular.
The “mystics,” for example, were generally most appreciative of the spiritual insights I gleaned from the headcovering experiment. At least one I know of a third-order Carmelite decided to start covering herself after reading my article. The “structured/apologists” who covered their hair spoke most frequently about upholding Tradition, or belonging to a community in which all the other women did so. The third group, which represented the vast majority of the faithful Catholic women with whom I spoke, seemed to consider headcoverings a spiritual “non-issue,” except for the most pragmatic reasons (such as witnessing to a Muslim or a desire to please one's husband).
The other thing that struck me about the experience as I contemplated these groups was the way their faith expressions complemented each other when they supported each other. I observed this in headcovering discussion groups, and among sisters in my own faith community who did not choose to cover their heads but supported me in my own faith journey. And I also observed how discordant those voices became when one group came to regard another as being less “authentic” or “faithful.”
Perhaps more than any other single experience since I joined the Church, the issue of headcovering crystalized for me the reality of the Apostle Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 12:18-24:
But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as He chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require.
In the Body of Christ, all three groups prayerful mystics, traditional apologists, and relational workers are needed to sustain life and health. Without the life-giving vitality of the mystical “core,” bare bones grow lifeless and cold. Without the structure and protection of the skeleton, vital organs are susceptible to the harsh realities of the elements, and suffer damage and even loss of function. Without a fleshy exterior, the vital organs and skeleton repel rather than attract; it is this outer layer faces the world, that communicates the warmth and life and vitality of its inner workings.
Finally, my hair-covering experiment taught me an important lesson about myself: That just as spiritual truth is best expressed by the whole Church, rather than a single voice, so it is acquired over the course of a lifetime rather than grasped in a single moment of revelation. In any given moment, God has certain insights, certain spiritual truths He wants us to receive. When I covered my hair, God in His great mercy and wisdom spoke to my heart about my feminine gifts and place within the Body of Christ. When I stopped, I quickly discovered He had other lessons in store.
Heidi Hess Saxton is a regular contributor to CatholicExchange.com and Canticle Magazine, and a graduate student of theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. She and her husband Craig are adoptive parents of two foster children and one recalcitrant Border collie. For more of her writing, go to http://heidihesssaxton.blogspot.com.