Kimberly exuded gentle feminine grace even in her most rambunctious moments. Raised in a quiet Mennonite community, she was one of only two women on campus who wore a “prayer covering” over her chestnut mane. And yet she was not the least bit self-conscious about it, even while performing on the student worship team.
I admired Kimberly’s innate ability to draw people to her, make people love her. Shortly after graduation, she married a classmate and they prepared for their first term of mission service in China. She had utter confidence in her God and her young husband. Most missionary couples had one or two children. In the last Christmas letter I received from Kimberly, they had four and were expecting their fifth.
Then about a year ago, I heard that Kimberly and her parents were killed in a car accident in China. My friend’s death caused me to contemplate my own faith and vocation. In her short lifetime, Kimberly had dedicated her life to serving the Lord, and faithfully lived out that call. I knew there was more to her faith than the fact that she covered her hair in church; nevertheless, I began to think about how that action characterized her life and faith, and wonder whether I should follow her example.
The question of head coverings is not often brought up in Christian circles anymore. St. Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 11:4-12 is generally interpreted as a cultural bias rather than a spiritual principle even by those who take great pains to interpret nearly every other passage of Scripture as literally as possible. The alternative, it is supposed, is to relegate half the human population to second-class citizenry in the kingdom of heaven, fit for nothing but dishing up Jell-O salads and washing dishes at church suppers.
Still, I felt the Lord asking me to take this step of faith, and cover my own hair when I went to church. At first I felt self-conscious, as few other women in my church wore hats. But God richly blessed my feeble step of faith. As I continued to study the words and actions of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, a light dawned: The “hiddenness” of the covering is an expression not of weakness or inferiority, but of a woman’s true strength and God-given purpose: to be a true partner in the redemption of the world.
Human Face of the Divine
The humble obedience of the Virgin Mary brought about the greatest of all Christian mysteries: Through the Incarnation, for the first time in human history, we could truly see and touch the Divine. Mary’s genes determined the shape of His eyes, the curve of His jaw, the wave of His hair. Hers were the hands that held His own, leading Him out into the world to explore and learn long before the world would discover Him.
Just as Mary’s miracle started with a simple act of obedience, my own adventure in “covering” bore fruit almost immediately after I decided to take God at His Word. I became more conscious of my appearance, pulling on hose and a touch of lipstick instead of running for the car in whatever I had grabbed that morning. What is the point of looking like a woman from the eyebrows up, if I let the rest of myself go? My insides began to change, too: It was impossible to yell at my kids for dawdling or reprimand my husband for wearing the “wrong” shoes to church, I discovered, while wearing my covering. The lightweight cotton made me keenly aware of angels’ eyes upon me.
Time and again in the Gospels, it is the women who recognize divine life in the man Jesus. With a word from His mother, Jesus launched His public ministry (see Jn 2:1-7). The radiant countenance of the Samaritan woman at the well, along with her public affirmation of faith, compelled the crowds to see for themselves the Savior of the World (see Jn 4:42). In the Gospel of John, the tears of the Magdalene prompt the Risen Christ to reveal Himself to her before His other followers (see Jn 20:15-16).
Similarly, within the Church, the humility of the covering sometimes induces others to contemplate unseen mysteries. St. Paul wrote: “…any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled, dishonors her head…” (1 Cor 11:5). There is no question that she may pray or prophesy that is understood to be the task of every believer. And yet, by drawing attention away from her natural “glory,” she causes men and angels alike to avoid temptation. And by imitating Our Lady in drawing attention away from ourselves, becoming “other Marys” altera Maria we encourage our brothers to be more fully alter Christus each time we approach to receive the Eucharist.
This presentation, of course, extends to every aspect of life. We reveal the God of love when we extend ourselves with spiritual and corporal acts of mercy. We encourage children to trust our holy God by carefully instructing them both in words and example to follow Him in obedience. In a very real sense, as the “Body of Christ” we continue to reveal the hands and heart of God moment by moment, one person at a time.
Intuitive Seeker of Wisdom
Because of her uniquely feminine nature, woman instinctively understands how to transcend mere rationality to embrace deeper underlying truth. As wife and mother, she relies on her intuitive and relational powers to care for her family. As daughter of God, she sometimes perceives spiritual realities that are not always immediately apparent to her brothers. This intuitive power, combined with her instinct to place intellectual knowledge within the context of relationship, is the path to Wisdom. This may account, at least in part, for the reason the “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament presents Sophia (Wisdom) as a woman.
Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well in John’s Gospel is a compelling example of this. She notices social peculiarities: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jn 4:9). She engages Him with humor: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water!” (4:15). She is not put off by His bold exposure of her shortcomings, but seeks to “connect” the truth she is hearing with what she had always held to be true, until she is able to take the leap of faith and recognize her Messiah.
Another moving example is found in the eleventh chapter of John, at the death of Lazarus. While Mary sat at home, receiving visitors, Martha rushed ahead, struggling to reconcile the death of her brother with the love of the Master. Didn’t He know they needed Him? Didn’t He care? Her quiet words are both a statement of faith and a gentle reproach: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn 11:21).
“Your brother will rise again….”
“I know. He will rise on the last day.” But we want him with us now. Can’t you see that? Don’t you understand how much we love him, need him?
Jesus squares His shoulders, lifts His voice. “I am the resurrection and the life…. [W]hoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
Somehow, through the fog of grief and pain, Martha sees the light of revelation. “Yes, Lord. I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, He who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:27). Only Peter would speak the words as plainly, his declaration prompted not by “flesh and blood,” but through the Father (see Mt 16:17).
The covering reminds the wearer of the hidden, highly intuitive path that leads us from knowledge to true wisdom. This is not to say woman is incapable of rational thought clearly this would be an untruth. Nor is it true that all men are devoid of intuitive gifts. However, woman’s characteristic ability to “enliven” sheer rationality through her intuitive and relational gifts and his ability to channel those gifts constructively with his gifts of systematic reason is an exquisite example of the gender complementarity of God’s original design.
The Freedom of Hidden Virtue
I was thirty-five years old when I met and married my husband Craig. Thanks to my music training, from the age of twelve I was active in a variety of churches. And so it is perhaps not surprising when I began to equate fidelity to God with visibility of service. There was always one more piano to play, one more choir to direct, one more Bible study to lead, one more event to plan. As a Catholic woman, I came to realize that God was far more concerned about the state of my heart, the things I said and did when no one else was watching.
The women Christ most admired in the Gospels were those who lived lives of courageous virtue that went all but unnoticed or drew negative attention. He commended the courage of the widow who gave two copper coins to the Temple treasury (see Lk 21:2ff; Mk 12:42). He responded to the faith of the Canaanite woman, who trusted Him to make her tormented daughter well though they were not of the “house of Israel” (Mt 14:24). And He immortalized the love of the sinful woman who poured out her devotion, exposing herself to public ridicule (Lk 7:37ff).
The virtue of hidden service is not unique to women indeed, Jesus proclaimed that to be first in God’s kingdom is to be “last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:35). Similarly, He urged discretion in acts of charity, such that “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt 6:3); and “When you hold a lunch or dinner… invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you” (Lk 14:12-14). The hidden life of women is particularly suited to such powerful testimony in this life, and spiritual greatness in the next.
It is possible, therefore, to see Paul’s admonition on head coverings to be highly compatible with the liberating message of the Gospel. The most vital organs of the human body are covered with layers of bone and muscle and tissue, to protect the delicate functions for which the organs were designed. Similarly, women who choose to cover their heads whether out of simple obedience, respect for their husbands, or as an expression of their feminine gifts can regard their action as liberating, rather than degrading. It is a badge of honor, a symbol of joyful surrender, to all the gifts God wants us to have and use as women.
“It is not good for man to be alone,” we read in the Creation account. Biology alone does not account for this necessity of complementarity. Jesus and Paul after Him acknowledged the singular contributions of women by including them in His ministry, despite cultural taboos and prohibitions. Their actions and words may be lost to us in many cases but they are not lost to the Father, who has promised to reward those who give and pray “in secret” (see Mt 6:1-6).
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Raised in the Evangelical Protestant tradition, Heidi Saxton was confirmed Catholic in 1993. She is the author of With Mary in Prayer (Loyola) and is a graduate student (theology) at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. You may contact Heidi at email@example.com.