Lessons From A Monastery: Why a Habit?

“The Habit brought the Church to life.”
—Brian Plum

Of all the outward signs of religious practices, the wearing of the habit is the most visual and also the one with the most wonder, questions, and controversy surrounding it. Seeing a nun in her full habit can conjure up strong feelings from childhood, remind a person of God’s nearness, or even cause feelings of disdain. In the Roman Catholic Church, there is a constant debate over religious wearing the habit or not wearing the habit (at least since Vatican II). Most of those conversations are very black and white and fail to acknowledge the good points and truth from either side. I want to explore both sides here.

I cannot cover all there is to say about the wearing of the habit in this short article. There is a mixed history depending on the religious order, and a different practice between East and West. In the East, all monks and nuns wear the same habits: long black robes, belt, and head coverings. There isn’t the question wondering if monastics shouldn’t wear the habit so they “can be closer to the people”, there also isn’t such a great divide in the first place.

A friend of Father Moses’ recently visited the monastery and shared with me how he and his wife became close friends with Father Moses when they met him on the Camino de Santiago. The three of them traveled together, giving each other support, while making the five and half week long walk to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Brian joked about being the “ugly girlfriend” next to Father Moses who attracted a lot of attention on account of him being a monk dressed in his habit. For those who may not know, the Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage to the place where the relics of St. James the Great are kept. There are several routes a pilgrim can take, one of them leads from France to Compostela, Spain. Numerous and varied pilgrims travel the 1200 year old route every day.

Brian isn’t actually Catholic, so when we were discussing the pilgrimage and Father Moses being in his habit he explained that he didn’t even know what the habit was all about. But what he did know was this:

“It was a gift, Father Moses wearing his habit. There weren’t a lot of religious dressed in them so everyone noticed Father Moses. People walking the Camino are searching for answers; they have questions, that’s why they are there. Father Moses being in his habit gave people the opportunity to ask what was in their hearts. … People would go up and ask him to talk. He would explain that he didn’t have all the answers but sure they can chat. Everywhere we went, the hostels at night, restaurants, and cafes, and all along the path people wanted to talk to him.”

Along the Camino the pilgrims attend Mass. At the end of each Mass there was a special blessing for pilgrims. Father Moses was always asked to be one of the clergy giving the blessing. Brian explained that because the people saw Father Moses making the pilgrimage too, and he had formed relationships with the pilgrims along the way, the people would get in line for his blessing, passing right by the other clergy and adding to the end of Mass an extra thirty minutes sometimes. Brian said a lot of people on the Camino aren’t even Christian (maybe half of them are) and still the majority of the pilgrims wanted Father Moses’ blessing. When they finally reached their destination of Santiago de Compostela, Father Moses’ line was out the door. “The people wanted his blessing because they had seen him in his habit all along the Camino and knew who he was. I don’t know the reason for the habit but the lines of pilgrims waiting for his blessing tells how important it is.”

I explained to Brian that the wearing of a habit is first done for the monk, as a reminder that they are dead to the world, but also as an act of modesty, humility, and poverty. He thought that it was funny that the habit was a sign of being dead to the world because, “Seeing Father Moses in his habit, seeing the people come up and talk to him and ask to take pictures with him everywhere we went, well to me his habit brought the Church to life on the Camino.”

It should be obvious the importance of a religious wearing their habit by this story. Christians are called to be the light of the world and to bear witness to their faith. The wearing of the habit is a definite sign and witness of the Christian life.

So what about the other side of this? Is there really a downside? I would say yes. Higher standards are set for religious wearing a habit. They can definitely be treated differently for good and bad. Some religious who are against wearing the habit say they want to be treated like everyone else, they don’t want to be given special care, favors, or be seen as different from the laity. Then there is the abuse of power that can come with the idea that the religious are holier than others. All of these are valid and real issues, but is the answer to throw the baby out with the bath water? No, definitely not.

The reason for a certain practice or tradition can be lost and forgotten. Sin instead of grace will be the result of anyone having the wrong motives and intentions. Pride can be the result of wearing a habit, but pride can also be the result of fasting, or attending daily Mass, or striving after any other Christian virtue or practice.

Having known monks for so long now, I’ve seen how they are treated in all the different ways I mentioned above by people who don’t know them well. Sometimes they are given great reverence, other times harassment, often gawked at, usually treated kindly. I have seen the new guys who are still in early discernment, be given their black robe and have outsiders expect them to act like ‘good holy monks’ and even be treated like wise old monks. This treatment is shocking to them and unfair.

There are several lessons that we can all learn from the practice of religious wearing habits. The most important one, from what I have seen, is we as a Church need to learn to really see one another. Yes we see a life given to God in the vocation of a monk or nun by them wearing their habit, but their story doesn’t end there, there is a person behind the habit and under the veil. Someone we should talk to and get to know when possible. It is easy to assume so much about others—building real relationships requires us to put those assumptions aside and simply see the person in front us and allow them to see us too. And this doesn’t end with us seeing beyond the habit, we need to do the same for everyone else just as well. Treating religious well, with respect, and consideration isn’t a bad thing, but we should strive to treat everyone like that. Thinking every monk we meet must be holy isn’t bad as long as we actually see all of God’s people as holy and set apart. Having high standards for religious isn’t wrong if we have the same standards for ourselves, always knowing no one is perfect; everyone falls and sins, including us.

Other more obvious lessons we can learn would be lessons in modesty, humility, and simplicity in dress. We don’t have to limit our wardrobe to one outfit but cutting back on our clothing, spending less on it, and learning to not identify ourselves by the clothes we wear are all good things to strive after. The point being to free ourselves to focus on God and our relationship with Him, instead of being distracted by the cares of the world.

Finally, seeing a monastic and their witness to the Christian life should remind us that we too need to be witnesses; all Christians must be the salt of the earth and let our lights shine to bring glory to God our Father. People may not notice we are Christians just by glancing at us, but hopefully once they do talk to us and interact with us they will know exactly who we belong to.

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Jessica Archuleta blogs with friends at Engage the Culture where you might find a movie review, a piece of poetry, a work of art, or any other number of culture related topics being discussed or shared from a Catholic point of view. She also blogs at Every Home a Monastery where she shares her experience of being a Monastic Associate (oblate) of Holy Resurrection Monastery located within walking distance of her home. She and her family moved across the country to Wisconsin from California after the monks had to make the move themselves. Jessica is a Romanian Greek-Catholic (Byzantine), mother of ten, and has been married for 20 years to her most favorite person in the world.

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