Those who know me have surely become accustomed to my traditional nondescript business casual sense of fashion. That, as of August 27, has been altered slightly. As of late I have been sporting a more eye catching wardrobe, one that is a little more twelfth-century chic! And the designer you might ask? Well, the Virgin Mary. Now you are all thinking I have certainly lost my mind, which may be the case…but at least according to legend, St. Norbert was given the norbertine habit by the BVM. She certainly has a eye for style, proportion and the flow of fabric but she is definitely lacking in the area of functional design. Full length white tunics are not conducive to the out of doors.
The Norbertine habit (should any of you not caught on yet) is what I have been wearing. I do not like to draw attention to myself, so it is only fitting that I go about my day in flowing layers of cream colored linen, a cape and large hood (cough, cough!). So you may be thinking, why have I taken on this task of wearing such an odd garment, me of all people, at home and out into the world?
For me, I have come to love the idea of the habit, but the practice (the habitual wearing of a habit as it were) has been quite a different experience. As it is something that makes me remarkably self conscious (not to mention, to feel more anachronistic than those who reenact medieval battlefields in neighborhood parks) it has difficult for me to wear. However, realizing that it is a part of my religious tradition and heritage I have set out to make myself more comfortable, to feel more natural through extended habit wearing, both in our house and in public.
I write these reflections in an attempt to further come to and clarify my own understandings of what the habit is, how it functions as sign and symbol and what it means to me as one who now wears one and by virtue of that right, has by proxy found himself in the midst of a fashion war much deeper than if one can wear white after labor day…. (for those of you who may be wondering, as our habit is white, we have no choice BUT to wear white after labor day!)
At this point in the history of the Church and society the habit has become an increasingly controversial lightning rod of opinions, strong polarized opinions. My own community and indeed my own house of formation are not immune to such conflicts surrounding fashion of religious. Why is it that a simple article of clothing has managed to become such a hot-button issue in our current age?
And the debate begins…
We find on one extreme those who see the habit (all religious habits) as outdated, demonstrative of an era of hierarchical clericalism, of a symbol of oppression, of pompous religious who sought to not only set themselves apart but above those around them. These sentiments I have heard expressed in the classroom, by professors, by friends, family, and some members of my religious community. Those who wear the habit outside of ceremonial contexts (and to some those who would wear a habit at all) are embodying these ideals, ideals that many had hoped the church had overcome. Young seminarians who find a fascination with their religious garb of old are often viewed with suspicion, with the assumption that they are closed-minded, yearning for an era in the past that never existed, a distilled glorified vestige of a Catholic Christian culture represented by sacramentals and inwardly directed toward ritual and devotions more than living an outwardly prophetic life of gospel values (such a distinction I find to be false in my own life, though it is certainly made by some in the Church and in society).
Yes, it is true, many of my peers (young members of religious communities) do find a fascination with their religious garb. But I find it an unfair bias to assume that the habit, and their use of it, is indicative of a litany of positions (theological and political) or worldviews. However, there exists a reciprocal prejudice. Many young religious demonstrate a suspicion of their older habit-weary counterparts who are often perceived as having lost a sense of the mystery and the sacred within the Church, who have aligned themselves too whole-heartedly with the secular world and who are thoroughly profane people living a life that is “religious” in name only. Again we find false dichotomies that exist in stereotype but not in practice.
Like in any situation there are the various perspectives and somewhere within all of them lies some truth. Many accusations are made over the use or lack-there-of of habits, strong opinions. One thing is for sure, we are witnessing a decisive surge in habit wearing young religious, and have seen for decades religious who have distanced themselves from such garments. Communities who wear habits are experiencing growth and those who don’t are shrinking with age. That, however, does not demonstrate a causality and there are a myriad of other factors that would play into such scenarios, all other aspects of community life, worldview, understandaing of the church etc. Again, we find ourselves back to the very issues that the habit has come to represent.
But why is it that an over-tailored pile of fabric can become such a point of contention? Obviously any clear thinking person should be able to come to the conclusion that the habit itself does not posses any ontological power beyond its function as a garment. The habit does not itself oppress anyone. The habit does not free us from sin or bring grace upon us. It is not a sacrament, though it is most distinctly a sacramental. It is not the habit itself but what it is seen to represent, how it functions as a sign and symbol that brings such tension into our midst.
In the generational divide that is a reality of religious life (and my community is no exception) there is a disconnected between the systems of symbolic communications being used to send and receive perceptions and expressions. It is no different than generational shifts in society at large, but in a small isolated group these appear to become remarkably pronounced. In the end, I feel that the signals being sent by the young habit-obsessed religious by their dawning of such a garment are being strongly misunderstood by those pseudo anti-habit older religious and visa versa. Both sides of the camp (and I stress that there are many other positions between the two extremes) are interpreting the others actions in light of their own bias towards the habit and what it represents, not through the context of the other.
One aspect that seems rarely to be taken into consideration in such debates is what the habit actually signifies or facilitates for the person wearing it, not just to the person viewing it. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that infrequently does anyone seem interested in how such articles are actually perceived by the general public, and not simply those within religious communities who share a strong, emotional relationship with this article of clothing. It is, after all, a sacramental and as such we should try to more closely understand and empathize, from all sides of the debate, with the “other” to realize that any appreciation or skepticism of the habit is fundamentally centered on the experience of it and how it has helped or hindered our relationships with ourselves, others, the community, and God.
So, that brings me now to what was the point of this whole exercise. What are my views and understandings of my new twelfth century item of clothing? Or, should I say more importantly, not how I understand it but how do I experience it and thus how does it functions in my life as the sacramental it was intended to be?
The great habit wearing experiment…
For me personally, through extensive wearing of my habit, I have come to a greater appreciation of this multi-part cream-colored linen gown. It reminds me of who I am, it helps to keep my mind clear and focused on my spiritual growth in these early stages of formation. It functions much the same way a cross necklace does for some. By enveloping myself, literally, in something that, while not being holy, speaks of the holy to me, centering my actions, thoughts and decisions around the ultimate goal of living an authentic, intentional, contemplative life in the witness of God to myself and God’s love to others. It is a reflection and a reminder of what is a part of my identity as a norbertine. Although as I grow in my own self-understanding, spiritual journey and understanding of who I am as a norbertine I may wear it less, at this point in time I have come to find it quite conducive to my formation in this spiritual tradition.
Within my community the wearing of the habit has come to represent a unity that we find as brethren. It is a symbol of our connectedness, how we share in one greater goal of growing as in one heart and mind on the way to God, not in spite of but because of our many unique differences. It demonstrates to me visually, aesthetically and sentimentally this fundamental unity I share not only with the seven other men with whom I live, the many men and women in my community back in Albuquerque, but with Norbertines world-wide. It connects me in some unspeakable way to those generations of norbertine men and women who have walked before me for nearly nine centuries. We have all worn this garment while being very different people and doing very different things in different epochs and places but sharing one goal to live out communio as a witness to the prophetic vision of a communal apostolic life in a world wrought by turmoil.
Now, in public I did not initially feel the same level of comfort. One day I walked to CTU for spiritual direction and liturgy. I did so in my habit. I certainly received many funny stares. I must admit, walking around all in white in a heavily African American neighborhood certainly heightened my level of self consciousness. However, to my surprise, more often than not (and this was the case by far) I was greeted with smiles and hellos by passers by. I always try to greet people on the street, but in Chicago this is rather difficult as few people acknowledge one another as they pass. However, while in habit I had the opportunity to smile at and greet almost all those whom I saw. Several times I was stopped for short conversations. Everything from a “what are you?” to small talk to a fascinating extended discussion about religious life. Some even thanked me for wearing it.
When arriving at CTU this general aura of “friendliness” dampened. Not that people were unwelcoming (many knew me as I started graduate school there last semester), but I could certainly sense that suspicion of who I was, how I thought etc. by how people looked at me. Not to mention what several people said to me, trying to feel out why it was I was in such a silly outfit. Now, habits aren’t unknown to CTU, many students wear theirs to class, but it was odd to see me in one and a norbertine in one for that matter.
I also took a walk out one day with Matt, a fellow novice. Together we experienced the same general warmth and interest by those around us on the streets. We were carrying a camera and a professor at the University of Chicago stopped us and asked us if we wanted our picture taken. We spoke with a man in front of a grocery store about different parishes and orders within the diocese and his research in Europe regarding cistercian baroque aesthetics. We were stopped by a middle school aged boy who asked who we were.
Now, this seems to say that the habit succeeds in one thing, and that is getting attention. This could certainly play into all the concerns of self indulgent hierarchically minded tendencies that can be dangerous for religious to embody in the Church. It can be seen as a spectacle for sure. However, it can also connect people, bring people together. I take a walk every day. I have run into several of the same people I had passed while wearing my habit. They recognize me despite being habit free, and we stop and chat for a bit. This has happened on several occasions. That has been my experience. When I asked these individuals what they thought of seeing someone in a habit they simply reply “we just thought it meant you were a monk or something. It just reminded us of religion and what you do. Its like seeing a police man in his uniform or a doctor in a lab coat.” This reply, having received several times, I find compelling. It seems (and this is no official poll or sociological study) that the habit, to the general public, signifies “religious” and not the baggage that so many express towards the garment itself (of course I understand that to be a lrage generalization and each individual has their own response, but by in large that has been what I have heard from those who have seen me in it).
Another experience I have had with habits in public was while living at St. Norbert Abbey in DePere, Wisconsin in the fall of 2008. Fr. Marek of Strahov Abbey in Prague and I were walking along the Fox River. He, living a life of radical simplicity, only wears his habit. A woman passing by on her bicycle came to a screeching halt. I was worried that she was going to be upset by seeing a man dressed as a canon. On the contrary, she said “Father, I have to tell you that I haven’t been inside a Church for thirty years but I am so glad to see that the Church is alive and that God is not dead.” For me, a young affiliate (postulant) at that time, this was a moving event. His garment spoke to her, not necessarily as a tool of evangelization, but simply as a witness to the holy. That being a broader more generic holy. It did not mean that Marek was expressing himself to be a holy person (that would be far out of his very humble character, though I do believe he is a deeply spiritual man) . Rather, as a sacramental it simply symbolized “holy” to that woman on the bike. It reminded her of God. Will she remember Marek? Probably not. Will that moment of recognizing that there is something greater to life and a meaning more profound impact her in a small way, I certainly hope so.
Does this mean I believe that all religious should wear their habit? No. Does this mean I will wear it to go to the drug store? Probably not. These conclusions do mean, however, that maybe all of us involved in the wars of the habits should step outside ourselves and realize that whether someone is in a habit or not is not indicative of anything in particular. Rather, the experience of wearing a habit is deeply personal and the reasons we share for doing so or not doing so vary hugely from person to person. We should support and edify one another in our choices in this regard in understanding how something as outward appearance can so greatly impact and reflect ones spiritual life. Also keeping in mind that how we see others, be it a fellow religious or a person on the street, in many ways reflects more upon our own personal biases than it does the actual nature of that individual whom we may feel compelled to judge.
For me, the habit is a sign and a symbol. It represents my identity as a norbertine, (though obviously not the most significant sign of identity) it reminds me of my striving to live an integrated, authentic and spirit lead life, and to those around me it can have the potential to remind them of the same. It signifies the unity I share both temporally, geographically and historically with others in my own tradition within the Roman Catholic Church, and even with all those whose faith inspires unique and distinguishing garments be it Thai Buddhist monks in orange robes, hasidic Jews in their characteristic black garb or Mormon missionaries with their white shirts and ties. It is not my desire to express a deep seated clericalism, it is not because I feel I am better than those with whom I share the sidewalk. It is not because I somehow believe I am a holier person in the garment than out of it. It is something I do a as a spiritual practice for myself, and as a way to hopefully witness, not to my own holiness, but to the Holy in our midst.