And now a little debate on a few blogs provides the perfect opportunity! JP Sonnen of Orbis Catholicus wondered whether a group of nice young ladies wouldn't want to attempt a revival of the Daughters of Charity, including their wonderful cornettes, pictured below.
Bring back cornettes?
The Daughters, like most religious orders post Vatican II dumped their extremely distinctive habits, and, like the Joeys (whose leader is shown below, meeting the Pope recently) now wear civvies. And they are dying out.
Hilary of Orwell's Picnic however, has pointed out, however, that the cornette is unlikely to make a comeback any time soon: cornettes, she notes, "...were outrageously impractical, uncomfortable and even dangerous, as well as expensive and difficult and time-consuming to maintain."
Why have a habit at all?
Still, Hilary is certainly not advocating the no habit option, but points out that there is a theology behind the habit, signifying separation from the world.
In response to the original post, Fr Ray Blake of St Mary Magdalen has provided an excellent summary of why religious orders should bring back the habit:
"... habits (& cassocks) attract vocations,
they act as a sign of contradiction and challenge to the World,
they mark the wearer out as someone who has given themselves to the Lord.
both the habit and the cassock being part of choir or liturgical dress mark the wearer as a person of prayer, who unites themselves to the liturgy of the Church and therefore more especially to the "coming of the Kingdom".
They are a sign of being in the world but not of it.
The habit especially is a mark of asceticism suffusing the individual into his/her community.
Both are a mark of the hermeneutic of continuity, uniting the individual to those who have gone before.
They are a sacramentals...."
Are all habits equal?
All of which raises the important question of whether all habits are equally valid. Take this classic 70s job, as worn today at Jambaroo, Australia.
Is it really as symbolic and effective as the very distinctive garb of the Pink Sisters?
The distinction between the two seems to me a classic example of the disconnect between the Church of today and of the past (see my earlier post on Walling off the Church from the past). The Benedictines of Jambaroo have retained a habit - but ignored the whole tradition (which has rich Scriptural allusions) relating to cutting off one's hair and thus doing away with the need to worry about how one looks. For men, this is symbolised by tonsure; for women a veil that covers the hair completely.
The Pink Sisters on the other hand are a new order, with a distinctively new habit - but one that retains the symbolism of continuity with the past.
The path back to tradition
It is interesting that some of the new, more conservative religious orders have instinctively grasped that looking traditional is important. The classic example of this is Mother Angelica’s nuns.
EWTN, both under Mother Angelica, and subsequently under lay control, has always had its critics among both liberals and traditionalists. But they are a nice case story all the same.
In the 1960s the sisters had adopted a tan veil. According to Mother Angelica’s biographer, Raymond Arroyo, a small group within the convent had been agitating for a return to the older habit from 1988 onwards, but had been resisted by Mother Angelica on the grounds that it would make them be perceived as ‘pre-Vatican II’.
In 1993, though, Mother launched a major attack on ‘spirit of Vatican II’ aberrations, stimulated by a World Youth Day Stations of the Cross performance in which Jesus was played by a woman (puts the scriptural stations in perspective doesn’t it!). She launched a crusade for orthodoxy, and as a symbol of that decided that that the sisters needed to look ‘roman’.
But here is the interesting thing, the connection between seemingly trivial externals and genuine monastic practice. Arroyo says:
“She did not stop with externals. In-house, Angelica restored cloister practices she had derided in her earlier days. The stating of faults, or culpas returned, and strict silence was imposed in the cloister. There would be no more reading of papers or watching TV news in the community. Mother would tell the nuns what they needed to know. To focus the sisters on the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, she reinstated long-abandoned pious acts…”
And that’s why monks and nuns should look traditional – because in the end, everything is connected. Orthodoxy depends on orthopraxis and vice-versa.
But I have to admit, I'm with Hilary - bringing back the cornettes would perhaps be a bit too much of a good thing!