Friday, 5 September 2008

When is a habit too modified??

I've been meaning to come back to the subject of religious habits ever since a throwaway line of mine generated a vigorous defence of the Joeys.

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!
On the other hand, the Carthusian nun's stole and maniple has distinct possibilities....(just joking), go and read all about it over at New Liturgical Movement.


Joshua said...

Awww, dat lil' cutesy puddy-tat!!!

May I steal your last image of Mother Angelica and furry feline friend for my blog? It's absolutely adorable: such a beaut picture of love for God's creatures, and of the affection of the old for the young.

Terra said...

Wonderful isn't it...from a public site so go for it!

Anonymous said...

This may sound trivial, but I used to watch the television sitcom The Flying Nun as a kid and have always really thought at least some nuns should wear those splendid cornettes--yes, I know this is a trivial notion, basing habits on what general secular/commrecial society thinks nuns OUGHT to be wearing, but the TV show may imply a deeper iconic meta-analysis for the tradition; remember, that flying nun could FLY--ok, perhaps this is a stupid metaphor, but arguably it remains a metaphor for the angelic spiritual life of contemplation lived by those nuns and the "flight" toward the Lord one experiences during Christian mystical/contemplative prayer.

To impede the body (via the cornette)in favour of the spirit, to be constantly reminded of the distinction between the renunciation of the earthly life --every time you brush into a wall, for instance--could this be a reason for cornettes?
Just a thought.

The Grumpy Old Lady (again)

dingo said...

Interesting... I understand that the maniple and stole of the Carthusian nuns is a remnant of the female diaconate.

The female diaconate was possibly an older tradition in our Church - but I'm not sure if this was in fact so. Does anyone have any information to verify or refute such a widespread belief???

(Ironically... I am not aware of any recent increase in Carthusian vocations from the ranks of those wanting the creation of women priests in our Church!)

There has also been a drop in Carthusian vocations. The nuns and priests continue to have their own Carthusian(Galacian) Rite. This includes the Mass and Daily Office in Latin. (Copies of the same are now available as pdf documents from their websites.)

Both the Carthusian 'Galanic' Rite and 'Tridentine' Rite have a long history in the Church.

The changes to the Carthusian Rite (following Vatican II) were made in the last few years (see the Order's website for details). I understand that the pressure for change was resisted for 30 years.

However, the drop in vocations in the Carthusians has occurred since the 1970s. Despite the fact that both the priests and nuns continue to wear the traditional habit too.

In the last decade, there have been a few additions to their living conditions - unchanged for almost a thousand years. For example, there is now electric heating & lighting, and indoor toilets.

Despite these changes, there are still... no increase in vocations!

Terra said...


I don't think its entirely true that the Carthusians entirely resisted the pressures of VII until recently - La liberte de l'obeissance by a Carthusian and a couple of books on them detail quite a few changes (and battles over directions) from the early sixties onwards, and while they sought to maintain their particular rite, options for vernacular (non Choir) Office etc were introduced fairly early on. Their statues were amended in a number of ways in the late 60s and early 70s.

All the same, I think they do probably illustrate the idea that retention of habits, tradition etc are necessary conditions but not sufficient!

The most fragile thing for Carthusians seems to be not necessarily how many ask to come, but how many persevere - between 1950 and 1970 it was around 54%, but since then it has collapsed dramatically.

Some of that goes to the preparation modern Catholics typically lack for this type of life.

But if you read An Infinity of Little Hours, which traces a group of novices who arrived at Parkminister in 1960 (and Sounds of Silence, by a monk who left) there were issues about the health of the community itself and the noviciate training in particular that seem to have caused problems in retention of those who did knock on the door.

On the female 'diaconate', an interesting topic, and I'm sure I've seen something arguing tht no such thing really existed. But as to wehre...