In the late 1970’s I heard a teaching sister say that the shedding of religious habits was a good thing, because it emphasized that sisters were “nothing special; that we are all special in God’s eyes.”
I recall thinking “that’s wrong reasoning,” but I didn’t understand why. Now, I do.
This sister gave an example: “when we were in our habits, a fellow with an Italian Ice barrow would always insist on giving us free ices, but why should he? Why shouldn’t we pay like anyone else? Why should we deprive him of his living because we were in a costume?”
Putting aside how unlikely it might be for an Italian Ice seller to go broke because of a few free scoops of sugar-water, what is clear, now, is the sister’s horizontal and earthbound thinking, which had some breadth but neither height nor depth. As with the “horizontally-focused” masses and hymns that over-emphasize the human part of church, Sister was embracing the beam of the cross without considering that the vertical post is necessary if anyone is to be raised up.
The Horizontal beam is us; humanity and the world, necessarily reaching out toward each other. The Vertical post is our reaching up together from the earth to the heavens, to the Eternal. Also necessary. That’s the part Sister had forgotten.
Sister had a delusion; she justified forsaking the habit with themes of solidarity, compassion and humility but in truth her story illustrated egoism and presumption. She bemoaned a possibility of cheating a man from his wages. In fact, she was cheating that man, but not in the way she imagined. She was cheating God, too.
The Ice-barrow man was not giving Sister a free ice because she wore a habit, but because a man who loved (or at least respected) God saw an opportunity to demonstrate that love in a small, simple way. Her habit gave silent witness to the community of faith, a reminder that there are people out there giving up everything for Christ and ultimately for us. Sister might say correctly that she was “nobody special.” but her habit identified her as one mysteriously espoused to the man-God wholly worthy of praise, honor and adoration; not she, not sister, but the Christ represented by what we used to call her “wedding clothes.”
The habit, in fact, was voluntarily undertaken as a means of self-effacement. It was paradoxically meant to make Sister, “nobody special” to the world; to obliterate her individuality and make her one of many, one part of the same body, one part of the collective hive, because religious life is socialism on a small-and-voluntary scale - which is the only way socialism can truly work. Taking off the habit may have helped sisters “celebrate their individuality,” and that is not a terrible thing, in and of itself; we are each fearfully, wonderfully made.
But the “ordinary” clothes also made the ordinary world more ordinary. Suddenly, there were no outward indications that anyone was praying at all, no reminders that we could and should pray, too. Suddenly, there was no one to make a man think of Jesus for a moment, and scoop up some frozen sugar-water.
The Italian Ice was for God, not for Sister. When she took off the habit, the Ice-man stopped noticing and responding to God at random moments in his day, and finding ways to say “thank you,” to Him.
Perhaps clearing an additional dollar a day, the Ice-man was substantially poorer, for it.
So, in the end, even with the best of intentions, Sister “Nobody Special,” in her need to feel fellow-kinship, humility and “unspecialness,” served her own satisfied ego, when it would have been much more humble of her simply to say “thank you” to a free cup of ice, given and accepted in the love of Christ.
Rather like Holy Communion.
She never cheated the man from his living. But she cheated God of a small devotion. She cheated a man of his chance to demonstrate that devotion. She cheated herself of the privilege of reminding the world -by her mere presence- that all creation is extraordinary and beloved. She cheated the rest of us, because we loved being reminded of that.
It meant we were each special, after all.
Habits are not necessary to the life of a religious; that is absolutely true. They may well be necessary for the life of the world.
Sunday, May 03, 2009
One Of The Causes Of The Moral Decline Of Our Society
Is the lack of visible and public signs of total devotion to God. The Anchoress: