Re-Asserting a Feminine Tradition

I have this weirdly clear childhood memory of an old lady sitting a few rows up from my family at Mass. She was wearing a doily on her head. I had just learned the word doily—I think—because I had seen them for sale at a home decorating store just a few days before. I asked my mom why the lady was wearing one on her head, but I don’t really remember what the answer was. My Catholic parish was the most traditional one in the entire diocese, and, being a homeschooler, I was raised in an even more conservative setting. Still, the doily-lady stuck out as odd.

The only time growing up that I really encountered the chapel veil was at a Catholic girls’ summer camp, where the nuns who ran it required that we all wear skirts and chapel veils to Mass, and, when I asked them why, only responded that it was “modest.” For a high schooler, this was an incredibly unhelpful answer, and actually served to create a negative association with the odd triangle of lace. Women who wore it were weird. Bikinis were immodest, not uncovered heads.

At my conservative, Catholic college, there was an entire row of girls at Mass who wore chapel veils. I don’t remember anything about them other than the backs of their heads; they sat in the very front row together. The rest of us joked about them. I think one of their nicknames was “the long-skirts,” because in addition to those frilly veils, they dressed a bit like Little House on the Prairie.

There are many opinions about the practice of women wearing a head covering at Mass. I have heard—and personally expressed—the idea that women who wear the veil are vain and holier-than-thou: exactly like those Pharisees who widen their phylacteries for all to see. I have also heard—and believed—that the veil is an antiquated symbol of a misguided view on women’s submission, like the Muslim burqa, a remnant of an old belief that women are unworthy and must humbly cover themselves if they want to appear in church, while men have no need to.

 

I have heard Catholic apologists and some priests criticize the chapel veil because lay women are appropriating a symbol of nuns—nuns are the brides of Christ, not lay women. As for Saint Paul, well, that is one of the most confusing passages in Scripture—women need to cover their heads in church for the sake of the angels? What? Why? Besides, just because it was appropriate in Paul’s time for women to wear veils in church, times change, expectations change, and we don’t need to hang on to every old practice.

It is incredible how much heat arises in these conversations. Who knew a little piece of lace could cause such anger, such bitterness, such frustration. For years, I rolled my eyes at women who opted to veil. They irritated me so much. Why did they have to make us traditional Catholics look so weird?

So you might be surprised that, on the first Sunday of Advent, four years ago, I snuck into church wearing a chapel veil. The previous week, while cooking dinner for my then-fiancé, I had broken down crying and told him that I really wanted to follow that old tradition. My fiancé (now husband) was bewildered why this would make me cry. But he told me that if I wanted to, then I should go out and get one and do it. I could always take it off.

When I say snuck, I mean it. The first time you wear a chapel veil, you feel like you went to Mass stark naked. The lace kept sliding off of my head until I basically nailed it on with bobby pins. The only other woman wearing a veil at Mass that day was carved out of marble and stood five feet up the front wall. She was the only thing I looked at the whole liturgy. Strength in numbers?

I decided to wear a chapel veil because, in preparing for the sacrament of marriage, I had suddenly been confronted with the question of femininity in ways that before, I had never deeply considered. The modern world tells us women that, since we are man’s equal, we must aggressively assert our presence in every facet of life, and destroy any last vestige of that tired differentiation of the sexes. Then, and only then, when the last of those socially constructed differences between us have been razed, will we truly be able to express ourselves as women.

The problem is, the modern world is trying to liberate us from ourselves. Modern society demands that women be able to compete with men, to show that there is nothing actually different about us. The modern world, for all of its lip-service to diversity, is terrified of differences. It does not know how to cope with true differences because it can only see relationships in terms of power struggles: who can best whom, who is oppressing whom? If you are different, if you have a different nature then, the modern world concludes, it must be because some tyrannical force is keeping you from your full potential to be exactly the same as everyone else.

But true equality is not sameness. God created us male and female and found us to be very good, but he did not ever intend to create us exactly the same, with irrelevant bodily differences that can be hacked off, ignored, or chemically altered as we see fit. God is entirely too fine a craftsman for that.

I wear the chapel veil at Mass as an affirmation and an embrace of my feminine difference. According to the ancient traditions of the Church, only women may be veiled in the presence of God. Have you ever noticed that, while a bishop can enter the church with his miter, he takes it off during most parts of the Mass? Even the pope must take his zucchetto (the little skull cap) off of his head during the Consecration. Men are not allowed to cover their heads in church. When the bishop and the pope remove their head coverings, they are submitting themselves in humility before the presence of God, not asserting some sort of male superiority with their bare heads. When more of society wore hats, it was a much more obvious sign, but even today, we acknowledge that when a man removes his hat, it is a sign of deference and respect—and if you need a reminder, pay attention the next time the national anthem is sung. Within the context of the Mass, bishops, monks, and the pope remind us of this ancient sign of male reverence. Similarly, whatever Saint Paul meant by his reference to the angels, the chapel veil has been a way for women to show our reverence to God in our own, uniquely feminine way since the days of the Apostles.

Many people are confused as to why a veil is a particularly fitting sign of reverence for a woman. I have heard many explanations, some better than others, some more historically or theologically probable than others. Some women say that they like the veil because it makes them feel like a bride, some even saying that it makes them feel like a bride of Christ. Whether or not it is proper for a lay woman to consider herself a bride of Christ, I would like to point out that both traditions—veils on brides and nuns—comes from the older tradition of the chapel veil. Women do not wear veils because they are nuns; nuns wear veils because they are women. Women wear veils when they get married because it is an echo of that ancient feminine tradition of women wearing veils at church.

One possible explanation for the feminine quality of the veil that I personally love is that it symbolizes our role as vessels. A priest—I wish I could remember his name—once pointed out that the Church puts veils on its most sacred of vessels—tabernacles traditionally are covered in fine cloth, either on the inside or out, the altar that bears the Eucharist is covered, as is the chalice. Women are like the chalice or the tabernacle by our nature: we are vessels that can bear children—a holy and blessed calling. The contraceptive mentality of the modern world is attempting to eradicate this difference, this distinctively feminine difference, in pursuit of its value of sameness that it has mistaken for equality. In these days, when the life of the unborn is held rather cheaply, and the family is under assault, I wear the chapel veil as an embrace of my distinctly feminine nature.

In our modern world, there is sometimes an overemphasis on understanding the reasons behind something, and, if we cannot find reasons that adequately justify a tradition, we often are tempted to dismiss it as arbitrary and useless. Now, I am not dismissing our inquisitive spirit—it is important to understand the things that we do. However, traditions, especially those of our ancient church, should not be cast aside because they do not have a clearly documented reason behind them. You probably ate your Thanksgiving dinner last year without demanding a justification for why it should be turkey. More than likely, last December, you set up your Christmas tree, not bothering too much about why Christians started putting formerly pagan trees in their houses to celebrate Christ’s birth. We still expect our priests to wear their proper robes at Mass and the same people who find the chapel veil weird do not hotly contend that those robes need to be justified or tossed out as an irrelevant hold-over of Byzantine fashion. Tradition binds us together and gives our faith a richness, mystery, and depth that the modern world finds frightening because it cannot be satisfactorily explained.

Last Christmas, an old man came up to me after the vigil mass and told me with a smile that my chapel veil had made him remember his grandmother back in Russia long ago. I wear the chapel veil today because it binds me to two thousand years of Christian, Catholic women, from Mary the Mother of God to Mary Queen of Scots, from Saint Catherine of Avila to Jackie Kennedy. It is one of the most ancient traditions of our Holy Mother Church; it is a beautiful tradition of women.

Mary Cuff

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Mary Cuff is currently a PhD candidate at the Catholic University of America, and will be defending her dissertation in the spring of 2018. Her area of focus is nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, specifically literature of the South and the Civil War, as well as the role of religious symbolism in literature. Her essays have appeared in academic journals such as the Southern Literary Journal, Five Points, and the Mississippi Quarterly.

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