In my post TIME magazine article on nuns, veils, and blogs, Hans wrote a thoughtful comment about habits and his experience with the habit. He aptly notes that the modern view on habits is quite mixed. Here are some of my thoughts.
Since the Second Vatican Council called for the renewal of religious life according to our founding charisms, the following decades were filled with religious women and men testing out what exactly that meant. For 40+ years there has been much change and soul-searching in religious communities as we continually and prayerfully return to our founding charism as the Church calls us to do. Many habits have been adapted, readapted, and adapted again. Veils aren’t always worn with the revised habits — Canon Law does not mandate that the veil be part of a woman’s habit. Nor does Canon Law require that the habit be worn at all times. The Church does not see sisters/nuns that wear a habit resembling modest secular apparel as opposing Church teaching or somehow less of a nun or less of witness to Christ. Our Rule of Life is reviewed by and approved by the Church just like every congregation’s. The Church is well aware of how each define the habit.
Be assured, habits will never leave us. Nor do I think they should. They do serve as a sign of consecration and witness in the world. But, habits are not the only sign of consecration and witness. A sign of consecration and witness to me are nuns who commit themselves to live in one place and allow the Liturgy of the Hours to become the rhythm of their daily life while they pray for the needs of the world. A sign of consecration and witness are nuns who go out into the streets and find the poorest of the poor, the most abandoned of society, and embrace them and prayerfully minister to their needs. A sign of consecration and witness are the nuns who use their advanced degrees in education, theology, medicine, etc. to help shape people and structures to be reflections of the Kingdom of God. Anybody who voluntarily commits themselves before God and the world to live a life of celibacy, poverty, and obedience is living a life of consecration and witness. The evangelical counsels are a powerful way of life that speak for themselves.
There is SO much diversity in religious life. This is what makes it such a dynamic, Spirit-filled presence in the Church and world. There are communities dedicated to the contemplative life, to working in the streets with the poor, to teaching, to healing and health, to the Eucharist, and on and on. Yet each of these dimensions is present in all of our communities. Just because a community is “active” or committed to social justice does not mean that it is not also deeply prayerful. Just because a community is dedicated to the Eucharist does not mean that it is not also serving the needs of people. A nun who wears “secular” habit can be just as much of a witness as a nun in a “traditional” habit and vice versa.