28 August 2007

Monastic (Eremitical) Cowl, Perpetual Profession

In preparing for perpetual vows this next weekend, I was informed by the Vicar for Religious that I would need a ring and a prayer garment. The ring I had had for several months, but the prayer garment? What really did they have in mind? Well, it turns out they were thinking of something like monastics use either in choir or in cell to pray in: a cowl or cuculla, a scapular with hood, or a tunic with hood.

Now these garments are very meaningful to monastics (and this includes hermits). In most communities, it is the cowl that is given at solemn profession, and the symbolism is rich and real. In the Camaldolese tradition the cowl is white, and reminds us clearly of white martyrdom ---the self-sacrifice of the hermit for the sake of Christ and his people, for instance. Echoes of wedding garments, baptismal garments, and putting on Christ are all a part of this garment's symbolism. It is designed so that one literally can do nothing other than pray in it! The sleeves are voluminous --- even on the modified version which my cowl will be. The hood closes one off to what is around one, and the full length ensures one is wholly covered, completely enwrapped.

I had not personally prepared for this, eventhough the cowl is also associated with perpetual profession in eremitic life. I was prepared for the ring (I will take off my silver band and replace it with a gold band), for my relationship with Christ has been nuptial for many years now and the bridal imagery of the perpetual profession resonated well with that. But, while I sometimes attend Mass and/or vespers at a Camaldolese monastery, and while I am used to the monks/nuns wearing cowls for choir and Mass, wearing such a garment myself much less being given one canonically to wear whenever I pray was relatively foreign to me! (And it was foreign to my sister as well, who, upon hearing the story, promptly responded: "Yo, Casper!")

I have had some time to work through this whole idea now, time to process it some, and it is meaningful to me --- though it is likely to become more so over time. It helped a lot that last week, the lections I chose for doing a reflection on were Thursday's! The first two lections were about vows and keeping one's vows, and the gospel was Matt's parable of the king who invites two different sets of people to the wedding feast. Once the second set have accepted the invitation and the feast is in full swing, the king looks around and spots a guy who has not worn the appropriate wedding garment, and without further ado, he has the man thrown out!!

Of course, the gospel is not about clothes per se. It is about God's unconditional love and the response it engenders and empowers. It is about "putting on Christ" in response to, and in the power of this love. What is clear is that if we accept the invitation of the king to the wedding feast, then we really do need to dress appropriately, and that means clothing ourselves in Christ. Even in situations where we will "look funny", be unfashionable, or out of step with our dominant culture, we really need to put on Christ. For me, the monastic cowl is a symbol of this --- and the fact that it does not represent just a sign of my new status as perpetually professed hermit, but is also still a bit "weird" is probably a good thing. Certainly it will not allow me to forget how truly marginal the hermit is, nor how truly countercultural either! Neither will it allow me to forget that the challenge to put on Christ is not an easy thing, nor one which is apt to keep me within some artificially determined comfort level. No, it will push the boundaries and take me where I might not have wanted or chosen to go otherwise.

This weekend, as a perpetually professed hermit, I receive canonically the monastic cowl. It is not yet as meaningful to me as the ring I will also receive, but it marks another new beginning to my hermit life, and one where every day I will struggle anew to put on Christ --- whether or not I put on the cowl (or a modified version of the same) at the same time!!