27 April 2008

On Wearing the Cowl; Becoming the Hermit I Am

I received the following question from someone who read my first post on receiving the cowl canonically, and am posting it here because it gives me a chance to reflect on what wearing the cowl means to me now.

[[ When you were first told you would need a cowl you said you weren't prepared for that, and also that it was not as meaningful as it would become you thought. Could I ask if that has changed and if so, in what ways? By the way, why weren't you prepared for receiving the cowl originally?]]

Let me take the second part of your question first: why wasn't I prepared? The news that I was being admitted to perpetual vows came about six months before the profession ceremony itself, and I had been waiting for that permission for several years. In the Guidelines to the Eremitic Life once put out by the Diocese of La Crosse, I had read about the need for a prayer garment, but the nature of that garment was left unspecified (and in fact, there are several acceptable options for such a garment, a cowl is not the only possibility). However, this was a requirement in the Diocese of La Crosse, not a universal requirement canon 603 specifies, so an individual hermit needs to hear from her own diocese what her Bishop desires or requires in this regard --- if anything at all.

Though I was in communication with my diocese about all the things needed for such a profession, this "loose end" was not decided upon until the last moment (or at least it was not communicated to me until then). After hearing what the diocese required and determining that a cowl was appropriate not only as a hermit (which is its primary witness), but in light of my oblature with the Camaldolese (not because oblates wear cowls --- they do not --- but because I needed to be sure it did not raise objections), I also had to talk with the Camaldolese to see if they had any problems with it. Since they have another Oblate who is a first and foremost a diocesan hermit who wears a cowl because of that, they were essentially fine with the matter. The cowl could be Camaldolese white but I would also have the hood cut differently than that of a nun professed AS Camaldolese, for instance. Still, profession was only two weeks away. It was a lot to get prepared for, and to get my mind and heart around. That was why I also said I was certain my own appreciation of the significance of the cowl would mature in time.

So, what has changed for me in this regard? As a diocesan hermit there is sometimes the sense that one is cut off from monasteries, hermitages, and the like, and there is the temptation to see oneself as "simply" a contemplative sister living, praying, and working (to a limited degree) in a parish. People in the parish generally relate to you in that way because the whole idea of your being a hermit does not really "compute," so to speak. Hermits remain apparently anachronistic, and negative stereotypes relating to misanthropy and the like remain (not least because such would-be hermits actually exist --- though not as professed in the Church), so if one does not fit the stereotypes (and I certainly do not) it becomes easier to be thought of as a contemplative sister only. Now that is not universal of course, but it is generally so. Wearing a habit does not help this situation really; it just signals that today I am relatively unusual in this regard. The idea of a habit as specifically monastic garb has largely been lost because the wearing of it was advocated by church hierarchs for active religious sisters who were not essentially monastic at all. Thus, the wearing of a habit does not itself establish me as a monastic/hermit in peoples' minds even though it does so in mine.

My sense is a lot of that changes with the wearing of the cowl. People now expect me to wear it at liturgies --- and of course I do --- and it signals to them something other than my being simply a parish or diocesan sister. (In hot weather though, they kindly make sure I know, that as far as they are concerned at least, I can dispense with the cowl if I want!) It signals that a monastic, a hermit, part of a long history of hermits and monastics traced back to the earliest church days is in their midst, and it indicates that as involved as I may be in the parish, my essential vocation is to prayer in solitude and silence --- contemplative and liturgical prayer. It signals to them that the white garments used at baptism are not a one-use-in-a-lifetime garment, but something which, at least in our hearts, we should put on every day. (Recently we had several children baptized; the three older ones wore a white garment with hood, a garment which looked like a tiny cowl or tiny alb with hood. I had never seen this before in our parish, and it occured to me that perhaps my own cowl could have been part of the inspiration for this. If so, I think it is a very good thing.) So, I hope that it signals the importance of symbols, baptismal garments, yes, but also the cowl as sign of white martyrdom, consecration, and the counter-cultural nature of the eremitical vocation, even if they are only vaguely or unconsciously aware of these things.

The primary importance in my own appreciation does not have to do with what other people think, of course, but what they think and how they respond helps me come to deeper appreciation myself of the significance of the cowl. Also, I am personally amazed at how often now I see pictures of monks or hermits --- illustrations in books or on their covers --- wearing white cowls. I had simply never paid a lot of attention to this before, and when I did, I think I dismissed such garb as medieval and outdated!! But now, I see cowls all the time in the books I need for my own work and lectio. The cowl has sensitized me to things monastic where that sensitivity needed to grow. I mention this because each time it happens I experience a wave of fresh understanding and awe at the tradition I officially represent as perpetually professed hermit. Most people come to eremitical life THROUGH monastic life: my own journey has been to monastic life THROUGH life as a solitary hermit. Appropriating this tradition personally is an awesome, exciting, and very humbling challenge and necessity.

Interestingly the longer I wear the cowl, the more sure I am there is no serious disconnect between my life inside and my life outside the hermitage, and also, the more I am challenged to be sure this is true and becomes more true over time. I am not merely playing dressup in this cowl, nor merely doing something I was required to do by the diocese without it really being natural or reflecting who I am (although I must say I clearly see this as a charge and responsibility given by the diocese on behalf of the whole church which I have gladly accepted). While I was concerned at first it might accentuate a difference or disparity (between role and reality), and also be affected and anachronistic, I am finding that the more natural putting on or wearing the cowl is (and at first it felt REALLY UNNATURAL!!), the more it works to define me when I take it off. Perhaps it is the case that the cowl signals I am a hermit and monastic, and for that reason I do not need to go out of my way to "play at" being these things. I am not sure of that, but what is clear is that in wearing it I am simply being myself. (Of course I believe I was doing that before, but I think we all need assistance in making sure the roles we play and the persons we really are coincide completely.) The cowl, I think, has helped me in that regard.

Also, at my perpetual profession Bishop Vigneron remarked during his homily that I would be exploring what it meant to be a hermit in the 21st century. He was clear that this perpetual profession as diocesan hermit both called and freed me to do exactly this. I must say that this particular aspect of the vocation is something which really appeals to me, and it is something I actually mentioned in my Rule. At the same time, again, I must become and stay more and more deeply anchored in the tradition of hermits through the centuries. The cowl is an important part of this, for it signals to me again and again that I actually represent an instance of a vocation that God has called people to in our tradition for thousands of years. The cowl is both prophetic sign, and symbol of an historical continuity and kind of stability; it is at once countercultural and traditional. For this reason it anchors me in the past and challenges me to embody the best of it more and more even while it calls me to make sure it speaks appropriately to people today. The irony is that as I become more integral to my parish and more and more capable of speaking to them of something contemporary, so also does my silence and solitude deepen. I suppose that is not surprising really, but for me it is a welcome discovery!

When I first spoke of wearing the cowl in this blog it was within the context of a reflection I was doing on the notion of putting on Christ. While that dimension is, of course, never absent from my wearing of the cowl, it is (or feels) stronger for me in the wearing of the habit itself. With the exception of the scapular, the cowl speaks more specifically to me of being a monastic and especially the eremitic expression of that, of allowing God alone to be sufficient for me.  Of course, that is the same as "putting on Christ" --- but in my own mind and heart it feels like a related but slightly different thing. This is partly because the cowl is also called cuculla, from the Latin for "little house" and for hermits it is meant to signal an extension of the hermit cell. Thus, for those living outside urban areas, it is worn (hood up) when one travels from hermitage to church in the mornings (or back at night) during great silence, or even around hermitage property on walks, etc to remind the hermit of the value and practice called "custody of the cell"; it signals that one carries one's cell with one in one's own heart and is always called to stricter separation from the world.

There is another thing the cowl has made a difference in, or at least has impacted. I wear the cowl (hood down) for liturgical prayer with others, that is, for Office and Mass and any other paraliturgical celebrations I attend. Praying Divine Office is different for me than it once was. Once I prayed it because it was a good thing for my own prayer life and to a similar extent, I think, because it was the official prayer of the Church. I did not sufficiently see the Divine Office as essential to my vocation itself; important, yes, but not sufficiently as essential. Now, however, it is essential to my call, and the cowl reinforces this sense of things for me by serving as a concrete linkage between church and hermitage. As I have said before here, the diocesan hermit is very much one who prays at the very heart of the Church AND IN HER NAME.She is one who embodies the Church's most fundamental vocation and ministry in this world, namely, to pray always! This, I think, means understanding the Liturgy of the Hours as an essential, not merely an important part of the vocation which punctuates and facilitates the prayer in the rest of the day. Of course, the Rule of St Benedict emphasizes this in its own way, and I am challenged by the Rule to make this true in my own life. The cowl, however, has been important both in visibly and symbolically affirming and extending this challenge to me throughout my day.

Finally then, the cowl has served to challenge me to grow in my vocation. Martyrs and Saints have worn this garment. Brother and Sister monks and hermits through the centuries have done so and embraced a call to holiness and prayer in ways which summon and challenge me as well. So, above all, the cowl calls me to grow daily, hourly, in this vocation. To see it hanging on the back of the door often stops me in wonder at the nature of this calling; to actually put it on and know that the Church herself has entrusted it and the wearing of it to me is an astounding, awesome, and powerful challenge. And it is one I accept with joy.

Thanks for the question, and the chance to actually reflect a little on what the wearing of the cowl has come to mean to me over the past 8 months. I really appreciate it and I hope I answered your question! (note, I hope the pictures help show that women monastics wear the cowl, or something very like it, more than is commonly realized.)