19 October 2010

Question on the Hermit Intercessors of the Lamb and Trivialization of the Habit

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I don't usually read your blog. I read it because of the post on the Hermit Intercessors of the Lamb. I am pleased you admitted you did not have an opinion on the suppression. I wonder though why you were critical of the fact that children were wearing the habit of the community. They are part of the community after all. I thought the picture was kind of cute and pointed to the fact that the IOTL was fostering vocations among the very young. Why would you call this practice "trivialization" of the habit? Seems a bit harsh to me. Also, why would this picture raise questions about the IOTL's membership in the Congregation of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) or the organization itself?]]

Welcome to this blog then, and thanks for your questions. I have written in the past about habits having meaning. They are symbolic and ecclesial garb with which the church vests a person because of mutual discernment of a God-given vocation and the assumption of life commitments mediated by the Church. (Sometimes "Church" means congregations and their representatives which are officially recognized, sometimes it means a Bishop (as in the case of diocesan hermits, for instance). The point is the garb has meaning in this context and one needs to be authorized to wear it if they are publicly representing a vocation. A habit represents the achievement of various degrees of discernment and correlative commitment to an ecclesially mediated call. Thus, it is not unusual to see the stages of such commitments mirrored in aspects of the habit (for instance novices may wear a white veil while professed wear some color or a black one), or to see various pieces of clothing given to a person as they move from postulancy to novitiate to temporary profession and then to perpetual profession (for instance the monastic cowl is given at solemn or perpetual profession for monks and some hermits while rings, medals, crosses etc are given at various points as well in many congregations).

There are various ways the habit (or even religious insignias like rings and medals) can be emptied of meaning or, as I said in my other post, trivialized, and even rendered incredible and untrustworthy. Sometimes people adopt garb on their own rather than accepting that the Church through appropriate authority invests a person not only with the garb, but with the commensurate rights and obligations of the vocation represented to others via the vesture. They have therefore neither been given nor accepted these in a meaningful (or authoritative) way and no one they minister to really knows whether they have or are prepared for living out this vocation --- though on seeing the vesture they will assume they may necessarily turn to this person with various expectations (not least that the person has been confirmed in this vocation by the church and acts in her name and with her authority and supervision) and that they may therefore do so safely and meaningfully. The habit gives THEM this right just as it gives the religious who wears it certain rights and obligations as consecrated persons in the Church. Formation, education, supervision, competence, maturity, commitment, and faithfulness to the life of the evangelical counsels are a few of the expectations that NECESSARILY come with the wearing of the habit. They are expectations any Catholic (or non-Catholic for that matter) has a complete right to hold in regard to those wearing such garb publicly.

In my own experience veils and some other pieces of religious garb are treated as sacred; they are as consecrated objects reserved for those who are consecrated or preparing for consecration. Often in the past, and sometimes still religious pray as they put each piece on. Whatever the custom in this regard, they are not costumes, not meant for "dressup" or "pretend." In recent years most religious have gone through sometimes-harrowing and at least difficult processes to discern whether God has called them to either retain or give up the habit. Sometimes these decisions are made in the face of peers who discern the precisely opposite thing, and have done so honestly and in good faith. The bottom line here is that whether we retain or forego the wearing of the habit we treat habits as meaningful garments and we respect that significance. Thus, we do not lend friends extra veils to use for halloween costumes; we do not allow children to wear them to feel like their aunt the nun (for instance) or to dress like this or that saint during school pageants. In those instances we use costumes that are clearly that --- not the real deal. This reminds the kids both of what is true, and what may to be aspired to. To do otherwise is to trivialize and misuse something the Church treats with great respect and significance. To trivialize something in this way, I believe, empties it of meaning. To empty something of meaning may be the essence of sacrilege.

You see, I don't believe there is anything cute about the picture because I don't think it indicates a single unique instance of this practice. The picture was submitted to the CMSWR for their website as representative of the life of the community. It affects me somewhat the same way seeing the "Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence" wearing habits does (though at least their's are clearly costumes and meant to be a parody)! Yes, the child is part of the "community" (though I wonder if she and the others SHOULD be), but she is a child -- not professed, not a nun, not someone who has been through all the discernment and formation for such a life and assumed the completely ADULT rights and obligations associated with the commitment of vows. Who else in the community wears a habit for inadequate or casually justified reasons --- whether or not they have a vocation to consecrated life or have completed the appropriate formation or met the normal canonical requirements (which do not ordinarily include marriage and minor or dependent children)? When I see an adult in the habit of the community and veil of the professed, especially if she is walking along with habited children in tow, can I truly assume that she is someone who truly IS what the habit represents? I doubt it now because I really cannot trust the habit means the same thing to the Hermit Intercessors that it means to the Church or to religious women and men.

Note well that I have merely focused on the fact of the child wearing the habit as a form of trivialization. The picture at issue appears to show us a family ALL in habit however, and if this is true, then this underscores the question of whether the habit means for this group what it means for the rest of the Church. Do ANY of these people have vows of consecrated celibacy or chastity, for instance? And if so, what of their marriage vows? What does the habit still MEAN in such a case? Also please note that although your question (and so, my answer) has to do with a comment I made on the trivialization of the habit, the questions of the welfare of the children in this situation --- children who presumably go to school and play with other children in the community --- and of the real nature of this mixed community are also raised front and center with this picture. For me personally it is a snapshot which raises questions about misplaced priorities (marriage vs religious life, for instance) and inadequate boundaries (I would want to understand how families, and celibates actually live in this situation) and, despite recognizing that snapshots can be notoriously misleading, I can understand simply from this small fragment of the community portrait why some might wonder whether or not the group is more cult-like than representative of an Association of the Faithful on the way perhaps to becoming an Institute of Consecrated Life.

Children in Veils, CMSWR, and Former Membership of the Intercessors.

As for why this practice raises questions with regard to CMSWR and membership within it consider that the CMSWR is very conservative and inflexible on the issue of member communities wearing habits. Sometimes they have given the impression that members of communities who do not wear habits are not "real religious" so I wonder if they care that a member community is dressing children in religious garb associated with canonical consecration. I would wager they will be a tad chagrined at this photo for, for me at least, it calls to mind the old in-joke among Sisters (which was more true than some liked) that in Catholic schools the quality of teacher education and aptitude was so low one could put a habit on a broom, set the broom inside the classroom and get as gifted a teacher as some sisters already there. The jibe was that in many cases no one would notice the difference! After all, so long as there was a habit present in the classroom, what else was really necessary?

For that reason, the fact that CMSWR requires the wearing of habits, but may not be judicious enough to notice when pictures of a member group (a LAY group, by the way) on their very website includes habited children while they consider canonically vowed women religious who have given their entire lives to Christ and his Church to be "pseudo sisters" simply because they don't wear habits seems ridiculous to me, and surely must be embarrassing to the CMSWR. We (LCWR, CMSWR, diocesan hermits, etc) ALL argue that the habit does not make the Sister but it seems that perhaps in this case the CMSWR (and certainly the Intercessors of the Lamb) have forgotten this piece of wisdom. At least as I say, it raises serious questions for me.