Veiled Question: An Exploration of the Re-emergence of an Ancient Custom
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The Author

Shawn is a twice widowed mom of two strange and wonderful daughters: Roise, 16, and Maire, 21. She is a Secular Discalced Carmelite with the Austin OCDS Community of St. Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, and a proud member of her home Bible study, the Pontifical Biblical Institute of the Holy Hippie Sisterhood. Shawn works as a private care-giver, and is a Catholic columnist for the Bryan-College Station Eagle newspaper. Her household, St. Anne's, includes dogs, cats, chickens, and a mopey teenager. Shawn promises she does take life seriously from time to time, and is hoping, by God's grace, to ascend Mt. Carmel, scattering many rose petals along the way just for fun. She does not ordinarily wear shoes. Who needs shoes?

25478_1432550498222_5018647_n The young people at St. Mary’s in College Station have a flare for making old things new again, for transforming customs and practices that could be considered old fashioned or obsolete, into fresh, passionate expressions of the uniqueness and beauty of our Catholic faith.  Aggie Catholics tend to add flourish to their devotion. Several of them kneel as they receive Holy Communion, or genuflect just before receiving. You might notice a young man a pew ahead take off his shoes  to express reverence and prayerful humility. It is normal to now and then to see a  student praying prostrate at adoration. As they gather for an event, you might see the activity center ablaze in votive candles that line the floor and kitchen counter. These are a few things I have seen there that are signs of the Catholic Renaissance flowering in this joyful place.  I think it is great.

Looking out from my usual pew in the balcony, I have begun to see that the congregation is more and more dotted with lace mantillas, chapel veils, even sparkly shawls, whisked over the head at the door of the church. These young women seem to have discovered that maybe there was something to that old head covering tradition after all. Veiling is an ancient custom that these religious pioneers  are re-interpreting, renewing and evolving into a deeply meaningful and relevant practice for our day.

The world of our time longs for a sense of the holy, for a sense of mystery and awe. We as Catholics need to remember the heart of our faith, which is the Presence of God in our midst; Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.  The sight of a veil prayerfully worn in recognition of this, can draw us to that sudden chill of knowing, of believing, that the Church is true, that “there is something here that is greater….”

Kristin and Austin, a couple I often see at daily mass, usually sit in the front row of the balcony. They present a sweet picture from behind with their little children, each girl in a different color of lace chapel veil, lined up next to their mother, wearing hers. This is part of Kristin’s response to my inquiries about veiling.

“I am a relatively timid person, and with many small children in tow already, I dread the amount of attention our family draws sometimes at mass. So I truly approached the subject not wanting at all to do it myself….

[But] the reasons for it [are] so beautiful and compelling.

Woman is a representative of the Bride of Christ, the Church, just as man represents Christ… Wouldn’t it make sense for the bride to wear a veil when she comes to mass to meet her bridegroom, especially as she receives His Body into her own in the Eucharist?

Also, it is a sign of humility.… It is beautiful and feminine, and our Blessed Mother is always wearing a veil wherever you see her [represented].  Aren’t we supposed to want to be more like her?

The Church removed the requirement for [veiling]. But…the recommendation to veil is still there…. Actually, that was what tipped me over the edge to let go of my fears and actually do it! ~ Kristin

 As I asked around St. Mary’s about veiling, watching and listening to women who did, I began to be drawn to it. I had left off vieling some years ago but have started experimenting with it again lately. It feels peaceful and right.

Veiling, to me, is like wearing a prayer shawl, using a prayer matt, wearing a habit, a wedding veil, a yarmulke. I do it because this is something that helps me enter more consciously into the presence of God. I feel I am  honoring the fact that I am stepping into the house of God among His people He has called to His table. My veil to me is a prayer in itself.  It connects me to the traditions and history of the Church that is so beautiful to me. It is a time honored expression of Catholic feminine spirituality and the  Bride Mysticism of so many of my favorite Saints. It is a sign of consecration and worship, the old carried into the new, bringing the present alive. Putting on my veil as I step into the church intensifies my awareness of the awesome.  I just wish it was not  so noticeable and that I could find a way to be more sneaky about it.

“… [At first] I felt like Jackie O. rolling into mass…I just needed some shades…

admits Hilary,

[According to St. Paul] “woman is the glory of man.” (1 Cor. 11:7) In… Blessed Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, he [says] the creation story took place in order of importance, culminating in the creation of man and as the crowning achievement, then the creation of woman out of man, making woman the crown jewel and glory of humanity.

[Paul also says this custom of veiling] is “because of the angels.” (1 Cor. 11:2-16.)  In Revelation 4 and also in Isaiah 6, we read about the Seraphim, the highest order in all the choirs of angels. They  stand in the presence of Almighty God and forever behold His glory with their “eyes all around and within.”  [They]  are the most glorious and most luminous of the angels yet Scripture tells us it is fitting for them to veil or cover themselves with their “wings,” as they do, in the presence of God…

St. John, as we are taught by the Church, was seeing the Heavenly liturgy in Revelation. So there is a connection between us being in the presence of God at mass and the appropriateness of women covering their heads at mass. It …serves to remind us that when at mass we are participating in Heaven along with the angels and saints.

What really made me fall in love with veiling is the tradition within the Church of veiling what is holy. In Hebrews 9:1-8 we read of the Old Testament tradition of veiling the “old tabernacle,” the Holy of Holies, because it contained the Ark of the Covenant. It is tradition within the Catholic Church to veil the tabernacle and the chalice because they contain the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ in the Eucharist. The Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the Ark of the New Covenant, carried Christ within her womb. She is the vessel that brought true life to the whole world. She is a sacred vessel. She is most commonly depicted as being veiled, as is the practice of our faith. And by veiling ourselves we become imitators of her, affirming ourselves in our sacredness as women, having the capability of bringing life into the world. This further reminds us that we are to spiritually be bearers of Christ to others, as Mary was physically.
~ Hillary Francis 

For some, wearing a veil or an alternative head covering for mass is new and fascinating. For others it is a renewal of an ancient and lovely tradition or even something they have always done that is very meaningful to them.

I grew up wearing a veil. My mother (born in 1961) had grown up wearing a veil too, like most women at the time. Then one Sunday her family went to church and all the veils had more or less gone. People seem to have stopped wearing them because they were no longer required to wear them. My mother later thought that this was a poor reason for abandoning a beautiful tradition, and so she started wearing one again as an adult, and passed the tradition down to her children. I do not think that the fathers of Vatican II ever meant to do away with veiling by changing the requirement to wear one – instead, I think they realized that it was a matter that did not need to be dictated, but rather should spring organically from the heart of the people. Like praying the rosary, or spending time in Adoration…. You wear a veil because love has moved you to do so. ~ Sarah Williams

Many and varied are the ways to show reverence and love. The important thing, as always, is the reverence ,the love itself. It’s what’s in the heart, the inner intention, that will shine to God,  in and for our family of faith in all we do at mass, whether our heads are actually covered or not.

“Adorn yourselves with the virtues,” says St. Clare.

“Behave outwardly in such a way that your actions may give proof to all of His Presence.”
~St. Francis de Sales

 The renewal underway is the renewal of our holy faith and a re-awakened awe in the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, in the sanctity of holy mass and the numinous environment we enter into in the House of God. However we  know, live, and express that awakening, that truth, is beautiful, deeply valid, even needed.

And anyway, veiling does have its undeniable mystique.

 

Note:  A history of the tradition of veiling, and an argument for adherence to it now has already been very well covered in Laura Gonzales’ excellent article Ladies In Lace http://www.austincnm.com/index.php/2011/07/ladies-in-lace/#.Ur8zSI41ZSU so check there for more background on this Biblical and Canonical custom of the Church.
Of interest might also be http://www.mantillawithme.com/Welcome.html  lots of good information and good thoughts there as well.

Special thanks to Kristine Cranley for putting me in touch with the right people so I could pick their lacy brains, and to Hilary, Kristin and Sarah for sharing their thoughts and experiences on veiling at mass for this article. Brightest blessing!

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12 Comments
  • Jonica Bradley

    All three monotheistic religions recommend veiling. Seems to be a fairly consistent sign of humble respect. I have been known to wear my veil in public, in private prayer, and most definitely to the house of worship. Some women from some Jewish sects never ever show their hair; they wear wigs. Some Protestant Christians still wear hats to church. Many Muslim women go about veiled whenever they leave the house and put on their veils for prayer inside their homes 5 times a day. I enjoy those upholding this beautiful tradition, regardless of the reason. Just seeing others going out of their way to connect to God, engenders a connection within me.

  • Marcel LeJeune

    I think veiling certainly has a place in the church, but I have to disagree with one thing – I have been at St. Mary’s for many years and have not seen an increase in the number of students who veil. In fact, all of the people quoted above are former students.

    • Shawn Chapman

      They are the ones who wanted to talk to me. I would agree that on Sundays I don’t see much veiling. I mostly attend St. Mary’s for daily mass. So that is what I am referring to.

      • Shawn Chapman

        I’ve been at St. Mary’s about 20 years too, abet mostly at daily mass which is where I have seen the increase in veiling. I did not intend to sound like I was only referring to current students, either. Also these former students quoted are still a lot younger than I am! When I asked Austin and Kristin outside what’s up with all the veiling lately they said, “Oh, that’s the Theology of the Body Crowd.” That’s what made me even more interested in wringing about this because I never heard that have anything to do with that custom. I interpreted that as an evolution of the practice as well a a re-emergence. I don’t know why I have noticed it and you haven’t, actually. But I have, enough to want to write about it. Maybe you will notice now that I have pointed it out.

  • Mark

    A very thoughtful blog…What really struck me about it was the emphasis on mystery, awe and prayerful openness. I would add, although it is probably redundant and by proxy evident, is humility. I think the challenge of traditions like these (and they are wonderful) it to remember what they are about and not turn them into requirements or fads. We human beings being who we are, that is easy to do. I often wonder out loud, (obviously) if re-looking at traditions (it usually happens organically) is good simply to keep them fresh, uncomfortable (in the best way) and keep the emphasis on what the tradition is about. Otherwise, it just becomes a rule and we worship the rule instead of what the rule is mean to serve- our deepened relationship to the mystery of the Divine and our fellow neighbors. If we don’t somebody is going to challenge that rule. History shows that.
    I remember as a child going to church in a suit (a sign of reverence for us men) and seeing all of the women in the church with their heads covered. Although I was very young, it struck me deeply. Over time, I saw it turn into a “did you see what he or she was wearing?” kind of thing, and it changed. But something got lost, too…And perhaps the change was necessary to renew the sense of what is was about in the first place. God is mystery, and we can only speak of it in our limited way with reverence, humility and a sense of awe.
    By the way, your blogs are wonderful, I look forward to reading them and what you have to say. There is a sense of deep devotion with a nice dash of whimsy, humor and true authenticity that is touching. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Shawn Chapman

      :) Thanks.

  • Cathy

    My daughters started wearing veils during lent at least 3 years ago. They both said it makes them feel closer to God. They have had many stares and questions over the years. Some people don’t remember that head coverings were at one time required of women. They are often the only ones wearing them. They don’t even notice those who stare at them. They are focused on the Mass and Jesus. I’m so proud of them.

  • Michael Adalumo

    Nice article, whats old is new again.

  • Shawn Chapman

    For the more nonconformist veiler there is the Jewish tichel and various other head coverings on http://www.scarfhead.com that are way cool.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    People are a vain bunch. The oft quoted part of the first letter to the Corinthians by St. Paul commanding women to veil their heads usually misses the command to men to uncover theirs. What I think that the Apostle is trying to say is that at church there is no rank among the faithful.

    A man’s pride is his status in a community and he flaunts his rank to other men and women by dressing the part, from head to toe. A woman’s pride is her beauty and she flaunts it to other women and men adorning it, with long hair and painted toe nails.

    But the only rank at church is the Head and the Body, Christ and the baptized. St Paul’s command to men to uncover their heads is for them to leave their worldly status outside and to women to cover their heads, to veil their beauty.

    Nowadays men don’t really dress according to their rank in the community; squinting, it’s hard to tell a judge from a carpenter. But women still adorn their beauty. So while I don’t see men restoring the custom to wear elaborate hats according to their status, it’s only natural that women feel attracted to veils at church.

    I do appreciate the revival of the veil, though to me, having grown up after the obligation to wear it had been lifted, it’s as a welcome novelty. I just wish that women, especially young women, would be inspired by those wearing the veil to at least “veil” parts of their bodies that only their future husbands should behold, at least in the presence of the Eucharistic Lord.

  • Emily Davis

    I agree. SO happy this tradition is taking off.
    We did a big Advent Veiling Devotion and now with the Veiling series we are doing – I’ve met so many great women who wear a veil.
    Blessings,
    Emily

  • Theresa George

    Shawn…from one Carmelite to another, this was a beautiful post. I had to chuckle since I recently wrote a post with a reference to covering the Ark in Exodus and just sent off another post to be published focusing a bit on the mysticism of wearing a veil. As a Carmelite, that is what appeals the most to me. So thank you for such a inspirational post. Blessings ~ Theresa (President of our OCDS community right at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, PA)

    You can visit me at: http://desertofmyheart.blogspot.com

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