Why the habit?
I hardly see Sisters in a habit any more. What happened? Why did the Carmelite Sisters keep their habit?
Some questions are best answered by description. I think this is one of them. Keep reading the examples and I think you will get the idea.
Yesterday, a group of our sisters went to a secluded area of the southern California beaches to rest and pray and just spend some quality time together. The man who operated the entry gate to this section of the beach (it was not automatic) asked us to pray for him.
Not long ago, I was in a store coming down the escalator, when a little girl, with eyes big with amazement shouted, “Look mom, a Church!” Yes, she was referring to me! Her mom took the time to explain about Jesus’ love for us, then and there, right in the store.
I remember the time a young couple came up to me with their newborn baby. The new dad gently took the infant from his mom’s arms and asked if I could just hold their baby for a moment so he could “soak in the Holy Spirit’s presence.”
I cannot count the times that grown men, adults of mature years, have approached me, at schools in which I have taught, at healthcare centers where I have helped out, at retreat centers where I have been on the retreat team, and heartfelt tears spilling onto their faces, recount how they remembered their years being taught by “the nuns.”
“I am CEO today because of the virtues instilled in me in Catholic School by the nuns. I learned critical thinking, sportsmanship, and charity.”
“My life was simple back then; Sister, you remind me of the values my parents gave us and which I have thrown away over the years. It’s never too late to start again, right, Sister?”
“My mom died when I was about five years old. It was the love and warmth of the sisters who taught me in school that gave me the security and encouragement that every child needs. I am successful today because of you nuns.”
As a religion teacher in one of our local Catholic high schools, I still remember one of the young men. He was in my junior religion class. He had to take my class twice “because I’m not interested in religion.” Yet, to graduate he had to pass it. So there he was day after day, looking very bored with that special yawning, eye-rolling look that only teenagers can give. One day, he came up to me after class and with tears in his eyes told me that his girlfriend was pregnant, and that he remembered how we role played in class how to encourage a pregnant teenage girl to choose life despite pressure from parents and peers.
“Sister, I held her hand and claimed this child for Christ: I asked the angels to guard over and protect this child; and I told her I would support her and get any help needed for that little baby. Then, like you said, Sister, I gently put my hand upon her head and asked Our Blessed Mother to take her by the hand and lead her through her journey of pregnancy. Sister, she’s going to keep the baby.”
Of course, all of the above are random examples from one life – mine. Every Catholic sister in a habit can tell their own experiences. What is written here only scratches the surface of my encounters with God’s people wherever I go.
My community, the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, was born during an intense religious persecution. Our founding sisters had to hide, wear secular clothes, and teach about God secretly in private homes. Because of that, we highly value the freedom to wear our holy habit. Back in the 1960s, we voted several times as to whether we wanted to change a part or all of our habit. 98% voted no; we wanted to wear the full habit. It is economical, simple, modest, and above all a sign, a symbol, of God and His love for each of us. Our habit calls out silently to people we meet or even pass by in the street, the store, even the beach. It says, “Look up; for greater things you were born.” It says, “Hold on, this too shall pass, and God is with you always leading you in the way you are to go.” It says, “I am a symbol, a reminder, of God’s presence in our world. You can’t actually see him, but in seeing me you are reminded of Him.”
When I first received my habit and was a very young Carmelite Sister in my first teaching assignment at St. Philomena School in Carson, California, one evening after school we drove to Mt. St. Mary’s College, Doheny campus, in Los Angeles to attend a lecture. It was there in the big auditorium that I sat for about an hour listening to a very learned speaker, a priest, a theologian. I don’t remember his name, it was too many years ago, but I do remember the essence of his talk to the religious sisters who attended. He said,
“You are an ‘eschatological witness’ in a world sorely in need of you.”
He went on to explain this new concept to me – eschatological witness. What a strange-sounding word I thought when I first heard it. What in heaven could it mean? The presenter went on to explain that eschatology is a branch of theology concerned with the final events in the history of the world or of humankind and includes our beliefs concerning death, the end of the world, and the ultimate destiny of humankind; specifically the Second Coming, the resurrection of the dead, and the Last Judgment.
Well, that is seriously heavy-sounding, I thought at the time. Could he possibly mean that when I go to the store to buy a half-gallon of milk for supper, I am a witness to all that? I discovered that the answer is “yes.”
So, back to your question, we wear the habit for many reasons. We Catholics believe, along with other Christians, that the Church is the bride of Christ and at the end of the world as we know it, Christ will present his Bride, the Church, to His Father. We will join the angels and saints in heaven and spend our eternity in eternal joy and praise. Catholic consecrated women are signs – symbols – of that union with God to which every single human being is called. God’s people are reminded, once again, of their great dignity as children of God and their great destiny of deep, profound, closeness to God, as it is so well said in the hymn “Bridegroom of my soul”. And this is called “eschatological witness.”
I’d like to end with a final thought. Can you imagine how much money we save when all 143 of our sisters only have 3 habits? That could be the subject for another time – the need for all of us to simplify our lives. Well, that’s for another time.