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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.

19 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your insights, Sister. You are all so beautiful in your habits. When your sisters visit our parish here in San Diego (St. John Evangelist, Encinitas), my daughters are so excited to see ‘real live nuns’!(LOL) You are inspiring witnesses to the Faith We all pray for your vocations, continued journey toward personal holiness and ultimate happiness in eternity with Christ, our Beloved.

    • I want to become a nun and what encourages me more is the habit and its inspiration.

  2. To all of you Carmelite Sisters, I pray for your ministry every day because of all that it has done for me in my own spirituality. Keep the holy habit. It means so much. Deb Potts

  3. Sisters, it is great to see you in your habit, because it reminds me of my faith. When I was a young girl and I would see sisters in their habits, it would remind me- that You worked for God and you all looked so happy; there for God brouth happiness if you were His friend. Now as an adult and looking at this world and very divided- of non belivers Your habit- your belief and our belief as Cahtolics tells the world that God is still standing and that there is hope and truth to what a “sister” / a lady has decided to fallow Jesus in a very special way.

  4. The sisters in their habits look more beautiful to me than all the Hollywood stars in their bazillion doller designer gowns

    • I agree with C. Ritchey.. I love to see the sisters in thier habits..

  5. Dear sisters,I love that you all wear this beautiful habit.I was a student at st. Philomena for ccd classes .since I was a little girl I’ve loved it.I fail in love with the nuns.I always thought I would be a nun.but I decided I wanted to be a mommy .I’m still wanna be.lol.you always look like a bit of heaven here on earth.thank you for keeping the habit.you all are so beautiful.I enjoy your retreat house and all of the sisters.GOD bless you all for your selfless work.molly

  6. Here in Ireland very few sisters now wear the habit. This is such a great pity as a nun is not a nun without the holy habit. Hollywood ladies stand back..Carmelite Sisters are far more gracious

  7. My DeaR Sisters;

    To see a sister/nun in habit, being the conventional or modified, makes me remember many things. When my mother taught me to respect and carry with honor in my heart the men and women who devoted their lives to God’s work. When Vatican 2 came about it brought a number of good things but also caused us to loose a lot of other good symbols and treasures. Sisters and priest shedded their habits and the dignity of love for the Catholic Church was shedded also. We the Roman Catholics of the world are loosing the very essences of or faith and love for our church. Like the uniform of military personnel, the sisters trained us to defend the Faith of our Fathers. Now a days, the many sisters have taken off the habits and do not wish to go back to wearing the them again. To me this is like piercing the side of Christ again on the cross. One day when I was on an interview for my first job. A women working there asked me “did I go to catholic school”? I told her yes and why do you ask? She replied that it is just the way I presented and carried myself.

    I wish to thank all the sisters of the Church and the world for preparing me to go out into the God’sworld to do my Father’s work.

  8. God will bless you for wearing habits, Sisters! I love their beauty, simplicity, femininity, and grace.

  9. Dear Sisters, What a beautiful sign of God’s love in the world you are to me! It is a joy to see your smiling faces on retreat and breathe in the wonderful spirit of peace that surrounds each one of you! Thank you for being God’s sign of His loving presence. You are loved. theresa

    • I wish all the orders would return to the wearing of their habits. I remember Mother Angelica of EWTN fame and how she publicly made the decision for she and her nuns to return to their original habit. It was in response to the bad behavior of nuns from another order that attended Pope John Paul11 visit to the U.S. Youth ralley. It angered her so much by what they did and said that she rebuked them on her TV show and told her nuns to put on the old habit they’d worn before Vatican II. It’s been that way ever since. What an impact that had on me.

      I know that the clothing must at times be bothersome and hot but really we need some sort of witness today. Nothing turns me off more than seeing a woman identifying herself as “sister so and so” dressed like a lay person and wearing jewelry and make up and the other things women wear… I just don’t tend to take them seriously and most of them are so secular and liberal in their thinking I wonder why they ever became a nun.

      The habit is more than just a strange garment and it speaks volumes to the secular world we live in today. To me it represents a person who says “I have found something of far more value and importance than anything the world has to offer and I want to shout it to the world, JESUS IS MY LORD” and this habit represents my commitment to Him and His Church. Obviously from previous comments, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Never give up the habit. God Bless you all.

  10. Sisters, I loved your story above and it is all so true. Wearing your habit sets you apart from all of us lay people. You all are Nums and deserve certain respect for what you are doing. You are married to God and dedicate your lives to Him. You are a wonderful example to all by your teachings of kindness, helping others and your devotion to praying to God. I have always loved the Nuns and now I especially love the Carmelites. You are all so great and wonderful. God bless you all and keep up the good work that you do for mankind. God loves you and so do I.

    Mary Louise McMurtry

    PS.I miss your retreats and I miss seeing you all.
    Thank you for all of your prayeres. They have worked wonders. Thank you again!!

  11. Dearest Carmelite Sisters,

    I love your story above! It is so true. Wearing your habit makes you stand out as a Nun and that is what you are. People have a great respect for Nuns and love to see them on the street or anywhere. You are all so special and truly an inspiration to all whom you talk to and come in contact with. You have dedicated you lives to God. You are married to God. You are showing the world your love and devotion to God. You are showinig the world that God is truly alive and that He is with us all if we only reach out to Him. God is love! You as Nuns projedt this feeling and reminid us all that God is within reach and that we can talk to Him when troubled.
    I have always loved the Nuns and now I especially love the Carmelite Nuns. I miss going to your retreats. They are wonderful and I miss all of you. I thank you for your prayers in the past. Your prayers have done wonders. Thank you. God bless you all and keep up all of the good work that you do. You are very much needed in this world today, especially when you wear your habit.

    Mary Louise McMurtry

  12. Well, put, sisters. I grew was born in 1954. I am so glad that many orders (including the good sisters that I had for grade school) chose to keep their habits (or maybe modified them a little – shorten the vail, the sleeves, etc.) I’m saddened when I see orders who, in my eyes, are trying to look (an act?) like the world in order to attract people to get to know Jesus. It’s like some priests that don’t wear their collars.

    Thank you. And my our Lord bless all that you do in His name.

  13. Most all young female discerner’s I am aware of..on-line..are interested and wanting to wear a full habit!

  14. We have a contemplative community of Carmelites within our parish boundaries. One of the young nuns has been hospitalized with leukemia. As we take the Reverend Mother and always another Sister to visit this young nun as she goes through her treatment at a local hospital, I have been so moved by watching the reaction of people in this “secular” hospital respond to their “full” traditional Carmelite habit. Constantly people want the Sisters prayers. They have expressed the “wow” factor so many times. Walking through the hallways yesterday two young men walked by and said “You Sisters are gorgeous!” Also yesterday in the elevator a woman walked in and seeing the nuns said “Oh, I feel like I’m in heaven!”
    Even the hospitalized young nun with the illness gets stopped over and over as she takes a little daily walk outside her hospital room down the hall. While she wears a more appropriate hospital attire and robe, she does wear the traditional headpiece and veil. Patients wave at her even beckon her to come into their room.
    If I ever doubted the power of the symbolism of the TRADITIONAL habit – I don’t any more. The traditional habit – because it is so countercultural to the way most women dress – it a clear sign that says among many things “God is my whole life” And the way I have watched people respond to these Carmelite nuns in the past two months while Sister is hospitalized, shows me how much we all need to be reminded of “God is my life” I am so proud of you Sisters!
    While I always wear my Roman collar when I am “our and about” I never have had the same reaction to my symbolic dress as do the dear nuns. Thank you so much, dear Sisters, for who you are in the Church!!
    Pray for me.
    Father Wayne

  15. Both my father and husband are Anglican Catholic priests. Both always wear their cassocks when out and about on parish business. I remember waiting for my father one night at the hospital while he visited one of his parishoners. As he was walking down the hallway, a nurse called,from the other end of the (very long) hallway, “Father! Please come quickly!” She explained afterward that she had seen the black cassock, and knew that he was a priest and would come, and what a comfort it was to her and the other nurses. My husband had similar experiences. Eschatological witness, indeed. God bless you.

  16. Thank God your Sisters voted on keeping the habit. We were forced to take ours off. I feel you act the way you dress. Keep up the good work, Sisters. You truly are witnesses to the world.

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