Rekindled debate over religious habits and their benefits

In several corners (or hot spots?) of the Internet these days there’s an interesting debate and reflection on the pros and cons of habits for religious women (and men, too, I suppose). 

It’s not like most such discussions, which issue only the usual superficial left/right, progressive/conservative clichés. 

It began, I believe, with Elizabeth Scalia (more on her at the end of this column). On her blog for the magazine First Things, in a post called “Cheating the habit of being,” she wrote about a nun who said shedding the habit showed that sisters were “nothing special, that we are all special in the eyes of God.” And the nun described her discomfort at being offered free snow cones by an Italian street vendor, as if she was somehow better than everybody else. 

Scalia sympathizes a little, but concludes that the nun ends up cheating the workman of an opportunity to think of God, and cheats God of a simple act of devotion. 

“Her habit was a reminder to the community of faith, and to everyone else as well, that we are all called to simplicity and sacrifice — that for all of our Martha-instincts to work ourselves to death and carve our identities from what we ‘do,’ we must cultivate our inner Marys as well, and embrace the challenge to simply be,” Scalia wrote. “Sister might correctly say that she was ‘nobody special,’ but her habit was a witness to ‘being,’ and it confirmed Christ’s covenanted life among us with a reassuring immediacy. 

“Taking off the habit may have (in the parlance of the day) helped sisters ‘celebrate their individuality’ — and that is not a terrible thing, in and of itself; we are each fearfully, wonderfully made — but the embrace of ordinary dress over the religious habit also made the ordinary world more ordinary. Suddenly, there were no daily outward indications that anyone was praying at all, no reminders that we could and should pray, too. Suddenly, there was nothing to make a workingman remember Christ, and share some frozen sugar-water in gratitude.” 

Scalia’s post has already inspired one (habited) nun to start a chronicle of experiences she had as a result of the habit. “Sister Lisa” is a Canossian, like St. Josephine Bakhita, and writes at nunspeak.wordpress.com

Do you support a return of the habit for religious? Explain, to feedback@osv.com

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There's a new OSV pamphlet, based on Scalia’s “Rosary for the unemployed” in our Aug. 22 issue. We’re bringing it out because of numerous requests. Thank you!