Notes from beneath the veil
I wore a chapel veil to church for the first time ever yesterday. It’s something I’d wanted to/felt called to do for years, and I finally committed to doing it during Lent. I didn’t make it to Mass last week because, you know, snakes on a plane, so this Sunday’s Mass was my first shot at it.
My biggest concern was not drawing attention to myself. Though a few women at my parish do wear scarves, hats, or veils in church, they’re a small minority, and I didn’t want to feel like I stood out. So when we arrived I slipped into the pew discreetly, which was made easier by the fact that I only had my five-year-old daughter with me (the one of dragon-defeating fame) since Joe had taken the others to vigil Mass the day before. After the first Scripture reading I finally began to relax, and by the end of the Gospel I felt confident that I was just an anonymous face in the crowd.
And then Fr. Uche began his homily. The Gospel reading was about the Transfiguration, and when he introduced the topic, he mused, “What did Jesus go up the mountain to do?” I jumped when a voice beside me shouted at the loudest possible volume:
That would be my sweet daughter’s pronunciation of “pray.” She’s so excited about Jesus and was so delighted to know the answer that she just had to scream it at the very top of her lungs — and, wow, who knew that a young child’s voice could fill an entire huge building like that? The church was packed with about 1,100 people, and I am pretty sure that every single one of them looked over at us in that moment. I had already felt like THE WOMAN IN THE CHAPEL VEIL!!!!, and now I felt like THE WOMAN IN THE CHAPEL VEIL WHOM WE’RE ALL NOW STARING AT BECAUSE HER KID YELLS AT THE PRIEST DURING MASS!!!!
I’ve gotten a lot of comments and emails from women who said that they were interested in covering their heads but had never tried it, so I thought I’d share my experience in case others find it helpful. And yes, there is definitely something ironic, and possibly a little lame, about undertaking a practice that’s all about humility and hiddenness and then writing about it on your blog. I get that. But I’m going to go ahead and crack open that can of worms anyway, because I know that it’s something a lot of us have thought about, and I think that at least a few folks might find a discussion about the practice to be fruitful.
First, a bit of background:
What I Wore
I especially wanted to share this detail since I know a lot of us have a hard time finding something we can feel truly comfortable wearing. I am thrilled to have discovered this chapel veil, which is based on an infinity scarf, from the Liturgical Time Etsy Shop. What’s great about it is that it can be worn as a scarf…
And then slipped over your head to use as a veil!
The design allowed it to stay on my head easily — I didn’t need any bobby pins to keep it in place. Also, it helped me relax to know that I could just drop it down and wear it around my neck if it got to be too much to hassle with.
Which brings us to the question: Why did I get myself into this in the first place?
Why I Wanted to Do It
The practice of women covering their heads at church made sense to me from the first moment I encountered it. It’s not a tradition I’ve ever wondered about, wrestled with, or felt hostile to in any way.
It started, in fact, with my observations about the practice of men removing their head coverings when entering a church. Here in Texas it’s common for men to wear hats, especially cowboy hats, and it was even more common when I was younger. I grew up seeing dashing gentlemen in their fine Stetsons; I’d often come across black-and-white pictures of my grandfathers and their fathers from the 40s, looking like movie stars in their suits and fedoras. On a gut level I understood that men can enhance their appearances dramatically with headwear.
Rarely is a man’s hair his best feature. Many males have thinning hair, and, at least in our society, they don’t have tons of acceptable options for hairstyles anyway. So, for that gender, hats are a prime opportunity to improve their physical appearance and draw attention to themselves. When I was a child I occasionally ended up in churches for weddings or funerals, and when I saw the men remove their hats, they always looked a little smaller and less powerful after doing so. I understood on a visceral level that for a man to bare his head was an act of humility.
For women, it’s the opposite.
Our hair is one of the main ways we express our individuality. Even for those of us who have no skill at hairdressing, the cut and style of our locks speaks volumes about how we want want people to perceive us. It’s also one of the primary ways we make ourselves beautiful. Imagine a girl standing in front of a mirror, heading out to a party, determined to look as gorgeous as possible…but totally neglecting her hair. It wouldn’t happen. When women want to attract attention with their physical beauty, their hair is one of the first things they think about. It’s a fact of human nature that both genders tend to notice women’s physical appearances, moreso than they do with men’s appearances, and hair is a crucial part of that.
So, long before I’d heard any exegesis about First Corinthians or encountered horror stories about women in abusive congregations being pushed to cover their heads because they were seen as inferior, the idea just kinda made sense to me. I didn’t (and still don’t) think it’s a big deal. I would not push others to undertake that practice if it didn’t feel right to them. It simply seemed to me that men uncovering their heads and women covering theirs was a nice, optional thing that people could do to deflect attention from themselves in a holy place.
If it’s true that this practice is all about blending in, wouldn’t wearing a chapel veil defeat the purpose? I thought. If I end up being THE WOMAN IN THE CHAPEL VEIL!!!!, as I was afraid I would be, then I would actually be drawing more attention to myself than if I didn’t cover my head in the first place. Yet that’s not what happened.
To be sure, one of the reasons it wasn’t an issue is that some women do cover their heads at our parish. Again, it’s not common, but you see it often enough that it doesn’t surprise anyone. It might have been a different story if we went to a more casual church where a woman wearing a veil would be the only one doing so. (Kelly has some great suggestions for those situations.) But the biggest reason that I think I ultimately blended in is this:
It’s hard for a woman with a covered head to be the center of attention.
When I thought of my own reaction to encountering women wearing scarves or veils, it dawned on me that you don’t spend much time looking at them because there’s simply not that much to see. Even if you do a double-take when you first glance at them, your focus soon drifts to something else since you can’t see many of the details that make people interesting to look at. Their hair, most of their heads, and many of the details of their faces and necks are obscured. They wouldn’t hold your attention because it’s boring to look at a bunch of fabric.
What Will People Think?
On the way to church my Neurotic ESP kicked into gear, and I could already hear everyone else’s thoughts:
Wait, isn’t that the same lady who wore jeans to Mass last week and said “And also with you” at the sign of peace?
Did I just see a woman in a chapel veil GENUFLECT ON THE WRONG KNEE?!?!?
These voices continued to pipe up in my imagination once I got inside the church…but when I tried to apply them to actual people, it all broke down.
There was Roxanne, who once dropped everything to come over and pray with me when I was having a hard time. Scattered throughout the pews were at least eight wonderful folks who had brought us homemade meals after babies were born and after my recent health issues. Across the aisle was my friend who volunteers at our church’s health clinic to serve those who can’t pay for medical care; over to the left was the gentleman who recently gave a large amount of financial assistance to a young couple with a crisis pregnancy whom he met when they turned around from an abortion mill where he’d been praying; and behind him was the couple who has cared for over 20 at-risk children through the local foster care system. Noe was undoubtedly out there somewhere too.
Waves of shame rushed through me when I realized: these are the people whom I assumed would be judging me.
Even I am not horrible enough to spend the Mass fixated on other people, rendering damning character assessments based on their outward appearances…yet I assumed that that’s what my brothers and sisters in Christ would do to me?
It was at that moment that I realized that this exercise in head covering brought with it an important, and surprisingly difficult, opportunity for spiritual growth: to presume other people’s charity.
* * *
I think that that last point was my biggest takeaway. To my great surprise, it seemed to me that the people around me were (wait for it…this is going to be shocking…) focused more on the Mass than they were on me. I know, amazing.
It reminded me of the advice that Dr. Phil used to give guests on his show: “You wouldn’t worry so much about what people thought of you if you knew how seldom they did.” (Let me hasten to note that I do not get all my life wisdom from daytime talk shows anymore.) (Now it mostly comes from Pinterest.) Anyway, I have rarely found that saying to be more true than when I covered my head at Mass. Nobody cared — nobody — and it was prideful of me to assume that anyone would in the first place.
So if you’ve ever considered wearing a head covering to church, I encourage you to do it. I think you’ll find it to be a beautiful exercise in hiddenness…as long as you remind your children not to shout at the top of their lungs when the priest asks a question during the homily.
(P.S. Since I included a couple of pictures, I’m counting this as a What I Wore Sunday post!)