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!)
The kids running around Mt. Angel Abbey
For years I’ve been fascinated with the idea of creating a “domestic monastery.” To me, that concept evoked a home that’s orderly and prayerful, a haven where you could go to retreat from the stress of the world. Something deep within me yearned for this kind of life — and, even though it might sound impossible to the modern mind, my gut told me that this concept is attainable. Especially after I started thinking about hard stops and balance and sacrifice, I became more convinced than ever that family life — even big family life — does not have to be all insanity, all the time, that we really can transform our houses into domestic monasteries.
I’ve been asking that question for about five years now. I would ponder it as I watched toddlers jump around in corn flakes that they had poured onto the floor; I’d meditate on the essence of what a “domestic monastery” is as I turned around to yell at the kids for yelling in the car and noticed that only one of them had both shoes on; I’d wonder how often the average monk had thoughts like, IF ONE MORE PERSON ASKS ME FOR A SNACK MY HEAD IS GOING TO EXPLODE!!!!
I always felt like I was close to an understanding of what this concept really meant, but couldn’t quite get clarity on it. Then Joe and I had the crazy idea to spend a week at a Benedictine monastery and take our kids with us, and things finally clicked.
For a week, we lived on the same grounds as the monks of Mt. Angel Abbey. Our guest house was right next door to their church, and their attached cloister. The monastery is perched on a hilltop, the buildings (which include a library and a seminary) facing inward to enclose sprawling, tree-lined grounds. We had had visions of doing a bunch of Oregon sightseeing while we were in the area, but we never left Mt. Angel. We fell so quickly into the daily routine of work and prayer and rest, and felt so deeply at home, that the idea of going back out into the world felt painful.
The monks gather in their church for prayer six times a day; five of those prayer times are part of the ancient Liturgy of the Hours, the other is a Mass. Vigils is at 5:20 AM, followed by Lauds at 6:30. Then a breakfast, followed by Mass. The monks go about their work until noon, when they pause for midday prayer and eat lunch. Then they return to work until the bells ring for Vespers shortly after 5:00 PM. They have dinner, and then the day draws to a close with Compline at 7:30.
Anyone is invited to join them in church for their Masses and prayer times. The monks in their hooded black robes sit in the choir stalls at front, near the altar, and visitors sit in the pews in the nave. Their magnificent pipe organ is used every time, and the monks chant each of the prayers, which lends a sense of timelessness to the sanctuary. Vespers at a Benedictine monastery today does not look much different than it would have a thousand years ago.
We took the kids to most of each day’s Hours (though it probably goes without saying that I did not even try to make it to Vigils). I had suspected that we might get caught up in whatever we were doing and resist the effort to drag the kids down to the church every few hours, but that wasn’t the case at all. The sound of the bells announcing prayer time filled the entire hilltop, and you couldn’t help but pause whatever you were doing when you heard their noble ring. Also, since the prayer schedule was so regular, and we always knew when the next Hour was rolling around, we would naturally go into wind-down mode on whatever activity we were doing as the time approached. “Let’s not get out that board game right now, we only have thirty minutes until Vespers,” we might say to the kids.
We both had some work to do while we were there: Joe had to review documents for a client, I had a couple of small writing deadlines to hit, and we had to do a big load of laundry to keep the kids in clean clothes. I think this was a blessing, because it was a chance to work on a monk’s schedule. And it was in these semi-normal days, where we were balancing work and the demands of parenthood, all within the rhythm of life at Mt. Angel Abbey, that I think I finally came to understand the secret to creating a domestic monastery.
It doesn’t have to do with getting the kids to walk around in silence (though, boy, that’d be nice if I could pull it off), nor is it about observing the exact same prayer times as consecrated religious. Boiled down to its core, the hallmark of the monastic schedule is that the way you use your time reflects your true priorities. Your daily life is one of constantly pushing back against the world’s expectations, making real, sometimes difficult sacrifices so that your time is not swept away by the current of the world’s priorities.
My cousin, Br. Claude (whom we were visiting), creates icons for churches and organizations all over the world. When a new client asks him how long it will take to create something for them, the estimate he gives them assumes that his only worktime will be those slots on weekdays between Lauds and noon prayer, then from lunch until Vespers. It takes him a lot longer to complete a project than if he were to pull all-nighters, eat in his studio instead of in community with his brother monks, and blow off prayer times so that he could work more. I’d imagine that he sometimes encounters clients who wonder why it would take X weeks (or months) to create one piece, or hint that they’d like it done more quickly. But that’s not how it works when you’re a monk: outside of special circumstances, you work only during the designated times. When it is time for prayer, you pray; when it’s time to rest, you rest — even if the world is telling you to do otherwise.
I’ve been experimenting with this principle since I’ve been home. It’s been a process of freeing myself from the tyranny of false “have to’s”, of realizing that I really can take that 10 minutes to pray Vespers without the world falling apart, that it will work out just fine if I relax in the living room with my family in the evening instead of rushing off to get that one thing checked off my to-do list, that nobody is going to hate me if I say that I just can’t go to that Wednesday night meeting because of commitments at home. It’s one big exercise in that idea of saying NO to protect what you’ve already said YES to. Our house is still messier and crazier and about 100 times noisier than any place that you’d typically associate with monastic life, but ever since I’ve begun the simple but difficult process of tying to make our family’s use of daily time reflect our true priorities, I feel closer than ever to creating that domestic monastery that I’ve always craved.
It was Yaya‘s birthday a couple of weeks ago, and when the time came to write up a card, I froze. How could I possibly express my appreciation for all that she does for us? This was when I was bad-busy, when I’d gotten myself in over my head with so many commitments that I considered the day a success if I remembered to feed the kids lunch. So finding the right words to tell her what I wanted her to know for her birthday seemed impossible.
I went down to the store, and headed for the greeting card section. I felt immediate relief as I looked at all the options. There was such a variety of sentiments inscribed in the insides of these cards, I knew I’d be able to find one that said what I was trying to say.
I finally found one that fit the tone and ideas I wanted to get across, and when I brought it home, I underlined key phrases to indicate my personal signoff on the pre-printed message. I then added a brief, hand-written note at the bottom that echoed the sentiments written in the card, and signed my name. As I slid it into the envelope, I was so grateful that I’d found a card that conveyed what I could not. I’m sure Yaya would have been blessed by a basic “Happy birthday! Love ya!” message in an it’s-the-thought-that-counts way, but it was a blessing to her and to me to have the fullness of what I was bumbling around to express articulated so clearly.
I keep thinking of this example whenever I sit down to pray.
My prayer life hasn’t been great lately, and I realized that part of the issue was that I was drawing a blank every time I’d sit down to share some dedicated moments with God. I found myself uncharacteristically tongue-tied, starting my prayers with statements like, “God, you are good. So, so good. Yup…pretty good — err, umm, really good!” (Technically there’s the option of simply being still, and communing with God without words, but I’m not yet at a level of spiritual maturity where I can hook that up on any kind of regular basis. It always degenerates into this ridiculous split personality thing, where I’ll have a thought, then one part of my brain says, Shhhh! It’s silent meditation time!, then the other responds, Then why are you talking? YOU shhh! Yeah. It’s absurd.) Anyway, I know that all of my attempts at prayer were pleasing to God, even if they sounded to me like something out of an insipid haikus contest. And I realize that prayer is not all about me. But, per the advice of my spiritual director, I also needed to be realistic about where I am in my spiritual life, and admit that if this kept feeling so wrong, I was probably not going to continue setting aside time for prayer on a regular basis.
And so, rather than banging my head against the wall trying to express everything that was on my heart, I turned to the prayers of the Church. I had forgotten how many options there are! I could get back into the Liturgy of the Hours, or simply pray a daily Rosary. There are all the great litanies and novenas, not to mention the basics like the Our Father and the Glory Be.
The first thing I was drawn to was the Litany of Humility, and as I read it, my mouth formed the words I’d been trying to say all along:
From the desire of being preferred to others…Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted…Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved…Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated…Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised…Deliver me, Jesus.
Then, one day after receiving the Eucharist, I remembered that I had a card with the words to the Anima Christi in my purse. I almost got teary-eyed as I moved my lips silently to say:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me,
Body of Christ, save me,
Blood of Christ, inebriate me,
Water from Christ’s side, wash me,
Passion of Christ, strengthen me…
Later, the prescribed meditations of the Rosary forced me to stop thinking about myself and meditate on the Lord; I started a novena to the Holy Spirit, and it instilled me with a new awareness of our great Advocate; and the Our Father, of course, helped me say to God everything that needed to be said.
This process reminded me of the card I’d picked out for Yaya. Just as I’d underlined phrases and added a hand-written note in the card I gave to her, with my prayers I closed my eyes and poured passion into the words that most perfectly articulated what I’d been trying to say, and then at the end I added my thoughts (though they were often about as articulate as “Yeah. That. Amen.”) For times like now when I can’t quite seem to find the words to express what I need and want to say to God, I’m so thankful that the Church offers me these “Hallmark cards” that I can send instead.
So, umm, Father Corapi. Yeah. Wow.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the situation, here’s a summary. Long story short, the ministry of the great Fr. John Corapi as we know it has come to an end. He says he will continue to serve under the name “The Black Sheepdog” for now, and of course there’s always the possibility that he could one day return to his role as a priest in good standing with his religious society (as unlikely as that may seem at this point, nothing is impossible with God!) But I think it’s safe to say things won’t ever be the way they were again. The golden age of his priestly evangelization has likely passed.
It’s hard to overstate what an impact this has had on those of us who were heavily influenced by his preaching. When I think back on my initial conversion from atheism to Catholicism, Fr. Corapi is there at almost every turn. Shortly after I made the intellectual decision to become Catholic, I faced a serious medical diagnosis which I was told meant that I absolutely had to use artificial contraception. I was thrown into a battle I wasn’t prepared to fight, forced to stand up for principles I had only barely come to understand. I had to go to countless doctor appointments where I was looked at as crazy, backwards, or (worst of all) a religious fundamentalist nut — which was especially painful since my ego had been wrapped up in my identity as an atheist my whole life. And yet when I think back on that time, one of my strongest memories is a pleasant one: driving in my car, listening to the voice of Fr. John Corapi.
My appointments tended to coincide with Relevant Radio’s broadcast of his sermons, and I recall how my body would physically relax when I heard the first hopeful, soothing notes of the French horn piece that introduced his show. All my frantic worrying and confusion would fade away as I listened to his words, imminently reasonable, strong and unapologetic, as he explained each aspect of Catholic teaching. It was during one of those balmy summer mornings in the car, with Fr. Corapi’s words drifting out of the speaker, that I felt the overwhelming peace of knowing that I had found truth, and that my life was about change forever.
My husband and I entered the Church, the months went on, and, naturally, things were sometimes difficult. After an outpouring of great consolation after I first began to receive Communion, I faced my first spiritual dry spell. I was let down by fellow Catholics. I had the unsettling experience of spiritual attack. Through it all, Fr. Corapi was there. His face would be on my television, occasionally obscured by stacks of laundry or a gaggle of toddlers, or his voice on the radio, each time guiding me away from irrelevant distractions and toward the only thing that matters — the truth of Jesus Christ.
Much of what I know about Christianity I originally learned through Fr. Corapi. I’ve since expanded my knowledge from many other sources, but his way of distilling complicated, vague, and/or controversial ideas into crystal clear messages allowed me to quickly understand concepts that otherwise would have been daunting. And I know I’m not alone — countless people cite him as a key influence in their decisions to convert or “revert” to orthodox Catholicism. His body of work is priceless. If you were to create a pie chart of “modern speakers who explain the true Catholic faith in a clear and palatable way,” the portion with his name on it would take up a sizable chunk.
And so this turn of events is upsetting to the thousands of us who were led home, at least in part, by this particular shepherd. As I thought about it and followed the commentary all weekend, I felt distress at the news. But I also sensed something else, something surprising, something good:
The truth that Fr. Corapi led me and so many others to did not originate with him, or from any man. The Catholic Church isn’t a bunch of guys who sit around and come up with brilliant insights about Jesus; its doctrines don’t come from the pope, the bishops, the priests, Fr. Corapi, or anyone else – they come from God himself. The men who make up the Magisterium are simply the tools God uses to convey his message.
I don’t know if I had ever fully appreciated what a gift this system is until now. It’s ironic that the Church is sometimes accused of making its followers “go through people to get to God.” In fact, it’s the one religious institution that is entirely set up so that nobody is beholden to another human being to know God’s truths. When people have questions about the correct interpretation of something in the Bible, or want to know what the Christian answer is to a brand new ethical dilemma the world has never seen before — even if they’re illiterate and can’t read the Bible at all — they can find everything God has chosen to reveal to us in the body of wisdom of the Church that Jesus founded and continues to guide to this day. They don’t have to depend on anyone’s personal opinions; by looking at the Church’s Magisterial teaching, they can go straight to God.
As the news continues to break about the situation and the blog posts continue to pile up one after another, I feel free. Because the truths that Fr. Corapi led me to are separate from Fr. Corapi himself, I’m freed of the need to know whether the accusations against him are true or false. I’m freed of the need to speculate about all the how‘s and why‘s and what if‘s behind all the decisions that have been made by the various parties in this situation. I’m free simply to pray for him, for everyone else involved, and to leave it at that.
An analogy I keep thinking of is that of the great photographer Ansel Adams. On a much smaller scale, he was also a big influence in my life. His breathtaking black and white images of the Grand Tetons and other mountain ranges awakened me to the grandeur of nature, and stirred something within me that had never been there before. Though I wouldn’t have thought of it this way at the time, the moments I spent gazing at his photos were some of my first experiences of God. If Adams had ever been involved in a professional or personal situation I found unsettling, I would have been similarly free not to let it trouble me, other than out of concern for him as a person. Because while he had an incredible talent for conveying the majesty of the mountains, he did not create them. Though the way he captured them led me to a startling awakening to their beauty, it was not he who made them beautiful.
And so it is with Fr. Corapi. No matter what happens, I will always respect his talent for capturing the truth, and will eternally owe him a debt of gratitude for highlighting its beauty so well. I will think back fondly of those days when his voice guided me during those drives to my doctor appointments, when his televised image was a natural part of our family living room. My love of the doctrines of the Faith will remain unscathed, even if the one who originally conveyed them to me does not. And I pray that Fr. Corapi feels similarly liberated to take whatever time he needs to pray, pause, and seek the still, small voice of God, knowing that it is not his burden alone to pass on the Faith. God has given us the truth through a system that is outside of and above any one man. And because of that, we are all free.