Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why I don't wear a chapel veil

I used to, actually.

In college, a lot of girls wore them, and I thought they were awesome.  Pretty, special church accessories!  What could be nicer?  I wanted one, but I resolved I wouldn't do it just because they were pretty.  I had to find out what the reasoning was behind them.

Well, I'm afraid I never really found out.  Someone said something about symbolizing the Church as the Bride of Christ, and that sounded so awfully romantic I went to the fabric store, got myself some lace, and made a veil.  It was very nice, if I do say so myself.

But most of the time, it was either a distraction to me (because it was so dang pretty) or a hassle because I kept forgetting to bring it with me to the chapel.  It didn't enrich my spiritual life in any way I noticed.  If I thought about being the bride of Christ, I either felt sad because I hadn't been able to be one in the way I'd dreamed, or got distracted thinking of what sort of veil I would want at my wedding.  I wound up giving it to my mother, and I think she still wears it.

Lately I've seen more and more people on the blogosphere adopt veils.  This isn't the "old" veil crowd, the Latin Mass goers who insist that we are still required to do wear them (we aren't).  These are run-of-the-mill churchgoing Catholics who are adding this as a new devotion.

I don't mind .... why should I mind what someone else wears?  But I get frustrated, because it seems to be this Big Thing for some people -- as evidenced by the time I got in a blog fight with someone by suggesting a wife should listen carefully to her husband's reservations about veiling or skirt-wearing.  I also was bothered by the comment, made by one of the veil enthusiasts, that they wouldn't dream of entering a church without one and are careful to stock up their purses and cars with extras so that they don't have to turn around and go home rather than go to church without something on their heads.

Seeing as it's not required, why give it that level of importance?  Why does it outrank concerns like consideration of your husband's feelings or your desire to make an unscheduled holy hour?

I decided to push back on a facebook post recently and simply asked, why?  What is the reasoning behind wearing a veil?  I got a lot of reasons, but none of them really make much sense to me.  Here are a few:

"I feel personally called to wear one."
Fair enough, right?  No one can argue with a personal call from God!  But I always wonder, how do these women know?  It's hard enough to discern your vocation in the first place.  Maybe I'm a skeptic for having been burned before, but it's just so easy to confuse your own feelings for a "call."  How do you know it isn't that you envy the pretty veils of other people you've seen at church or online, or that someone whose blog you read and admire is now wearing one and you feel like it must be the holy thing to do?  Can you be sure it isn't a desire to stand out as extra holy?  Maybe you really are called to wear one.  But it seems to me that if you are really called to do it, there should be some reason connected to it -- some spiritual meaning the veil has for you.  So usually there will be another reason besides just this one.

"It is more modest."
What is modesty?  If it's covering parts of your body that could be considered sexual, or wearing what is appropriate in your culture and situation .... veils don't seem to fit.  Hair is not sexual; both men and women have it.  And our culture doesn't consider hair to be indecent.  If it's hiding your most beautiful features, a kerchief tied tightly around your head, I suppose, is modest -- but a see-through lace veil surely isn't.  And if it's avoiding drawing attention to yourself, a veil, at least the Novus Ordo, is about the least modest thing you could wear.

"It is beautiful and feminine."
This is mutually exclusive with the previous reason, I do believe.  And yes, they are very pretty.  But when I'm at church, I'm not looking to draw attention to how pretty I am.

"Women are proud of their hair, so a veil symbolizes humility."
I am not proud of my hair; it's a frizzy mess.  Right now it's growing into a mullet.  But I am rather proud of my fine-boned hands.  Should I wear gloves?

"Sacred things are veiled, like chalices and tabernacles, and women are sacred because they bear new life."
Not all women bear new life; some are perpetually single and others are infertile.  There is something that makes me a little uncomfortable with focusing so directly on my reproductive ability in church as well .... perhaps I am a bit manichean that way.  And are we not all tabernacles at church, since we receive communion?  Why do we not all veil ourselves after receiving?  (That would actually be a kinda cool custom.)

"The Bible says so."
The Bible is really hard to understand, which is why I am glad that the Church interprets some of the tough bits for us.  And the Church has come right out and said that this passage was a disciplinary teaching for the Corinthians, not a doctrine for all time.  Since the Church no longer includes that requirement in canon law, I don't feel bad at all not wearing anything on my head.

"It is a sign of a woman's submission to her husband."
Even if married women should perpetually remind themselves that their husbands are the boss (which, as you know, I don't believe), why do single women still wear them?  The Church has never, ever said that all women should be submissive to men in general.  However, this is where the argument always goes: some people who encourage head covering really do believe that all women should be in perpetual subjection to men.  They'll throw up a million and one reasons for veils besides that, but if pushed, they will admit that they believe women are supposed to be lesser or submissive at all times, in all states of life.

And if that is the meaning of a veil, I sure as heck don't ever want to wear one.  Perpetual subjection of women is not a teaching of the Church, not in harmony with Christ's call to both men and women, not following Paul's words that in Christ there is no male and female, and not respecting of human rights in general.  Life experience will teach you that women have the brains and abilities men have, and a reasonable God would not give us these abilities and then demand we never exercise them.

If you want to wear one because it helps you focus, because it has a meaning to you, because it is traditional, you go right on ahead.  But for me, it really does seem to mean subjection.  I think of burqas and child brides and honor killing, and I get steaming mad.  At this point in my life, veils have a completely different set of baggage and I don't think I will ever get back into wearing one.

But hey, you never know.  Maybe an angel will appear to me with a bulleted list of good reasons.

Do you wear a veil or hat to church?  Why?


Tiffany said...


I very much relate to your post. :) As you probably know, I do wear a headcovering of some sort to Mass sometimes. I would say that the reason is that it helps me focus, and I enjoy the tradition. However, I don't wear it all the time. Sometimes I forget. And sometimes, to be perfectly 100% honest, I just don't want to. And that's, you know, FINE. :) For a spell I was wearing one every week and really liking it, and then suddenly I just didn't want to anymore, for a number of reasons. And it's my, and every woman's, prerogative.

Happy Valentines Day. :)

Sheila said...

Sounds like a good policy. It bothers me when people assume their interest in wearing a veil is "a call from God," and yet their desire *not* to wear one is just temptation or weakness. Why not just wear one when you want to, and not when you don't?

The Sojourner said...

I generally wear a veil, though I am very forgetful, and I don't go back to get it. Because being late for Mass without a good reason is actually wrong; being at Mass without a head covering is not.

I am of the "helps me focus" crowd. When I was veiling regularly it was a good way to signal to myself, "Okay, you are entering sacred space now, conduct yourself accordingly." Now I am so distracted taking care of the baby that I hardly notice where I am even when I remember my veil. Oops.

Sheila said...

Oh, babies. It seems sometimes that I walk into Mass and out again at the end without ever registering what's going on! Thank goodness it doesn't all rely on my attention. And perhaps some of my whispers of "sh, we're in church! let's listen! look at that gold cup!" will sink into my own head sooner or later.

Enbrethiliel said...


I've been covering my hair in church and during processions for almost a decade. But I wouldn't say I do it "for a reason" in the sense that there's some rule or value that can bind all other Catholic women, too. My reason is simply that I think it's a beautiful tradition and a good way for me to say, referring to my faith, "And I mean it."

Now excuse me while I nerd out in your combox. For I just love religious head coverings for women! When I read Wendy Shalit's Return to Modesty, I thought the orthodox Jewish practice of married women covering their hair was so beautiful that I learned how to tie a tichel. And just last night, I read an orthodox Jewish woman's blog about her "hijab envy," because she thinks the hijab's potential for elegance is much greater than a tichel's--but doesn't want to go around looking like a Muslim when she's Jewish--and I nearly commented that I was totally in the same boat!!! Except that I wear mantillas instead of tichels . . . and I actually have tried a hijab!

A few years ago, when I grew tired of wearing a mantilla all the time, I spent over a year using colourful scarves and pashminas, tying or draping them as if they were tichels and hijabs. (My mother really hated it. She thought it was wrong "to steal" from other religious cultures like that. The Catholic tradition is the mantilla or the hat, so she wanted me to use one of those and stop confusing--and maybe even scandalising--everyone else in church. =( And for what it's worth, the day I went back to a mantilla, parishioners who saw me all the time but never spoke to me took the time to compliment my "new look." So I took the hint. =P)

One look I haven't tried, suggested to me by a really stylish (male!) friend, is a silk scarf crossed under the chin and knotted in the back, like Audrey Hepburn or Catherine Deneuve. But a silk scarf is a big investment and wouldn't really go with my wardrobe as it is. Maybe someday . . .

Sheila said...

I read a blog post recently criticizing American women for adopting mantillas, which are not part of our culture at all -- they are Hispanic. American women used to wear hats. But there's really no kind of hat for women at all in style right now, so what is there to do? When hats went out of style, Jackie Kennedy started wearing a mantilla and so everyone else did, too. I figure that makes it as close to American culture as anything is -- it's not like hot dogs and apple pie were invented here either!

Oddly enough, I actually have some hijab envy myself. They are pretty, and as a person who absolutely detests people looking at me, it seems like the perfect solution. Except, of course, for reality -- I can't imagine a quicker way to get attention than to be a blue-eyed white girl in a hijab.

I remember walking through the airport one day and seeing a cluster of women in full chadors, mostly black. And I thought, "What a relief that would be! What a break from having to worry about fashion! None of this constant worry about what people think I look like, here in this busy public place where everyone is looking at me!" Then I realized that I was staring at them. In fact, everyone was staring at them.

Leading me to conclude that no matter WHAT a woman wears, she simply CANNOT avoid making a statement. And people most likely misinterpreting that statement.

Belfry Bat said...

Funny thing: if you call it a "wimple" instead, it could be a European Christian artifact recalling, oh, 700-1600AD. There are some dazzling examples in the film A Man For All Seasons.

Enbrethiliel said...


Back in my Catholic blogging days, I had a commenter who always had to repeat that bit of trivia about hats vs. mantillas whenever I blogged about veiling. (If the post you read mentions mantillas becoming popular because 60s hairstyles and hats didn't go together, she was probably the one who wrote it!) But then I blogged about my mother's experience wearing a hat to church: when she went up for Communion, the priest asked her to remove it before he gave her the Host! And all my readers were shocked. LOL!

But hats for women are just not part of Philippine culture. Nor are mantillas these days, but at least people don't really stare when they see them in religious contexts.

Gretchen said...

I disagree with your argument against the reason "holy things are veiled." By your reasoning, infertile couples could not marry, since the Church requires that all marriages be "open to life." But in the examples of both marriage and veiling, it has nothing to do with the *actual* ability of a couple to procreate, or a woman to bear a child. The meaning goes deeper than that.

Anyway, I wear a veil. It's just a personal devotion of mine. I can understand how veiling could have a lot of baggage for some women though and it's a personal decision.

I think the best thing to do is not to judge women for choosing to wear, or not wear a veil, and I'd be very careful about judging others' reasons as well. Those who choose not to wear a veil are not less holy, and those who choose to wear one are not necessarily "holier than thou" or radicals.

Julie said...

An infertile woman is procreative in type, but not effect.

Sheila said...

See, I don't get that. Just like I don't get how a sexual act can be unitive and procreative when we know for a fact it isn't procreative. Say, when the couple is already pregnant. It is not possible for them to be procreative right now! I've taken a fair amount of philosophy, but when it stoops to saying things are so that we know by common sense are not so, I think it's gone astray somehow.

(I don't have a problem with the Church saying "don't use birth control." I just think the philosophical underpinnings of that argument don't hold water.)

And since *men* are also capable of procreating, why no veils for them? It takes two to tango.

Belfry Bat said...

Men don't get head covers (except the sacred ministers) because their dignity is a simpler sort. When they do, the birettas or mitres express the dignity of their owners' office, (and also cover their individually personalized heads, so they don't get in the way of the ceremony). But even the Pope must doff his zuchetto from the Sanctus to the Great Amen; whereas you get to keep your veil (or fashionable hat).

The dignity of a woman is not founded in her being potentially- or actually-with child at any given time: rather, she is made, out of Adam the Image of God, herself in the Image of God. Her power to bear new life within her reflects the way all life is, as the Greek poet wrote whom St. Paul quoted, in God. But the power to create new life is God's alone. Again, it isn't what husband and wife do that creates new life, it only means new life, and that in a poetic way. God creates new life, ordinarily following an occasion of husband and wife doing what they do, but He can take his time about it, and sometimes does.

And so since it isn't what they do that creates life, doing so when new life is already developing isn't vicious or violent: it's rhyming with how and why God made that new life in the first place.

It's all about poetry; not facts or accidents.

Belfry Bat said...

I'm drawing on Kellmeyer's story.

Obviously I've no business discussing this stuff on my own account.

Sheila said...

See, everything in that post, and most of what you said, makes perfect sense. What doesn't make sense is saying that intercourse must always be unitive and procreative, while at the same time allowing acts that we all know are not actually procreative (like during pregnancy).

A much more reasonable argument (and what the Pope actually said in Humanae Vitae) is just, "Don't STOP God from creating life during your acts." There is nothing in the least confusing about that.

But to say "this act is procreative philosophically even though it isn't in real life," or "a woman is sacred because she is the bearer of life, even if she isn't in fact the bearer or life," is just nonsensical to me.

And I can only imagine how I would feel, as an infertile woman, being told "you are sacred because of your potential to bear life," while knowing that I didn't actually have the potential to bear life. It seems it would be very painful to hear that.

I think the symbolism for men's hats has always been understood to be very different. Men's hats (I was told) signified their authority, and that was why they took them off when going into someone else's house. Women's hats were supposed to signify the authority of their husbands, and that's why they kept them on no matter what.

Otherwise, I just don't see why the Eucharist is so very special that the Pope has to take his hat off to it, but a woman doesn't. Should we not be just as respectful?

Unknown said...

Sheila, I liked your point: "I Oddly enough, I actually have some hijab envy myself. They are pretty, and as a person who absolutely detests people looking at me, it seems like the perfect solution. Except, of course, for reality -- I can't imagine a quicker way to get attention than to be a blue-eyed white girl in a hijab."

As a hazel-eyed white girl I did actually try wearing a hijab for a day back in February. It wasn't as bad as you pictured it would be.

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