National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 2, 2004

By Elizabeth Kuhns
Doubleday, 228 pages, $23.95
What women wore in convents


Elizabeth Kuhns was raised a Protestant in Catholic Baltimore where “nuns were always present in my peripheral vision.” Years later, a Catholic convert, she began “to understand the devotion and heroism of these women. With few exceptions, their lives of steadfast prayer and service, even in the face of extreme hardship and brutality, are models of the Christian ideal.” This evident respect and admiration for women religious is the strength of The Habit and enlivens the historical anecdotes she employs to illustrate the book’s themes.

Thus, she honors Honoria “Nano” Nagle, who founded the Sisters of the Presentation at a time when penal laws were enforced against Catholics in Ireland. “Nano and her sisters operated in secret, fashioning a habit from a black gown, a black silk handkerchief crossed in front, and a plain black cap that fit close to the head and fastened with a broad black ribbon.” This was but one of many times when openly wearing a habit was an invitation to martyrdom.

Kuhns writes about the courage of women religious who served as exemplary nurses during the Civil War and by their witness did much to soften American anti-Catholic prejudice. She quotes President Lincoln’s eloquent praise of their “mercy and charity”: “Gentle and womanly, yet with the courage of soldiers leading a forlorn hope, to sustain them in contact with such horror.”

She offers abundant examples of the exquisite “mercy and charity” of women like Mother Marianne Cope, who worked with Fr. Damian de Veuster, the “leper priest” of Molokai in the Hawaiian Islands. “Although Mother Marianne wore the plain, rough habit of a Franciscan nun, as a teenager in New York she had worked in a clothing factory and had a great sense of style. ... When Mother went to the island, people there had no thought for the graces of life. We are lepers, they told her, what does it matter? She changed all that.”

Kuhns is a journalist, and her reporter’s eye and ear make her an adept narrator. The book is replete with crisp vignettes, whether she is writing about the development of Maryknoll headgear or delineating the range of reactions that followed the post-Vatican II modification of habits. These journalistic strengths are not, unfortunately, sufficient to handle a topic as complex as the religious habit. In a book of only 168 pages, she can only superficially address the issues she alludes to -- including reasons for the successful early growth of Christianity, the role of class in convent life, legislation that governed secular dress and the laity’s reaction to post-Vatican II changes in habits.

The book would have benefited from a clear focus, a lens through which to view the habit in sharper clarity, rather than the diffuse material she presents. Ecclesiology could have been that lens, because the habit, ultimately, is a symbolic narrative about the meaning of the consecrated life.

For the first consecrated Christian women, “the act of changing clothes was the act of religious profession by those who aspired to holiness.” Women donned “sacred garb without ceremony or clerical oversight, privately transforming their outward appearance to reflect their spiritual commitment.” As the religious life of the church was formalized, the habit itself became a holy object. “By the middle of the 10th century, the clothing ceremony for many nuns represented an elaborate secular marriage ceremony. ... She became the Bride of Christ, symbolized with a ring and crown.”

In monastic communities the habit was understood within the context of obedience: “The individual relinquished his or her personal desires for those of the community” and the habit moved from being “an exterior gauge of personal commitment into one of group conformity.” Yet the Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1197) had “lavish taste” and designed “elaborate crowns ... from memories of her heavenly visions. She allowed her nuns to wear these ornaments along with loose, flowing hair and floor-length, luxurious white silk veils on feast days, reasoning that Christ should be presented with as much beauty as they could offer.”

The habit was an essential element in developing the unique identities of the hundreds of apostolic religious congregations that were formed in the 19th century. For more than a century there was a clear relationship between the stability of the habit and the stability of religious life, one reason why the post-Vatican II changes in the habit were so distressing. Today the habit has become a “visual barometer” of a nun’s “politics, philosophy, and loyalties.”

These are the threads that give shape to the habit -- autonomy, obedience, martyrdom, identity and stability. They are woven into cloth, which is then stitched in a complex pattern by individual women, cloistered and apostolic communities, the church hierarchy, Catholic laity and the secular world. It was, is, and will be a garment that expresses the paradox of religious life. Elizabeth Kuhns has not given us the pattern of the habit, but her book can serve as a beginning text to explore its many and diverse themes.

Rachelle Linner, a librarian and writer, lives in Boston.

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 2004

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