The following is a completely accurate transcript of the conversation between me and my brain…
[Disclaimer: This is actually me just thinking aloud because I like thinking about stuff. It is not a manifesto, nor a judgment on anyone for anything. I don’t think covering your head makes you a better person. I’m well aware that mantillas are a fairly modern incarnation for head coverings at Mass but women’s millinery fashion is always changing and a veil has distinct advantages, i.e. I can scrunch it up and put it in my handbag and it won’t give me (as bad) hat hair. I also love jeans, Vatican II, Beyonce, praise-and-worship music, skirts that may a little too short and being a feminist daughter in a long line of strong women which means that I don’t think what I do or don’t wear defines me in any way. Ok, now that’s off my chest… End rant, I mean, end disclaimer.]
Brain: Hey Laura
Me: Hey there brain, what’s up? You come to trouble me about something again?
B: I was just wondering, do you cover your head before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament?
M: Um, I wear like a berety/beanie thingy… sometimes, mostly when I go to the Latin Mass. That counts right?
B: Totally, but do you wear it out of reverence for Christ or because it’s the middle of winter and you’re so cold you’d wear a balaclava if you could?
M: … Mainly because it’s cold? I don’t know… Honestly, I haven’t decided…
B: Well, I think you should wear a veil at Mass. It’s a beautiful, traditional Catholic devotion for women that expresses reverence for God, specifically in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. What’s not to love?
M: Me wear a veil? You have got to be kidding me.
B: Nope, entirely serious.
M: But I can’t wear one of those. It’s just so weird!
B: Laura, you’re at Mass…. You’re already eating a 2,000 year old man who is also fully God under the form of a thin wheaten wafer… On the weirdness scale of 1 to Eucharist, veiling is averaging – at most – a 2½. Plus, it’s so pretty!
M: That’s not a reason.
B: Maybe it should be. You know some men are jealous of women wearing veils, right? Probably not because they’re so pretty (though you never know!) but because it’s a sign of devotion and humility. They’ve told you as much. I don’t know if you were paying attention in that conversation but I, your brain, certainly was.
M: I was paying attention… then. Now, I’m just thinking about the Catholic men I know with mantillas on…
B: You are so childish.
M: It’s hilarious!
M: *giggles more*
B: Are you done yet?
M: Almost… lol.
M: Ok, now I’m done.
B: It’s a good point though. Men in mantillas seems so wrong precisely because it’s such a powerful feminine symbol, dating back centuries and centuries. I’m sure you remember St Paul commended the Corinthian women for “maintain[ing] the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.” (1 Co 11:2) That tradition was for women to veil their heads while praying or prophesying.
M: But why? Why would he say that? 1 Corinthians is a confusing enough letter without all that headcovering stuff.
B: Well, the reason St Paul gives – and remember this is your brain talking so it could well be wrong – is that it is a sign of authority whereby the woman/wife expresses her relation to the man/husband as being between Christ and the Church, where Christ is the head of the Church, and analogously, the husband the head of the wife. As Christ gives His life for the Church and the Church submits to Christ, so the husband sacrifices for the wife and the wife submits to the husband. Both you see, are dying to themselves to love the other. By veiling therefore, the woman sums up the entire history of redemption as the nuptial union culminating in the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, and affirms her place salvation history by imaging the loving submission of the Church to Christ, and of Christ to His Father.
M: Woah, that’s dense. (Wait, was I just impressed by my own brain… awkward.) But isn’t there something there about the angels?
B: *sigh* You had to bring that up… didn’t you? Yes, St Paul says women should be veiled “because of the angels” (1 Co 11:10). He’s probably just talking about glorifying God before the heavenly hosts.
M: It’s cool actually that the one place you are guaranteed to find angels is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. But still, it’s a confusing passage and isn’t it just a culturally-bound norm anyway?
B: Yes it is, but until fifty years ago, it was still the norm for women attending Mass. It’s even in the 1917 Code of Canon Law that women should cover their heads at Mass.
M: And traditions like that are incredibly important for strengthening and passing on the faith. I suppose what was once a part of ancient near Eastern culture has also become part of our Catholic culture. But isn’t it passé now? Isn’t it harking back to a time when women were considered inferior?
B: It doesn’t need to be! I mean, you know that men and women are completely equal, but in marriage and life more generally, we reflect different aspects of mystery of God’s love – but that doesn’t make us unequal! In fact, you could argue just the opposite. As Catholics, we veil that which is sacred. Alice von Hildebrand wrote that,
Far from indicating inferiority, the veil points to sacredness. While we do cover what is ugly or decaying, we also veil what is sacred, mysterious, and sublime. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he covered his face to hide the glow that was apparent because God had deigned to speak with him: Moses’ body reflected the depth and mystery of his experience. Every woman carries within herself a secret most sacred, mysterious, and sublime. This secret is life. Eve means “the mother of the living.” In the mystery of the female body, human life finds its beginning…
All women have this capacity, in our nature, to bear life. After the Blessed Sacrament who is Life and God Himself, you could say that the most sacred thing around is a woman’s body which the ground in which new life, in the image of God, is created.
M: Seriously? I haven’t heard that one before… (Also brain, how did you end reading Alice von Hildebrand without me noticing?) I have another problem though. She seems to say that women veil because they’re extra special, but that isn’t what the Church Fathers say.
M: Yeah, really. Veiling isn’t about dignity, that’s just a revisionist smokescreen. It’s actually just repressive. That right – it’s repressive! St Augustine said that women should cover their heads because their thoughts are lower than men’s, and Tertullian because otherwise we’d incite lust in the fallen angels. They all go on and on and on about how it’s a sign of subordination because women are, by our very nature, inferior and subject. Well, I want no part of that, thank you very much!
B: Did it occur to you that maybe they were wrong? Just because they were good and holy men (for the most part), doesn’t mean they were right about everything. Our understanding develops and grows, purified through changing cultures. It’s like the ordination of women, isn’t it? Sure, some of the reasons for not ordaining women (they are evil temptresses/deformed men etc.) have been dreadful, but it doesn’t mean you turn around and start ordaining women – or that you abandon headcoverings. No, you keep seeking the Truth, and what is good and honourable, and for some better reasons if need be!
M: Maybe… But how can they suddenly turn around and say what was a symbol of woman’s subjugation is not a symbol of woman’s dignity? That’s just dodgy.
B: Maybe the two are closer than you think…
M: You are full of it, you know that? Fine, go on. Tell me, how are they connected?
B: Ok, bear with me here. In the Fall, the God-given unity between man and woman was shattered. From then on, our relationship has been distorted by sin as we abandoned complementarity for competition. It’s a fact of history that men, both at an individual and societal level, have exercised power over women. For women, the Christian gospel is in many ways the restoration of our true dignity. For we were treated as lesser than men but Christ says that the last shall be first, and we were accounted as servants and property but Christ says that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” (Mk 10:43) Christ shows us that true greatness lies in servanthood, and true dignity in submission, by offering up His life for us. As women, we get to embody that! So maybe it’s not so much that the Church Fathers were wrong that the veil is a sign of authority, but they were wrong to think this made women any lesser. They kind of lost the gospel logic there.
M: It’s true… and I guess the perfect example of this, particularly in the context of veiling, is Mary. She is perfectly humble, modest and submissive – and for that very reason is exalted above all creatures, even above the angels! By obeying the Word of God, she becomes the Queen of Heaven.
B: Exactly, maybe veiling is a deliberate imitation of her humility?
M: But how can it be imitation of humility? It’s literally a bit of fabric – it’s not like it actually hides anything.
B: Yeah but like all forms of clothing, a veil or hat has both a practical and a symbolic value. In this case, it’s the symbolic that’s particularly important. It’s not so much that no one will look at you if you’re veiled (let’s be honest, plenty of veils or hats are kind of flimsy), but it’s a symbol of humility. And symbols matter. In this case, veiling represents set-apartness, modesty, purity and a uniquely feminine reverence before our Lord.
M: I think it helps to think of it as a symbol. And maybe it can be a sacramental reminder to of what it means to be a woman, just like Holy Water is a sacramental reminder of Baptism. As you put it on, it’s a reminder not only to imitate Mary but to be like the woman of Proverbs 31, clothed with “strength and dignity” (Pr 31:25), and to “adorn [ourselves] modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel… by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion.” (1 Ti 2:9) I mean, the act of covering itself is a reminder that our beauty comes not from what we wear but from within, from “the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” (1 Pe 3:4) I kind of like that… but wait, isn’t it like showing off?
B: Is that what you think when you see a woman veiled? Oh look at her, she thinks she’s so holy and hoity-toity and all that?
M: No! I think, ooooh pretty! And then I think, oh that’s right, we are in the presence of Christ – that’s why she’s veiled.
B: So seeing other women makes you think of Christ and His holy presence?
M: I guess so. I can’t really argue that’s a problem, can I? If a veil reminds both the wearer and the viewer of the majesty, holiness and awesome mercy of our Lord Jesus, that’s got to be a good thing!
B: Couldn’t have said it better myself.
M: I suppose it is appealing too, if only on an intuitive level. I mean, every girl’s favourite part of dressing up is always the veil, isn’t it? Whether it’s your mum’s old First Holy Communion veil or a white pillowcase, it always rocks. But I think that’s what I’m afraid of… it almost feels too right.
B: Come again?
M: I’m not sure if this makes sense but… It seems so beautiful and holy and womanly and pure and humble, and I don’t think I deserve that. When it comes down to it, I’m freaking out not because I think veiling is somehow degrading but because I feel so unworthy. Who am I to veil myself as a sign of humility and holiness? I’m neither of those things!
B: Just a moment, I’m going to have to refer you upstairs. I’m afraid deep-seated feelings of shame and unworthiness are beyond my jurisdiction. You can’t argue someone into believing they are beloved.
M: True dat.
M: Thanks brain, will do! But just so you know, I haven’t decided yet… I need to talk to upstairs first. The last thing I want to do is go around covering my head just because my head told me to.
B: Good idea, much better to speak to the actual Head of the Body. I hear He’s got a soft spot for you anyway…
M: Yeah, He’s the best.
And here ends the transcript of just another bizarre internal dialogue between Laura and her brain.