Strange sight, yes. But it was here that I was able to have a wonderful conversation with a complete stranger about Jesus. Worth it.
Much has been written on this blog about the prospect of wearing a habit (Breaking In The (real) Habit, and Having My Habit and Wearing It Too), but up until now, I have not spoken about my experience since actually receiving one last December.
In short, my perspective on the habit has not changed drastically since being invested. There was a fear in me that once I put it on and began to wear it regularly that I would find it to be uncomfortable, impractical, burdensome, or distracting to myself and others. This could not be further from the truth. While, I will admit, it can be hot at times, I have found it to be an even more positive experience than I had anticipated, and am overjoyed with every moment that I am able to wear it. Seriously. I really like wearing my habit.
For any number of reasons, however, the habit, or external signs in general, is something of a controversial issue within religious life. Since the 1960s when certain mandates regarding religious clothing were softened, it has been a issue that has caused some communities to split completely. Men’s communities have tended to fair better at avoiding conflict over the it, but there is also no scarcity of strong opinions on the matter.
I say all of this simply to point out that there are many ways of looking at a seemingly insignificant issue such as clothing, and that, deciding to wear my habit in fairly comprehensive way is a decision that is the result of much reflection. I would like to share with you that decision, but rather than simply listing off a bunch of reasons why or why not, I have chosen to respond to the most common objections I have heard over the past two years.
I don’t understand why your generation feels a need for an external sign. Externals do not matter.
Every time we get to the passages of Jesus denouncing the Pharisees for wearing long robes and large phylacteries I cringe because I know that this is the homily we are going to hear: all that matters is one’s relationship with God and neighbor. Externals mean nothing. I think that this really cheapens the Gospel. It’s true that we can all be caught up in the way we appear to others and forget the weightier things, but that doesn’t mean that we forget the external altogether. Jesus says, “Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean [emphasis mine].”
In an attempt to avoid being Pharisees, many in the church have eliminated their external signs and all visible evangelization along with it. We have thousands of religious working in schools, hospitals, universities, and secular institutions around the country and you would never know it. This is a tragedy to me. Yes, there is value to speaking with our actions, but can we not speak with our actions and allow people to know that Jesus Christ is the reason for those actions?
I think people are looking for someone to inspire them, someone to bring them hope, and an opportunity to support others on their journey, and I think that we can offer them a very tangible sign of that. When people greet me with overwhelming smiles and encouragement, I believe that they are looking less at me, Casey Cole, and more at what I represent: a young person that has devoted his life to God and neighbor despite all of the faithlessness and allurements of the world.
All the habit does is separate the wearer from the community, lifting them up on a pedestal above others.
As much as I would like to believe that this were false, it has been my experience thus far. When we enter a church, ministry site, or public place in which there are Catholics around, we are inevitably fawned over. People look at us as being better than them, holier, and more worthy of respect because of our “title.” Just the other day a complete stranger walked up to me and said, “Brother, would you like one of my cookies?” There is a fine line for me between genuine support for a religious vocation and undeserved exaltation above everyone else in the room. In many situations, it can be difficult to be “minor,” to be a treated as a “lesser brother” when the habit brings us this sort of attention.
My response to this is quite simple: quit spending so much time around people that will praise you. While I said before that the Catholic faithful could benefit from our presence, there is a whole wide world of people out there who do not know Jesus, have been cast out by society in one way or another, and would certainly not praise us for wearing a brown dress and white rope. It’s funny to see the reception I get the moment I leave Catholic University’s campus and drive home or stop at a store. The strange looks, the awkward questions, the apprehension. “What’s with the robes?” “Are you a monk or something?” “Are you in a play?” (What’s worse is the questions that you know people are thinking but not asking!)
As an added bonus, it presents us with a situation for evangelization that jeans can’t offer; they may not recognize the meaning of the external at first, but they’re definitely going to notice it! In just a few short months, I have had some spectacular experiences with strangers who are fallen-away Catholics, people looking for someone to pray for them, or just curious and want to learn. I would put up with all the strange looks in the world for these experiences!
People are going to think that you’re a crazy or hyper-conservative or both.
Then let them. I find this to be a very ridiculous reason for not doing something, and a bit frustrating that I’ve heard it more than a few times. Because of the split in many communities over it, as well as the recent influx of highly conservative vocations that represent a shift back to the pre-Vatican II church, many have placed too much stock in the line, “perception is reality.” In some ways it is true, and I will inevitably turn some people away from me because of something they have wrongly judged about me. But one the other hand, going back to the first question, how would I have been more successful in ministering to strangers without it? The habit at least gives us a chance to meet people where they are, because, well, they can find us, and possibly even break down that stereotype that all religious are fanatics or hyper-conservatives. Some of us are even normal people. Some of us.
In the end, answer for many is to only wear the habit for liturgical purposes and in situations in which everyone will recognize who we are. The grocery store is a no-no. The bank is unconscionable. An airport is completely out the question. I simply disagree. The possibilities for sharing our faith with others outweighs the possible problems one hundred fold. So people won’t understand at first. It doesn’t mean that they never will. So we might be the target of frustration related to the church. Wouldn’t we as Franciscans want to be the ones working with a person’s brokenness, potentially being the only one who will respect them and listen, maybe even being a part of their reconciliation? So we get stopped more frequently at airports. Our muslims brothers and sisters do not change who they are in the sight of discrimination, so why shouldn’t I stand with them in solidarity?
And yet, beyond all of these reasons, what I’ve found most fulfilling about wearing the habit in this past year has been that the external sign actually affects the internal faith. The habit is as much of a sign to myself as it is to others. It reminds me of who I am, how I am supposed to act, and who I am supposed to be in relationship with. As I have gradually begun to see it as something intrinsically linked to my identity, I find myself becoming more and more comfortable wearing it in any situation, while still recognizing that it is an external expression of my internal faith.
At the end of the day, no matter how effective it may be for evangelization, inspiration, conversation, or identification, I believe that it brings me closer to God and makes me a better person. So why do I wear my habit? I wear it for me and my ongoing conversion to be everything God made me to be.