A few weeks ago, I drove Sister Mary Joseph, one of my Franciscan Sisters, to Chicago to visit one of her relatives. It was a blazing hot day, and let me be the first to tell you – when one wears a long, brown, polyester, habit (double layered with the scapular) along with a black veil while standing in the direct sun in 98 degree heat with a heat index of 110 degrees, well… let’s just say it isn’t exactly refreshing. Both of us were tired, grimy and sweaty after our road trip, and truthfully we weren’t exactly in bubbly moods either. (Just say’n. If you ever have driven on the Chicago Dan Ryan Expressway during rush hour, you’ll understand.)
As we got out of the car and went to open the trunk to take out Sisters’ suitcase, a man in an SUV drove past. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that he slowed down and began to back up. I would be lying if I said I felt like standing out in the Sahara-like conditions to talk to this curious onlooker. However, trying to muster up some bit of religious decorum, I threw him a half-hearted smile and then winced as I placed my hand on the sizzling-hot, metal handle to close the trunk.
“Hey!” he hollered at both of us, “Are you guys Carmelites?” Sister Mary Joseph stood holding her suitcase and wiping her brow. “No…,” she responded wearily, ‘we are Franciscans.” “Franciscans?” the man seemed put-off. “But you look like Carmelites!” I could tell Sister Mary Joseph was about to wilt, as was I, so I quickly explained, “Oh yes. I know there are some Franciscan and Carmelite habits that look alike. It depends on which community you belong to – each one has a different style.” He paused for a minute, continuing to watch us as we gathered our things. “Well have a nice day,” I said, bidding him adieu, “God bless you!” We began to walk away, hoping silently that he didn’t want to continue the conversation in this smoldering heat. “Wait!” he called out as he began to slowly move forward in his SUV. “Franciscans? So, why do you wear brown?”
Without missing a beat, Sr. Mary Joseph turned towards him, still wiping the sweat and grime from her forehead, “DIRT!” she exclaimed. “Dirt?” he echoed quizzically. “Yeah,” she wadded up her sopped tissue and shoved it in her pocket, “DIRT. We come from dirt. We’re going back to dirt. DIRT.” She looked like such a fried and sad little figure as she made her bold proclamation that I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. Obviously our new friend found it amusing as well. “Well, alriiight!” the man chuckled, and with that, he drove off smiling to himself.
Dirt. That’s exactly what I felt like that day. I couldn’t wait to get home, take a nice cool shower and throw my dirty habit in the wash on extra-rinse! People have sometimes asked me, “How do you stand to wear that outfit? Isn’t it hot and uncomfortable?” I usually give my pat answer: “Oh sure, sometimes when I’m standing in direct sunlight it is really hot. But, you’d be surprised. The way our habits our made they are loose fitting and comfortable. Truthfully, I’m so used to it, I don’t think about it much.” Then they usually look back at me a bit mystified and reply, “Well I know that I would never survive in that outfit!”
However, for every criticism or question I get about my Franciscan habit, there are a handful of other people who have a real appreciation for the religious garb. I could not tell you how many times people have come up to me and have said, “Sister, thank you so much for wearing your habit. It’s so good to see a Sister in a habit.” This includes Catholics and non-Catholics alike! The habit is worn for the sake of witnessing the eschatological dimension of our consecrated lives. What does this mean? Well, eschatology refers to the study of the “last things,” meaning the afterlife. Think about it: when a person sees a religious habit, that person will immediately think about God by default. Thinking about God most likely leads to thinking about why we are here and where we are going next. That’s where the eschatological part comes in!
As a Sister, I don’t wear the habit just as a reminder to others, but as a reminder to myself as well. Whenever I look in the mirror and see my veil or glance at the little golden band on my left hand, I am thankfully reminded of my espousal to Christ. When I put on my habit each morning, I remember the humility of the Cross to which I am called to embrace each day. Finally, when I place on the scapular, a piece of clothing overlaying the habit which serves as a sign of the Franciscan devotion to the Blessed Mother, I am reminded of her loving guidance and protection of my vocation.
Wearing the religious habit is not always easy… of course, neither is remembering that I came from dirt and will return to dirt. It just continues to help me grow in humility, if I let it. When I experience those days when I swelter in my habit, I remember that I belong to an order of penance and that though this is uncomfortable for now, I will happily survive.
If I walk into a place and feel strange because I am wearing a habit, it is a good reminder that maybe there are certain places that a committed Christian, especially a religious, shouldn’t frequent. Maybe this is one of them?
If I am ridiculed by a group of “doofy” teen-aged boys, I grin and remember this is nothing compared to the ridicule Christ received during his lifetime.
If I’m hugged by a sweet, little old lady because she likes my beautiful habit, I am inspired, knowing that she is doing this because she loves God. Heck, she doesn’t even know me!
If a little child turns to his mother, points at me with his sticky fingers and asks, “Mommy! Is that a witch?” Well, I can remember he doesn’t know me either and I can be glad I am not one!
If an old man teases me in the parking lot and tells me his latest nun joke, I laugh knowing his merriment and joy have made my day a bit better.
If a Mennonite lady, wearing her plain dress and simple cap, passes me at the grocery store and smiles because I am wearing my habit, I feel a connection to a fellow Christian which gives me hope for greater unity.
If my veil is torn off my head and danced upon by a group of leather-clad ruffians (yes, that happened to me once), I am reminded that Christ is my protector in the most dangerous of situations. (I got through that one – thank you, Jesus!)
If I enter the room of a dying person and see her smile weakly as she recognizes my habit, I am happy to bring her this sign of hope as she awaits her own eschatological experience.
Sadly, I have met some people who have never met a religious and have no idea why I dress as I do. A few times I have even been mistaken for a Muslim! Yet, even for those who have never seen a religious habit, most intuit that it has something to do with God. One time I was walking in a very shady neighborhood somewhere in the Chicago area. A group of young men were coming towards me, picking up speed. It was obvious by their dress and their behavior that they were affiliated with a gang and, honestly, they looked like they were “up to no good.” I realized that I was alone – there wasn’t a soul on either side of the street, so I offered up a prayer and said, “Well, Lord… this ought to be interesting.” I smiled at them and said, “Hi guys!” I heard one of them mutter as they passed, “Man, don’t mess with her – she’s a Church lady.”
I am most thankful for the habit when people can feel safe approaching me to talk from their hearts. Several times I have had people whom I have never met see me on the street or in a store and ask me for prayers. One time at the airport I was able to pray with a young man suffering from stage IV, terminal cancer. Sometimes people share with me their pain, which I feel is an honor I don’t deserve. Once, while going through a drive-thru at McDonald’s, the cashier leaned far out the window and whispered, “Sister, please pray for my daddy. He’s really sick.” It is such a gift to wear the habit. I know that God is somehow speaking to his people through such a simple thing as the dress I wear. Though some respond negatively, most don’t. While I am humbled by those who may offer me a bit of “persecution,” I am even more humbled by those who share their hearts because of their love and reverence for God.
The religious habit is such a powerful witness to the world. I suppose that is why in some nations, it is forbidden to wear because this power is mistakenly seen as a threat. St. Francis knew the power of its witness when he donned his first habit. It is after his example of humility and poverty that our Sisters wear our own habits. Francis wore the clothes of a poor beggar. First, he cut his habit in the shape of a cross, reminding him that he daily must take up the Cross of his Savior. His was a rough, home-spun, woolen habit which he chose to wear as a daily penance – a little act of love for Our Lord. Whenever it tore, he would not replace it, but simply patched it in order to reflect his commitment to simplicity and poverty. He wore around his waist a cord with three knots – each a reminder of his three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. A simple tau (Greek letter “t”) was also drawn on the front of his habit as another reminder his life of penance. And of course, the color of Francis’ habit was the color of DIRT – the very earth to which, as Sister Mary Joseph reminded me, we shall all return.
And the dust returns to the earth as it once was,
and the life breath returns to God who gave it. (Ec. 12:7)
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