The Power of a Habit

Photography © by Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles

Last week my entire immediate family—8 adults, 8 kids—spent the week together on vacation. My sister is a Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia, or as they’re more commonly known, a “Nashville Dominican.” The Nashville Dominicans are recognizable by their full white habits and long black veils.

When friends and family heard we were all going on vacation together—even Sister—we were often asked if Sister would be wearing her habit. She always wears her habit, so at first the prevalence of this question surprised me. But then I realized that perhaps because we were going to central Florida in July, there was some thought that a long white dress and a black veil would be rather hot!

While I’m sure Sister was rather warm on those 94 degree days, she wore her habit every day. As you can imagine, walking through the streets of a certain place founded by a mouse in a full Dominican habit does get some commentary from bystanders.

“I just saw a nun!”

“Look, mom! A nun!”

One of our favorite moments came, fittingly, at a ride which sings (again and again) about the closeness of humanity. Much to our surprise, who boards the boat and sits right next to (my) Sister? Another sister in full habit! It truly is… a small world.

People would stop Sister, ask her what order she was in, or even what religion she was! People would tell her that they were educated by sisters, or that their great aunt was a sister. It was incredible what simply seeing the habit does for people. We never had any ugly moments or rude comments—if they occurred, they were unnoticed.  We only saw the powerful ripple effects of a simple testimony of her faith.  One morning, Sister was in line at our resort to purchase her breakfast and coffee.  Two employees approached her, both smiling widely. The first woman explained that she was the first sister her fellow employee had seen since she was a little girl in Puerto Rico. “I’ve never seen her so happy!” the woman explained to Sister.  “This is a magical moment!” she declared, and Sister’s breakfast was comped.

Sister didn’t stand on a street corner and preach the Gospel. She simply walked through the park. She rode roller coasters, ate ice cream, and—most of all—laughed. People need to see that. A few days ago, someone posted a picture on Twitter of priests having fun at a youth conference. People on Twitter were irate and insisted that they shouldn’t behave that way in their roman collars. On the contrary. We need to see religious having fun. We need to see them living normal lives. We need to see an authentic witness of holiness—not just in the cloisters, but on the streets.

My sister is an ordinary person who has an extraordinary vocation. That is the testimony of the habit. She is still human, and I’m fairly certain she still sins and sweats (although I didn’t see evidence of either last week). But she is living a counter-cultural life.  She is living a life completely dedicated to Christ. The habit is a reminder of that, and as we saw last week, it’s a strong and clear reminder. When do people open up to complete strangers? When those strangers are signs of Christ.

She is still my sister, despite the black veil on her head. I just happen to have to best brother-in-law in the world.

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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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  1. This is a beautiful read! I was educated by “nuns” as well. Yes, they were strict, and we sure have some good stories, but my memories are positive and pleasant ones and I too am affected (effected?) every time I see one. Fabulous points of the religious not preaching in your face, simple statements of example and SMILING so they can share their joy wuth those around them (us). I love how you listed how people reacted … the world is a good place with good people but culture wants us to believe otherwise. Twitter naysayers are not a good representation of who is REALLY out there! Thank you again for the pleasant read in the middle of my work day!

  2. This is such a beautiful article. Thank you! My daughter joined the Nashville Dominicans last August, so we haven’t gotten to experience this or much of anything with her vocation yet! I can’t wait to experience these blessings.

    1. My brother was a Franciscan Friar but not a priest. It was always kind of fun to see the responses when folks saw him in public. Invariably, people who didn’t know us addressed him as ‘Father’. He just smiled. He was a friendly guy.
      My mom always wondered when she was a little girl, how nuns went to the potty. Cute.

  3. Why does the neuralgic ‘habit’ issue among women religious have to play out as so binary: never or always? Why isn’t there room for a middle position such as practiced by equally traditional Dominican priests and brothers: wearing religious garb in most settings but certainly not on vacation when it is 94 degrees out. I think that such rigidity contributed to the decision of most American women religious to abandon the habit altogether. I remember seeing a photo of nun college students in the 1960s acting in a play with the costumes from their parts *over* their habits. Ridiculous.

    1. Dear Centrist,

      You should probably reflect on the meaning of rigidity and ridicule. Why you would want to cast such a disparaging and uninformed view is beyond the norms of civil dialog.

      Deacon Mike

      1. Dear Deacon:

        That you believe dissent is beyond the norms of civil dialogue says more about you than me. Every Religious I know, and I know many of wide-ranging theological orientations, concedes that pre-conciliar rule rigidity contributed to post-conciliar rule aversion. Do you wear a Roman collar every waking hour? Why do you think the majority of American women religious have chosen not to wear habits any longer? By the way, what I found ridiculous was not the Nashville Dominican who is merely complying with her rule but the 1960s incident of wearing costumes over habits.

        1. I am sensing a pattern here. Maybe you simply missed the class on how to disagree agreeably? We should move on from what might have been an interesting conversation.

          Deacon Mike

    2. My article was simply intended to show what a beautiful witness the habit makes. My sister chose to enter an Order where she knew she would wear the habit the rest of her life. Perhaps that’s not for everyone, but she entered the Order freely and knowingly. It is not something forced on her.

      The majority of young women entering religious life in American today are also choosing to enter Orders that wear the habit – not because they are forced to do so, but because they want to do so. It’s a beautiful decision, it’s a personal decision, and I have witnessed the beautiful graces that come from it. That is what I wanted to share.

  4. We were there at the same time and saw a couple of sisters and actually a brother as well!!! We had a wonderful time and seeing the expression of faith and love displayed by our religious sisters and brothers was a blessing. It reminded me to stay connected to God even in the midst of the crazyness that was going on arround. Please tell your sister thank you for her sacrifice and witness in keeping to her attaire (it was very hot).

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