The strangest thing happened a few months ago: my wife covered her head during Mass.
I’ll never forget the moment when I first glanced up to see her noble cranium veiled in a strange and beautiful cut of lace. Whoa.
Years earlier, my good friend Sam had the same experience. One day he looks up from his prayers and…whoa. His bride’s head — the land of the free, the home of the brave — is covered over in nothing less than that medieval throwback, the mantilla.
[See also: Chapel Veils: A Re-Emerging Tradition?]
What should a Catholic man do when his wife starts wearing a chapel veil? What will people say? What if people in the neighboring pew think you’re a misogynist pig? What if the aging nuns, the ones who worked so hard to get out of the habit, throw you nasty glares during the passing of the peace?
They know all about fellas like you. Head coverings can be as dangerous a subject for men as women, and so it’s a good idea to know what they’re all about.
You’ve probably heard it before. Chapel veils are the sexist leftovers of a chauvinistic Church, St. Paul was blinded by his bigoted culture, yadda yadda. The women who cover their heads during worship probably have husbands who think they ought always to be pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen. No one will come out and say it straight, but the social bubble that will suddenly surround your family sends the message: you are a nasty, brutish caveman, and if your wife were not so submissive and weak she’d leave you faster than you can say “First Corinthians Eleven.”
But this is the thing that every Catholic husband and father needs to remember: being pregnant is awesome, and so is cooking — more awesome than your so-called “career.” Blessed are they who get to make a home in cities all too familiar with homelessness, who get to prepare delicious food in a nation of fast food, who get to bear little men and women made in the image of God, made to bring glory to the most adorable Trinity.
How can I — a mere male who will never experience first-hand stretch marks or dizzy spells or how generally miserable and disturbing and awful pregnancy can be — claim that being pregnant is awesome? Because of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Because God sanctified a womb in Nazareth. Now, no one wants to belittle or disregard the difficulty of pregnancy with a tidy theological quip, but the reason why pregnancy is awesome is because the eternal Son of God became a Son of Adam, born of a daughter of Eve. Because Mary is the sign of the Church, the Bride of Christ, and because every single woman is also a sign.
Some signs are cheap and disposable, like the Banana Republic ads that suggest that a briefcase is power, that having a family is a threat to personhood, that you should look as thin and edible as a Slim Jim. But other signs are woven into the very fabric of the universe, inviolate and inviolable, and a woman is such a sign. The Blessed Virgin Mary reminds us that a mother does not “make” a home. A mother is home. Eve is the height of creation because she is a prophecy of the New Eve, the Mother of the Church, the Virgin Mary — and in all her statues and icons, Mary is wearing a veil.
And you need to know why. Because when the angry accusations get hurtled at you or your better half, as important as it is to be gentle, it’s also important to speak the truth in love. When it comes to chapel veils, it’s only too easy to forget the forest for the trees. But head coverings only make sense in light of the big picture of sin and clothing and the dignity of the human person.
Sexual Object or Sacred Vessel?
You see, Satan wants to strip us of our humanity, and he uses nakedness to do it. A naked Jewish woman is surrounded by countless other naked Jewish women, all dehumanized in universal nakedness, all standing at attention in an open square surrounded by low sheds. Soldiers smirk, dehumanized in uniforms, and point at the new arrivals. When you affirm the dignity of a woman or a man you keep their clothes on. If you wish to honor a woman, especially, you give her something to put on, a necklace or earrings, cozy slippers or a cardigan. You do not strip her naked.
God was the first fashion designer. In the beginning, we were naked and not ashamed; but in this fallen world, nakedness is a twisted version of what it was meant to be. So in his mercy “God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). Clothing is a reminder of our dignity, our nobility. And head coverings are the supreme adornment, the finest raiment, the boldest testimony to why God made us clothes in the first place.
Some forms of feminism have seen children and commitment as a kind of bondage. Birth control, no-fault divorce, and a pornographic attitude about sex have freed women from the captivity of children and commitment. They have freed not only women, but also men. In fact, mostly men.
The modern man moves from one woman to the next, from one one-night stand to another, a new body in his bed for every new phase of life. All are kissed in the same way, stroked in the same way. There is no division between one body and every other body. But when you line up a thousand naked bodies, the bodies become identical and meaningless. They become just one of the many in line. The women he beds do not have the right to shame (to be “naked and not ashamed” and “having the right to shame” are not the same thing). Your naked body is just like every other naked body.
But a woman is not an appliance. The fruitfulness of her body reminds us that she ought not to be used and then discarded. Her breasts and womb remind us that human life—not robotic or aquatic or alien life—but human life means children and commitment. In Catholic marriage, all naked bodies are not equal. Man and wife come to each other to make their bodies extraordinary, irreplaceable, fruitful. In Catholic marriage, we give the gift of positive shame (that is, we guard or cover what is worthy of honor and respect), the gift of priceless-ness, one-of-a-kind-ness. We recognize that we are made in the image of God, made to bring glory to the Trinity.
God wants to reclaim our humanity, and he’s using clothes to do it. Ever since the Fall, clothes have reminded us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made; and ever since the Cross, veils have reminded us that we have been re-made and washed in the blood of the Lamb.
Satan hates veils. He hates everything for which they stand. For head coverings are the supreme expression of our dignity, our nobility. Just read Revelation 19:7. The Church is getting ready for a wedding! Christ has adorned his Bride in beautiful raiment beyond all reckoning!
So when St. Paul talks about head coverings having something to do with the angels, and the head of a woman being the man, and the head of a man being Christ, do not pull out some “emperor’s new clothes” feminist theory. In the name of freedom, countless women have been swindled into walking around naked, or nearly naked, thinking they are dressed. They parade past the noisy throng, consisting mostly of men (who aren’t exactly complaining), while somewhere in the crowd the Christ-child tugs on his Mother’s sleeve: “But they aren’t wearing anything at all!”
I Was Naked, and You Clothed Me
It’s a big mistake to think that the number one reason the mighty women of yore adorned their heads with lace was to prevent men from lust. Chapel veils, or mantillas (manta means “mantle” or “cloak”), are beautiful pieces of black or white lace draped over a woman’s head as a reminder to the world that God was born of a woman, that God has betrothed himself to his Church, and the Church is a sacred vessel. God can touch a woman in a way he cannot touch a man. He can fill her with life. The number one reason why head coverings are awesome is because only sacred vessels are veiled, and women are sacred.
In the Old Testament the Ark of the Covenant is veiled behind the curtain because it is holy. In the New Testament, as I have illustrated before, the Virgin Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant to the umpteenth degree. Like the old golden chest, she is a sacred placewhere the Lord’s presence dwells intimately with his people. Except now, it’s God in the flesh. The God who is everywhere was in Mary, his divine presence radiating out from her, the Light of the World waiting to be born. And this is why Mary is always veiled.
When attending Mass or in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, a woman covers her head because she is a life-bearing vessel. Think about it. The chalice is veiled until the consecration because it holds the living blood of Christ. The ciborium in the tabernacle is veiled between Masses because it holds the living Body of Christ. The monstrance is traditionally covered in a canopy during procession because it holds the living Christ. Life-bearing vessels are veiled because they are sacred. By divine decree, the source and summit of all life was once in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The incarnation, God’s great shout out to motherhood, is the climax of creation.
Mothers are a menace to the assembly line.
They remind us that we are alive.
This is why Satan hates mothers almost as much as he hates chapel veils. He hates everything for which they stand. Mother’s are an eschatological sign, a reminder that God has not given up on the world. The veil reminds us that God did not leave us naked, shivering in the garden. The veil is a celebration of the fact that the curse has been reversed. We are not our own, we are Christ’s. As his Bride, Mother Church is called to be fruitful and to multiply, preaching the Good News and baptizing, bringing Christ’s life to the world
Crowned in Glory
Men, we must never forget that Christ was crowned with bloody thorns so that his Bride might be veiled in spotless white. We were naked in our sins, and he clothed us. From Genesis to Revelation, we do not deserve our Savior’s self-donation, the total, cruciform gift from our Husband and Head Jesus Christ.
When St. Paul talks about head coverings, we need to remember that his understanding of gender and clothing is culture-bound…to the culture of Christ. Everything about being a man or a woman is meant to tell the story of the wedding of Heaven and Earth, Christ and his Bride. Chapel veils help tell the story. Although veils are no longer required for women attending the Novus Ordo Mass, they are still encouraged because they are a reminder of what all of us—men and women together—are by Baptism: the Bride of the Lamb. And the “it’s not required” attitude makes it even more awesome.
So if your wife ever decides she wants to wear a chapel veil, don’t be afraid of the small persecution that might come your way. Take a stand with your better half, and defend what she’s defending: God’s Bride, the Church. What a gift! To be a tiny snapshot of Mary and the Church in the presence of the congregation, in the sacramental Presence of the God. Mantillas are a clarion reminder that gender roles in the culture of Christ are not a power trip, but a love trip. Christ’s head was crowned with thorns so that his Bride’s head might be crowned with stars.
“And the temple of God which is in Heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant appeared…a great sign appeared: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” – Rev. 11.19-12.1
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