The Monastic Habit

Today I must repair my winter habit. It is more than twenty years old —patched, darned, with several new panels inserted into it over the years where the girdle (the long leather belt we wear) has rubbed against the middle or my knees have worn holes. It is the work of many hands: the original habit-maker, and successive darners, repairers and general lookers-after, of whom I am the last and least competent. It is, in its way, a collaborative work, rather like community itself. It has adapted itself to the changing shape of my body and the different activities I’ve undertaken in response to obedience. It is worn and shabby, at the opposite end of the spectrum to the gorgeous vestments some clergy like to wear when officiating at the altar. But it is not just a set of clothes. It is, I would dare to say, my Wedding Garment for the Kingdom, my armour for the battle, a constant reminder of my vows.

Like the vocation it symbolizes, the monastic habit is not something we choose for ourselves or assume at will: it is always given, its colour and form determined by the community which confers it. When I was clothed in 1981, I was given the habit by D. Elizabeth Sumner. From her I can trace backwards, by name and date, the way in which the habit was bestowed and received as far as 31 December 1623, when the first nuns of the Cambrai community were clothed. I can go back further still, though there I would trace a double course, through the English Benedictine Congregation to Dom Sigebert Buckley and beyond, to the pre-Reformation English Benedictine houses, and through the three nuns of Brussels who helped the nascent Cambrai community. There is thus a long chain of being symbolized by my habit.

‘How romantic,’ sigh some, but to me there is nothing romantic about the monastic habit. It is too serious for that. From Evagrius onwards, many have attached an allegorical meaning to its several parts, but the real point is the commitment it signifies and the obligations it entails. They are what matter. In the old Clothing Registers we find against many a name ‘Shee went away.’ I often wonder what became of those who had worn the habit for a while then found that monastic life was not for them. Many, perhaps the majority, took from their brief experience of the cloister something valuable, something that changed the way in which they viewed the world henceforth. Perhaps they learned more quickly than those of us privileged to wear the habit every day that the real change takes place underneath.

Maybe I should look on my habit not so much as a Wedding Garment or battle armour as a school tunic, a sign of my willingness, indeed my need, to learn? That fits the Schola Dominici idea rather better, doesn’t it? Life-long learning, here we come!


15 thoughts on “The Monastic Habit”

  1. Wonderful story, Sister! I would disagree though with one aspect! Yes it is serious but it is also a romantic tale! Why and how? Because it is permeated with adventure (romance) – which of course, comes from being in the Kingdom!

    Prayers as ever for you and the community there!

  2. Tradition is the gift to us today of those who ran the race in the past. Keeping it a living thing and thoughtfully and faithfully contextualising it is a humble recognition that others have trod this path of discipleship before us. Thanks for illustrating this beautifully in this post in the image of darning new into old .

  3. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but what a mark of *freedom* I imagine it may have been as well, to be able to resume the habit on returning to England after several centuries of exile ; returning, what is more, from a revolutionary France where it had become dangerous to wear it.

  4. Sister,

    Thank you for a history lesson of the Habit and how and why it’s worn.

    A venerable history, which seems to be diffused with prayer and grace.

    And wonderful to know how the original is being replaced, piece by piece as it wears out. Make do and Mend was the wartime slogan, but it’s obvious that your order pre-dates that by many centuries.

  5. Thank you for this. Coincidently enough, I was discussing Habits with my co-workers just this morning.

    And isn’t learning the art of applying patches to the needful places in our minds and hearts?

  6. As one of those who ‘went away’, may I share that years of religious life that were accomplished never go away. The years pass and evolve, but the experience, lessons learnt and many other things, some too personal to share on a public blog, never go away. Life progresses and the lessons become more significant – just in a different context, but, never wasted. Sometimes they take a little longer to hone in a secular world than they might have in religious life, but just as precious and just as important – just different.

    Bless you and D. Lucy – and, just for today I will say an Ave for those who ‘went away’ praying that they too found their vocation and remain in the Faith.

  7. I, too, speak as one who “went away,” and I can say that I’ve never forgotten the lessons learned in wearing the habit. It was a constant visible reminder of the beautiful responsibility of vocation. I miss it, and the life it represented, though I still try to live that life as much as possible in the secular world. I even miss trying to keep my habit spotless – I wore the Dominican white, and had to learn very quickly which cleansers best removed which kinds of stains!

  8. That the habit bears the mark of a life lived meaningfully, sewn with the thread of a history of long tradition, in the service of an ongoing, perpetual conversion of heart… Is to this heart and mind the epitome of romantic. (Smiling). Of course romantic sentiment carries little far. I am struck and awed by the layers of meaning drawn from the habit. Thank you.

    Any bits of habit left to patch a PBGV chewed monastery curtain?

    Hear! Hear! To life-long learning!

  9. Thank you for the further insight into the life in a religious community. Thank you for making me think on a daily basis. (I compose about ten comments for every one I post).
    On a simply practical basis, there is a great satisfaction to be gained from the repair of a useful object; unmatched by replacement by a newly purchased item.

    Oh! But I must say it – ‘old habits die hard’!

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