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!