Sunday, June 17, 2007

Veiled Threat? Veiled Glory?

Chapel veils. We have to talk about chapel veils. WHY are we still talking about them, for crying out loud?

In my growing-up days at Catholic schools, we wore head coverings when we went to church. Our school uniform had a little beanie that we wore to chapel. By high school, the older students rejected the beanie for chapel veils (the abbreviated version of a mantilla -just to be sure we're all on the same page). Of course, the custom was taken to its absurd extreme if the beanie and the chapel veil were both unavailable, and a girl pinned a kleenex on her head -which happened with some regularity.

Of course doing that, presumably in an effort to follow the letter of the law, pointed out the absurdity of the rule in the first place. How is a tissue a show of respect, for heaven's sake? I was a kid. I didn't give the whole veiling tradition a moment's thought. I wore a chapel veil just because one did. Until gradually, I didn't because no one else did either. There wasn't a rebellion. It just didn't happen any more.

We know that there's a swing back toward conservatism in the church - paralleling, I suppose, the swing toward conservatism in the general population. And, no big surprise, (except of course I WAS surprised) I'm seeing chapel veils in church again. And the reasoning is as confusing as it ever was.

First off, let's be clear. It is not a rule that women have their heads covered in church. People who think that the rule was never rescinded, merely ignored, and that they are championing some sort of return to orthopraxis are just plain wrong. I have no patience with people too lazy to do the research yet with the arrogance to make strident assertions.

Another argument I hear is that it's a sign of respect toward ..... something. Respect toward what seems to vary -the liturgical space itself, the Eucharist, God.... OK, the veiled woman could, in fact, intend respect by wearing a chapel veil. I am unqualified to judge her intentions. But HOW is it a sign of respect?

There are differing opinions about that as well. It could come from the Hebrew scriptures and the urge there for a woman to cover her hair -her crowning glory. Lest what? In the middle of Mass some guy is going to be distracted by a woman's come-hither locks? Seems improbable somehow. There are only two possibilities that I see here. Either a woman's hair is private and naughty, and should be covered in public just like other "private parts," or men are so weak they can't be expected to control themselves. So the head covering protects women from those marauders. Nonsense, on both counts.

Other people maintain that the practice comes from Paul and that it's actually empowering. (This REALLY makes no sense to me, but I'll give it a go.) The claim from Paul is that when women teach in the assembly, they should be covered. So the deal is that women CAN preach to the assembled gathering, so the head covering is a sign of leadership.

The heck it is. Men are required to remove any head covering in church. Of course, regular guys don't wear hats much these days, but you can see the remnants of this rule when the bishop removes his episcopal miter before presiding at liturgy. It seems to me that the most we can claim (and this is a stretch) is that where the culture's customs involve more total veiling and sequestering of women, head covering might allow a woman to *gasp* be modest enough to stand in front of a group that presumably has men in it and still teach. In this culture, where women stand in front of groups and teach all the time, to make the rules different in church ...well, it's hard to see that as empowering. And besides, the Scriptural evidence suggests that veiling is all about a man's headship over a woman, and arguing that that's empowering... well, I can't quite see how that's going to work.

Really, I'm inclined to believe that wearing a chapel veil these days is either a sign of aggression or weakness. I distrust myself when I say this, but some people really seem to be saying "watch me be more pious than you are" with their behavior. And those people annoy the heck out of me. Other people seem to be looking for a visible sign of membership in a group. Really, go buy a crucifix necklace and stop distracting me at church. Please. I have enough to worry about without my graying frizzy -uncovered- hair being a sign of rebellion.


Lisa :-] said...

Remember "chapel caps?" They were round lace doohickeys that looked like doilies. And you pinned them to your head to fullfill the head-covering requirement.

And, of course, the beanies were a hoot. I remember being willing to do anything to avoid the ignominy of pinning a kleenex to your head. We would regularly rummage through the "lost and found" box they kept in the vestibule, and pull out some stinky, wrinkled, god-knew-where-it-had-been head covering. Good thing head lice weren't too prevalent in those days... :D

I can't believe the "holier than thous" are trying to revive that particular tradition. I totally agree with you that their message is really, "I'm more pious than YOU.."

Willa said...

I want to wear a chapel veil NOT because I am holier than thou but because I think it is pretty & it makes mass feel special to me. I couldn't possibly care less what others wear or don't wear. I wear fully tattooed arms because I like them too- perhaps you should stop worrying about what others wear & do in church & think of you & God instead.