The Church must always seek to make her presence visible in everyday life,
which is often very secularized and yet sensitive to the language of signs.
—Pope St. John Paul II
The horse-and-buggies are the first sign that you’re approaching Indiana’s Amish country. Our kids and our out-of-state visitors ooh and aah, point and smile – the simplicity is otherworldly, especially when the 18-wheelers fly by. Even after two decades living nearby, I’m still caught off guard by the stark contrast.
Then we get out someplace – a restaurant or a shop – and encounter the Amish themselves. There’s no denying that we’re tourists, and we don’t want to be rude, but we find ourselves staring anyway. The bonnets and wide-brimmed hats, aprons and work boots; buttons instead of zippers, and a two-tone color paltte – just black and white. No nonsense, simple – “plain” is the word they use. It’s a witness to their firm commitment to Gospel values, humility, and modesty, and a challenge to a world obsessed with image and impression. And it’s undeniably appealing.
Plus, it’s completely silent – that’s the amazing part. The Amish needn’t say a word nor lift a finger for their message of meek submission to God and each other to be broadcast to the world. It’s their primary form of evangelization – akin to the famous edict attributed to St. Francis that his followers should wordlessly proclaim the Gospel through their actions before proclaiming it with their lips. In fact, the Amish do not actively evangelize at all, properly speaking, but the witness of their lives, beginning with their distinctive simple attire, draws converts to their ranks nonetheless. It’s a testimony that begins with outer appearance, and so it’s constant – always visible, never concealed.
The downside is that plain attire makes the Amish a target for ridicule and even persecution – remember the violent confrontation in the 1985 Harrison Ford movie, Witness? That risk of persecution makes plain attire eminently suited as a wake-up call for us Christians more acclimated to the world: The very sight of Amish folk is a reminder that there’s more to life than acquiring and consuming and pretending. We outsiders might be tempted to see them as cute (to be gawked at) or peculiar (to be taunted), but as signs, they are nothing other than challenging.
There’s a similar sign value in the distinctive dress of religious communities – their particular “habit,” however constituted – although that’s not its purpose. Like Amish plain attire, religious habits are mainly indicators of communal membership. They strengthen group identity and cohesion, in addition to promoting modesty and interior poverty. Under normal circumstances, men and women religious are required to wear their habits, but why wouldn’t they? After all, the habit is truly a gift insofar as it is an “outward mark of consecration to God” in the words of Pope Paul VI. And what is the nature of that consecration? To “strive for the perfection of charity in the service of the kingdom of God and, having been made an outstanding sign in the Church, foretell the heavenly glory” (CCL 573).
That last bit – the habit as an “outstanding sign” – is of special importance to the laity because when we see a religious man or woman in habit, we are automatically alerted to that individual’s choice to lead a life dedicated to God. Thus, the worn habit is itself an eschatological sign that points beyond the here and now to the realm of permanence and beatitude. In other words, a habit is a sacramental – not conferring grace itself as a sacrament does, but rather conditioning us to appropriate grace – and consequently religious men and women in habit become magnets for those thirsting after heaven. We’re attracted to them because we’re attracted to the eternal. External habits announce internal aspirations to holiness, and we want what they want.
I’ve seen this in action many times, and no doubt you have as well. Think of the times you’ve been in airports or train stations, and you spotted a religious habit – whether Franciscan, Dominican, or Benedictine, it little mattered. The habit was the thing, and you were comforted, weren’t you? Reassured. Maybe you were brave and approached the nun or brother or priest to talk, or (if you’re like me) maybe not. Still, just the sight of a religious habit was like God’s messenger: “Hey, there’s more,” the habit voiced. “You’re worried and distracted about many things, but remember there’s more, and God is real.”
Here’s another example: Sr. Jacinta, a Franciscan and a campus minister assigned to the Evangelical college where I work. When she would show up for Chapel services or different events, the students would flock to her, both Catholic and Protestant. Why? Because she was so holy? Because she was so charismatic or compassionate? Perhaps, but even strangers gravitated to her, people who didn’t know her at all – what drew them? They only knew what they saw: a diminutive young woman in a weird brown dress with a funny scarf on her head – who was she? What was she all about? And why was she hanging out with college students? I’m convinced that Sr. Jacinta, whatever her other gifts (and there were plenty), was an especially effective campus minister precisely because she wore her habit, a silent and perpetual reminder to stressed-out college kids that life was more than books, classes, debt, and career anxieties.
“I’m not Amish,” you’re saying to yourself, “and I’m not a nun, so what difference does all this make to me?” Maybe you’ve got a messy house, bills to pay, kids clamoring for lunch, and no more milk in the fridge. The last thing on your mind is the eschatological sign value of religious habits. In fact, you’re probably imagining that, far from pointing to heaven, your hectic family life likely points in a more earthy direction. On Sunday, for example, you were five minutes late for Mass (again), your toddler never got her hair combed, your baby had already started crying, and entering the pew you noticed your grade-school son’s mismatched shoes – and it all went south from there.
Yet, consider: The young singles and engaged couples sitting around you? They see the living signs of your marriage vows and your generosity in welcoming God’s most precious gifts. The clergy in the sanctuary? They note your commitment to nurturing the faith life of your family, and re-commit themselves to serving you in their priestly ministry. Older parishioners gladly recall their own parenting struggles and triumphs, and even passers-by, observing your struggle to get to Mass on a Sunday morning, wonder at your motives: Who are these people with all these kids? What are they all about? Why are they here at this church?
Your unruly brood, believe it or not, has become a sign – almost like a living habit that adorns your marital covenant.
Children are not means to an end, of course, and their inherent worth and dignity is not in any way related to their “sign value.” Nevertheless, when families are generous in welcoming life, and they are not afraid to be out in public – even when things aren’t perfect, or rather, especially when things aren’t perfect – they, like men and women religious in habit, wordlessly witness to life’s meaning beyond the temporal. Families struggle to make ends meet, but they muddle through together – and keep expanding. There are illnesses and injuries, unexpected expenses and budget constraints – how will you get them all through college? – yet the mom is pregnant again. Every child lovingly welcomed by a married couple becomes “a living reflection of their love,” writes John Paul II, “a permanent sign of conjugal unity.”
What’s more, they’re attractive – especially to young people. Sr. Jacinta is long gone from my college, but the bishop has recently appointed a replacement, my friend Ash. He’s a married layman, so no habit – too bad. However, he and his wife Sarah are the proud parents of two wildly adorable kids, Dominic (my godson) and his baby sister, Elizabeth – better than habits!
Sarah recently expressed concern that her involvement with Ash’s ministry and the students would be pretty limited because of the wee ones, but I urged her to come to campus whenever possible. A student who sees Sarah wrestling with her children will forget about studies for a minute and hearken to home and wholesomeness, and so heaven. Little kids invariably get the attention of young adults, both men and women, and I’m certain Sarah will be constantly swamped with goggling well-wishers. Moreover, the diapers and disruptions and inconvenience will invite offers of assistance – a bonus opportunity to serve! The hassles are part of the marital habit, a sign of nuptial consecration as well as “God’s blessing and the parents’ generosity” (CCC 2373).
Wear it with pride.