Because the topic of head coverings was so exciting the last time we canvassed it, I thought I would run brief reflections on the beauty of veiling written by two Catholic women. These have nothing to do with the requirement of veiling, but rather give a more personal take:
The wearing of chapel veils is a neglected tradition, by many forgotten, by others rejected as a form of misogyny or chauvinism. Therefore, lest any reader approach this topic with a cynical attitude, I shall imitate the aforementioned pamphlet and set the tone with a quote from Chesterton:
“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’”
In other words, before we dismiss a practice observed by Christian women for centuries, we must understand what is at stake.
Here is the most pertinent Scripture passage:
“But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying with his head covered, disgraceth his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head not covered, disgraceth her head: for it is all one as if she were shaven. For if a woman be not covered, let her be shorn. But if it be a shame to a woman to be shorn or made bald, let her cover her head. The man indeed ought not to cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. For the man was not created for the woman, but the woman for the man. Therefore ought the woman to have a power over her head, because of the angels.” (1 Cor 11:3-10)
The veil draws together the symbolism of several mysteries. First, the extraordinary intimacy of love and union between a husband and wife. As St. John Chrysostom remarks: “Even from the very beginning woman sprang from man, and afterwards from man and woman sprang both man and woman. Perceivest thou the close bond and connection?”(Homily 20 on Ephesians) Since the beginning of creation, when God took Eve from the side of Adam, man and woman have naturally desired a return to their original unity. Our Lord said of marriage: “Have ye not read, that he who made man from the beginning, Made them male and female? And he said:For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh.”(Matthew 19:4-5)
Now, the relationship between husband and wife reflects the relationship between Christ and the Church. As Eve came from the side of Adam, from the pierced side of the Crucified Savior flowed the saving power of the Church. St. Thomas quotes a gloss on Romans to that effect: “From the side of Christ asleep on the Cross flowed the sacraments which brought salvation to the Church.”(ST III.Q62.5) Similarly, the unity experienced by man and woman in marriage reflects the unity which ought to exist between Christ and His Church.
In Ephesians 5, St. Paul develops the parallel further, revealing something about the respective roles of husbands and wives. It is the duty of women to reverence and obey their husbands as the Church submits to Christ, and of husbands to love and care for their wives in imitation of Christ, who suffered death for His Spouse the Church. In this way, their union acquires the order and harmony of peace. Chrysostom notes the connection between peace in the home and peace in the Church: “If we thus regulate our own houses, we shall be also fit for the management of the Church. For indeed a house is a little Church..”(Homily 20 on Ephesians)
As a composite of body and soul, man derives his intellectual knowledge from sensible things. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas held that God could have ordained creation in any number of ways, but he established the natural order of the universe just as He did so the world might best reveal spiritual truths to mankind. Here is a perfect example of that principle at work. The natural relationship between man and woman in marriage is an image which prepares us to understand and honor the relationship between Christ and the Church.
Recognition of that mystical relationship is most necessary and fitting during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, for it is then that the Church unites Herself to Christ in an extraordinary way through the sacrament of the Eucharist. Because the natural relationship of marriage is a means of understanding the mystical relationship, bringing the symbolism of human marriage to the liturgy helps manifest the significance of the Eucharist.
Women suffer no shame by acknowledging their submissive role. As Pope Leo XIII wrote: “The woman, because she is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, must be subject to her husband and obey him; not, indeed, as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honor nor dignity.”(Arcanum, 11) In fact, Chrysostom claims that it is denying her proper role which brings shame:
“Not to abide within our own limits and the laws ordained of God, but to go beyond, is not an addition but a diminuation. For as he that desires other men’s goods and seizes what is not his own, has not gained any thing more, but is diminished, having lost even that which he had, (which kind of thing also happened in paradise): so likewise the woman acquires not the man’s dignity, but loses even the woman’s decency which she had.”(Homily 26 on 1 Corinthians)
He draws attention to these words of St. Paul: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.”(1Cor.11:3) Though equal with God the Father, Christ “humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross.”(1 Phil 2: Chrysostom emphasizes the importance of this: “For what if the wife be under subjection to us? it is as a wife, as free, as equal in honor. And the Son also, though He did become obedient to the Father, it was as the Son of God, it was as God.” (Homily 26 on 1 Corinthians.) Thus, women have a unique opportunity to imitate Christ through their obedience.
Likewise, for men, it would be shameful to ignore their role in the family. They are to imitate the headship of Christ over the Church and, as a symbol of this, attend the liturgy with heads uncovered. Chrysostom admonishes men: “For the ruler when he comes before the king ought to have the symbol of his rule. As therefore no ruler without military girdle and cloak, would venture to appear before him that has the diadem: so neither do thou without the symbols of your rule, (one of which is the not being covered,) pray before God, lest you insult both yourself and Him that has honored you.” (Homily 26 on 1 Corinthians.)
There are two further levels of symbolism for the chapel veil. First, the woman’s role in marriage is also an image of the soul’s proper disposition toward Christ. In marriage, a woman unites herself to a man by accepting his protection and rulership. Using the imagery of Genesis, it is as though she draws into the shelter of his side once again. She is receptive, both physically and spiritually, receiving his seed into her body and accepting his loving care. Through her receptivity, she brings forth the blessing of new life: “Thy wife as a fruitful vine, on the sides of thy house.”(Psalm 127:3) Similarly, the soul which accepts the graces bestowed by Christ yields great spiritual fruit. By recalling the feminine role in human marriage, the chapel veil reveals something about the relationship between Christ and each soul.
Finally, we veil that which is sacred to God. Now, each woman has the potential for receiving life within her body. This power must not be used outside of the ordinances of God. In other words, a woman’s fruitfulness is reserved to God: “My sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up.”(Cant. 4:12) Furthermore, women are called to imitate Our Lady in a particular way and she was the living tabernacle of the Most High. Just as women bear life within their body, so the tabernacle on the altar holds He who is Life itself, “the bread which cometh down from heaven; that if any man eat of it, he may not die.”(John 6:50) Thus, the veil indicates woman’s unique role of motherhood and the call to imitate Our Lady. We recall this during Mass in order to better understand the presence of Christ in the tabernacle. [For this last facet of symbolism, I am indebted to Alice Von Hildebrand.]
In conclusion, I hope it is clear that the chapel veil betokens not abusive male domination but, rather, befittingly recalls a rich array of truths in order to illuminate the purpose of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Note what Paul says, “But if a woman nourish her hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.” We don’t veil ourselves because of some “primordial” sense of feminine shame; we are covering our glory so that Hemay be glorified instead. We cover ourselves because we are holy — and because feminine beauty is incredibly powerful. If you don’t believe me, consider how the image of “woman” is used to sell everything from shampoo to used cars. We women need to understand the power of the feminine and act accordingly by following the rules of modest attire, including the use of the veil.
By surrendering our glory to the headship of our husbands and to God, we surrender to them in the same way that the Blessed Virgin surrendered herself to the Holy Ghost (“Be it done to me according to Thy will!”); the veil is a sign as powerful — and beautiful — as when a man bends on one knee to ask his girl to marry him.
Now, think of what else was veiled in the Old Testament — the Holy of Holies!
The former [Old Covenant] indeed had also justifications of divine service and a sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle made the first, wherein were the candlesticks and the table and the setting forth of loaves, which is called the Holy. And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies: Having a golden censer and the ark of the testament covered about on every part with gold, in which was a golden pot that had manna and the rod of Aaron that had blossomed and the tables of the testament. And over it were the cherubims of glory overshadowing the propitiatory: of which it is not needful to speak now particularly. Now these things being thus ordered, into the first tabernacle, the priests indeed always entered, accomplishing the offices of sacrifices. But into the second, the high priest alone, once a year: not without blood, which he offereth for his own and the people’s ignorance: The Holy Ghost signifying this: That the way into the Holies was not yet made manifest, whilst the former tabernacle was yet standing.
Andwho is veiled? Who is the All Holy, the Ark of the New Covenant, the Vessel of the True Life? Our Lady — and by wearing the veil, we imitate her and affirm ourselves as women, as vessels of life
This one superficially small act is:
- so rich with symbolism: of submission to authority; of surrender to God; of the imitation of Our Lady as a woman who uttered her “fiat!”; of covering our glory for His glory; of modesty; of chastity, of our being vessels of life like the Chalice, the Ciborium and, most especially, Our Lady;
- an Apostolic ordinance — with roots deep in the Old Testament — and, therefore, a matter of intrinsic Tradition;
- the way Catholic women have worshipped for two millennia (i.e., even if it weren’t a matter of Sacred Tradition in the intrinsic sense, it is, at the least, a matter of ecclesiastical tradition, which also must be upheld). It is our heritage, a part of Catholic culture;
- pragmatic: it leaves one free to worry less about “bad hair days”;
- and for the rebels out there, it is counter-cultural nowadays, you must admit!
The question I’d like answered is, “Why would any Catholic woman not want to veil herself?”