A Matter of Habit

A Matter of Habit

from the Anchoress in honor of World Day of Prayer for Vocations & the Habit, a reflection on the meaning of the habit:

Sister had a delusion; she justified forsaking the habit with themes of solidarity, compassion and humility but in truth her story illustrated egoism and presumption. She bemoaned a possibility of cheating a man from his wages. In fact, she was cheating that man, but not in the way she imagined. She was cheating God, too.

The Ice-barrow man was not giving Sister a free ice because she wore a habit, but because a man who loved (or at least respected) God saw an opportunity to demonstrate that love in a small, simple way. Her habit gave silent witness to the community of faith, a reminder that there are people out there giving up everything for Christ and ultimately for us. Sister might say correctly that she was �nobody special.� but her habit identified her as one mysteriously espoused to the man-God wholly worthy of praise, honor and adoration; not she, not sister, but the Christ represented by what we used to call her �wedding clothes.�

The habit, in fact, was voluntarily undertaken as a means of self-effacement. It was paradoxically meant to make Sister, �nobody special� to the world; to obliterate her individuality and make her one of many, one part of the same body, one part of the collective hive, because religious life is socialism on a small-and-voluntary scale – which is the only way socialism can truly work. Taking off the habit may have helped sisters �celebrate their individuality,� and that is not a terrible thing, in and of itself; we are each fearfully, wonderfully made.

But the �ordinary� clothes also made the ordinary world more ordinary. Suddenly, there were no outward indications that anyone was praying at all, no reminders that we could and should pray, too. Suddenly, there was no one to make a man think of Jesus for a moment, and scoop up some frozen sugar-water.

The Italian Ice was for God, not for Sister. When she took off the habit, the Ice-man stopped noticing and responding to God at random moments in his day, and finding ways to say �thank you,� to Him.

Perhaps clearing an additional dollar a day, the Ice-man was substantially poorer, for it.

So, in the end, even with the best of intentions, Sister �Nobody Special,� in her need to feel fellow-kinship, humility and �unspecialness,� served her own satisfied ego, when it would have been much more humble of her simply to say �thank you� to a free cup of ice, given and accepted in the love of Christ.

Rather like Holy Communion.

She never cheated the man from his living. But she cheated God of a small devotion. She cheated a man of his chance to demonstrate that devotion. She cheated herself of the privilege of reminding the world -by her mere presence- that all creation is extraordinary and beloved. She cheated the rest of us, because we loved being reminded of that.

It meant we were each special, after all.

Habits are not necessary to the life of a religious; that is absolutely true. They may well be necessary for the life of the world.


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  • Melanie,
    I don’t think we should view Mass as a way to be fed.  I once confessed to a priest that I had skipped Mass because “I felt I wasn’t getting anything out of it.” and his response was that it wasn’t what “I” got out of it [and I know that he wasn’t talking about graces here], but what I put into it.  That really struck home to me and is something that I still remember so many years later.  I don’t go to Mass to be fed, that’s simply a wonderful side benefit.  I go to Mass to worship and glorify the Trinity, to give thanks for my blessings [my very active and wiggly 3 year old being the main one] and to ask pardon for my failings.  Yes, I go to receive the Eucharist, but I see it as a privilege and sometimes I am called to sacrifice that privilege [due to my own sin or some part of motherhood calling me from it].  I guess what I am trying [in a very awkward and rambling way] to say is that when we put ourselves into the Mass, either by prayful mediation or guiding our children in the faith, we are pleasing God.

  • And what else I should have added is that all the glorifying, thanking, and making reparation are done while keeping an active toddler from kicking the pew, laying down in the pew or on the kneeler, and talking out loud during the silent parts of the Mass.

  • These are beautiful posts, Melanie! Thank you. I was fed. A dear friend and I go back and forth over the “young children at Mass”. Todd and I made it a commitment that we would go as a family always (barring illness, of course) from the time the girls were born. That commitment was made out of the conviction that Jesus is truly, physically present in the Eucharist and simply to be in his presence is enough. More than enough! As you touched on, even at all those Masses I went to pre-children, I didn’t “get it all” out of Mass. I was distracted, inattentive, self-centered then, too. (Now I’m distracted by someone outside of me who needs me.) Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, AMEN. Bring those little ones to Jesus. We only scratch the surface of how grace works, of its depths, of the meaning of God’s physical presence.

  • I have no idea what children are supposed to “get” from Mass, except a growing familiarity with our Faith. As Erika said, people were trying to keep children from Jesus, they didn’t want the kids to bother Him, but He had other ideas in mind.
    At the very least, I see our bringing the children to Mass as another instance of parents teaching by example. Why do we talk to newborns who don’t understand a word of what we’re saying? Because we know that, even though they’re not “rationally ready” to talk right now, our talking to them is what will make them able to, one day. Just the same way with Mass: why do we bring them with us, even though we’re tempted by the memory of quiet Masses? Because we know that, little by little, by being immersed in the reality of the Faith, they will some day understand what they’re supposed to understand.
    Or, in another example, why do we Catholics bother with infant Baptism? A baby cannot possibly understand what is going on! Of course the Church doesn’t say that we “have to” take the children to Mass (and it would be interesting to know exactly why) – but I just wanted to offer examples of things we do with our children well before they’re rationally ready for them. 

  • If we are part of the family of God, including our children…and Mass is our family meal, as it were…well, I’ve always included all my children in the mealtime, even when they weren’t eating solid food yet.  I think it matters partly because it provides socializing toward when they will eat, but also partly because it’s a huge piece of what knits us together as a family instead of a group of individuals sharing a roof.  And yes, sometimes at big family holiday meals, I spend most of the meal not eating, keeping my little one from being too disruptive.  But I can snack before and after (like your suggestions of reading the Sunday Gospel before Mass or listening to the homily) and I don’t get a sitter for Thanksgiving either smile

    As for duty/obligation, I have been told that mothers of small children can fall under the thing that says that the sick and those caring for people who need care are excused from the Sunday obligation.  (I haven’t looked this up for my own knowledge.)  Of course, the mother who mentioned this said in the next breath that she needed Mass (with all its distractions) to get her sanely through the rest of the week.

  • Melanie,

    I’ve been thinking about your question on how little ones are fed spiritually.

    Every time Felicity wakes up in the morning or from a nap, the first thing she does when I walk in the room is point up at the crucifix or the Sacred Heart and says, “Jez.” It is as close as she can get. We do have trouble getting the girls to wait to finish praying before eating, but Felicity and Cecilia both do the Sign of the Cross. We also pray with them before bed. So there certainly are religious images, prayer at home and the like that do feed them spiritually. But, in all honesty, I cannot think of a single thing that feeds them half so well as the Mass. We have religious books for them too. But nothing at home compares with the Mass.

    I think part of the big difference is that we treat the Mass as a special part of our week.  I mean, we also have secular books and landscapes or photographs on our walls and we talk about other things when we eat, so everything that feeds them spiritually at home is, by necessity and nature, along side something not spiritual. But at Mass, they know they have to wear nice dresses and behave a certain way and will not hear general conversation from the people around them or be able to play with toys as they usually do. The very nature and necessity of the Mass teaches them very directly, simply and consistently that the Mass is something very special and what happens there is very special. I think, because of this, even though they are very young, they recognize and understand that they are participating in something special and learning something very special. There is no where else that I instruct them about the Mass. And there is no other way in which they can be fed by the graces of participating in the consecration of the Eucharist – that is simply something priceless that they can only receive at Mass.

    So while I think there are ways outside of Mass that little ones are fed spiritually, I just don’t think anything can compare with bringing them to Mass.

    One thing I’d add is that, my husband is a theologian, and when I mentioned the discussion on your board (I don’t believe he has read it yet – he his giving final exams this week), he commented that he thinks many people have a false notion of what it means to participate in Mass. He said, “When the whole mass was in Latin, was no one participating or getting anything out of it? What about a disabled person unable to understand everything being said or done at the Mass? Do they participate or get anything out of it? What about someone with Celiac (sp?) Disease who can’t receive the Eucharist? Participating in the Mass is not just singing and giving responses or even receiving the Eucharist.” I wanted to ask him to expand further, but it has been a busy week. I can try to ask him to say more but he will be gone most of today. For my part, all I can say is, distracted or not, I know of nothing that can take the place of the Mass in my spiritual nourishment.