The little lace veil. It seemed so archaic, and yet, I was drawn. This seemingly over-pious practice had an undeniable hold on my heart. Why? I could not answer the question. And so I began to research the thoughts and theology related to the tradition of wearing a veil at Mass. I read blogs, websites, theological explanations, and so on; basically, I perused anything I could get my hands on. And then I discovered why I was so attracted to this practice: I was being called by the Lord to do the same. The Lord did not demand this of me, nor did anyone else for that matter. It was a gentle proposal, which kept knocking at the door of my heart. However, this was not enough. The Lord knows how much my background in science influences my need for evidence and raw data, and so He patiently permitted me to seek a deeper understanding.
The numerous details I discovered about the practice of veiling led me to understand my desire and to put it into words. My first foray into this topic led me straight to Canon Law. I had heard that veiling was a mandated practice in the former Code of Canon Law, but was rejected in the new Code. Sure enough, in the 1917 Code I found the statement which required women to veil (cover their heads) at Mass (CIC 1262, 2). In the same canon, I found that men must uncover their heads at Mass. Next, I went to the current Code of Canon Law (1983), in which I found no such statements or requirements. I found it very interesting that even though this canon has been removed, men will still remove their hats in church out of reverence. When I realized this, I started wondering why this element was retained, while the tradition of head coverings for women did not stand the test of time. And then it hit me. The feminist movement, strengthened in the 1960’s, was in full swing. More research led me to discover that many feminists saw the veil as a symbol of women’s submission to men. As their basis, they often quoted St. Paul’s statement in this regard. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes the following: “I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3). I had a hard time understanding why this was so distasteful to the average feminist, so I continued searching for a clearer answer. After sifting through many page-turning feminist expositions, I discovered the real sandpaper, so to speak. What rubs feminists the wrong way is that men are portrayed as holding more importance, since they are the “head” (the thinking and intellectual portion of the body). Sadly, many feminists failed to recognize the great dignity of women conveyed by this statement. Woman is so beloved by the Lord, that He deigns to send her a husband (if that is her vocation), who is to represent Christ to her. And what did Christ do? He gave Himself up completely, even to the horrifying mystery of the Cross (cf. Eph 5:25). Furthermore, I wonder if the average feminist continued reading St. Paul’s remarks to the Corinthians. Just a few verses after the above-mentioned passage, Paul says, “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man” (1 Cor 11: 7). Interesting. Woman is the glory of man. I could not grasp why this was so offensive to feminists. I searched for a stronger position or reasoning, but could not find one. Case closed. As a married woman, I am humbled that God sent a man into my life to serve as a constant reminder of Christ’s self-less and sacrificial love to me, as well as to our family. I veil at Mass in order to remind myself that he, my husband, is being placed as Christ before me. Besides, if I, as a woman, am the glory of man, I should desire to reserve the best of what I have for the one man God has chosen for me. Therefore, I veil in order to remind myself of the modesty and purity of heart required of me as a woman. This is not to say that my hair is the best of what I’ve got (hardly the case), and therefore I need to only allow my husband to see it. Such a line of thinking would be incongruent with the theology. The veil is a symbol, which serves to remind me of a deeper reality. I am the glory of my husband.
My next question led me to the roots of this tradition. Why would women be asked to veil in the first place? Where did St. Paul get this idea from? It is true that women in the Jewish culture did wear veils, but why? I was fascinated by what I found. In Jewish practice and tradition, all vessels of life were to be veiled. Think, for instance, of the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 26) or the Holy of Holies (Heb. 9, Mt. 27). Even in our Catholic liturgy, we see the vessels which contain (or will contain) Life Himself covered with a veil (e.g. chalice, tabernacle, etc.). Women are vessels of life. We can bear children, yes, but we also communicate life in other ways. Women give life to communities and organizations by the unique manner in which they can show life-giving love and compassion in diverse situations. I thought of all the different ministries fulfilled beautifully by women religious: care of the sick, the dying, the poor, the uneducated and the unloved. Giving life is an ontological element of being a woman. Furthermore, veils were a symbol of humility in the Jewish culture. Susanna, for instance, veiled herself because she was exceedingly beautiful (Dn. 13: 31). Moses veiled his face after he spoke to God (Ex 34:33-34). His face glowed with the beautiful radiance of God, and so, out of humility, he covered his face. God offered him the gift of a unique relationship, a relationship which changed him. This change required a response of humility. As a woman, I am to imitate Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Mary was asked to accept a surprising change in her life: she was asked to be the mother of God. This mystery was veiled in her womb for nine months, only then to be revealed in all His glory. I too will have many surprises in my life, which I will have to accept in the depths of my heart. The veil helps me to recollect myself before God, so as to accept these changes, which He wills, with utmost humility. Moreover, to link the Judaic customs of veiling vessels of life with the notion of veiling for humility, I want to veil so that I can humbly bring life to my husband’s plans and goals. Hopefully many of our dreams are similar, but there will be times when he will need me to give life to an otherwise lifeless prospect. Let’s face it: a pile of plywood may remain “lifeless”, unless he is encouraged by his wife to create something out of it. If I can truly see Christ’s will and love in my beloved, I need to respond with humility, and not with depression and despairing passivity. The two are not the same. Humility requires virtue, which promotes our growth in holiness as a couple. The other attitude rejects the dignity of the human person, and creates a dictator. This latter attitude further defaces the image of Christ in a spouse, since Christ came to serve and not to be served (Mk. 10:45).
After traversing through the Jewish customs, and the former Code of Canon Law, I asked myself, “why not”? Why not continue this custom in my own life? The Church, in her wisdom, is broad and rich, and so she treasures a variety of customs, traditions, and practices. Many people are familiar with practices such as the holy rosary, Stations of the Cross or even novenas. These are good, and compel many to holiness of life. They are not, however, required in order to be a “good” Catholic. There are certain elements of our faith which are non-negotiable, such as the Holy Mass on Sundays, or Sacramental Confession once a year. Having said that, it is important to note that some of these requirements are mandated by Divine Law (e.g. Attending Mass on Sundays) while others are of human origin, based on theology and tradition (e.g. Confession once a year). The custom of veiling was previously mandated, and now has been removed (not revoked) from the Code of Canon Law. Many traditions were established by the successors of the Apostles, for the promotion and preservation of the depth of our Catholic faith. Many other examples of such practices and traditions (“traditions” with a lower case T) exist. These practices seek to enhance the religious experience of the faithful on the pilgrimage of faith. I veil because, for me, it is a great aid on my path to holiness. I veil because I am proud to be a woman, and humbled to be a Catholic. I veil because the Church gives me this opportunity and privilege to symbolize her spousal relationship to Christ, the Bridegroom. I veil because I need signs and symbols which remind me of who I am in relation to the Lord. I veil because I am a sinner.