Monday, December 29, 2008

Everyday Life: Short Hair, Long Skirts, Rules and Culture



1The clothing distributed to the brothers should vary according to local conditions and climate,
7Monks must not complain about the color or coarseness of all these articles, but use what is available in the vicinity at a reasonable cost.
20The abbot, however, must always bear in mind what is said in the Acts of the Apostles: Distribution was made to each one as he had need (Acts 4:35). 21In this way the abbot will take into account the weaknesses of the needy, not the evil will of the envious…
RB 55:1,7, 20-21


A while back a young woman who was visiting our monastery asked rather tentatively “do you have to have short hair to live here?” I guess it would look that way, short hair, no make-up, sensible shoes, collectively sort of a “nun look.”
The question startled me at first, we certainly don’t have any rules about hair length or skirt length, or clothes in general for that matter. I suppose if I had more presence of mind I would have said: “Oh honey, it is SO much easier than long hair. Plus it is nice to be in a place where how comfortable the shoes are wins out over how they look.” But of course she was young and not yet at the point in life where pragmatism has begun to win out over appearance.

Many people, like this young woman, seem to assume that our dress and appearance in the monastery are deeply reflective of our monastic vocation. It is, but not in the way most people think. It is common for people to tell us that we should wear habits. I suppose this is also an unquestioned assumption that people should be able to tell us how we should dress, as if our clothing were something that the public should be able to decide for us. It is part of the sense people have that as nuns, vowed religious, we should stand out in some way that we should be easily identifiable. Some sisters continue to wear the habit as a public sign of their consecration, most in North America do not.

So what does clothing mean to a monastic? It seems clear from the Rule that clothing was an issue in Benedict’s day just as it is now. Clearly not everyone was happy about clothing in Benedict’s monastery. He wouldn’t have told the monks not to complain about the “color or coarseness” of their clothing unless of course monks were regularly grumbling over dishes about how Benedict got such a good buy on chartreuse monk’s cowls made out of burlap bags on sale at the 6th century equivalent of the outlet mall.

It seems likely that in Benedict’s day there was some distinctive monastic clothing, but clearly there are other values that reflect monastic clothing. Clothing has to be suited to local conditions and climate and available at a reasonable cost in the local area. Clothing is supposed to be about need and common sense. This seems obvious but the reality is that common sense has never been particularly common nor has the ability to distinguish wants and needs.

People who engage in regular “shopping therapy” would have trouble living in Benedict’s monastery or our own monastery for that matter. We have no uniform clothing, no habit or rules about what to wear. But at the same time no one is allocated any money specifically for clothes. A sister who knows she will need to buy some special, expensive clothing for the coming year, a new winter coat, professional clothes for a new job, can request money during the time when the community budget for the coming year is determined. But usually clothing purchases come out of one’s personal allowance, a small, monthly amount of personal spending money.

This means that buying new clothes is almost impossible, whether high end high heels or L.L. Bean, crunchy granola hiking boots. It is difficult to make a statement at either end of the fashion spectrum without money.

Most of us do our shopping at the less than fashionable “put and take table.” There is a designated place in the monastery for clothing donations. Anyone who has a piece of clothing she doesn’t need any more can put it out for anyone who wants it. Often friends, relatives, oblates and others will give used clothing to us rather than the thrift stores. When someone donates a large pile of clothing a notice will go up on the bulletin board that there are “new” clothes available for people to take.

There is little room for “fiber snobs” here, people who refuse to wear polyester out of principle. Nor is there much room for strong sentiments about colors, patterns or styles. Fit is not simply assumed but becomes a determinative factor in selection. Clothes are recycled after weight loss and gain, after spring cleaning and probably out of just plain boredom, since as we know the only things that will survive a nuclear holocaust will be polyester and cockroaches.

The reality of course is that those with excellent taste and a love of nice clothes, even without money, will always find a way to look better than those of us without taste. But for all of us a deeper principle is a work. Monastic “fashion statements” are statements of humility. They are not always statements about humility achieved, they are more often about humility that is struggled with, limitations that chafe and wants that can be overpowering. But ultimately “put and take” becomes a reality of freedom that in community all our needs can be satisfied, and when that happens our wants seem much less important.

1 comment:

Jax, Slate Creek, ID said...

This was a very interesting post. Almost the first thing I asked the sisters after meeting them was why they all had to have short hair...and what happened to the habits? I am really enjoying reading your blog and it is fascinating to see into the day to day lives of the nuns.