Sisters' Identity a Matter of Reverence, Not Habit

By Sister Charlotte Sonneville, OSB

In a recent article on contemporary religious life, the author asked young Sisters, priests, and brothers what attracted them to religious life.  They answered: “The group’s clarity of vision, a common life, ministries that respond to absolute human needs, a common focus, and the fact that the gospel message and a life of prayer are the foundation for the group’s life and work together.”

For many years, we recognized Sisters by their religious habit. It symbolized, for many, dedication and being set apart for service.

I wore the habit proudly for 17 years and then Vatican II came along and asked us to return to the spirit of our founders and to re-evaluate what customs had evolved over the years.

St. Benedict states in Chapter 55 of his Holy Rule, written in the 6th century, that monks are to wear the clothing of the common people. It should be simple, clean, and proper to the time and place. The habit WAS the dress of the common people throughout the Middle Ages. It no longer is.

A recent TV special showed people dressed up as nuns to attend a “sing along” version of the film “Sound of Music.” It was very evident that the clothes did not make the singers into religious women. It also made me aware of the stereotypes that theatres have displayed of nuns, such as in “Nunsense.” Many people laugh at these movies and images, but many also take such images as fact.

Did – or does – the habit attract serious vocations? Did – or does – it help people recognize a Christlike image today? I sincerely doubt it.

I remain convinced that who we are as religious women must be evident from a deep commitment to Christ that is evident to those we meet. It must be evident in our attitude of reverence, respect, care and commitment to others. It must be evident in our devotion to all God’s creation, not our devotion to our image.

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