Q+A: Why I Veil in a “Normal” Parish

Hey, y’all! Thanks so much for all the birthday wishes for Sugar here, on Instagram and Facebook. It was a wonderful day celebrating our firstborn–and the culmination of a two-month-long birthday marathon! Phew. (All 5 kids birthdays + mine + both my in-laws + most of the kids’ namedays and baptismal anniversaries all fall between May 3rd and July 15th.) I tell you what, I will not be sorry if I don’t see a slice of cake for a good, long time. And I love me some cake, so that is saying something.

During that stretch of celebratory cake munching, we also welcomed Honey into the Church! I know most families wait a few months before getting their babies baptized, but I prefer keeping it as close to birth as reasonably possible. It’s almost like they’re not fully here until they’re baptized. Then I can relax!

Anyway, after seeing the photos of the ceremony, some of you asked me about the veil I was wearing in the pictures. For those who missed the original post, here’s a recap:

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Now, since most of you have never been to my parish, let me tell you: we are not Traditionalists. Our priests celebrate Mass in English. We have female lectors and altar servers. Most women wear jeans to Mass, and almost nobody covers their head. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could count those of us who do on one hand.

All of which begs the question: Why did I start veiling?

Let’s stick a pin in that question. Before I answer it, there are a couple of other questions I want to address first.

What is veiling?

Veiling, in the Catholic tradition, refers to the practice of women covering their heads at Mass, Adoration, and/or in times of private prayer. Basically, whenever you’re coming face-to-face with Jesus. Chapel veils, sometimes referred to by the Spanish name mantilla, come in many varieties. A simple scarf or hat might also be used.

The practice is ancient and predates Christianity. In fact, when St. Paul writes about veiling, he refers to it as a custom so ingrained that he seems to view it as inviolate.

“Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head… 

Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.”

– 1 Corinthians 11: 4-6, 13-16

Now, this is a super tricky passage. Frankly it’s pretty much impossible to understand without knowing quite a bit about the world in which Paul is writing. And since I want to keep things light-hearted today (and since I’m not an expert on First Century Palestine), I’m going to skip digging any further into it right now. Suffice it to say, if you’ve got beef with the passage, please take it up with St. Paul, not me. 🙂

Long story short: veiling is a long tradition. In the centuries following the writing of this passage to the Church at Corinth, there was very little written about veiling (probably because it was so customary that there was nothing to say). It wasn’t until 1917 that the Catholic Church decided to include a mandate for women to cover their heads in the Code of Canon Law.

1. It is desirable that, consistent with ancient discipline, women be separated from men in church.

2. Men, in a church or outside a church, while they are assisting at sacred rites, shall be bare-headed, unless the approved mores of the people or peculiar circumstances of things determine otherwise; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord.

– 1917 Code of Canon Law 1262

These stipulations were not included in the 1983 Code, nor have they been reinstituted at any time since. Therefore, it is important when discussing veiling at Mass or elsewhere that the practice, though ancient and beautiful is not a requirement. Bluntly: Catholic women are not required to veil. It is still traditional for women to veil when meeting the Pope, but it is no longer a requirement to veil for a Papal audience.

Okay, so we’ve established that veiling is traditional, though not required. But what is it? Why do it?

If you look elsewhere in Scripture at the use of veils, you start to get a sense of why the practice has been held in high regard for so long. (Hint: It’s not because of misogyny.) Throughout the Bible, we find sacred vessels being veiled. The ark of the covenant. The Holy of Holies. Even Christ’s own body was considered the veil for his divine natureWomen, by our ability to give birth, are sacred vessels. Mary is often referred to as the New Ark, because within her own body, she carried God.

Women veil because we are not just sacred, we are capable of carrying the sacred. That’s an awesome, awesome thing. Something we so often diminish or altogether forget in our modern world.

What veiling is NOT.

Veiling is not a requirement.

Veiling is not just for married women. (There are some cultures where this is the case.)

Veiling is not a symbol of man’s superiority or woman’s subjugation (both concepts are contrary to Catholic teaching).

Veiling is not a cry for attention.

Veiling is not about being “holier than thou,” but rather recognizing that all women are made for holiness, whether or not they veil, and that we all serve a holy God.

When did you start veiling?

I toyed with the idea of veiling several years ago. Back then, I would use very innocuous head coverings, like wide, stretchy headbands. After awhile, I got self conscious about it (even though I’m pretty sure nobody knew those headbands were meant to be head coverings). I served in youth ministry, and I worried that wearing skirts or covering my head would be off-putting to the very teenagers I was supposed to be drawing into fellowship. So I quit.

This past fall, my husband mentioned that I had stopped covering my head. (For the record, he was never part of my decision to start veiling in the first place. In fact, I’m pretty sure I never even discussed it with him except to say, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing this.” I’m pretty sure he said something like, “Well, if that’s what you want to do, okay.”) He asked why I had stopped, and when I tried to think of an answer, I realized that vanity was the real root of the reason. In reality, I don’t think my teens would have been turned off by my veiling. If anything, it might have been a pretty cool conversation starter. No, the real reason was that I was afraid. I was worried my teens wouldn’t think I was cool anymore.

So I decided I would start veiling again. This time, I ordered an infinity scarf-style lace mantilla. It was easy to slip it down around my neck in the Narthex after Mass so that I could feel more comfortable chatting with my teens or fellow congregants, but it wasn’t so half-baked as my headband routine. I wasn’t hiding anymore. I started veiling again at the beginning of Lent, and barring a few instances where I’ve simply forgotten or it was just too darn hot, I’ve been doing it ever since.

Why do you veil?

There are a ton of good reasons to veil (or not). Personally, I veil for two main reasons.

1. Veiling keeps me focused. Literally, it helps me focus because the veil on the sides of my head gives me a bit of tunnel vision. I’m a mom of five, and there is always something going on next to me in the pew (or under, as the case may be). Veiling is a physical reminder to keep my eyes on Christ. Some days, that reminder needs to come in louder than others. My veil does the trick.

Veiling also keeps me figuratively focused: on the holiness of the Mass and on my vocation. Sometimes it’s easy to see Mass as a fellowship opportunity, as a fun way to worship, or as an obligation. To be fair, it is all of those things–but it’s also much more. When I put on my veil, I’m reminded what Mass really is: a face-to-face meeting with my God.

Veiling also reminds me of my sacred vocation as a mother. Maybe you’ve noticed, but our society tends to cheapen motherhood. Well, womanhood in general, but I’ll stick to mothers for the moment. The world tells us that motherhood is something to be avoided–except in one or two circumstances, if you absolutely must procreate–but only if you’re absolutely, without a doubt “ready.” Whatever that means. Then we are told it’s something we’re meant to power through (get right back to work because you won’t get paid leave, knuckle through the toddler years and stock up on wine, because gurrrrlll, you are going to need it).

When I veil, all those negative images of motherhood are quieted. In the relative calm, I can remember what this vocation of mine is really all about: carrying, birthing, and nurturing the sacred. Each of my children is made in the image and likeness of God, with a unique immortal soul. And my job? To participate in bringing them into being and raising them to live forever in Heaven. I am raising future saints! And if that isn’t a humbling thought, I don’t know what is.

2. Veiling is a testimony. In a “normal” parish like mine, it’s hard not to notice a gal in a chapel veil. I hate standing out in a crowd. But I also know that, sometimes, standing out can be a good thing.

Our society doesn’t like to make distinctions between men and women. With the new rhetoric involved in transgendered rights (a popular topic here in Seattle these days), we seem to be breaking new ground and pushing the limits on what it means to be a man or a woman (or neither, or both). Conversely, our society tends to pigeon-hole women, to reduce them to bodies for male enjoyment and consumption. But the Church is clear in her teaching on womanhood. I am proud to be a woman, and these days, I think that’s something uniquely worth cheering from the rooftops! Veiling is my way of cheering.

It’s also my way of standing in solidarity with the women of my parish. No, most of them don’t veil, but we are all made to be women. Beautiful, sacred, holy. Cherished daughters, uniquely female. When I veil at Mass, it’s a message to all the women around me: you are holy, sister. and I celebrate this God of ours who made us. and I celebrate you.

What about you? Do you veil, or have you ever considered veiling? What inspired you to begin veiling at Mass, or what has kept you from veiling?

8 comments

  1. Laura says:

    this is so interesting to me. I am a protestant (mennonite, but not the fundamentalist mennonite that most people think of–ours is more like a baptist church). A few years ago, I had considered this too. One thing it also showed me was that veiling exposes immodesty. It’s impossible to veil and not see that I am immodestly dressed… Can you imagine wearing short shorts, skimpy tanks and veiling? nope. It shows that for what it is… and provides a handy gauge… I haven’t thought about it lately and no one at my church does it… hmmmm

    • Bethany says:

      What a great insight, Laura! Yes, I have been convicted about my clothing choices when putting on a veil. In my case not modesty so much (our church already has a shoulders covered policy) but for being a bit too casual! Jeans + veils is fine in my book, but ripped jeans? Try again, Bethany!

  2. Amelia says:

    I’ve veiled for…goodness, is it seven years now?! I started in college after reading myself back into the Church. At first I was so vain and judgmental about it – I kept thinking that it was such a big deal, everybody would be looking at me and judging me, etc. – but thankfully, I got used to it and over that eventually. The Church does allow women to go bareheaded (the arguments you sometimes hear elsewhere that the 1917 code wasn’t abrogated are patently false, just read the beginnings of the 1983 one!), but I do feel personally convicted about it being the objectively preferable practice so I only go without one when I’ve forgotten to bring something.

    On a subjective level, I relate well to your reasons. I love marking myself as delighted to be feminine in a culture that has serious issues with masculinity and femininity. I didn’t appreciate my femininity before I came into the Church. Veiling reminds me of who I am before God, a.k.a., who I really am. It also reminds me to dress the part – Mass is the wedding feast of the lamb!

  3. Emily G says:

    I veil because it is traditional, and also for the same two reasons you state. I do attend the TLM, but only about half the women at my parish veil. I also use scarves and hats in cooler months. I applaud your bravery. It’s great that you veil at your parish. You are probably exposing a lot of people to this tradition who never knew it existed before, too.
    I really liked your second reason for veiling. I wear skirts only-it began as a modesty thing in my teens, but it has become so much more for me now. It’s not that I don’t care about modesty any more. I wear my skirts to say that I’m female, that I’m feminine. I’m different from a man, and I embrace that. In addition to being traditionally women’s clothing, I think that skirts and dresses flatter the female figure in a way pants can never manage. I love being a woman, wife and mother and wearing skirts and dresses is for me, an expression of my comfort, commitment and delight in who I am and how I live.

    • Emily G says:

      Oh, and I forgot to say that I really like the dress you wore to the Baptism. And that you all looked great in your coordinating outfits. Nice job, Mama! 🙂

      • Bethany says:

        Thank you, Emily! Except for my husband’s suit, these are the same clothes we wore to have family photos taken following the baby’s birth–otherwise I doubt we could have been anywhere near so coordinated!

  4. Melissa says:

    I cover my head in church—I hesitate to call it “veiling,” and I don’t know why. I crocheted myself an infinity scarf, except that I thought infinity scarves were Möbius strips, and so that’s what mine is. Mine is a traditional parish, but not many women veil. I do it because I felt called to do it and because it keeps me humble, but I like your reasons better. It’s also a bit of a penance, because I’m in late middle age and even my loosely crocheted cotton lace head covering makes me hot.

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