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It’s made news for the last few years: Young adults entering religious life are opting for more traditional religious orders. From the National Religious Vocation Conference:
Both men and women seem to be drawn to habited communities. About two thirds of the newer members say they belong to a religious institute that wears a habit. Among those that responded affirmatively, a little more than half indicate that the habit is required in all or most circumstances.
Interestingly, almost half of the men who belong to an institute that does not wear a habit say they would wear it if it were an option, compared to nearly a quarter of the women respondents.
But why? One word:
Our old pal Marshall McLuhan saw this coming decades ago. He continually stressed that electric media contribute to a certain identity loss, partially because media like TV, radio—and now the Internet—can transmit a person’s image, voice, facial expressions, ideas, and nearly everything…except their bodies. As a Catholic, McLuhan realized that this split between the soul and body would lead to personal identity loss.
Now, for his words on religious habits:
Today, for example, the plain-clothes priest, or the plain-clothes nun, presents a sort of CIA or FBI scandal. It is one of the ludicrous hangups of our time. What the young are obviously telling us is: we want beards, we want massive costumes and vestments for everybody. (Electric Consciousness and The Church)
Some context: McLuhan is discussing younger generations’ desire for belonging. Personally, as a member of this ‘electronic generation,’ (the first generation to grow up practically surrounded by electronic media) I have observed the deep desire within myself and my peers for a sense of belonging to a group. For a sense of rootedness. Roots give us a past, which is hard to come by in the age of ‘right here, right now.’ Roots tell us where we’ve come from, and whose we are.
So, when I first read McLuhan’s thoughts on identity loss and younger generations, I immediately understood.
While I discerned religious life, I was fascinated by how polarized women religious can get in this “habit vs. plain clothes” debate. But taking McLuhan’s insights into account, I’m beginning to see why women of my mother’s generation weren’t clamoring for habits. Let’s look at statements from two women of different generations.
First, the electronic age. Sr. Julia Walsh joined The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration at age 24. She’s a millenial. Her thoughts on the habit?
It’s a sensitive topic. Some older sisters have a lot of pain about it. But it was important to me to ask if we could create room for members who want to wear a veil and habit to do so. I want people who don’t know me to know I’m a sister, to gain some joy from knowing that young women religious exist. (Source)
For Sr. Julia, the habit would identify her as a religious, and she wants this to happen. Now, let’s see what Sr. Anne Marie Gunderson, age 51, has to say:
St. James said to wear the dress of the times and I am a modern woman. I don’t need the habit to be a nun. I won’t hide behind that to be recognized as a sister. (Source)
Her words are revealing. To Sr. Anne Marie, the habit is not a statement about her personal identity. It’s something behind which to hide. She has a completely different perspective on the subject.
Certainly, there are many factors contributing to the “habit vs. plain clothes” debate. But McLuhan’s insights on the electric age’s slow personal identity loss may explain why my generation’s new vocations prefer the habit. We may be overwhelmingly compensating for electronic media’s effect on our sense of personal identity.
Group identity, instead of private individual identity, is now found everywhere, from youth culture to the business world (where it is called corporate culture), to advertising, to feminism and other -isms. [...] We also have the tribe of Michael Jackson. The tribe of rastafarian music followers. The tribe of the Beatles. The tribe of Bruce Springsteen. – Eric McLuhan (The Renaissance Around Us)