May is the month dedicated to Mary. I’ve heard whisperings that many Catholic women are experimenting with chapel veils during Mass this month, in imitation of Mary.
As a young woman who has maintained this practice for several years now, I’ve been asked, “What’s the reason for it?” or “How do you keep it on your head?” or (popularly) “How do you wear it without feeling like a freak???”
Been there, done that. It’s time to unleash the hidden mysteries of this feminine practice.
“When and Why Did You Start Wearing a Veil?”
Freshman year of college: I was discovering my Catholic faith as an adult. My best friends were deeply committed Catholics. We attended daily Mass together and spent much free time in Eucharistic Adoration. Never before had I been able to experience Jesus’ Eucharistic Presence seven days a week!
Near my nineteenth birthday, a seminarian (at the time) friend gave me a present. I waited until my actual birthday to unwrap it: a white, lace, chapel veil??? I examined it like an artifact from an alien planet; never before had I been so close to a veil. I tried placing it atop my head and looking in the mirror. My glasses poked out from under the lace, and although I tried smiling and looking as pious as possible, it didn’t feel like “me”. For weeks — maybe months — it lay in my dresser drawer.
I don’t remember the first time I wore the veil, but I DO remember how (even at my fairly traditionally-flavored parish) I felt extraordinarily self-conscious while experimenting with veil-wearing.
That’s what this was: an experiment.
Why wear it? Well…my only answer was that it has something to do with showing reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. In the end, I was still a teenager, and counter-cultural practices were extra-appealing, so I decided I’d try veiling my head for a while.
“Don’t You Feel Like a Weirdo?”
OK, so just about every young woman who suddenly begins covering her head in the True Presence of Christ will believe the following:
- Everyone is staring at me. (er – at my head.)
- I look like a freak.
- I look like I constantly congratulate myself on being a better Catholic than everyone else.
- This thing is gonna awkwardly fall off my head any second now.
She will likely spend her first few veiled Masses desperately fighting to remain focused and prayerful.
What do people really think of young women who carry on this rare tradition? Listen closely: The only person who ever spoke negatively about my veil was a manipulative, controlling boyfriend. He emphasized and played-up my concerns, so much so that I quit wearing the veil for a few years.
Every other time someone has approached me about my veil, they have been: pleasantly curious; or — and these are by far the most common — intensely complimentary. Folks never cease to surprise me with how much they admire a young woman who wears a veil. (Not that that’s a reason to wear it.)
How did I ‘get over’ the weird feelings and distracted thoughts? Two ways: 1.) I just got used to covering my head. 2.) I’ve developed personal, spiritual and theological reasons for veiling.
“Why Do You Wear That?”
When I finally started learning, bit by bit, about the fascinating history of veils, my desire to wear one intensified until I became EXCITED to do so.
Wikipedia may tell you that the first record of veils is a legal document from ancient Assyria (1300 BC), reserving veils for noble women only. However, going back about 100 years more, we can crack open our Bibles and read about the Tabernacle of the ancient Hebrew people.
It’s All About the Tabernacle
God instructed the Hebrews to create a tent (Tabernacle) wherein He would dwell (cf. Exodus 26). The innermost and holiest part of the Tabernacle contained the Ark of the Covenant — remember that? — which held the stone tablets of the ten commandments (the Law) and the Manna which fed them in the desert.
The ‘room’ which held this Ark of the Covenant was called the “Holy of Holies” — so holy that the high priest only entered it once a year. A veil was hung to create this Holy of Holies ‘room.’
Just outside the Holy of Holies veil was another ‘room’ called the Holy Place. This was where the table of ‘showbread’ a.k.a. the ‘Bread of the Presence’ was kept, next to a golden lampstand with a lamp that burned constantly, and an altar of incense. (Sidenote: Does this sound familiar to you Catholics? Wink wink…nudge nudge…we also have a Tabernacle, the Bread of God’s Presence, the lamp, the incense…!!)
A veil also designated the Holy Place.
Now fast-forward to the Prophet Jeremiah. Through him, God foretells a day when the Law will no longer be written on stone tablets, but within us!
But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days.. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33)
As St. Paul writes,
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Cor. 6:19)
God’s Law was once written on stone tablets, veiled in the Holy of Holies. Now, God writes his Law on our hearts through the Holy Spirit! Through my Baptism and Confirmation, I have received the Holy Spirit, and my body is even holier than the Holy of Holies! That is one reason I veil myself.
We Veil What is Precious to Us
Our faith — and humans in general — have long histories of veiling things and people that are most sacred, valuable, and precious to us. We want to protect our most valuable treasures. We want to visibly set them apart because they are special.
This is another reason why I wear the veil. The Catholic Church has taught me about the holiness of women; how highly valued and esteemed we are, how beautifully our bodies nurture and give life. God has set woman apart for a holy purpose. He chose to enter the world through a woman! Jesus entrusted the greatest news in all of human history — his Resurrection — to a woman! My veil reminds me that I, in and through my womanhood, am highly valued.
That means more than just basking in warm fuzzies; my veil is also a challenging reminder that I am called to rise above my vanity, pride, and selfishness. My veil reminds me that I am called to fully live my holy vocation of womanhood.
The Most Compelling Reason to Wear a Veil
Catholic, veil-wearing women are usually nuns. Many of us have heard nuns referred to as “Brides of Christ.” However, did you know that the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls every believer a “Bride of Christ”?
The theme of Christ as Bridegroom of the Church was prepared for by the prophets and announced by John the Baptist. The Lord referred to himself as the “bridegroom.” The Apostle speaks of the whole Church and of each of the faithful, members of his Body, as a bride “betrothed” to Christ the Lord so as to become but one spirit with him. (pp. 796)
I’m a sucker for chick flicks. Many such films involve romantic, rooftop dinners: candles, music, fine china, fine linens, wine, and a meal during which the Lover expresses his love for the Beloved.
That is exactly how I wish every woman would see the Mass. The Mass is Jesus the Bridegroom’s romantic meal for his Bride, the Church. It is a foretaste of the marriage banquet to take place in Heaven (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church pp. 1329). The more I learn about Jesus as the Bridegroom, the more I enjoy answering people’s question, “Why do you wear a veil?” with my most efficient reply:
“To remind myself that I am the Bride of Christ.”
Pope Francis on the Holy Mass: “Jesus is the bridegroom, the bridegroom who weds the Church, the groom who loves the Church, who gives his life for the Church. Jesus is the one who makes this wedding feast! […] If we have something that is not of Him, repent, ask for forgiveness and move on. May the Lord give us, to all of us, the grace always to have this joy, as if we were attending a wedding. And also have this faithfulness to the only bridegroom, who is the Lord.” (September 6, 2013)