Monday, June 4, 2007

The Ugly Babushka Test

Last week I waded into the thorny topic of modesty in dress. Never one to avoid controversy--at least in writing--I've decided this week to expand this discussion to another perennial favorite Catholic blogosphere topic: Should Women Cover their Heads at Mass?

Now, just to be clear, I think it's pretty well settled that there's no current canonical requirement for women to cover their heads at Mass (or, indeed, when present in a Catholic Church for reasons other than Mass attendance). Indeed, even people who generally support the idea of women covering their heads at Mass are very careful to be clear that this is no longer required. Both of these gentlemen are far more qualified to speak on the 'requirement' aspect than I am, but I do agree with their conclusions; not the least because, if women were truly somehow still required to cover their heads at Mass, then every single Catholic bishop in the entire world is being seriously remiss in his duty to remind them of that fact, and indeed, would be showing careless disregard for the souls of the women in his care, who would be objectively sinning each time they entered Church with an uncovered head. I recognize that some bishops in the recent past have been derelict in rather more serious matters; but I'd be unwilling to indite all of them on the charge of caring little for the salvation of the women in their flocks.

So, the answer to the question, should women cover their heads at Mass? is no, if we're speaking of requirements. But we may ask a different question: should a woman cover her head at Mass? and the answer will be, "Perhaps."

God invites each and every one of us to do things both great and small in His honor and for His glory; these things then tend to help us grow in grace and holiness. We may, for instance, decide to attend daily Mass if that's possible for us; we may pray the rosary daily, we may wear the scapular, or we may choose to take on one of the many pious devotions or practices that so greatly enrich the life of the members of the Church Militant. When we do these things with the right disposition and for the right motivations there's no limit to how greatly we may grow in holiness and faith.

Sadly, it is possible to do all of these things for the wrong reasons and with the wrong disposition, too. I can't stress too strongly that this should not become a point of scrupulosity; even if our reasons aren't the best God is still capable of working within us and through these pious practices regardless of our reasons for taking them on; but strictly as a matter of fact, we know we are as capable of doing good things for bad reasons as we are of doing bad ones for what we think are good reasons. For example, someone may decide to attend daily Mass solely in order to be able to brag about it at her homeschool group; someone else may pray the daily rosary under a misguided impression that this is the bare minimum daily prayer necessary for a serious Catholic; someone else may wear the scapular out of a kind of superstitious fear that not wearing one constitutes a one-way ticket to Hell. Again, God knows our weaknesses and works in spite of them to benefit us in ways we might not imagine when we begin some new devotional practice; but I think we please Him best when we do things for His glory and not our own.

Some time ago one of my daughters asked about the girls in Church who wore chapel veils. Why did they do this, and could she have one, too?

I explained the idea of women covering their heads in Church to her, and asked her if she wanted to participate in this act of devotion--but I further told her that hats were far more customary than lace veils, which many women merely kept in their purses in case they made an unscheduled stop at Mass on a day when they weren't wearing a hat. Did she want to wear a hat to Mass?

My then-young daughter's face fell, as she admitted that she wanted to wear a long, lacy veil to look like a beautiful princess, and not particularly as an act of reverence, respect, or sacrifice.

And that's when I came up with the Ugly Babushka Test.

It's hard, as a woman, to keep my motivations clear sometimes. Do I want to cook and serve one of my husband's favorite foods to please him, or as a prelude to discussing a furniture purchase? Do I complain about how busy I am to vent off some steam, or to make the kids feel guilty and volunteer to do more than their usual chores? Do I mention that I have a headache so my family will understand some occasional grumpiness, or as an excuse to be grumpy in the first place?

I know other women have shared their similar experiences and questions. So, if I start feeling drawn toward the idea of covering my head at Mass, how can I tell if I want to do it to honor God, or to turn the spotlight in some way on myself?

The Ugly Babushka Test settles that question once and for all. Here's how it works:

Go to a thrift store, vintage clothing shop, garage sale, fabric store (if you're not a M.I.S.C.R.E.A.N.T.) or the like. Buy the ugliest, least attractive large square scarf (in good condition) that you can find; or buy enough fabric in a color that is truly unattractive on you to make the scarf. Then, instead of a lovely chapel veil or a stylish hat, wear this scarf tied under your chin like a peasant woman to Sunday Mass, for several weeks. (I'm tempted to recommend doing this for an entire liturgical season, but I think it would be up to the individual woman to decide how long she needs to wear the Ugly Babushka.) If your motivations really are to cover your head as a sign of reverence for God, respect for His Church, and a humble spirit of self-sacrifice, then the Ugly Babushka fits the bill nicely (and in all probability, no one will know why you're wearing it, which will be an additional weapon against pride, the deadliest of sins). When you've worn it long enough, replacing it with a hat or veil will be a joyful thing to do!

Some might try to argue that God is only pleased with fine lace veils, but I think the spirit of sacrifice behind the babushka would please Him more than the finest of fine lace. The woman who passes the Ugly Babushka Test will have the serenity of knowing that her decision to cover her head is not based in the least on vanity or pride, and the hope of looking forward to replacing the babushka with something more appealing when God whispers to her that the time has come.

One of the reasons my head remains uncovered at Mass for the time being is that I have yet to pass the Ugly Babushka Test.


Michelle said...

Ugly babushka? No such thing! Everything Grandma used to wear is beautiful, even those big clunky rubber soled shoes.

Red Cardigan said...

Michelle, :)!


I think that no one should object to the test; I can think of dozens of reasons to wear a beautiful lace veil to Church, which have little to do with piety or the desire for holiness; there can only be one use for the babushka, which is to cover one's head. Grandma knew it, and we should, too!

Anonymous said...

Can it count as "ugly babushka" if I have a bad hair day -- inevitably-- every Sunday, and just brush and go? You know, instead of the required 2 hours to wash, moussse, gel, dry, curl, brush, wet, spray, re-curl (scream, pant) brush and go?

Red Cardigan said...

anonymous, LOL! Maybe those hat-wearing foremothers of ours were on to something... :)

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, here's a Catholic reason not to wear *anything* ugly: other people. I'm one of those who firmly believes that there is also an immodesty in dressingly badly. "Look at me; see how holy I am? I am so impossibly dowdy that you know I must be doing it on purpose and so there is my proof that I am super-humble, way less vain than any other chick here and so more holy than, well, you." Either that or I care so little about anyone else that I present my worst to them.

OK, I'm exaggerating, but I believe in the concept of all beauty comes from God and ugliness - in any form - is not oriented toward God. After all, our hearts should be pointed towards the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Plain, humble, hidden is different than ugly, by the way; that has its own beauty. But if beauty were not a reflection of God, we'd never have the regal, majestical beauty of Christian paintings, sculpture, architecture, music, literature, poetry, etc. And yes, I do think it trickles down to how one dresses and even decorates one's home. I don't mean expensive necessarily nor do I mean luxurious, I just mean not ugly. Avoid ugly.

~Duchess Satin

Red Cardigan said...

I don't know, your grace. :)

Plenty of female saints have prayed to be made ugly so they could enter the convent without having to displease their parents by refusing to make a really good match.

Plenty of regal saints (St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Margaret of Scotland are two who come to mind) dressed in plain clothes and did humble tasks whenever possible.

I think the babushka is 'ugly' only as compared to a hand-tatted lace veil or stylish modern hat; I'm not suggesting wearing something garish, here.

There is, of course, as commenter Michelle alludes to above, nothing truly "ugly" about a simple peasant woman in her babushka and clunky shoes. She is simply and fittingly attired, even in the house of God.

My Ugly Babushka Test is really only necessary if one is afraid that one's desire either for aesthetic pleasure or visible 'holiness' is inspiring the desire to cover one's head in Church.

diana said...

Oh My Goodness,
I thought I was the only one who thought any of this...

I used to wear a veil but I thought it looked so glamourous that I had to stop...since I was admiring how it made me look, aren't I terrible?
My grandma wore hats to mass and expected to impress others with them. For females this is natural so the Ugly Babushka really is a good test..

lizaanne said...

I've been covering my head for Mass for about a month or so now, and also when I go to the adoration chapel. While I didn't set out to try the ugly babushka test, it just sorta worked out that way.

When I decided to start covering, I didn't have a chapel veil, but thought it was ridiculous to wait till the one I ordered came in the mail. So I dug through the scarf drawer and found a large silk scarf which I tied in the style of a Jewish tiechel, to cover my head as well as my long hair in the back. I felt totally stupid. But I felt it was what I needed to do. And when going to adoration on the spur of the moment, I have often just pulled the hood of my hoodie up over my head, even if I did look like a gang member in white. Then the lace came in the mail, and I was just stunned at the feeling of wearing this in our Lord's presence. I felt as if it was an absolute honor to Him and his angels. Sure - it looks VERY pretty, but it wasn't the point. It never was.

Thanks for a great article!

Anonymous said...

Except that if we applied this same logic to anything else, it'd fail. I mean, what about receiving Our Lord with less than perfect motivation? Some people may receive on the tongue because it is more devout but they may be doing it to win the praises of others. Should they stop doing it unless they can do it for the purest of motives? Even going to Mass could be out of some other reason - i.e. people think I am holy. Well then, like the veil, one better not do it unless they can do it out of perfect motives. It just seems like maybe you think it works well for veils but you'd have to apply it to other practices too at which point it breaks down.

Red Cardigan said...

Interesting comment, anonymous, but I don't agree.

As I said in my post, God certainly can take our imperfect motives and desires and help us grow in holiness. But we should be aware of our own imperfections to the extent that we can be. For instance, if I received the Blessed Sacrament on the tongue at one parish but in the hand at another, there would be good grounds for me to question my motives.

There are things we do in private, and things we do in public. We may pray the rosary, fast, and perform other works of sacrifice, almsgiving, and charity without anyone knowing what we are doing (unless we boast about it, in which case we've already received our reward for doing the work). But the Mass is a public prayer, and the things we do at Mass will therefore be public.

So wearing the veil is a public act, and it's my belief that when we take up voluntary public acts of worship or devotion, we should take a moment to examine our motives in doing so. To go further with your reception of Holy Communion example, suppose someone who has never before knelt to receive Communion starts doing so. It may be that the person has been deeply moved by a Eucharistic homily, or by spending time in perpetual adoration, to the point where he strongly desires to receive our Lord kneeling; or it may be that the person has started reading so-called "Rad Trad" books or websites, and is angry at his bishop, his pastor, his parish, and, really, the whole post-Conciliar church. If the second motive is the true one, I think that though the person believes he has adopted a pious custom from an earlier time, in reality he may be damaging his own soul by acting out of anger and defiance at every Mass he attends, and doing so under a mask of piety!

The reason I require of myself such soul-searching on the question of the veil is that for me it would be a similar act to the hypothetical kneeling example above. My first response on hearing some coercive tactics being used against some more traditional Catholics in California by their pastor AND their bishop was to think that if I lived there, I'd get as many women as I could find to wear headcoverings to this 'liberal' priest's parish, and sit prominently in the front rows, just to make him angry. Obviously, I have a long way to go before I could ever trust myself on the headcovering question.

I'm not for a moment suggesting that all the women who wear headcoverings have to scrutinize their own motives; many are indeed engaging in an act of simply piety out of love for our Lord, with no hidden motives or agendas behind it. But the veil can sometimes cover with a veneer of false submission the head of a woman who speaks ill of her bishop, loudly laments the Council, trades in slander and detraction against those who serve the Church, and pridefully refuses to accept the authority of her priest and her bishop when they don't do exactly what she wants them too, all the time; and I'm very much afraid that that head would be mine.

Red Cardigan said...

Sigh. The pedantic grammar person who lives in my head wants to apologize for the incorrect use of "too" in the final sentence, above. Now I'm going to go drown her with coffee. :)

Anonymous said...

I love this! So completely true- Faith

Ouiz said...

Fascinating article... thank you for this post!

I *do* cover my head at Mass for many reasons. It had been a question that had bothered me for many years, and after not getting what I considered to be a "good enough" answer as to why we stopped covering, I just said, "oh, what the heck..." and just did it.

I also chose to cover because I was having a difficult time with the Eucharist. I believe that it truly is the Body and Blood of Our Lord, but that knowledge and belief has never made it down into my heart... know what I mean? So, as an act of faith, I decided that the best way to deal with this -- other than prayer -- is to act in a more reverential manner, regardless of my "feelings."

And so I cover.

I don't wear a mantilla, however. In my parish I would stick out like a sore thumb, and fear of looking completely ridiculous in the eyes of others (even though I personally think mantillas are beautiful) made me opt for the "straw hat" option.

So, instead of being taken for a "woman of piety," I'm afraid I'm perceived as some sort of fashion misfit who thinks her straw hat matches with everything! lol!

Heidi Hess Saxton said...

"... suppose someone who has never before knelt to receive Communion starts doing so. It may be that the person has been deeply moved by a Eucharistic homily, or by spending time in perpetual adoration, to the point where he strongly desires to receive our Lord kneeling; or it may be that the person has started reading so-called "Rad Trad" books or websites, and is angry at his bishop, his pastor, his parish, and, really, the whole post-Conciliar church. If the second motive is the true one, I think that though the person believes he has adopted a pious custom from an earlier time, in reality he may be damaging his own soul by acting out of anger and defiance at every Mass he attends, and doing so under a mask of piety!"

I enjoyed this article very much... but it was this quote that really caught my attention. Thanks.

Catholisaurus said...

As a very recent convert, I have been reading about and pondering head-covering. I don't know anyone in the church yet I would feel comfortable enough talking to about this yet, so I decided I would do some googling. However, I was getting SO dishearted and upset by the heated and angry arguments that I felt were centered around a) whether it is or is not Canon Law or b) whether women need to be responsible for the wandering eyes of men.

Whew! Imagine my relief when I came across your post. THANK YOU for being a voice of reason and addressing a core issue: why am I pondering this and will it strengthen my relationship with God? Now I am off to ponder some more ... :)