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.