For my entire Catholic life (and then some) I have been aware of the practice of women covering their heads during Mass. I converted to Catholicism straight into a TLM community – so I had never really been exposed to women not wearing a mantilla. It was just a normality for me. It wasn’t until I started attending daily Mass at a local parish nearby my house that I became aware of how uncommon veiling actually is in the wider culture.
Every so often, I get questions about my mantilla – more along the lines of “What is that thing on your head?” than genuine curiosity, but nevertheless it opens up a line of communication to explain such a beautiful treasure of Catholic tradition!
So, why do I wear a mantilla in the presence of God? Well there are three general reasons for which I can explain.
Traditionally, men take off their hats before entering into the Presence of Our Lord. Why? Because it is an outward sign of respect. It’s still a common custom and we don’t question that, right? Well, in the same manner, women have traditionally covered their heads as a sign respect.
How is this respectful? Reverence.
First and foremost, when we walk into church we need to remember that God is present there: Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. When I walk into a church, whether I’m headed there for Mass or just popping in for a few minutes of prayer, it’s often easy to forget I’m entering into a different world – so to speak. I mean… externally, it’s just a few footfalls over the threshold and into the first pew I make contact with. However, during the entire minute and a half it takes me to stop… pull my mantilla out… put it on… I actually have time to prepare myself to enter into a sanctuary…
Into the Presence of Our Lord.
But it doesn’t stop there. The entire time I’m praying, I’m constantly reminded of where I am because I’m wearing my mantilla. This is an act of reverence – to remember and actively acknowledge our Lord’s Presence. We do this in other ways too! Such as genuflecting as we cross in front of the tabernacle or even smaller habits like maintaining a reverent silence in church or just conducting ourselves as if we are… well… in the presence of a King.
The number one reason I have encountered for why other women dislike my mantilla is that they don’t want to be put down or ashamed. Why would anybody consent to covering themselves anyways?
From a practical and cultural point of view, I think this hits home when we realize we are not only covering our head – but our hair. Women take pride in their hair. We do and we can’t deny it. It’s why we spend a gazillion hours straightening it, curling it, brushing it, braiding it, cutting it to different styles… just making sure it’s perfect before we leave the house. Our hair is beautiful and it’s an inexplicable part of being feminine. I’ve often been told that my hair or hairstyle is too beautiful to be covered and I should be showing it off.
However, when we cover our hair in the Lord’s presence, we’re letting go of all that and essentially giving Him, and only Him, the beauty of our hair and all the work we’ve done to make it presentable. In a sense, it’s an act of humility to do so since we are telling God that He is more important than our vanity.
Further – it’s not like we’re covering ourselves with a dirty sackcloth. Lace mantillas or a pretty scarf offer a beauty of their own. Which I think is something that has been sorely missing from the Catholic laity since people started attending Mass in jeans and a t-shirt.
- Embracing Femininity
While many women have made comments against covering their hair, often times the issue goes a little bit deeper. In today’s world, which is bent on equality between men and women, saying women should cover themselves sounds like something we should be ashamed of. That we’re “hiding” or “not worthy” to be in the Lord’s presence because of our inferiority to men. However, it’s actually quite the opposite.
In masculinity and femininity we compliment each other by being different, not unequal. Specifically, as women, we are special because of our ability to give life – almost sacred even.
“This awesomeness before the mystery manifests itself in a woman’s timidity… In a man, the mystery is revealed in chivalry to women, not because he believes that woman is physically weaker, but because of the awe he feels in the presence of mystery.” — Fulton Sheen
The timidity we display in veiling ourselves in the presence of God is not a shameful acceptance of inferiority, rather a modest embrace of the sacred mystery of our femininity.
Church tradition often veils what is sacred. Just think: The Ark of the Covenant, the ciborium in the tabernacle… the Blessed Virgin Mary. All are sacred vessels containing the living presence of God.
“When attending Mass or in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, a woman covers her head because she is a life-bearing vessel. Life-bearing vessels are veiled because they are sacred. By divine decree, the source and summit of all life was once in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The incarnation, God’s great shout out to motherhood, is the climax of creation.” — (from this article)
Of course – I’m not trying to equate women and the Ark of the Covenant on the same degree of “sacredness”. However, in the same manner that the Church has used veils to cover sacred vessels, so does the Church give us the tradition of using veils, mantillas, or other head coverings in the Presence of God as a recognition of our sacred femininity.
So why do I practice veiling in the Presence of God? My simple and elegant triangle of lace offers a beautiful opportunity to express reverence towards God, humbly offer my pride and vanity, and embrace the sacredness of femininity; not only as a personal devotion, but also as a reminder for others.
If you are considering wearing a mantilla at Mass or adoration – oh, how I would encourage you in such a devotion!! While it may seem like a daunting counter-cultural movement, not complete without odd stares and accusations of false piety, just remember we are only bringing back a tradition the Church had retained for hundreds of years for very good reason.
Guys – As a side note, I can’t express the value of encouragement from men. For those outside of a TLM community, often there is little to no support or even quite negative reactions from other women. One could imagine it’s quite unnatural for women to encourage other women to wear a mantilla when they don’t even wear one themselves. I know that guys seem to run in the opposite direction whenever a “women’s issue” arises; but to me, one comment of encouragement and support from one guy is worth 1,000 comments from other women. So don’t be afraid to let us know what you think!
St. Maria Goretti and St. Mary Magdalene, oráte pro nobis!