Monday, July 12, 2010

Where the Wimple Went

Reviewing childhood memories the other day, Brigitte and I remembered nuns with ordinary as well as showy headdress… Our discussion gradually evolved into this post, and with each layer lifted, as it were, the process became more fascinating. That’s life. Look at anything at all, pull on any string, and it will unravel reality.

But let me start with the simple object, our focus, the head-covering of nuns. It’s called the wimple (sometimes spelled whimple). It can be and sometimes is a quite elaborate garment in which a tight-fitting cap (a coif) is the inner portion and the wimple is the scarf-like outer portion; the most elaborate wimple, the cornette, is a highly starched item supported by an internal framing made of wire or wicker.

Let me next walk you through the collage I present for illustration. Top row, left to right: The first image is that of the best known nun or our times, whose name needs no mention, the foundress of the Missionaries of Charity; that order did not exist when I was born. Next is a Sistertian nun, shown first in her formal habit and, next, in her working clothes. In order thereafter are shown a group of Carmelite nuns in Spain, a Benedictine sister reading, a Carmelite sister in Austria, and sisters of Our Lady of Sion engaged in making candles.

Second row: The first two images are Benedictine nuns, again, with a differently fashioned wimple, and a group shot of Sistertians, showing both white and black wimples. Next comes a painting depicting the cornette, the very object we were remembering from childhood. It turns out that this is the headwear—but not the only headwear—of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. This order is known in shorter form as the Sisters of Charity. The last image shows the variety of wimples worn by Sisters of Charity; a closer look shows three kinds.

Third row: We start with an image of Franciscan nuns at a cookout. Do not assume that ladies without wimples aren’t nuns. The fading of the wimple is part of the subject of this post—below. Next comes an Ursuline nun, and next to her a Passionist sister. And then comes another photo of a group of Sisters of Charity at the Washington DC airport saying good-bye to some of their sisters bound for a conference in Africa. Their cornettes appear like wings—as if they were about to take flight too. Then, for good balance, I thought I’d show the interesting headwear, or lack thereof, worn by Buddhist sisters. If the sun shines hotly, however, the Asian umbrella is there for support.

The wimple’s origin? In medieval times married women were not supposed to display their hair; they appeared in public covered, usually by a scarf. On special occasions special hats appeared—and hats like the cornette were often worn on festivals. When a woman takes her vows and becomes a nun, she assumes the married state—not in any literal but in a symbolic sense of total dedication of her life to God. Apart from the uniformity of the clothing worn by each order, in medieval times, nuns looked like ordinary married women. They became more sharply visible only as fashions outside of convents changed more rapidly than inside.

If all this reminds us of controversies swirling over Muslim female modes of dress, it simply points to the fact the Muslim culture is younger than our own. Matters of formal propriety still matter in that culture. Things began to change within Catholicism after the Second Ecumenical Council (1962-1965) ended. This council, known as Vatican II, was actually the twenty-first such council in Catholic history, but the second in modern times. The first took place in 1868-1870. Vatican II had a liberalizing tendency, intent on changes to put the church in closer contact with the surrounding world in communications, in missionary outreach, in ecumenical contacts. Bishops form the councils and issue constitutions, decrees, and declarations. Nine decrees emerged from Vatican II. Of those one, Perfectae Caritatis (Perfect Love) dealt with priests and religious orders. And, folks, one paragraph in that decree came to be interpreted in a rather curious way. The paragraph is short enough to be worth citing. Here it is in full:

17. The religious habit, an outward mark of consecration to God, should be simple and modest, poor and at the same becoming. In addition it must meet the requirements of health and be suited to the circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry involved. The habits of both men and women religious which do not conform to these norms must be changed.
The phrase that came to be interpreted, here and there, but mostly here, in the United States, as justification for dropping the uniform habit of nuns is this set of words: suited to the circumstance…and the needs of the ministry involved. The language is rather too vague and the eagerness to embrace winds of liberalization were too tempting for many orders. They abandoned the habit, more or less—the old could keep wearing it, the younger nuns took off the wimple. They also sometimes shifted their ministry away from the traditional teaching and hospital work; the notion of a sequestered life in seclusion and prayer gave way to life in the world. Nuns got apartments, wore civvies, and, as it were, began to do their thing.

That paragraph above reveals me, paradoxically, as unhappy with Vatican II. Paradoxically? Yes, under certain liberal interpretation of that Council even I would qualify as a Catholic in good standing. But I’m actually a Catholic in bad standing who thinks that that’s ridiculous. What can I do?

But to resume. Female vocations dropped off sharply after Vatican II. This was blamed on all sorts of things except the most probable cause, thus on the rise of feminism, the decay of religion, better opportunities for women, etc., etc. The truth is that a woman seeking a life of prayer and service no longer found what she saw as resembling the reality she sought—and the absence of the wimple served as a symbol of many other things.

But things do change. Female vocations have begun to rise again. And not surprisingly (for me) the orders attracting women are precisely those that did not abandon the traditional ways, habits—and the wimple. Currently a Vatican investigation is in process to examine at the convent level how the nuns have interpreted Vatican II in both practical and theological terms. This is causing another uproar yet within the body of Catholicism, with those damning and those praising the investigation to either side of the great chasm. Worse things have shaken this ancient institution. It will all work out. And looking at the approaching darkness, things, I think, will become much more traditional. At least that's where nuns with vocations are headed…

For the record. There are 59,000 nuns in the United States according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, based in Georgetown University. And I jotted down a number a while back for the global population of Catholic nuns from another Georgetown source I cannot trace. It suggests that there are nearly two female for every male religious, thus 776,000 nuns the world over and 460,000 priests and brothers.

Long live the wimple. It was my introduction to the “greater world” in childhood.


  1. And not surprisingly (for me) the orders attracting women are precisely those that did not abandon the traditional ways, habits—and the wimple.

    What they did not abandon:prayer.the divine office, communal living, obedience and hunility. The preservation of the habit is the manifestation of these things...