Wednesday 17 June 2009

Faith and Practice : Head Covering

After writing a little bit about the tradition (or rather, obligation) of Friday Penance, I inteded to write a little about the tradition of women covering their heads in prayer, and men uncovering. However, I've decided instead to merely collate some texts that are written with more eloquence than I could hope to reproduce myself.

As I mentioned in my last post, head covering for women (and uncovering the head for men), is something I have been thinking about a lot recently. Focusing first on head coverings for women, here is a little piece that has been widely reproduced online:

Why Wear the Veil?

In ancient traditions dating back even thousands of years, the “veil” represented purity and modesty in many religions and cultures. A veil, or head covering, is both a symbol and a mystical sacrifice that invites the woman wearing it to ascend the ladder of sanctity.

When a woman covers her head in the Catholic Church it symbolises her dignity and humility before God, not men. It is no surprise women of today have so easily abandoned the tradition of the chapel veil (head covering) when the two greatest meanings of the veil are purity and humility.

The woman who covers her head in the presence of the Lord Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is reminding herself that she must be humble before God. As with all outward gestures, if it is practised enough it filters down into the heart and is translated into actions that speak volumes. The “veil” covers what the Lord calls, in Holy Scripture, “the glory of the woman”, her hair. Covering her hair is a gesture the woman makes spiritually to “show” God she recognises her beauty is less than His and His Glory is far above hers.

In doing this she is reminded that virtues cannot grow in the soul without a great measure of humility. So she wears the veil to please God and remind herself to practice virtue more ardently.

There is no other piece of clothing a woman may wear to serve this function. The veil symbolically motivates the woman to “bow” her head in prayer, to lower her eyes before the great and mysterious beauty and power of God in the Blessed Sacrament. By the bowing of her head and lowering of her eyes, she is more able to worship God in the interior chapel of her heart and soul.

The veil or head covering a woman wears gives a beautiful sense of dignity to a woman. When she wears it, she identifies herself with God’s greatest creation, the Blessed and Immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of God. There was none on earth that loved and loves the Lord Jesus more than the Blessed Virgin Mary. In her love, her humility breathed forth like sweet scented incense before God. The veil she wore symbolised her purity, modesty and of course her profound humility and submission before and to God Almighty.Those women who love Jesus must come to realise the imitation of His Mother in wearing a chapel veil (head covering) and in other virtues is a small sacrifice to make in order to grow in spiritual understanding of purity, humility and love.

The covering of a woman’s head in Church is a striking reminder of modesty, something all but lost in the society of today. Modesty and purity walk hand in hand.

When a woman veils her head she is shielding her heart to be wooed by the love of God in the Blessed Sacrament. This is a mystical ‘country’ that only the Eternal Father may enter. Her veil is like the lighted lamps of the virgins waiting for the Bridegroom, an indication that she is prepared to receive Him at a moment’s notice; an aureole of her spiritual love for the Bridegroom. Wearing the veil is an act of love of God.

Why should a woman wear a head covering or veil in church? Not to be praised, not to go along, not for tradition’s sake, not to stand out in the crowd, not because you say or I say or anybody says…But because she loves our Eucharistic Lord Jesus and it is another small sacrifice she may offer for her soul’s sake and for the sake of many souls who have no one to offer for them. Amen.
(Sr Patricia Therese, OPB)

While I think the tone of this piece might be a bit much for many women, one thing that comes out of it very well is the fact that covering the head is an external manifestation of an interior piety. It is not, and should never be, enforced from without, by men or by women, but rather it comes from within, from the Christian woman's own soul.

One thing this piece doesn't deal with is the actual scriptural basis for headcovering, which is found in Corinthians. I hand you over to the blogger Catholic Knight:

The Scriptural case for the chapel veil...

1st Corinthians 11:2-16

I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you...

The tradition of the chapel veil comes from Christ, by way of the Holy Spirit, through St. Paul, for Paul mentions later in this same epistle: "What I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized." - 1st Corinthians 14:37-38 St. Paul commends the Corinthians for keeping the chapel veil tradition, among other traditions, and then he continues in chapter 11...

....But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God...

Here we have the central point of misunderstanding. This verse has been misused time and time again as a means of male superiority. Not only is this a misreading of the text, but it completely misses an important theological point Paul is trying to make. This chapter of Corinthians is entirely Eucharistic, in the sense that it centers around the Eucharistic celebration (or the mass). The following verses (17-34) deal entirely with the celebration of Holy Communion. When Paul says the head of every man is Christ, what he's saying is that Christ came in the form of a man. He's making a statement about the incarnation. He's saying that Christ came in human form, and because of this, the man becomes a physical representation of Christ -- particularly if he is a husband. When he says the head of every woman is her husband, he is not saying that women are inferior to men in any way. What he's saying is that if a husband becomes the physical representation of Christ's incarnation, than his wife becomes the physical representation of Christ's spouse -- or the Church. When Paul says "husband" here, he is referring both to earthly husbands, and to Christ himself. That being the case, wives take on the symbolic role of the Church. Paul continues in chapter 11...

...Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head...

Again, this goes straight back to the incarnation. All of this is a symbol of what we Catholic Christians believe about Christ, his incarnation, and the Eucharist. Paul tells us that if a man covers his head during mass, he dishonors his spiritual "head" which is Christ. In other words, a man who covers his head during mass dishonors Christ, because his action of veiling himself sends the physical statement that Christ was not incarnate as a man. The woman, on the other hand, representing the Church, ought to cover her head because if she believes that Christ is truly incarnate, she should veil herself as a sign that the Church has been made holy by Christ as his spouse. In doing so she honors Christ as a symbol of his sanctification on the Church. She also honors her husband with a physical sign that he represents Christ, because Christ came in the form of a man. The chapel veil is a sign of holiness because Christ has made his Church holy, and women represent the Church as the "bride" of Christ. It is a sign that the Church is covered and under Christ's protection. This is the symbolism of the Church's relationship to Christ. It is not so much a statement of a particular woman's holiness, but rather the Church's holiness. Paul continues...

-- it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil...

Here Paul is really laying it on thick, and he has good reason. He's trying to convey a big theological point. Customs in the church are not the result of random happenstance. These things exist for a reason. Under the Old Covenant, both Jewish men and women covered their heads during worship, but the early Jewish Christians changed that custom for a reason. They wanted to make this practice of veiling a symbol of Christ's incarnation, like they did with so many other Jewish traditions, and as Paul mentions in chapter 14 (cited above) these things are not trivial man-made customs, they came from the Holy Spirit Himself. Here Paul is telling us that it is shameful for a Christian woman not to cover her head during mass, and he is using an illustration from antiquity that has to do with punishment. In ancient times, women would have their heads shaved publicly as punishment for lack of modesty. It was a form of public humiliation. Here Paul is not advocating the shaving of a woman's head for refusing to wear the chapel veil, but rather, he is trying to convey the seriousness of the imagery. When a Christian woman refuses to do this, she is in effect saying (though perhaps not intentionally) that Christ was not incarnate in the form of a man. Granted, in modern times this is almost certainly not the intention of any woman who refuses to veil during mass, but what Paul is telling us here is that every custom in the Church has meaning, and because of that, failure to keep those customs also has meaning, whether one intends to convey that meaning or not. It's sort of like bowing, kneeling or genuflecting before the Eucharist for example. Catholics do these things in mass for a reason, and that reason is to stress the real presence of Christ in the blessed sacrament. In practice, we are bowing, kneeling and genuflecting before our God and King, whom we profess to be really and truly present in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. That being the case, if one fails to bow, kneel and genuflect, what kind of signal does that send to those around him/her? One may not intend to send any signals of disrespect, but invariably one can, whether one intends to or not. The custom of the chapel veil has similar significance. Paul continues....

...For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.) That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels....

Here we have another commonly abused passage. Again, Paul is not trying to bolster male dominance here. Remember, we have to keep the context of this chapter in mind, and the context of 1st Corinthians 11 is the Eucharistic celebration. Paul calls man the "image and glory of God" for one reason and one reason only -- because Jesus Christ (who is God) was made incarnate as a man. Then he expounds on this by pointing out that the woman is the "glory of man" (or mankind). This is meant to be a complement. Of the two human genders, women are far more "glorious" then men in their appearance, beauty, voice, fashion and general gracefulness. The hair was considered a woman's crowing glory in Biblical times (Song of Songs 6:5). Beyond that, women bear the special gift of motherhood. In that, God touches them in a way no man has ever experienced. The Scriptures tell us that God Himself fashions the unborn child in the womb, and plants a living human soul inside the body of a women when she becomes pregnant (Psalm 139:13-16). In this way, God touches the body of a woman in a way he never touches a man's body. This makes the woman's body a sacred vessel of God's creative powers. It is something that is particularly holy, and must be respected as such. It is no wonder why women are called the "fairer sex." Paul is agreeing with that here. However, Paul is also reminding women not to get too prideful. He reminds them of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, where the woman is made to complement the man, and not vice versa. Now we learn that the chapel veil is also a sign of personal humility in addition to the Church's holiness. The woman not only covers her head as a sign of her belief in a incarnation, not only to show how Christ has made his Church holy, but also to cover her "glory," as a sign of humility to show that she is not vain or overly proud of her womanhood and beauty. The veil or headcovering is a symbol of the woman's acceptance of her role in society, the family, and the Church, in accordance with God's will. It is an imitation of the Virgin Mary, who wore such a headcovering.
Then St. Paul says something very curious. He says the woman ought to veil her head during mass "because of the angels." Paul tells us that the angels participate with us during mass, and this is reinforced by the writings of St. John: "And another angel came and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense that he might offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which is before the throne." (Revelation 8:3, see also Matt. 18:10). The angels watch everything that is going on during mass, as they participate in the same liturgy we do. They are also well aware of the customs of the Church and what they mean -- even the custom of veiling. Angels are offended when we ignore or refuse to follow any liturgical custom, whether it be failing to kneel or veil in the presence of our Eucharistic Lord.

...(Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.)...

If ever there was a verse to counter the abuse of male dominance, this is it. If ever there was a verse to prove that St. Paul was not a male chauvinist, this is it. Paul follows his previous verse, reminding women to be humble, with this verse, reminding men to be humble too. He doesn't want the men to use what he just wrote as a means of beating down the women in a form of male superiority. He is reminding the men that they are not superior to the women, but rather fully dependent on them, and that both genders come from God. One cannot be "better" than the other. Then he continues with some rhetorical questions to back his point...

...Judge for yourselves; is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her pride? For her hair is given to her for a covering....

Paul is not prohibiting hair styles here. To focus on hair styles is to miss the point. Paul is simply asking a few rhetorical questions based on popular culture. In most cultures women have longer hair then men, and when they do, it usually looks better. He's saying that when a woman has long hair it usually looks beautiful, and when a man has long hair, it usually looks a little odd. In some cultures, long hair is considered a sign of femininity. So if a man has long hair, it looks feminine in those cultures, and that is "degrading" to him. What Paul is doing here is he's appealing to nature. He's saying; "Look, even mother nature teaches us the same lesson. She gives women long hair as a covering and it looks good and proper on them." Then he concludes with this interesting verse...

...If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God.

Some Bible versions have mistranslated this verse to say "we recognize no such practice, nor do the churches of God." This mistranslation is often used to negate the previous first half of the chapter. In other words, those who abuse such mistranslations say that Paul spent half a chapter, explaining a deep theological principle pertaining to a custom he applauds the Corinthians for keeping, only to say in this last verse that they really don't need to keep it. Such interpretations are silliness. The proper translation is rendered here as "we recognize no other practice." Here Paul is telling the Corinthians not to get too contentious over the chapel veil custom, because he's not going to burden them with anything else beyond that. He's not going to tell men and women how to dress. He's not going to tell them what kind of a veil they should wear, or how they should wear it. He's simply saying that this is the custom as it is practiced in the "churches of God" and they recognize no other practice beyond this.

So the chapel veil has nothing to do with male dominance. It has nothing to do with subjecting women under male authority. It has everything to do with Christ's incarnation, and the real presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

Amen. I think this piece deals very well with some parts of scripture which many of us these days have difficulty applying to our lives. Notice that this passage also contains an instruction for men to uncover during prayer, and I'd like to dwell on that for a little, considering how, aside from the biblical injunction, uncovering the head influences our approach to worship as social and cultural beings.

Until very recently, the hat was widely seen as a sign of man's place in society. Indeed it was for some, an essential aspect of manhood ; no self-respecting Victorian gent would leave home without his hat. Similarly, the flat cap of the working classes was something worn with pride as a symbol of rootedness in the cherished social order. It is only since the 1960s that men have given up on the hat. However, vestiges of this social conditioning remain. Everyday I see scores of teenagers wearing baseball caps, even when travelling on the underground and even inside buildings. Additionally, these baseball caps are worn with the shiny black and gold 59fifty label still attached (something to do with the hat being brand-new as an overt display of wealth). These same teenagers often wear their hoods up, or when it is too hot to wear a hoody, they wear the hood over their cap and let the rest of the garment hang down their back. This is something I have never seen girls do, presumably because of their extravagant hairstyles which don't allow for hair to be covered by a hat. This might be jauntily placed pony-tails, or braids, but anything as long as it's elaborate and features plenty of gaudily-coloured hair ties.!

If we assume then, from this most current of examples, that the normative fashion is for boys to cover their heads and girls to uncover them as a sign of social status and in conformity with prevailing worldly fashion, should we be surprised, then, that the church demands that we do the opposite in our worship? On entering the church building, we are coming into the presence of God, and the appropriate response to that divine presence is to relinquish our worldly social order in exchange for God's order, and scripture asks us to make this one concession for the Glory of God.

Ah! But what about the Biretta, you might ask. Well, it is true that this piece of headwear stands out as being permitted, formally required, to be worn at certain points during the Mass. The priest is directed to come to the Altar covered, and to cover there, and to resume the Biretta when seated and when in procession. Bishops also wear the Zuchetto, or skullcap, as part of their choir dress. In both cases, however, the head is uncovered during the most solemn moments of the Mass ; to hear the Holy gospel, and during the consecration of the elements and communion. The Biretta or Zuchetto is only worn as a mark of office when that is required: the priest as teacher, in some places, wears the Biretta when preaching.

After considering these points, the opportunity to worship God in the simple act of covering or uncovered the head seems too precious to pass up. So why do we not more readily do so? I remember serving at High Mass one Sunday morning in winter, and a member of the serving team arrived late. Since he had a shaved head, and the church was only just heating up, he left his woollen beanie hat on. Under the swelling notes of the Gloria, I saw our priest beckon an acolyte over to the sedilia and then send him over to the offending congregant to demand that he remove his hat. If we are so strict in the rare cases that a man enters the church with a hat on, why are we so reluctant to encourage women to cover their heads? Whenever my hair is long, I regret it most when serving at Mass, because if I serve as Subdeacon and wear the Biretta, it seems to inappropriate to uncover my head and still have to worry about arranging my hair again, and I wish it were already shaved. There are so many small things we can do to worship God, let's not pass up on the traditional practice of millenia for the sake of our own embarrasment or attachment to social norms and trends.


  1. Well written and put together articles - can you add a link to the sources? I so appreciate your comments here.

  2. I don't know where the one by Sister Patricia came from. Catholic Knight wrote the second one is at

  3. In the church of my boyhood, this was more strictly enforced on boys than girls. Most women covered their heads but young girls were often allowed to go without their lids on. If, however, a boy entered the church with his hat/cap on, nobody would have hesitated for a moment to require its removal. It was just the done thing.

    What's interesting when you vsit a few places where head-coverings for women are simply the accepted norm, you begin to notice trends. For instance, my childhood parish usually saw hats serving this purpose, while women at my current parish usually wear headscarves. Our cathedral seems to have something of a bandana culture. Yet the faith and piety behind this remain the same.

    Here is a quotation from an Orthodox lady in America, which I used on the visitors' section of my parish website, which I think is apt here:

    I cover my head in church. Usually, I wear a hat. Occasionally it's a headscarf, (particularly at presanctified liturgies during Great Lent - scarves stay in place better than hats when you're doing lots of prostrations).

    I do it because St Paul seemed to think that the angels would prefer that I do. I don't know why angels care, but since St Paul may have met some angels, (presuming he was the man caught up into the heavens), and I haven't, I'm willing to take his word for it. It seems a very small thing to do for them. And if it turns out they don't care after all, it has done me no harm.

    I really don't think there's much that can be added to that.

  4. Frankly, I still have yet to see a woman with a veil at an Anglo-Catholic service. I have though at a RC Tridentine Mass I attended where the majority of the ladies – young and old – did admirably wear head coverings. The men present were in formal attire.

    Perhaps amongst AC’s, that women should wear veils too belongs to days long gone – the days of the quaint – but still wonderful - drawings of the Mass from the book ‘Pictures of the English Liturgy’ (1916, by The Society of Saints Peter and Paul) which I’m sure many here are familiar with. At least one illustration (‘The Communion of the People’ in vol. 2) has a parishioner in a full long veil at the rail. In this 21st century world of ours, unless such accessories suddenly become a new fashion trend outside of worship (perhaps popularized by Lady Gaga no less!), we regrettably won’t be seeing them at our AC Masses.

    Even if such things are of little concern to people nowadays, I wish there was at least some care in how they dress to church in general. It’s unfortunate how many go to services looking like they just came from the beach or from playing football. One Mass I went to had a guy wearing a t-shirt with a Superman logo. He stuck out like a sore thumb but seemed oblivious to the fact.

    We needn’t go to extremes like some Tridentine churches I read about in the United States which actually enforce a strict dress code with the priest allowed to deny Communion to ‘transgressors’. This is unnecessary if parishioners would just show a little common sense.

    By dressing appropriately, one shows respect for the sacred ministers conducting Mass, and reverence for the Church, particularly for Our Redeemer present in the Blessed Sacrament. One wouldn’t hesitate to look one’s best when attending a court of law for example, or meeting a dignitary. But why then do some of us fall short when approaching Him who is the Supreme Judge and the King of Kings? The slobs amongst us could learn a thing or two about propriety from the Tridentine Catholics.

  5. Those unfamiliar with the superb drawings from ‘Pictures of the English Liturgy’ can view them at:

    Correction to my previous post: Vol. 1 also has the lady with the veil (in the taking of Communion picture).