Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The fashion obsession: learning from Benedictine sisters

My husband likes to shop for new clothing; it's just true. It isn't uncommon for me to see him emerge from the bedroom, dressed for the day, in something completely new, something I've not yet seen. Then with a, "When'd you get that?" he grins softly and proceeds to tell me when, where, and what a good sale it was. Or he'll tell me he's been looking for a shirt just like this one for so long... and I give him a hard time.

But as much grief as I give him, I, too, would love to buy new clothes all the time. I find myself lusting over the latest styles (especially this new hipster-phase we're currently in) and wanting to look put-together, good, fashionable.

Fashion changes frequently for a reason - because people buy into it, because we like to please each other. We'll take the newest fashions because we like them... or because the world tells us to like them. I'm not sure which is true.

Today, however, I'm learning something from the perspective of the many different Benedictine sisters (that's right, they're not all alike!) around the world. Apparently, there was a point in the past few decades when the sisters were "freed" from having to wear the cumbersome, long, black habit (think, tent-like dress), and you can imagine that many abandoned it with gladness. (*For more on this, read the chapter entitled "Women and the habit: a not-so-glorious dilemma" in Kathleen Norris', The Cloister Walk)

Yet, despite this freedom, this chapter highlights glimpses of the more pure reasons for the habit, at least some form of the habit, and the many good things it stands for, the things it helps the sisters reject. See this:

"...some sisters feel that to express themselves as women, they need to wear bright colors, make-up, and jewelry, but I have a hard time with this. Even if we're not spending much money, the fact that our nice clothes are hand-me-downs from the second-hand store isn't obvious to others. I wonder if we've bought too much into what society holds up to us as beautiful and acceptable in a women." (p.325)

Or consider this symbol of the habit, and beyond that, how it practically leads a sister (and this applies to monks, as well) in the choices she makes about fashion:

"I am most interested in monastic dress as a form of renunciation, a sign that one is not preoccupied with fashion and possessions." (p.327, emphasis mine)

And finally, something I'm keeping before me all day, these words from the perspective of the author, who isn't a lifelong sister, but has spent much time in short-term residences with the Benedictines:

"'Thank God for the things I do not own,' said Teresa of Avila.
I could suddently grasp that not ever having to think about what to wear was freedom, that a drastic stripping down to essentials in one's dress might also be a drastic enrichment of one's ability to focus on more important things." (p.328, emphasis mine)

Thank God for the voice of the Benedictines.

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