Your Wife is Wearing What? Men, Veils, and the Mystery of Femininity

mantilla1-1The strangest thing happened a few months ago. My wife covered her head during Mass. I’ll never forget the moment when I first glanced up to see her noble cranium veiled in a strange and beautiful cut of lace. Whoa.

Years earlier, my good friend Sam (the man behind the wheel of this Catholic Gentleman rig) had the same experience. One day he looks up from his prayers and…whoa. His bride’s head—the land of the free, the home of the brave—is covered over in nothing less than that medieval throwback, the mantilla.

What should a Catholic man do when his wife starts wearing a chapel veil? What will people say? What if people in the neighboring pew think you’re a misogynist pig? What if the aging nuns, the ones who worked so hard to get out of the habit, throw you nasty glares during the passing of the peace? They know all about fellas like you. Head coverings can be as dangerous a subject for men as women, and so it’s a good idea to know what they’re all about.

You’ve probably heard it before. Chapel veils are the sexist leftovers of a chauvinistic Church, St. Paul was blinded by his bigoted culture, yadda yadda. The women who cover their heads during worship probably have husbands who think they ought always to be pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen. No one will come out and say it straight, but the social bubble that will suddenly surround your family sends the message: you are a nasty, brutish caveman, and if your wife were not so submissive and weak she’d leave you faster than you can say “First Corinthians Eleven.”

But this is the thing that every Catholic husband and father needs to remember: being pregnant is awesome, and so is cooking—more awesome than your so-called “career.” Blessed are they who get to make a home in cities all too familiar with homelessness, who get to prepare delicious food in a nation of fast food, who get to bear little men and women made in the image of God, made to bring glory to the most adorable Trinity.

How can you—a mere male who will never experience first-hand stretch marks or dizzy spells or how generally miserable and disturbing and awful pregnancy can be—claim that being pregnant is awesome? Because of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Because God sanctified a womb in Nazareth. Now, no one wants to belittle or disregard the difficulty of pregnancy with a tidy theological quip, but the reason why pregnancy is awesome is because the eternal Son of God became a Son of Adam, born of a daughter of Eve. Because Mary is the sign of the Church, the Bride of Christ, and because every single woman is also a sign.

Some signs are cheap and disposable, like the Banana Republic ads that suggest that a briefcase is power, that having a family is a threat to personhood, that you should look as thin and edible as a Slim Jim. But other signs are woven into the very fabric of the universe, inviolate and inviolable, and a woman is such a sign. The Blessed Virgin Mary reminds us that a mother does not “make” a home. A mother is home. Eve is the height of creation because she is a prophecy of the New Eve, the Mother of the Church, the Virgin Mary—and in all her statues and icons, Mary is wearing a veil.

And you need to know why. Because when the angry accusations get hurtled at you or your better half, as important as it is to be gentle, it’s also important to speak the truth in love. When it comes to chapel veils, it’s only too easy to forget the forest for the trees. But head coverings only make sense in light of the big picture of sin and clothing and the dignity of the human person.

Sexual object or sacred vessel?

You see, Satan wants to strip us of our humanity, and he uses nakedness to do it. A naked Jewish woman is surrounded by countless other naked Jewish women, all dehumanized in universal nakedness, all standing at attention in an open square surrounded by low sheds. Soldiers smirk, dehumanized in uniforms, and point at the new arrivals. When you affirm the dignity of a woman or a man you keep their clothes on. If you wish to honor a woman, especially, you give her something to put on, a necklace or earrings, cozy slippers or a cardigan. You do not strip her naked.

God was the first fashion designer. In the beginning, we were naked and not ashamed; but in this fallen world, nakedness is a twisted version of what it was meant to be. So in his mercy “God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). Clothing is a reminder of our dignity, our nobility. And head coverings are the supreme adornment, the finest raiment, the boldest testimony to why God made us clothes in the first place.

Some forms of feminism have seen children and commitment as a kind of bondage. Birth control, no-fault divorce, and a pornographic attitude about sex have freed women from the captivity of children and commitment. They have freed not only women, but also men. In fact, mostly men.

The modern man moves from one woman to the next, from one one-night stand to another, a new body in his bed for every new phase of life. All are kissed in the same way, stroked in the same way. There is no division between one body and every other body. But when you line up a thousand naked bodies, the bodies become identical and meaningless. They become just one of the many in line. The women he beds do not have the right to shame (to be “naked and not ashamed” and “having the right to shame” are not the same thing). Your naked body is just like every other naked body.

But a woman is not an appliance. The fruitfulness of her body reminds us that she ought not to be used and then discarded. Her breasts and womb remind us that human life—not robotic or aquatic or alien life—but human life means children and commitment. In Catholic marriage, all naked bodies are not equal. Man and wife come to each other to make their bodies extraordinary, irreplaceable, fruitful. In Catholic marriage, we give the gift of positive shame (that is, we guard or cover what is worthy of honor and respect), the gift of priceless-ness, one-of-a-kind-ness. We recognize that we are made in the image of God, made to bring glory to the Trinity.

God wants to reclaim our humanity, and he’s using clothes to do it. Ever since the Fall, clothes have reminded us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made; and ever since the Cross, veils have reminded us that we have been re-made and washed in the blood of the Lamb.

Satan hates veils. He hates everything for which they stand. For head coverings are the supreme expression of our dignity, our nobility. Just read Revelation 19:7. The Church is getting ready for a wedding! Christ has adorned his Bride in beautiful raiment beyond all reckoning!

So when St. Paul talks about head coverings having something to do with the angels, and the head of a woman being the man, and the head of a man being Christ, do not pull out some “emperor’s new clothes” feminist theory. In the name of freedom, countless women have been swindled into walking around naked, or nearly naked, thinking they are dressed. They parade past the noisy throng, consisting mostly of men (who aren’t exactly complaining), while somewhere in the crowd the Christ-child tugs on his Mother’s sleeve: “But they aren’t wearing anything at all!”

I was naked, and you clothed me

It’s a big mistake to think that the number one reason the mighty women of yore adorned their heads with lace was to prevent men from lust. Chapel veils, or mantillas (manta means “mantle” or “cloak”), are beautiful pieces of black or white lace draped over a woman’s head as a reminder to the world that God was born of a woman, that God has betrothed himself to his Church, and the Church is a sacred vessel. God can touch a woman in a way he cannot touch a man. He can fill her with life. The number one reason why head coverings are awesome is because only sacred vessels are veiled, and women are sacred.

In the Old Testament the Ark of the Covenant is veiled behind the curtain because it is holy. In the New Testament, as I have illustrated before, the Virgin Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant to the umpteenth degree. Like the old golden chest, she is a sacred place where the Lord’s presence dwells intimately with his people. Except now, it’s God in the flesh. The God who is everywhere was in Mary, his divine presence radiating out from her, the Light of the World waiting to be born. And this is why Mary is always veiled.

When attending Mass or in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, a woman covers her head because she is a life-bearing vessel. Think about it. The chalice is veiled until the consecration because it holds the living blood of Christ. The ciborium in the tabernacle is veiled between Masses because it holds the living Body of Christ. The monstrance is traditionally covered in a canopy during procession because it holds the living Christ. 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.

Mothers are a menace to the assembly line.

They remind us that we are alive.

This is why Satan hates mothers almost as much as he hates chapel veils. He hates everything for which they stand. Mother’s are an eschatological sign, a reminder that God has not given up on the world. The veil reminds us that God did not leave us naked, shivering in the garden. The veil is a celebration of the fact that the curse has been reversed. We are not our own, we are Christ’s. As his Bride, Mother Church is called to be fruitful and to multiply, preaching the Good News and baptizing, bringing Christ’s life to the world

Crowned in glory

Men, we must never forget that Christ was crowned with bloody thorns so that his Bride might be veiled in spotless white. We were naked in our sins, and he clothed us. From Genesis to Revelation, we do not deserve our Savior’s self-donation, the total, cruciform gift from our Husband and Head Jesus Christ.

When St. Paul talks about head coverings, we need to remember that his understanding of gender and clothing is culture-bound…to the culture of Christ. Everything about being a man or a woman is meant to tell the story of the wedding of Heaven and Earth, Christ and his Bride. Chapel veils help tell the story. Although veils are no longer required for women attending the Novus Ordo Mass, they are still encouraged because they are a reminder of what all of us—men and women together—are by Baptism: the Bride of the Lamb. And the “it’s not required” attitude makes it even more awesome.

So if your wife ever decides she wants to wear a chapel veil, don’t be afraid of the small persecution that might come your way. Take a stand with your better half, and defend what she’s defending: God’s Bride, the Church. What a gift! To be a tiny snapshot of Mary and the Church in the presence of the congregation, in the sacramental Presence of the God. Mantillas are a clarion reminder that gender roles in the culture of Christ are not a power trip, but a love trip. Christ’s head was crowned with thorns so that his Bride’s head might be crowned with stars.

“And the temple of God which is in Heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant appeared…a great sign appeared: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (Rev. 11:19-12:1).

Tyler Blanski is a writer who once possessed a beard of medieval proportions. Tyler is the author of When Donkeys Talk and Mud and Poetry.

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63 Responses to “Your Wife is Wearing What? Men, Veils, and the Mystery of Femininity”

  1. Michael O'Keefe Reply

    Beautiful piece,and I am going to share it. Just a note, chapel veils have never been required by church decree, at least in recent memory.

    • The 1917 Code of Canon Law included a requirement that women veil in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

      Canon 1262, § 2. “Men should attend Mass, either in church or outside church, with bare heads, unless approved local custom or special circumstances suggest otherwise; women, however, should have their heads veiled and should be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord.”

      This requirement was removed in 1983.

      • You’d think, if a rule was really, really, really super duper important, it’d be kept from century to century. Ya know, like, the 9th commandment is still sticking around. Only priests can perform mass, that’s a rule that has lasted the test of time. Yet, this rule has not, signifying that, maybe, just MAYBE it’s not a matter of faith and morals. And if it’s not a matter of faith and morals, why are we flipping out about it?

        • This rule was just that, not a matter of dogma but a matter of practice governed by the CCL. There’s a technical word for it which I’ve forgotten, but it had fallen out of use and under the type of legal precedence which the Canon uses, had lost therefore lost the effect of law. A matter of faith and morals, on the other hand, cannot lose its status as law. Just a FWIW. The 1983 change acknowledged what was already the case.

          Also, while I hardly ever see anyone observing this custom, which is of course no longer a custom, I don’t notice anyone “flipping out” about it. When it is observed, it’s generally done as an act of modesty by the person observing it, which they certainly have the right to do.

      • And as Cardinal Burke has explained, veils or other head coverings such as hats or scarves are expected but not required for women attending celebrations of the Mass in the Extraordinary Form.

    • Oh yes, once upon a time they were an actual requirement for women to assist at Mass. So blessed that they are now an “option” and we can freely “choose” to adore Our Lord even deeper!

  2. ODE
    TO
    A
    CHAPEL
    VEIL

    Oh lowly little chapel veil
    You are my dearest friend
    For when my hair’s all mops and brooms
    You cover end to end.

    And when my hair’s not curling right
    Or when it sticks out straight
    You gently hold it all in place
    And make it look first rate!

    But feminists they hate you so
    You lowly simple thing
    To them you are so vile not veil
    To praise Our Lord and King.

    And passing by the Church of Seven,
    “Autonomy’s”, their phrase
    They never know the joys of Heaven
    Such as no bad-hair-days!

    For lowly lacey chapel veil
    You tame my hair so wild
    But truth-be-told though I look nice
    It’s really for The Child.

  3. What a well thought out, well presented article about the chapel veil. I was particularly taken in by the deeper theological meaning behind the mantilla.

  4. Well said! We are Catholic converts from a tradition that mandated all woman within the church wear a covering all the time, and I miss the symbolism that that conveyed. Thank you!

  5. Ummmmmmmmmmmmmmm, two questions: !.) Why does he describe his wife’s head as the land of the free and the home of the brave? and 2.)………… no, actually, let’s figure that Enigma out first before we move on………… btw, fat men know all about stretchmarks. Your argument is invalid.

  6. What if the husband is the one doing the persecuting? I had so many comments from my husband and friends that I stopped wearing my veils to church and chapel. It hurt my spirit too much because of who the people were and I felt attacked by them.

    • Women right now in Iraq and Syria are having their clitoris’ and Breasts cut off off for Identifying as Christians by ISIS. What was it you said about being “persecuted” and “attacked”?

      • If my boyfriend was always sarcastic and biting towards me, would you say I have no excuse for feeling mistreated because I wasn’t beaten like a girl without a dowery in India? Day to day scorn, snideness, and teasing from someone you love can indeed be an attack and feel like persecution. I admire the brave women who endure inhuman tortures for staying faithful to Christainity. That being said, everyone suffers. Respect for greater suffering does not demand a disregard for lesser suffering.

  7. I agree that the only way chapel veils have a remote chance of becoming attractive to women of our day is to emphasize all of the ways in which they are a sign of women’s superiority to men. Keep humility safely tucked away from any mention, unless it’s humility that demands a deposit in order to make good upfront on this whole “last shall be first” thing.

  8. To women considering wearing a chapel veil, please do so, even if, like so many women, you are the only one in your parish doing it. I have received nothing but positive feedback. But even if that were not the case, it would still be worth it.

    Great point, author, about stripping women of clothing (even with their apparent consent, eg, with our culture’s sexualized clothing styles or in a strip club or porn, etcetera) being a sign of not valuing or respecting her. We need more MEN to say this.

  9. conceivinghope Reply

    “…a woman covers her head because she is a life-bearing vessel”. That sounds like the kind of definition that would leave an infertile woman questioning her worth. I know that is the last thing from anyone’s mind when they write something like this though.

    • Part of the essence of femininity is fruitfulness. An infertile woman has no more to be ashamed off than a man who lost his arms in combat, physical strength being part of the essence of masculinity.

    • All women are called to be mother. We are called to bring life to the world whether physically or spiritually. What a great gift God has entrusted to us!

  10. Good article. I am in my late 30’s and have been very curious about veils being worn for the last 8 years. The women that wore them couldn’t seem to communicate to me what you have written. Maybe they didn’t quite know, or just didn’t have the right words….or maybe I wasn’t understanding what they meant. Anyway, thanks for clearing it up for me.

  11. I must say, Tyler, that this post is compelling and beautifully written. It still doesn’t answer my core question, which is “Why should women cover just at Mass?”

    I wrote about it extensively here: http://feminine-genius.typepad.com/femininegenius/2008/04/response-to-dea.html

    but the cliff notes version of my difficulty is that if women are life-bearing vessels and icons of the Church (which, incidentally, was the thesis of my first book) then they might want to consider veiling all the time. But if it’s something about the Mass, then why don’t men and women both cover their heads as equals before the Lord. Why just then, and just women. Thanks!

    • “why should woman cover just at mass?” I felt that at the presence of God, I just wanted to do it. Rather say, the spirit moved me. Many priests told me privately, how uplifting is that when they see it. Young children staring at me at mass, specially in the liberal church. I pray that I can give them a hint of reverence in the holy church.

  12. Men = Jesus. Jesus = God. Ergo, Men = God

    Women = Church. Church = Human. Human < God.

    Ergo, Women < Men.

    All your pretentious fake 19th century verbiage can't change the cold results of your logic.

    • aquinasadmirer Reply

      @Karenjou12

      Your reply is missing the distinctions between natures and persons. Jesus is NOT a human person. Your mathematical expressions do not reflect that.

      Your conclusion: “Men = God.” is basically the serpent’s lie stated mathematically.

      Ironically, the serpent did not attack the woman because she was weak, but because she was strong. If he got her, Adam would be a piece of cake.

      Mathematically, this is a closer representation:

      Men < God
      Women < God.

      Men < Mary
      Women < Mary

      (Men or Women) < Mary < Jesus = God.

        • aquinasadmirer Reply

          What is in my statement above that leads you to believe that:
          Eph 5 is not authoriative ?
          It is wrong to a male priesthood in order to stand sacramentally in the person of Christ ?

          Please tell me. I don’t see it.

        • aquinasadmirer Reply

          No, Jesus is a divine person. Nestorianism says that Jesus is a human person. Check CCC paragraph 480 -481

    • Let’s rethink this:
      Men= Christ
      Women=Church

      If Christ + Church= Groom + Bride
      and Groom + Bride= One Flesh
      And One Flesh= Perfect Union
      Then,

      Christ + Women = Men + Women = Perfect Union

      The theology and message points towards perfect unity, you have been fed the wrong formula! As in math the wrong formula leads to total misunderstanding. Blessings.

  13. My fiancée wears a veil. She asked me many times did it bother me I always say no (Which it doesn’t) I tell her it is a sign of reverence to the Blessed Sacrament. I go to a parish with a mix of Hispanic and Anglo I see many from the Hispanic culture wearing veils. This is something I wish more women would do.

  14. Is the comment “your so-called career” directed at men or women? It reads as being directed at women, but I wanted to ask before jumping to a conclusion.

  15. In a protestant church I attended once in India, the women took the ends of their Saris and draped it over their heads while praying or taking communion.

  16. Satan hates mothers ALMOST as much as he hates chapel veils?! One would think he would hate the sign more than that which honors it.

    Guessing that this is a typo. Other than that, great article! My mother started wearing a veil recently; I’ve been bouncing the idea around of wearing one myself. Still debating, but this is a good argument for it.

    • “No one will come out and say it straight, but the social bubble that will suddenly surround your family sends the message”
      Yes, in our parish an empty pew often remains behind the few families wearing chapel veils until there are no other options for seating.
      It was our daughters coming home from college & wearing a veil at Mass that gave me the courage to do what seems so right-
      to honor Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament by this sign of reverence and submission to His holy will.
      Thanks be to God for husbands who support their wives’ desire to show reverence in this little way!

  17. Grew up with the veil. How lucky! It helped to ward off temptations. To feel more respect where respect needs to be shown, and to whom needs to be shown. It helped with modesty in church which is completely lost in front of JESUS now a days. When the veils were taken off, clothes in church were also taken off…… And what proliferates now is indecency and occasion of sin, with the vulgar and indecent way of dressing specially of females in church.

    After a few years without veil, thank be to God, I returned to this holy practice and the simple action of just “veiling” my head before stepping into God’s holy place , puts me in the right disposition for the encounter with the most holy God. I did not know the big difference such a simple act of worship makes in my spiritual life, until I did not took it up again.

    I would ask you to try it at least one time, and you will find a buried treasure.

  18. According to a Catholic Bible study that I went to, the purpose of 1 Corinthians 11 was to retain the purity of the Christian liturgy, to keep it from being contaminated by practices associated with pagan idolatry. Many of the pagan temples had dining halls attached to the temples where the meat offered to idols was served. They were like a modern restaurant. A pagan sacrifice would be offered, the people would then eat the sacrifice, get drunk, then have a sexual orgy. Men involved with pagan idol worship wore head coverings. In the pagan temples women wore their hair down to show their sexual availability. Proper women in Corinth wore their hair bound as a sign of modesty.

  19. The above has nothing whatsoever to do with the reason I have chosen to wear a veil. It is simply to show reverence and submission to Our Lord and publicly witness my belief in the real presence.

  20. I bought my wife a Matilla from Spain, it’s very elegant in an old fashioned classy way. She wore it a few times but hasn’t in a while, I told her I think it looks beautiful when she does wear it, she just feels like she’s singled out because there are only a couple older women who wear it to mass.

  21. Men are also ‘life bearing vessels’. We are called to see Jesus in every person.. Jesus is God, God is Life, therefore we must see life in all human beings, whether perfected or not. If a man does not bear life in his body, then he is full of death and darkness. Please don’t use our wombs as an excuse to bestow so-called ‘honor’ to us. Women ought to be honored by their very existence as a human being. Men ought to be honored in the same way. Muslims claim that women are ‘honored’ by being covered, by being beaten when they don’t obey their husbands, when they try to be educated. and so on.. (Of course there are exceptions) All human beings ought to be ‘life bearing vessels’; our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, and if that is not life then something’s wrong somewhere. L.I.G.H.T. equals, Love in God’s Holy Temple. God is love and life, and He is within every body, male or female, otherwise that body would be dead. Our souls are neither male nor female. As a woman, I loved staying at home to cook, care for the children, but when my husband came home and took out his anger on us, that wasn’t so nice. He also demanded that I go to work, to ‘help carry the burden’, and did this so right in church, when our youngest was just a tiny baby.. I had to remind him that this wasn’t the place to argue, not in mass! When I did go to work in corporate America, I made more money than he at one point, which was the subject of a huge fight, as this insulted his ‘manliness’. After almost 29 years, I made him leave as I knew I’d die otherwise. Eventually I got an anulment, and have been happily married again to a wonderful man, who would probably think you’re reaching for straws in your beautifully written article here. Personally, I’d like to see the custom, but not the obligation, for women to wear veils.. as I have a few pretty mantillas going to waste. They are very feminine,flattering, mysterious, and alluring. But remember that my husband is very much a ‘life bearing vessel’. He is kind, compassionate, and prayerful at all times. He wouldn’t mind wearing a yarmulke, which has a holy and mystical historical significance.

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