So you’ve seen women with weird cloths on their heads in Mass, adoration, or at World Youth Day. They’re not nuns, lace aficionados, or Amish, so what gives?
Despite the impression we get from depictions in popular culture, they’re just normal women who discovered and fell in love with the recently-lost tradition of ecclesial veiling. Wearing veils in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament is quickly becoming a trend among young Catholic women and challenging the wide-spread belief that the Church is “out of touch” with younger generations.
There are a great many different reasons that women choose to veil, but the most prominent reasons lie in the theology. Contrary to the claims that veiling is anti-woman—or even just hyper-pious—the reasoning is multi-layered, very beautiful and even flattering.
At the very surface, veiling is a sign of humility before God.
It’s an intentional covering of our human glory before the immense glory of God. This isn’t to say that if we didn’t veil God’s glory would be somehow lessened or outshined—far from it. Instead, it’s a way of acknowledging our lowliness before our Creator, the source of our own goodness, and emphasizing his goodness that much more.
Veiling reveals to mankind the destiny of our relationship with the Trinity.
Since God can never be fully described, our relationship with him can’t either. Instead, we rely on analogies and symbolism to communicate snippets of the divine. The number one most-used analogy throughout the entire Bible—that is, the analogy God Himself uses most often to describe his relationship with the Church (aka us)—is that of bride and groom. Just as spouses vow to sacrifice limitlessly, to love unconditionally, and to give each other their very selves, Christ sacrificed limitlessly, loved unconditionally, and gave his very self for us. Sometimes the Cross is referred to as the “Divine Marriage Bed” because it is the most perfect example of the self-emptying gift that marriage is supposed to be.
Humanity, then, is the Bride of Christ. This analogy doesn’t refer to literal marriage, of course, but instead communicates the reality that Christ looked at all creation and yet wanted to take humanity—broken, sinful humanity—into his heart and home as his beloved. Therefore, the Mass is the wedding feast of the Lamb (Christ), and the Church (meaning the people, not the building) dresses as a bride because she is one. Thus women—who represent this symbolism in a special way—veil as brides on the day of the wedding feast.
By covering our heads as a bride at the altar, we actually uncover for ourselves (and ultimately the world) the most fundamental truth about our divine destiny.
We veil that which is holy, and that which bears life.
Okay, but why veil in the first place? Why is veiling brides even a thing? Like a great many traditions in our culture, the roots are both ancient and beautiful: Ancient nomadic Jews kept the Ark of the Covenant—where God himself was believed to dwell—in a special, doubly-veiled area of the tabernacle called the Holy of Holies, which almost no one was allowed to enter. The intense veiling stemmed from a practical need, but ultimately became deeply symbolic: that which is holy is veiled out of reverence. The divine deserves privacy. Even the angels veil their faces in God’s presence since veiling God himself is impossible.
Additionally, in Christian tradition, we veil that which bears life. This is why the Eucharist is veiled even within the modern-day tabernacle and women—as opposed to men—carry on the veiling tradition.
Thus brides—with the spark of the divine in them as humans, the capacity to bear life as women—veil on their wedding day, as a way of outwardly communicating the inward reality of their dignity and inherent holiness. But women aren’t only human and women on their wedding day, so it makes sense that the tradition be lived out on a far more regular basis.
It’s a way of emulating Mary
It’s important to note that Mary’s veiling was a product of her religion, not of her time (Greek women didn’t veil until married), thus it was no mistake that the Christ child was born to a veiled woman in a community that valued reverence for the holy in such a particular way. God ensured that the womb of Mary—the living tabernacle that held our living God—was veiled, even if no humans realized that’s what was happening at the time. Mary veiled out of humility, modesty, and obedience, and the result was that God Incarnate was outwardly revered in even his earliest, most secret moments.
Granted, none of us are Mary and none of us is carrying Jesus Christ in our womb, but in an effort to emulate Mary and her perfect virtue, veiling can be wildly helpful as a constant reminder of who we are and what we’re destined for.
It’s also really practical.
Let’s be real: who hasn’t been rushing to get ready for Mass with a head full of unruly hair? Bad hair? No problem.
Okay, I’m partially kidding about the bad hair, but also partially not—veils are certainly beautiful and really do accentuate feminine beauty. There truly is something to be said about evangelization through beauty, both evangelizing others and ourselves. It’s nice to hide a bad hair day by feeling gorgeous in a veil, yes, but it also reminds us of our need to cultivate inner beauty and to live as godly women in the world, not of it. When we can glow with the love of Christ, others see it. There you go, falsely attributed quote of St. Francis of Assisi: evangelization without words.
I’ve also found it to be super useful for centering in prayer. Just before I started veiling, I’d noticed myself very consistently distracted during Mass, especially by children (come on, fellow called-to-marriage Catholic women, back me up here). Whether or not it’s intended this way, my veil acts as a set of “blinders” if you will, literally obstructing my peripherals and constantly refocusing my attention on the unfathomably deep miracle of the Mass.
When the theology is understood, it’s clear that veiling really is a beautiful, ancient tradition founded in feminine beauty and divine adoration. It’s rich with wisdom and—as with all things theological—has much to teach us. If you’re feeling a little spiritual nudge to give it a shot, don’t ignore it. You’d be surprised what you’ll learn about yourself and your Bridegroom in the process.