The first time I encountered veiling was the summer before my senior year of college. I was at Camp ECHO, taking a life-changing dive into Theology of the Body and to be frank, I was irritated at these new friends for veiling.
I was a proud Theology major with a rough collegiate experience as a practicing Catholic and as a result, I was constantly on the defense of the true teachings of the Church. A million angry thoughts flooded my mind:
“Seriously? This can be such a distraction to people during Mass.”
“This is the reason people think the Church is archaic. Good sentiment, bad execution.”
“Way to be holier-than-thou, ladies.” (Now I giggle a little at the hypocrisy of this one.)
“There’s a reason they got rid of those at Vatican II.”
But by the end of the week-long camp, I’d warmed up to the veils a little more and I’d stopped thinking it was a sign of indoctrination that the 8-year-old daughter of the keynote speaker was veiling, too. In fact, I allowed myself to admit to the reaction I pridefully wouldn’t allow myself to have in the first place: the veils were gorgeous and brought out this delicate yet sophisticated feminine beauty in the women that was simply stunning.
Theology of the Body provided a little bit of information on the reasoning behind veiling and I took a dive into some research of my own. It wasn’t long at all before I started to see how it would be an attractive spiritual decision for some people. Naturally, I pondered whether I would ever wear one, and came to the obvious conclusion: heck no.
Fast forward three years to me standing in a Michael’s blankly staring at fabric dyes in a last-ditch effort to make my new experimental tacky-bride-lace mantilla a little more tolerable for the upcoming Lenten season.
I’d gotten to the point where I couldn’t ignore the nudging in my heart anymore—nor the incessant veiling blogs that just happened to show up in my newsfeed consistently since Christmas—and I realized I should just give in since God was going to win this fight anyway. I waited until the very last minute before Ash Wednesday to go out and act on my impending Lenten commitment, so my selection of veils was poor and my need to add color was dire.
Despite my very best attempt to give myself a crash-course on dyeing cheap polyester lace—and even though the veil did ended up with the beautiful, deep shade of purple I was going for—I spent the duration of Lent scrubbing a thin layer of lilac from my kitchen and most of my living room. (Word to the wise: when you boil dye, it evaporates with the steam and will color literally everything. It wasn’t until I moved something on my kitchen table and noticed it left behind a silhouette that I realized that my apartment had experienced a sort of lilac nuclear fallout.)
I knew the transition from non-veiler to veiler would be weird for everyone, so I gave myself a few buffer weeks. I decided that—at least initially—I would wait to wear my veil until the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This would give me time to center myself in prayer first, and then slip the veil on during the offertory song while everyone else was shuffling for their wallets, rather than sport a veil before Mass when there was time for people to whisper, point, and further distract others. Not foolproof, no, but a merciful transition for me and—I hoped—the community around me.
I sat down at Ash Wednesday Mass with a strange mix of excitement and utter dread. At the time I was working as a travelling chastity educator and naturally the only Mass I could attend was the student liturgy at the school I was teaching that week. So when the Liturgy of the Eucharist began, surrounded by teenagers who had—until this point—looked up to me and thought I was the coolest Catholic woman they’ve ever met, I got out my dye-scented, Lenten-purple square of cheap lace, draped it across my head, pinned it into place, and bowed my head to pray, silently thanking God that it hid my face from the stares I knew would follow me back from communion. Until then, I had time to get comfortable and meditate on the act of veiling and its theological significance.
When the time came, there was something wonderful about approaching the Eucharist with my head covered. It seemed so right. My heart gave a giddy leap as I walked up the aisle and the veil brushed my cheek. I was instantly reminded of my identity as the Bride of Christ, prepared to receive Christ’s total self-gift in the Eucharist as a bride approaches her husband, prepared to receive his total self-gift in marriage. I was ecstatic and totally focused.
And then I turned around.
There were the faces of the students all staring, nudging and whispering—surely there were a thousand of them, the rows stretched on forever—as I started back to my pew after communion. I tried to focus on the Real Presence now in my body but, under the heat of questioning eyes, that was futile. Instead, I took a vested interest in organ pipes at the back of the church and tried not to walk at an unnaturally quick pace.
The mental battle with myself was—in retrospect—pretty ridiculous. “Holy crap they were staring.” “Yup, this is countercultural.” “But they’re never gonna listen to your message about chastity if they think you’re a hyper-pious weirdo.” “I’ve been speaking for two years, most of them know me. Besides, I’m gonna have to trust God that—“ “They’re laughing at you.” “…they’re 14, why do I ca—“ “But you do care.” “I never care what people think.” “But this time you do.” “Okay, I do, but that will fade with time.” “BUT THESE KIDS WILL NEVER LISTEN NOW THAT THEY THINK YOU’RE WEIRD.”
This ended in a renewed realization that my chastity ministry is not about me anyway, and that the Truth has its own appeal. Regardless of how it may hurt my pride, I need to trust God on this one and blindly follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
Already—within the first hour of veiling—I was getting schooled in humility and obedience.
It’s been a full year since then, and the lessons haven’t stopped.
I’ve discovered that children are far more receptive and understanding of my veil than adults are. That first day at school, some of my classes asked me about “the purple thing on your head” and, given an explanation, were accepting of and even inspired by it.
A little later but still early in the Lenten season, my boss’ 2-year-old—who was attending Mass with us and didn’t notice me slip my veil on halfway through the liturgy—turned and spotted it. I fully expected a loud “WHAT IS ON YOUR HEAD?” and for my boss to be irritated that I was wearing something so potentially distracting for children. Instead, a huge smile spread across the child’s face and she very knowingly grinned at me, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, and stated “Mary,” then turned back around and kept doing her toddler thing. I was amazed that so many people get caught up in the rarity of a veiled woman at Mass, but her 2-year-old gaze cut right to the heart of it.
Early on, I realized that my decision to veil puts a lot of people on edge, so I made a conscious effort to be particularly warm and welcoming, especially during the Sign of Peace. A genuine smile and a firm handshake from a veiled woman can go a long way in normalizing such a misunderstood tradition. Besides, the last thing we need is for people to think that Catholics are snobby, unnecessarily cold zealots who couldn’t be thawed out by hellfire itself.
By the time Lent drew to a close, I understood the value of veiling (and I’d begun to associate the scent of fabric dye with sanctity) so I splurged and ordered a gorgeous, high-quality veil to invest in for the future (pictured at the beginning of the post). That veil has introduced a whole new level of interesting interactions with fellow Catholics.
When I first arrived in Mexico—where I expected veiling to be more commonplace given the traditionally devout population and the Spanish roots of the mantilla (I was wrong)—I had a woman tap my shoulder after Mass compliment my new veil, and ask in rapid Spanish why I wore it. I had an oft-rehearsed answer prepared…in English. I just kind of stared back and her and stuttered until she understood I was not native and she left me alone.
At the same church and around the same time, one of the resident nuns approached me after Mass and told me that when she first saw me she thought I was wearing a crown. She was surprised to see someone my age veiling—willingly, no less—and she seemed proud. As part of her habit, she wears a veil and we bonded over it, creating a sort of friendship despite my terrible Spanish and her inability to pronounce my name. Her observation was interesting to me—after all, a veil accentuates female beauty and evangelizes in part through the acknowledgement of God’s “crown of creation.”
Most recently—at the only English Mass in the entirety of Mexico City—one of the older ladies came up to me and complimented my veil, gushing over how pretty it is and telling me that she still has her old one at home. Then she asked why I wore it, and I gave a brief response and asked why she stopped. She responded simply, “We don’t have to anymore!” I was struck by how poor Catholic catechesis has been for the last century that entire generations of women feel that they had to be “freed” from such a beautiful, rich tradition in the Church.
By now I’ve logged a year under this veil, but my journey is far from over. Every Mass is a new adventure in trust and obedience, and every interaction a new lesson in compassion and patience. Despite my initial hesitation, I’ve discovered 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. Lent is a great time to start, and if you discover that you aren’t ready for it or it’s not your thing, you can always stop. Besides, you might be surprised what you discover about yourself and your God in the process.