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A Few of My Favorite Things: Sisters, The Sound of Music, and Moving Beyond the Habit

When I was three years old, I met my first real-life nun. Or at least, the first one I recognized. She was dressed in a dark habit, her rosary dangling at her side. I was, in a word, ecstatic. I grabbed my grandmother’s hand the minute this sister walked in our front door and whisper-shouted to her in awe, as only toddlers can, “It’s a nun from The Sound of Music!” Both my grandmother and the sister laughed, and in a few weeks I received a gift from this sweet sister, a small music box that played the Sound of Music classic “My Favorite Things.” That music box sits on my shelf, still one of my own favorite things today.

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  Nobody solves a problem like Maria.
Maybe she can help us understand habits?

These are the nuns that many of us recognize. The sisters we see on TV and in movies, from The Sound of Music to The Flying Nun and Sister Act, appear to us all in black, their habits a veil of secrecy, their lives a mystery of prayer. As I got older, I met many more Catholic nuns, but I quickly learned a long black habit and veil were seldom signs that I was speaking to a sister. In fact, the majority of the sisters I’ve had the pleasure of knowing do not wear a habit at all.

So why is the habit still what we associate with when we think of sisters? And why did sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph start wearing habits at all? When the Sisters of Saint Joseph were founded in 1650 in France, the garb they chose was the dress of the widow. By wearing this “habit”, sisters could move around freely in their community without the accompaniment of a father, brother or husband and safely do good works without being questioned. They blended in. But as widows stopped wearing black and times changed, the habit became a symbol that separated sisters from everyone else.

What’s ironic about this is that Sisters of St. Joseph believe that all people are ONE with God and one another; that no one should be singled out as being better or worse than any other person. While the habit told the world who the sisters were, it also encouraged this feeling of “otherness,” that sisters were somehow different. Thanks to guidelines established by the Vatican in the 1960s, sisters were encouraged to return to their roots and consider their original intentions as a congregation. For Sisters of St. Joseph, this meant a return to “blending in” with those with them they live and work in the world. In hopes that all people could work together, with no distinction between sisters and ordinary individuals, sisters in the Congregation of St. Joseph stopped wearing the habit and started wearing plain clothing.

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Some sisters wear habits and some sisters don’t.
But we all wish we had Maria’s dance moves.

Today, our “habit,” the thing that guides us and connects us to our mission of oneness, is love. It is because of this habit of love that we are starting this blog today. In a world that often feels filled with separation, in which anxiety about the future and fear of “otherness” prevails, we start writing today to bring love to the world. You won’t see us in the traditional habit, but you can still find us in the habit of love, writing and working for the good of the world.

As Maria Von Trapp sang, “when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad.” We hope that this blog will become one of your favorite things, a place to come to find love, understanding about the sisters and their work in the world, and fun sister stories to brighten your day!

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10 thoughts on “A Few of My Favorite Things: Sisters, The Sound of Music, and Moving Beyond the Habit

  1. Patricia Flynn Griffith says:

    My Aunt, Sr, Mary Una, always had candy in her pocket. The favorite thing was that her whole arm disappointed into it. She would bend over to reach the bottom. I miss the habit.

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  2. I remember going roller skating with nuns while attending Our Lady of Bethlehem Academy in LaGrange Park, IL. I also remember being taught how to play baseball by Sr. Thomas Eileen, I attended OLB from 2-8 grades. Wonderful memories.

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    • Nuns’ habits (outfits) go way back in history to Europe. Habits became the way to differentiate a nun from an “everyday” woman. I was always fascinated by the different types and colors of habits worn by different orders.

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      • Thank you for your comment, Debbie! Different orders certainly wore habits for different reasons. For Sisters of St. Joseph, our history with the habit can be traced back to our founding in 1650s France and the need to be able to move around the city unaccompanied. The custom of the day required women to be accompanied by a man whenever they left home, unless the woman was a widow. By taking on the dress of the widow, our founding sisters were able to do their good work without being differentiated.

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