It is easy to picture Our Lady or any religious sister wearing a veil on her head, but much less often do we picture laywomen of the Catholic Church veiling. The practice of Catholic veiling is one that has faded from our culture in many settings, but the tradition and mystery surrounding the veil is ever present in the witness of women who continue this practice.
For the first 2000 years of the Church, veiling was a commonplace tradition. In the time of the early Church, it was for purposes of modesty in everyday life, but eventually the practice evolved to women covering their heads only inside of churches—in the presence of the Eucharist. Veiling, either with a chapel veil or mantilla, or even a hat, became less commonplace following the Second Vatican Council, until the 1983 Code of Canon Law did away with statements on women’s head coverings completely. Now, the tradition remains as a optional devotion that many traditional or charismatic Catholics treasure because of the mystery and meaning embedded in it.
Much of the initial motivation behind veiling comes from St. Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 11:3-7, where he explains that when a woman prays or prophesies she must cover her head but a man must leave his uncovered. St. Paul goes on to explain that this is a visualization of woman’s submission to man within marriage. Veils by Lily, a modern veil company, quotes a priest’s homily explaining, “These days, the idea of submission to the authority of her husband is frowned upon, to put it mildly. But it shouldn’t be, once we realize that the bridal veil signifies the submission of this particular woman to the loving care of her husband. It signifies her trust, her confidence in his Christ-like leadership. It signifies that she has chosen to follow him as a loving partner and companion. It also signifies that he has been specifically consecrated to handle that sacred vessel—to safely touch that ark—and that’s something mysterious and beautiful.”
Much the same as a trusting and free submission to one another in marriage, a religious sister or consecrated virgin who wears a veil is communicating the same truth: “I surrender to this relationship, I give my life to You.” Even further, with the example of Mother Mary, every Catholic woman is a living icon of the Church. Veils by Lily goes on to quote the same homily: “So when she veils herself here, in the presence of Our Lord, it’s a visible reminder for all of the spousal relationship—the bridal relationship—between the Church and Christ.”
In addition to being a reminder of the mystery of the spousal relationship between Christ and the Church, the veil is a reminder of the sanctity and dignity of women—a concept that negates veiling as a oppressive practice, but rather as one of true freedom. Biblically and in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the faithful cover or veil things that are sacred and life-giving. The Ark of the Covenant was veiled within the Holy of Holies; Moses veiled his glowing face when he descended Mt. Sinai; Christ’s body was covered in the shroud; and even now, we veil the altar and tabernacle. When something is veiled, it is recognized as worth protecting, because it is holy and life flows from it. Just as life is brought into the world in the Eucharist and then is veiled in the tabernacle, women’s bodies too can bring forth life through the feminine genius, as Pope St. John Paul II called it. A woman’s covering her head is a statement of declaring her dignity as a woman, a sacred and life-giving daughter of God.
“The veil is a visual sermon,” concluded the priest whom Veils by Lily quotes, “it’s a visual statement, it’s a public proclamation before the Lord that He is the Lord and that we love Him and that we are ready to obey him. It’s a totally counter-cultural statement proclaiming obedience in the midst of a culture that is totally permeated with this attitude of ‘I will not serve.’ That, in any age, but especially in ours, is a very great mystery indeed.”