When I told some of my community that I was running the London marathon this year, one of them said, ‘Do you want to do it in a veil?’ She was only half kidding. Cue some consideration from me, and much discussion with others. The ‘ayes’ thought it would amazing publicity for religious life (always assuming people didn’t think you were on a hen do and had somehow got caught up in the race by accident), along the lines of ‘Lo, sisters still exist, and some are young and run marathons!’ The ‘nays’ said that, as I didn’t wear a habit normally, and nor did any of the other CJ sisters in the UK, it didn’t make much sense.

The visibility discussion is one I have pretty regularly with all kinds of people, from laypeople or bystanders interested in religious life -and interested in why I’m not wearing a habit- to other priests and religious, particularly of the post-Vatican II generations.

In my own community, the Congregation of Jesus, we don’t wear religious dress in this province. We used to wear a pretty full-on habit, which changed in the 80s to something simpler, along the lines of a long skirt and a veil. Many of our sisters worldwide still wear religious dress of this kind: not a defined ‘habit’ as such, but a recognisably-a-religious assemblage. Nowadays in the English province, we all wear secular dress. Talking to our older sisters about their decision to come out of religious dress is interesting. Some of them talk of experiencing religious dress as a barrier, which prevented genuine encounters with people. Instead of seeing and encountering you, they would see and encounter their prejudices and preconceptions about religious life, or just dismiss you as ‘good sister so-and-so’ and pay no attention at all. Coming out of religious dress meant being really able to meet people where they were. Some sisters have also spoken to me about having no privacy when they wore religious dress, in the sense of the privacy that comes from just being able to blend in. One priest I know speaks of his positive decision not to wear a clerical shirt all the time: he wants his appearance to communicate to people, ‘I’m not on some special, holy, higher journey – I’m on the same journey as you.’ That last remark, in particular, resonates with me.

We are fortunate as a congregation, insofar as Mary Ward’s attitude to religious dress seems to have been practical: mission comes first, and you wear what you need to to get the job done. Thus, our sisters wore religious dress when they were on the Continent (kind of a mucked-about Jesuit cassock type thing…), and disguise when they were in England, where Catholicism was illegal, and wearing religious dress would have meant pretty swift arrest. ‘Mission first, and clothing serves the mission’ is still my preferred way of approaching a question that can carry huge ideological freight. The question is: what is our mission now, in a culture very different to the 1960s? Do we need to revisit the issue of visibility?

The question is a neuralgic one, and can easily get bound up in the Catholic ‘culture wars’, or in intergenerational misunderstandings or miscommunication. Younger religious for whom recognisable religious dress is important can hurt older religious, for whom shedding the habit was a careful discernment and not a mere matter of convenience or a personal whim. At the same time, older religious can perceive younger religious who do want to wear a habit as ‘conservative’, ‘immature’, ‘tied to the externals’, or simply assume that they will ‘grow out of’ their need for outer religious symbols. Neither is helpful, and I suspect neither is true.

I respect absolutely the discernment made by the older generations of my province to come out of the habit, and if we’re going by Mary Ward’s own rule of ‘mission first, outfit later,’ then I think it was the right decision for their time. But the question remains for me, as for many others of my generation in religious life: do we need to revisit the issue of visibility?

Why is this a question for my generation? (I should add that ‘generation’ here is loose. I mean people of my age as well as my stage, so I’m including people who entered religious life aged 45+ but are still in formation.) Most of us grew up without knowing religious, and without seeing them: they were not in our parishes or in our schools. The religious life option simply wasn’t visible. That might seem superficial, but think on it: we know that people who grow up in deprived communities are much less likely to become doctors, lawyers etc., and part of the problem is that there are fewer role models for them. What we don’t know and can’t see we don’t think of as a possibility. I think for people in my generation, there’s often a desire for religious to be more visible not just to ‘the world’ or culture at large, but specifically to the Church. We need the sign that is religious life -a sign of a different way of being in a world more stiflingly obsessed than ever with money, sex and power- but we can’t see it.

I think, too, that my generation want to revisit the questions of mission and privacy. For sure, a habit is going to be a barrier for some people. One of our sisters told me that, when you were wearing a habit, you never knew how many people didn’t talk to you for that reason – people who looked at you and thought you might judge them, or that you were too other-worldly to talk to. But, talking to priests especially, I’m often struck by the opposite: we don’t know how many people don’t talk to us because they can’t see us. A Jesuit friend, who rarely wears a collar, has told me of many encounters that happened on the occasions he was wearing one: hearing confession on a station platform, being asked to pray for people, conversations on trains. Our society is increasingly secularised, but there is still a thirst in people for encountering God, and a thirst for encountering people whose lives are all about God. Forty years ago, a habit got in the way of those kind of encounters. But now, in a changed world, might religious dress enable encounters like these, too – even at the cost of a privacy which, quite honestly, I’d prefer to preserve?

Our sisters came out of religious dress because, symbolically, it had become too heavy to move in easily: it bore the weight of a theology that said religious life was a ‘more perfect way’, set apart from the world and superior to it. Does it say that today? To an older generation who remember the pre-Vatican II years, possibly, but for my generation, definitely not. The symbol of a ‘nun’s outfit’ -people don’t even know the word ‘habit’ anymore- means practically nothing except hen dos, fancy dress and kitsch: it has been evacuated of meaning. The problem is that nothing has taken its place. One of our sisters, disapproving of the idea of running a marathon in a habit said, ‘Couldn’t you wear something else that showed you were a sister?’ But a CJ t-shirt (much as I like our ‘Brownie uniform’!) and the cross of my order communicate precisely nothing to most people. Very observant Catholics would be lucky to spot it if I was three feet away. There just isn’t anything that says ‘I’m a sister’ in the same way as a habit does, if immediate visual recognition is what you’re after. I think this is partly key to understanding the attitudes of younger religious who do wear religious dress. It’s often perceived by older religious and laypeople alike as ‘going back to the past’, but I think this is not entirely accurate. At least in part, it’s the pragmatic use of a symbol that has largely lost its content, and which -to an extent- we can re-populate with different content. The generation of bricolage away are using that symbol to say a range of things, from communicating that members of the religious life are ‘not of the world’ and reject its values (perhaps especially those to do with women’s appearance) to communicating that religious are ‘for others’, and therefore recognisable in the same way that public servants like police officers are. The symbol can also have less positive content. Habits don’t mean one thing.

What do I think about the issue of visibility, personally? I don’t know. I don’t like the way that the question has become so ideologically freighted, especially for women. I know that for some apostolic congregations it’s an all-or-nothing issue, either habit all the time or not at all, but I don’t think it necessarily needs to be approached in this way. I think it should be discerned on the basis of mission, not as a one-off, but continually. I think that I need to have the spiritual freedom to consider wearing something recognisable, as well as free not to do so. Personally, 99% of the time I don’t like the idea of wearing religious dress. I also recognise, very honestly, that a lot of that is to do with wanting to defend my privacy and anonymity, so I can go where I want and do what I want without people always looking weirdly at me or taking photos. (One of our young German sisters who wears religious dress was once asked by a waitress, ‘Are you real?’) Yet, if I am to be searingly honest, I suspect that kind of reticence is selfishness, and that is not a good reason. So I don’t know, and I suspect the visibility issue will be an ongoing question for me. What I do know is that, ultimately, I want to be free to do whatever helps me to encounter others, and helps them to encounter God.

And you’ll just have to watch the marathon to find out what I decided…