I really don’t know how to explain the fact that I have been attending Mass. I myself feel pretty confused as to how I got here: last I checked, I was a generic New Agey feminist who loosely observed the pagan festivals and was obsessed with achieving mindfulness. When our first daughter was born in 2011, Tim and I decided that the Earth was what mattered most to us. What we valued most about the holidays we celebrated as children were the sensual, earthy symbols of each season: the evergreens at Christmas, the springtime fertility symbols at Easter.
I was baptized Catholic as a young girl. This was an attempt by my father to save my soul (my mother, raised Catholic herself, wanted to hold off until we were old enough to decide our own spiritual path). Since no one made me go to Mass as a child, I grew up thinking that being Catholic was mostly an ethnic identity: it meant being Irish, swearing a lot, feeling haunted by guilt at weird times, drinking at Easter, having a superiority complex, having a strangely light sense of humor about death. It meant family members fighting one moment and laughing heartily the next, it meant hearing stories of my swaggering grandfather Patrick driving home in a bus still on fire. It meant my glamorous great-grandmother holding court at every gathering, winking over her crystal glass at the hoards of grandchildren continuously being born into our family.
I was content to consider myself ethnically Catholic. And then I had a shitty year, a year in which my deep reverence for the Earth was not enough to see me through.
So by many twists and turns, I was led to Christianity. The beautiful Christian-based seasonal festivals celebrated at my daughters Waldorf School certainly held my imagination. From there my interest was fueled by several stunning works of historical fiction, by a desire to fully participate in whatever still existed of the culture surrounding me, a need to share my faith with people outside of my own living room, and to learn the sweet art of forgiveness, for myself and for others. There was also the hope that the faith tradition of my ancestors might have something to offer me after all.
Thus, on a random and unremarkable Sunday, I found myself at Mass. I was greatly disturbed by how much I enjoyed it: the candles, incense, the priests in their vestments shaking holy water over the crowds, the kneeling, the rosaries, the veneration of Mary the Holy Queen, the intercession of the Saints. I remember feeling a bit terrified: how could I possibly be enjoying myself? Certainly the Catholic Church is corrupt, authoritarian, condemning to women and their experiences. There is The Scandal, or as my Jewish friend laughed, “Which scandal?” If I allowed myself to enjoy Mass, the sheer volume of spiritual and ethical hurdles I would have to jump seemed nothing short of insurmountable. And at this early stage, I was still grappling with the most basic concept of Christianity: I was still trying hard to understand on a basic level why Jesus was more fancy than, say, Buddha or Muhammad or Black Elk.
It has been a few months and I still have my fair share of dilemmas to address with regard to my new found love of Catholicism, which will certainly make fantastic blog fodder in weeks to come. But for now, lets fast forward to the issue at hand: the chapel veil.
Women do not wear chapel veils at the Catholic church that I usually attend. Up until very recently, I was only barely even aware that the chapel veil, or mantilla, was even a thing.
Last week, I dropped my three-year-old off at her Waldorf school and found myself at a loss as to what I should do. I was dreading going home and facing my chores. I had zero errands to run, no friends to see. I suddenly remembered that there was a tiny church not far from her school, so I resolved to walk there with my one-year-old daughter in a sling.
The deep red brick walls of this small and lovely church are sprawling with vines. There is a crowned white statue of Mary in the garden holding Jesus, her feet littered with dried petals brought to her by parishioners. The child Jesus holds a faded pink plastic rosary that someone has left there for others to use. When I shyly stepped inside the church, a little early, I was immediately met with the heavy scent of incense. It was significantly darker than the church I regularly attend, a minor detail which made it feel positively medieval.
And there, at the entrance, was a basket of mantillas.
The resounding fuck yes of my soul when I saw this basket is really hard to put into writing. You see, there aren’t many rules left for my generation. Of course, we are supposed to be polite and not kill people, but other than that, we can do as we please. Most of the people I hang out with are not suffering any oppressive cultural bondage: our parents and grandparents made sure of that as they assimilated to this country. We are free from most of the spoken or unspoken laws or traditions that may have bound the men and women of our ancestry.
The negative side to this is that many of us have little to no cultural identity. Maybe our ancestors have been in this country for a while now and all of our cultural identity has been absorbed into a suffocating blandness. Many of us have an impressive command over our own personal identities: we are familiar with all the popular self-help jargon, we know our needs as individuals and we are able to discuss our most complicated feelings with a casual air. We know what to order at whatever multi-ethnic restaurant you invite us to. But we know not to which particular tribe we belong.
My moment of excitement at the sight of the basket of veils was followed by anxiety: what if I didn’t have to wear one? What if the chapel veil was optional? Then I could never get away with it. I had no good reason to wear a chapel veil. But when I peered into the church, every single woman in the pews was wearing a mantilla. This was my moment. I quickly searched through the basket for the longest and laciest veil I could find, head lice be damned. As I draped it over my hair, I threatened the baby I was holding in my arms: “Don’t you mess this up for me, Rosa.” Rosa Maeve, a typical second-born child, has spent more time digging in the dirt than sitting in anyone’s lap re-reading board books. Rosa only has two words in her vocabulary: No and Whoa. In this moment, looking up at her mama with a lacy black napkin on her head, she went with Whoa.
This was daily Mass, not Sunday Mass, which means that my baby was the youngest person in the room by about 200 years. I’m kidding, but still I couldn’t help but laugh at myself for being such a freak. Attending Latin Mass in the middle of the week with a room full of elderly strangers, whilst wearing a black lace chapel veil, was certainly a bizarre life choice.
In the end, we only made it for about 20 minutes before Rosa became determined to bathe in the holy water font we were sitting near. Ironically, I was able to hold her off by breastfeeding her for a full ten minutes, which means that while my hair was modestly covered with a veil, my breast was wild and free. No one in the pews batted an eye. I had this intuition that the people in that room had done many mysterious Old World things in their lives, like prepare dead human bodies for lengthy Wakes held in living rooms. A little breastfeeding didn’t shake these salted souls. I know an old school gangster when I see one.
You may have noticed by now that I am trying to gloss over the Scripture that advocates Christian headcovering. I am doing this because, quite frankly, it’s a bit of a buzzkill. I realize that the mature thing would be for me to attempt to unlock the meaning behind 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. But a woman has to know her limitations: I’m way out of my depth already by even attempting to discuss a biblical passage. All I can tell you based on my own interpretation of this reading is that St. Paul encouraged veiling as a symbol of woman’s submission to man in the order of authority. The order is as follows: God-Man-Woman. Headcovering was also an accepted practice belonging to that culture and era.
Before you conclude that I’ve lost my mind by voluntarily donning a symbol of female submission, you may want to do a quick google image search for the word mantilla. If you are too lazy, I will save you the trouble: imagine a bunch of fierce, gypsy-eyed women staring back at you in their black or white lace headcoverings. Often these chapel veils are draped over their peinetas, high combs particularly fashionable among Spanish women to this day. With or without the pieneta, these veils have a certain beauty and power. At the end of the day, I think their fabulosity proves that we can always rely on women to take what was likely an oppressive cultural mandate and turn it into a glorious act of adornment.
I’m not really sure what I learned from wearing a mantilla. (Aren’t you glad you read this lengthy post so that I could end it without any solid epiphany to share with you?) What I do know is that my heart aches for cultural traditions to pass on to my daughters, which is a big part of the reason I’ve started attending Mass in the first place. I am in no place to evangelize anyone; I am still trying to wrap my head around what I do and do not believe when it comes to Catholicism. That said, I am no longer in any rush to badmouth the seemingly archaic beliefs or practices that helped define my ancestors. Their traditions carried them through hardships that would rattle our soft, modern sensibilities. It seems rather privileged for my generation to throw it all away: after all, most of us don’t have very hard lives, its easy enough for us to skate by, putting our faith in Facebook likes or Twitter followers. I would never say that religion holds the answers for everyone or that every Catholic woman should resurrect the chapel veil. But I will say, that for me, the excavation process has proven to be surprisingly rewarding.