The Tradition Begins
The wearing of the veil, or mantilla, is a tradition that has its beginning in the early Church. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul tells of the importance of the veil for a woman:
“And whereas any man who keep his head covered when he prays or utters prophecy brings shame upon his head, a woman brings shame upon her head if she uncovers it to pray or prophesy; she is no better than the woman who has her head shaved. If a woman would go without a veil, why does she not cut her hair short too if she admits that a woman is disgraced when her hair is cut short or shaved, then let her go veiled…Judge for yourselves; is it fitting that a woman should offer prayer to God unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that, whereas it is a disgrace to a man to wear his hair long, when a woman grows her hair long, it is an added grace to her? That is because her hair has been given her to take the place of a veil.” (1 Corinthians 11:4-16)
A Symbol of Respect
Tertullian’s and Saint Paul’s writings explain the meaning of the custom – that women, and more specifically virgins, should be known to God alone. Furthermore, the veil was seen as a symbol of chastity and humility:
“And, of course, that ought to have been chosen which keeps virgins veils, as being known to God alone . . . For that custom which belies virgins while it exhibits them, would never have been approved by any except by some men who must have been similar in character to the virgins themselves. Such eyes will wish that a virgin be seen as has the virgin who shall wish to be seen. The same kinds of eyes reciprocally crave after each other. Seeing and being seen belong to the self-same lust. To blush if he see a virgin is as much a mark of a chaste man, as of a chaste virgin if seen by a man.” (Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins, Ch. 2).
A Symbol of Modesty
The wearing of a veil was customary in the Jewish culture. that it was for modesty during a time when society was aware of, and even afraid of sexuality and its dangers.
Throughout early Christian culture, the veil was again seen as a symbol of modesty. Furthermore, it was customary to shave a woman’s head as punishment for infidelity – the equivalent of the Puritans making an adulteress wear the scarlet letter ‘A’ sown onto her garment during the 1600s. This is why Saint Paul compares a woman unveiled to a woman shaved, as this was a sign of disgrace, impropriety, and disrespect. As Saint Paul points out later in the same letter to the Corinthians, hair for a woman was a physical sign of feminine beauty and for it to be taken away was going against nature – thus a disgrace to femininity.
Throughout his letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul points out the importance of gender differences and the role each plays in God’s plan – to deviate would be unnatural, disgraceful, and sinful. Of course, it’s important to not focus too much on Saint Paul’s opinion on women’s hair – as if a woman is committing an egregious sin in cutting her hair. At the same time it would be a disservice to the Apostle to skip over his main point on the importance of gender differences and keeping with the natural law – the hair and veil being one example emphasizing those gender differences.
The Significance of the Veil
So covering the head stemmed from cultural custom as well as early Christian tradition. It was carried over as Catholic tradition for the same reasons. However, the significance of the veil has since changed from the cultural tradition from whence it began.
Contrary to what some other religions or cultures may profess, the modern Catholic tradition of wearing a veil does not signify women’s subservience to men. Neither does it have anything to do with shame or guilt. Rather, the veil has been used to cover something that is sacred – that which the veil covers should be cherished, respected, and adored. Take, for example, the use of a veil to cover the Holy of Holies or the Ark of the Covenant in Judaism. For Catholics, a veil covers the Tabernacle that houses our Lord. Similarly, the altar, where the perfect sacrifice of Our Lord is made, is veiled. The chalice, which contains our Lord’s blood, is also veiled. If we veil the very Center of our Faith, how then, is a veil upon a woman’s head any less dignified?
Today the use of the veil is considered a visible act of modesty and humility. A veil is not worn out of guilt, or as an act of subservience, or out of shame for feminine beauty, but rather as a sign of reverence and surrender to God’s will.
The Bride and The Church
“You who are husbands must show love to your wives, as Christ showed love to the Church when he gave himself up on its behalf.” (Ephesians 5:25)
“. . . The time has come for the wedding-feast of the Lamb. His bride has clothed herself in readiness for it . . .” (Revelation 19:7-8)
We are all familiar with the Scripture passages referring to Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as His Bride. Husbands are supposed to love their wives in the same way that Christ loves the Church, and wives are supposed to submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ.
The veil is this visible reminder of submission. Of course, today, if we hear the words women and submission in the same sentence, many people automatically spout a feminist disapproval. However, the veil as a symbol is not supposed to be a symbol of submission to men, but rather to Christ’s love. It’s a reminder of obedience to Christ and a symbol of humility before God. The wearing of the mantilla is not to say that women are not worthy of Christ because they are women. Rather, wearing the mantilla is merely another physical and visible reminder of all of humanity’s unworthiness compared to Christ.
Men throughout history have recognized their unworthiness – Saint John the Baptist (John 1:27) for example. Also, Saint Peter, our first pope and leader of the Church saw himself unworthy to be killed like Christ, and so requested to be crucified upside down.
And even the greatest woman of all, our Blessed Mother, recognized her role as one of submission and obedience (Luke 1:38).
A Calling, Not a Mandate
For sure, the mantilla is not and never should be, a mandate. It would do the tradition a great disservice, turning the sacred meaning of the veil into a rule simply to follow. Much like other sacramentals, such as the scapular, the veil is a calling. Wearing a veil should not be a fashion statement, or an act of pious pompousness. Wearing the mantilla is a way to show devotion to virtue – piety, humility, modesty, and obedience.
But in today’s society, wearing a veil has also become counter-cultural. It’s a way to be fortitudinous. It does not mean that one is less than another or better, for people live virtuous lives in different ways. The veil is an outward sign of the heart. It’s a desire to make visible your obedience to the will of God.
We are all called to live out our Catholic faith in a visible way, and the veil is just one way for women to show devotion to Christ.