On celibacy, head covering, and all things countercultural

A reflection by Sarah

Why do people do the things that they do and choose the ways of life that they choose? Sometimes, there’s a clear story. Other times, the pathway is much more meandering with few direct signposts. Our journey with Christ is replete with experiences of God inviting us into different things, giving us gifts, and opening up to us unexpected possibilities.

During Lent this year, I took some time to step back and reflect on how intentionality is present in different aspects of my way of life. I think it’s important to examine our motives and our intentions regularly because life with God is dynamic. What was spiritually helpful two years ago might not be entirely beneficial now. We need time to discern what God might be calling us into in the here and now lest we find ourselves in a bit of a rut. God is calling us all to grow towards Christ.

Lindsey and I wrote an answer to the question “Why celibacy?” as our second blog post ever. We’re both asked the question constantly even now. Every time a person asks us why we’ve chosen celibacy, we have the opportunity to reflect anew on the life we committed to freely and joyously. My answer remains the same: I am celibate because I experience a strong sense of call to celibacy, and it brings me abundant joy. Living celibacy and blogging about celibacy with Lindsey has taught me a great deal about how other people perceive celibacy. Celibacy is countercultural, and one might argue that celibate partnership is countercultural in a different way than celibacy lived out in other contexts. Few people are accustomed to thinking about celibate vocations as diverse. Based on my early experiences of being drawn to celibacy, I’m not entirely surprised that as an adult I experience a call to this way of life. I committed to celibacy because I sensed that God was making this way of life possible for me.

But aside from vocation, I’ve experienced God opening up other things for me that would likely be deemed countercultural in American society. To be clear, I didn’t set out asking God to bless me to live a radically countercultural way of life. I wanted — and still want — to pursue Christ’s guidance and receive all of God’s provisions for my own journey, whatever those may be. There are parts of my life and my spirituality that would probably been culturally normative. And there are some parts that just seem a bit weird to others, including some members of my own Christian tradition.

My first encounter with head covering was interacting with Catholic nuns. I didn’t think any woman who wasn’t a nun covered her hair, and I had never thought much about it. The first time I realized that some Catholic lay women cover was in my early 20s when I attended services at one particular parish where a small group of women engaged in this spiritual practice. Immediately I found these women a bit brash and arrogant because they seemed interested in policing everyone else’s modesty. They would hand out pamphlets on modesty to uncovered women on a reasonably regular basis and shoot glances at people who were not dressed “properly” for church. I immediately associated these women with everything negative about overtly conservative forms of piety. They were the kind of people who always had an opinion about what rendered a Catholic especially devout or especially heretical and rarely hesitated in sharing their thoughts. There was no way ever that I would have wanted to be anything like these women. I didn’t see anything in their faith and practice that I wanted to emulate. Head covering was the last practice I ever wanted to adopt: I saw it as distracting, oppressive, unhealthily obsessive with proper devotion, and as an invitation to make one’s church politics visible.

Imagine my surprise when I got the first inkling that God might be opening head covering as a spiritual practice for me after my transition from Catholicism into my current Christian tradition. Whenever I experience a new idea that would — if followed through — case a major change in my life, I try not to jump to the conclusion that God is asking me act immediately. I know far too many people who have conveniently sensed “callings from God” that aligned tightly with their own desires, and have become miserable as a result of acting on these desires. I was confused because I didn’t actually want to start covering, so I kept an open mind that the idea might be coming from God and continued my regular spiritual practices as always.

I sat with this idea for a few months, and it never left. Over time, I came to realize that I might want to try covering. I eased into it slowly: I started wearing larger headbands to church to discern if there might be some spiritual benefit for me in covering. I noticed that since I never cover my head or wear large headbands when going about my daily life routine, wearing a covering at church or in my prayer corner helped me differentiate church from the rest of the world. I observed that it was easier for me to focus and viscerally encounter the truth that heaven meets earth during divine services. I saw my heart rejoicing with awareness that we exit time and space when we go to meet with Christ in prayer. I continued to bring all of my observations to God in times of private devotion, and I sensed God inviting me to make the practice of covering a regular part of my spiritual life.

While I felt peace about all of this, I noticed a huge amount of anxiety welling up inside of me at the same time because covering is easily noticeable. Even though a lot of women in my current Christian tradition practice covering, I still had some insecurity about whether I would stick out and cause distraction for others. Also, I didn’t know if other women who covered would recruit me to join some kind of effort toward spreading the practice to others in our community. I wondered if people would see me and think I had somehow willfully made myself a second-class citizen in church by consenting to the idea that women are somehow less than men. I thought about what my friends and acquaintances from other seasons in my life might think if they knew I was covering. How would friends who sat across from me in women’s studies courses respond? What lectures might I hear from Catholic friends at my former parish who robustly advocate against covering on any occasion? How would my friends who describe themselves readily as “liberated women” react? I even considered a question that I rarely ask myself anymore: “What would my parents think?” Despite all of these feelings and uncertainties, I decided to try it out anyway. I’ve been surprised and heartened that the practice of head covering continues to prove beneficial in my spiritual life.

When I’m talking to people about why I do what I do, I get just about as much variation in reactions from those asking me why I cover as I do from those asking me why I’m celibate. There are folks who expect me to respond with a blind appeal to one authority or another — something like “The Bible is clear that I should” or “Tradition has a consistent witness that I should.” These are the same kinds of answers people expect me to give when they ask me why I’m celibate. The real conversations begin happening when I explain the reasons for my choices. Occasionally a person who expects me to answer by appealing to authority will be challenged to consider alternate reasons for particular practices. Sometimes people ask me why I don’t answer first by appealing to authority. These folks occasionally go so far as to say that I clearly don’t respect the Bible or Tradition because I haven’t cited a certain verse or teaching as my first motivation. In these situations, I’ve received more than one lecture about why women should cover their heads and why gay people ought to be celibate. It seems odd to me that, for some people, unless your primary reason for making a particular choice is the Bible said so or Tradition clearly teaches, you can’t possibly be engaging in a practice in the right way. It’s bewildering to experience a person telling you that you’re just not committed to doing x, y, and z that you’ve made a voluntary decision to adopt because of God’s personal direction.

I don’t think every countercultural practice or way of life has to be engaged in with the intention of being countercultural. In fact, I think most of the time it’s better when a person adopts a practice because God has opened that practice up to that individual. I don’t think it’s necessarily good for a person to adopt a practice as an attempt to reject a cultural norm and shove it in other people’s faces. Taking on unusual practices in an effort to flee a cultural reality doesn’t always mean God will use that choice to bring one into a closer relationship with Christ.

It’s been interesting to live a few different realities that are countercultural alongside other realities that do fit into the box. I’m grateful for God’s immeasurable patience and good humor. And I pray that in all things God will continue to provide for me on my journey, whether God’s gifts are reasonably ordinary or delightfully personal in how they help me grow towards Christ.

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10 thoughts on “On celibacy, head covering, and all things countercultural

  1. Yes! This echoes my own experience with covering several years ago, at least the motivation. Covering in church, I also found that it served as a “switch” to sacred space. For about a year I covered all the time, but did not get the responses of challenge that you described. Now I continue to cover in church, and wear hats otherwise. The hats are for Usher glare, not for covering. 🙂

  2. Late in life, when I was reintroduced to Christian tradition, I started wearing formal clothes to liturgies again. (My father insisted on it for his children.) I have finally learned about the meaning of sacred spaces. Your reflection on head coverings helps me understand how women may have an even more deeper appreciation of that meaning, or at least a clear reminder.

  3. As ever total respect for you. I shall try head covering when I pray. I used to have a small red carpet tile I would stand on and felt the covering of the blood through that when I prayed.

    As for my celibacy that’s interesting as I’m desperate to meet someone but am envious of your celibate partnership with Sarah. That seems the best of both worlds

    • Sorry for the very late response to this! I’m always grateful when people share with me their personal experiences of prayer. It is such a gift to learn from others. -Sarah

  4. For several years, I covered my head in church as well as when I prayed at home. For me, though, it was part of an effort to learn how not to be gender-variant by adopting external markers of womanhood. Thus I did find it oppressive, but not in the way people usually assume. Unsurprisingly, the project of turning into a woman by imitating them didn’t work out very well. Sometimes I wonder what the other members of my parish make of the fact that I’ve changed from one of the few female people to wear a head covering to one of the few to always wear slacks.

    • So sorry for the long wait on getting a reply from me. Some people do find covering oppressive and spiritually harmful. In these cases, I definitely would not recommend the practice. About your last sentence: I think many people are too focused on what others wear to church. I’ve been known to cause confusion for some when I wear a long skirt and head covering with a blouse that is fairly low cut in the neckline. Not that I want to confuse anyone intentionally, but it’s easy for many church people to assume that a woman who covers and wears long skirts does so out of a desire to police the modesty of others or give in to the modesty policing of others. I think it’s a good thing that wearing what we would normally wear by just being ourselves is challenging to others. -Sarah

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