For three years before entering the convent, I had worn a chapel veil at Mass. As a child, I’d been attracted to the beauty of the veils themselves, and in college I became exposed to the theological reasoning behind the practice, which cinched the deal for me. I bought my first veil (a real mantilla!) in Madrid at World Youth Day and I’d worn one ever since. I loved veiling and adhered to it religiously (pun very much intended!), and I eagerly hoped and prayed that the day would come where I would wear a veil not just in the chapel, but “full time” as a religious sister.
When I finally heard and accepted God’s concrete invitation to join a religious order, I was ecstatic. Of course, there were difficulties with the decision to enter: Shortly after requesting entrance, I was offered several full scholarships for graduate study at prestigious universities, the Order asked me to do an additional “optional” year of formation as a prepostulant at a house in a foreign country, I needed to change my lifelong vegetarian diet in order to be able to eat “from the common table.” And I was asked not to wear a chapel veil as a prepostulant. While this last difficulty was not the hardest of those decisions (after all, I had the prospect of soon becoming a fully-habited religious sister in front of me!), I will admit that I struggled with it. It was one of the first tests of obedience that the Lord asked of me in religious life.
I grew a lot over the course of prepostulancy and during my two months as a postulant. And when I returned home from the convent, while it felt natural for me to continue veiling in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, it was with a very different mindset than when I’d begun the practice.
Thus, a week after leaving the convent, I found myself at daily Mass trying to push aside my anger with myself, my anger with some of my former Sisters, my feelings of deep vulnerability, abandonment, and loss, and basically just an overwhelming amount of inner turmoil. While I was kneeling in thanksgiving after Mass was over, an older gentleman approached me. “It’s so nice to see a young woman with her head covered at Mass! The Lord is granting you many graces for wearing that,” he said to me. Whereas before, this comment would have spoken to my pride and made me feel flattered (“I know! I’m such a good Catholic!”), now I just felt irrationally angry. I wanted to yell at him that “With that mindset, the Lord would probably be granting me far more graces if I were still in the convent! You don’t know anything!” Noting my anger and resolving to take it to prayer to examine it later, I responded instead with a weary smile and as much restraint as I could muster: “I hope the Lord grants me graces regardless of what I’m wearing on my head.”
During a personal Holy Hour a little later, I returned to that interaction. “The Lord is granting you many graces [for wearing a veil]”, I quoted in my journal. “Well,” I continued writing, “I personally hope the Lord is granting me graces because He loves me and because I love Him and try to follow His will, not because of some piece of lace on my head. In fact, I have a feeling that I received more graces in not wearing a veil as a prepostulant than I do now in wearing a veil as a laywoman, since the former was done in obedience.”
“But God doesn’t love me because I veil or because I pray or because I entered the convent. He loves me because that is Who He is. And because Who He is doesn’t change, His love for me will never change. His love for me is not dependent upon what I do or don’t do, on what I wear or don’t wear. I am loved no matter what because He is love and He loves me.”
Until that moment, I’d never realized or admitted to myself that I’d been trying to earn God’s love, but that’s what I’d been trying to do. I didn’t feel worthy of the Lord’s love, so instead of accepting that I am unworthy and He loves me
anyways, I tried to make it “worth it” for Him to love me. But somehow, in that place of brokenness, of realizing just how weak and sinful I am and how insufficient all my “great big efforts” to make myself “worthy” of being loved by God actually are, the Lord spoke Love into my heart. “Oh, little one,” I heard Him say, “My dear, sweet little one, you don’t need to try to win My love, you don’t have to earn it. You can’t earn it. My Heart is already yours and nothing you do will ever alter that.”
I am eternally grateful to that older gentleman for helping open my eyes to the reality of the Lord’s love for me and for helping open my heart to His healing. His comment led to a moment of deep insight and consolation that has been helping me navigate the stormy waters of these first few months of post-convent life.
I still wear a veil at Mass. I continue to love the tradition, and it helps remind me that I am both beautiful and His bride, even if I’m not a religious sister. But I now veil with more humility and less rigidity because I realize that it won’t “earn” me anything. It’s one of the many precious insights that the Lord has so graciously granted me since leaving my former community.
“You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride;
You have ravished my heart with one glance of your eyes.”
(Song of Songs 4:9)