A lot of people are interested in why some Mennonite women (I’m not one of them) wear prayer caps, also known as “coverings” or “veiling”. So I thought I’d do a post on that.
To begin with, while those who cover their heads now are the exception, this was not always so. Women in European traditions wore head coverings up until very recently (think of ladies in the ’50s always going out with hat and gloves). It is really only within the last fifty years, or so, that this has gone out of fashion (much to my chagrin – I love hats).
In essence, women in modern plain and reform churches take the Biblical verse 1 Cor. 11:5 to heart when Paul asks women to cover their heads when they pray. They wear them at all times because they try to follow Jesus’ call to “pray always” (Luke 18:1).
The Quaker church in particular has a very beautiful concept of prayer. For them, prayer comes from a depth of quiet, and that the quiet of the heart is a state of listening for God’s voice. This is one way in which they pray.
This excerpt explains it very nicely:
“If I am tempted to be impatient with a store clerk, my prayer cap calls me to patience. If I am tempted to judge the noisy teenager in the car pulsating with rock music, my prayer cap calls me to pray for this youngster. When I feel hurt by a rude neighbor, my prayer cap reminds me that the word “neighbor” is a holy word and denotes someone I must love, even when the loving is hard. And so I lift her up to Jesus. The prayer cap is more than a symbol, it is more than a statement, it is more than a tradition, it is a way of life. It is a way of life we are called to in Christ.” (http://www.michiganquakers.org/prayer_cap.oym.htm)
Prior to Vatican II, many Catholic women wore headcoverings – usually only in church, but some wore them always. The could be hats, a simple scarf, or a mantilla. Some traditionalist Catholics and Eastern Orthodox ladies still wear them.
I find the mantilla prayer coverings very reminiscent of what Jewish ladies wear when lighting the Shabbat candles. I would hazard a guess that there’s a link between them, going to the early history of the church and the Judaism is arose from, but I don’t know that for a fact. If anyone can shed some light on this, I would be interested to know.
Muslim women, of course, wear hijab because of this verse in the Quran:
O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons…that they should be known and not molested.” [Chapter 33, verse 59]
See Naheed Mustafa’s (a Canadian Muslim) article in the Globe and Mail, My Body is My Business http://www.islam101.com/women/naheed.html
Finally, it would never do to have a discussion of Christian women’s headcoverings without addressing the distinctive look of the traditional nun’s habit.
While there are variations, the general rule was a white coif (the garment’s head piece, a white cotton cap secured by a wimple or a guimpe of starched linen or cotton (sometimes covered by black crape). There is then a black veil pinned over the coif (sometimes with a white underveil). The Holy habit is the central piece of the garment and is a loose black dress. The habit is often secured with a woolen belt. Their rosary hangs from the belt, and a silver cross is traditionally worn around the neck. The outfit has two sets of sleeves, the larger ones can be rolled up to work, or rolled down for formal occasions and entering chapel. The complete outfit includes two underskirts, a top skirt of black serge and an underskirt of black cotton. All orders wear the scapular, the symbolic apron that hangs both in front and behind. The Benedictines wear it over the belt, whereas most others wear it under. A scapular comes with a set of promises for the one who wears it.