This article from the National Catholic Register really struck a chord with me as a convert to the Church who really appreciates seeing religious in their habits, and I’m always dismayed when they are dressed in regular street clothes; which all too many do today.
The horse-and-buggies are the first sign that you’re approaching Indiana’s Amish country. Our kids and our out-of-state visitors ooh and aah, point and smile – the simplicity is otherworldly, especially when the 18-wheelers fly by. Even after two decades living nearby, I’m still caught off guard by the stark contrast.
Then we get out someplace – a restaurant or a shop – and encounter the Amish themselves. There’s no denying that we’re tourists, and we don’t want to be rude, but we find ourselves staring anyway. The bonnets and wide-brimmed hats, aprons and work boots; buttons instead of zippers, and a two-tone color paltte – just black and white. No nonsense, simple – “plain” is the word they use. It’s a witness to their firm commitment to Gospel values, humility, and modesty, and a challenge to a world obsessed with image and impression. And it’s undeniably appealing.
Plus, it’s completely silent – that’s the amazing part. The Amish needn’t say a word nor lift a finger for their message of meek submission to God and each other to be broadcast to the world. It’s their primary form of evangelization – akin to the famous edict attributed to St. Francis that his followers should wordlessly proclaim the Gospel through their actions before proclaiming it with their lips. In fact, the Amish do not actively evangelize at all, properly speaking, but the witness of their lives, beginning with their distinctive simple attire, draws converts to their ranks nonetheless. It’s a testimony that begins with outer appearance, and so it’s constant – always visible, never concealed….
There’s a similar sign value in the distinctive dress of religious communities – their particular “habit,” however constituted – although that’s not its purpose. Like Amish plain attire, religious habits are mainly indicators of communal membership. They strengthen group identity and cohesion, in addition to promoting modesty and interior poverty. Under normal circumstances, men and women religious are required to wear their habits, but why wouldn’t they? After all, the habit is truly a gift insofar as it is an “outward mark of consecration to God” in the words of Pope Paul VI. And what is the nature of that consecration? To “strive for the perfection of charity in the service of the kingdom of God and, having been made an outstanding sign in the Church, foretell the heavenly glory” (CCL 573).
That last bit – the habit as an “outstanding sign” – is of special importance to the laity because when we see a religious man or woman in habit, we are automatically alerted to that individual’s choice to lead a life dedicated to God. Thus, the worn habit is itself an eschatological sign that points beyond the here and now to the realm of permanence and beatitude. In other words, a habit is a sacramental – not conferring grace itself as a sacrament does, but rather conditioning us to appropriate grace – and consequently religious men and women in habit become magnets for those thirsting after heaven. We’re attracted to them because we’re attracted to the eternal. External habits announce internal aspirations to holiness, and we want what they want.
Retrieved July 10, 2015 from http://www.ncregister.com/blog/becker/amish-clothes-religious-habits-and-chaotic-family-life