By Sister Patricia Angela Jones, AF
I have lots of habits. Some are bad, like never turning the lights off when I leave a room; others are good, for instance I’m usually prompt. But my best habit is the one I wear as a Sister in the Anamchara Fellowship. Every time I put it on I think of Paul’s description of the full armor of God:
“Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist (the cincture) and put on the breastplate of righteousness (the scapular). As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace (my Birkenstocks). With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one (our community cross). Take the helmet of salvation (the veil) and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. “ (Eph. 6:14-16)
What does all this armor protect me from? Mostly from myself. While wearing it I am very aware that the world is looking at me and judging me, the Fellowship, the Episcopal Church and the Christian faith by what I say and do. I am Jesus’ hands, feet and mouth, so the question before me is always “What would Jesus do?”
Paradoxically, the armor makes me not invincible, but vulnerable. Wearing the habit is a sign of availability. It invites others to approach. When I’m out, whether on a plane, a bus, the city street, a restaurant, or the train station, someone will seek me out to talk. I have engaged in conversation with all classes and sorts of people—foreign travelers, the homeless, the mentally ill, the hungry, or men in 3 piece suits… I am not a social worker, therapist or confessor. I can’t fix whatever is wrong. These people aren’t asking for a solution, either. They want nothing more than for someone to listen to their story without judgment, without feeling compelled to offer advice. Listening with the ear of the heart is rare, and is a ministry in and of itself. Usually, these people will ask for a prayer or blessing. And there I am, in airport or on a street corner, anointing with oil and laying on hands. Sometimes I can’t quite believe that someone as shy and introverted as myself is being so high profile. But I think anyone who has appeared in clerical garb has had this experience.
One Sunday, our Sister Ann found a homeless woman in the church restroom, using it for cleaning up. The Sister spoke with her, and the woman shared her story. They prayed together and she left with a blessing. The habit engendered trust. Had someone in street clothes walked in, the woman in all likelihood would have avoided eye contact and conversation, and would have left as quickly as possible.
I’ve also had people come to me and say “Thank you for wearing the habit”. It’s amazing how many mourn the loss of the habit among Religious, and are happy when they see it.
Sometimes the habit provokes debate. The assumption is that I’m Roman Catholic, and I may hear from someone who has issues with that church, maybe with a nun who rapped the knuckles of her 4th graders. And there are those with problems with the Episcopal Church, too, mainly over gender issues. I will also hear from agnostics and atheists who can’t figure out why I’m wasting my life like this. I’ve never converted anyone—never tried to. As with the hurting folks, I listen and try to find areas where we can agree. Wearing the habit reminds me to let go of argumentation and defensiveness. The resulting conversations can then be civil.
Occasionally I run into folks who hold highly inflated notions about Brothers and Sisters, who think we walk on water and never have to go to the bathroom. This is embarrassing to me. Once, as I found my seat on a plane the woman next to me said, “Suddenly I feel a whole lot safer with you on board!”
I replied that God is no respecter of persons, and that I have no more pull with him than she does.
“I don’t want to hear that”, she said. And didn’t speak to me again for the entire flight.
Mind you, most of the time I am in street clothes, not the habit. Anamchara Fellowship is an expression of the New Monasticism. We are a dispersed community, living in our own homes, holding secular jobs and developing our own ministries. The habit is worn usually for Eucharist, when doing ministry, when representing the Fellowship at an event, and for special AF services at our annual Gathering. But it doesn’t matter what we are wearing. The habit doesn’t make the nun or monk. It’s the other way around—the Religious makes the habit. The knowledge of who we are and what the habit represents to us infuses all aspects of our lives. Several of us have been addressed as “Sister” or “Brother”, or been asked “Are you a nun?” When in street attire. There is some aura or vibe that rubs off.
The habit is not a uniform that identifies our school or team. Nor is it a costume to dress up in to put on a performance. It is a sacred garment that identifies us as people who have committed their lives to serving God in His Church, and to serving His people on earth.
Our Brother Paul Cieran was once wearing his habit while doing pastoral care at a hospital. Entering an elevator, a little girl looked up at him and with wide-eyed innocence asked “Are you Jesus?”
To which Br. Paul Cieran replied, “No, but I work for Him.”
And that’s exactly right.
Sr Patricia Angela Jones is a member of the Anamchara Fellowship, a new monastic order of the Episcopal church