Monday, September 15, 2008

The Big Brown Wedding Ring: by Eric Pilarcik ofm

“Then they may be given the clothes of probation. Namely, two tunics without a capuche, a cord, short trousers and a little cape…” —St. Francis, from the Rule of the Friars Minor

Not too long ago, I didn’t even know what a capuche (pronounced ca-POOSH) was, let alone imagine that I’d be wearing one every day. As of this past June, I am a novice in the Saint Barbara Province living at Mission San Miguel, the sixteenth of the twenty-one historic California missions. For the religious-order-clothing-unaware, the Franciscan habit is a long, brown robe bound at the waist with a white cord. The capuche is the separate and detachable cowl or hood-part of this habit. The scapular is connected to the capuche; it hangs from the shoulder and covers the chest with a half-circle shape. Friars traditionally wear plain leather sandals.

Up until a couple of years ago, I had seen this religious attire only in movies, books, paintings, in tales of Robin Hood and his associates, and on the Frangelico bottle my parents had up on the top shelf. I associated it with poverty, religious devotion and a way of life long-gone and centuries past. Then, here on the west coast, I met the Franciscans.

It was like seeing a living, breathing unicorn. I was in Br. Arturo’s tailor shop when I found out that the habit was not a one-size-fits-all design. I assumed the expansiveness of all that brown fabric compensated for the oversized friar; conversely, the cord cinches at the waist to gather excess fabric for the undersized friar. It turns out that I am a larger, irregular shape, and each of the habits has to be individually tailored anyway. Br. Arturo made skillful alterations; then I turned to see myself in the full-length mirror. I saw a reflection of myself from what looked like Thirteenth Century Europe, the same me but completely different. I was stunned and it was powerful. It might be like a new military recruit seeing him/herself in a military uniform or a bride or groom seeing her/himself for the first time in wedding clothes. It’s partially about realizing the future in a very visual sense and re-imagining yourself as a part of something different, new and larger, deeper and older than yourself. It’s also a glimpse into the past, the present and eternal all at the same time.

The habit is a sign of the cross for others and ourselves. With its solid color, fuller sleeves and arms outstretched, it becomes a visual cross—not the one usually seen †, but the capital T-shaped tau cross that was Francis’s signature and very likely the kind of cross on which Jesus was crucified. Most Franciscans wear this tau on a chain around their necks. Wearing the habit means embracing Christ to the point of putting on the cross, and is a sign of his death and resurrection and love and mercy. It’s a visual reminder of our availability to all people and being exclusive to no one. Ideally, each of us is a sign of the Gospel in action — an instrument of God’s peace and love in the world. The habit reminds us that we’re here on this earth to love and serve God and others. Theresa of Avila expressed this vividly:
“Christ has no body now but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes that must look out Christ’s compassion on the world.”

As human beings, we can be attracted or repelled based on exterior appearance alone. We all know this from personal experience. This reaction to appearance can be harsh and punishing or it can spark (often unmerited) praise and adoration. We see ourselves and our desires, memories and opinions in the physical “looks” of others. This is a combination of attraction and projection and quite possibly has nothing to do with the real person wearing those clothes, that face or that habit. I felt the benefits of just such positive projection a few weekends ago at Mission San Miguel’s annual Fiesta. It is loosely based on the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, and it’s a fantastic Sunday barbeque for the whole local community. People whom I’d never met before identified me as a Franciscan because of the habit, and were extremely kind and full of good wishes. I’m very aware and humbled in knowing that this good will has to do with the good reputation of the Franciscans that the habit represents.

Before joining the Franciscans, I had a foreshadowing glimpse into this immediate reaction of others based on physical appearance. No one has ever come up to me and said that I’m stunningly handsome; however, I did bring a beautiful friend to work with me, and people magically changed in her presence. She is funny, kind, generous, plus she’s physically arresting with thick blonde hair, an amazing smile, sparkling eyes and a bubbly laugh. One fine day, she came to the office because we were on our way somewhere else. She walked in, and it was like the sun came out. People who never glanced at me more than a few seconds (sometimes barely lifting their eyes from their computer screens) were suddenly coming to life and approaching us (her) to say hello, offer coffee or make a joke. I saw a new, open, alive side of these folks that I’d never seen before just because I was standing alongside her. For weeks after that, people asked me about her, how she was doing, and when did I suppose she might come by again. I think this is an example of how God can use physical beauty to transform, wake us up or get our attention. By wearing the habit, sometimes we become a “spiritual attention-getter” for others.

You can’t be anonymous in a habit. People already “know” you or something about you when they recognize the habit. It’s similar for anyone wearing a uniform — military, US Postal worker, police officers — and for the person with a “Mohawk” haircut, or sometimes for the woman who is pregnant. All of a sudden, you’re on the receiving end of all kinds of comments, questions, pointed looks, and unsolicited advice, anecdotes, and, sometimes, hostility. The habit invites conversation and interaction, and it makes a strong non-verbal statement about our identity as Franciscans and about devoting our lives to a religious vocation.

However, there are times when none of us want to advertise who we are or what we do, and we just want to blend with the crowd — when traveling on a plane, for instance. Our human nature seeks the peace and neutrality that non-descript clothes provide. This is illustrated by how the mass of humankind (including Franciscans and most religious) chooses to move about in standard issue, non-distinctive, comfortable, culturally appropriate clothing (think of wearing your jeans or sweat pants into the grocery store).

Insight is gained into complications that women (and some men) encounter when wearing dresses or skirts. A friar brother tells me that the local dry cleaner calls the habit and the capuche a “dress” and a “hat” for their purposes. That adds a feminine angle to some of its practical aspects. It has physical restrictions and limitations that people wearing dresses or skirts face on a daily basis. In general, range of motion is restricted by all that extra fabric, and especially in the billowy nature of the sleeves. Oftentimes, they need to be rolled up while writing, eating (accidental dipping into soups and sauces), holding/lighting candles (accidental catching on fire), etc. Not to mention, riding a bicycle and climbing fence become awkward. Also, it takes more thought and effort to put on and take off than a shirt and pants. An additional aggravation is that there are no hip pockets. Granted, there are pouches in the sleeves, but they’re not as convenient. I’ve always pitied how women have to leave what they are doing and struggle to find the location of their purse when all they want is a simple stick of gum, a quarter, or a pencil. Now, here I am in this habit without front pockets. However, the simple white cord is a surprisingly effective belt.

St. Francis’s habit looks ragged and small. Historians estimate that Francis was a slight man, about 5’3” in height and 110 pounds. From the photos I’ve seen, his habit is made of rough cloth and worn with holes — but it is still essentially the very same design as what Franciscans continue to wear today. I feel almost guilty that in comparison the one that I wear is in such excellent condition. This brings to mind Francis’s commitment and dedication through all weather, terrain and life’s difficulties. Toward the end of his life, while in his weak and painful physical condition, Francis suffered as he saw the divisions within the order he founded, brothers opposed to brothers. The habit also speaks about our fragility as human beings, the temporary nature of life in this world and our dependence on God. As we get older, our bodies become ragged and faded and fall apart until ultimately we pass on (our own Transitus) to whatever that mystical union with God might be.

It’s like a big, brown wedding ring. What would it look like if every person wore something on their body which communicated to others what was most important to them in life? When I lived in Los Angeles, I noticed the observant Jews wearing black clothes and yarmulkes or headscarves, and the Church of Scientology folks wearing dark pants and blue Oxford shirts. A wedding ring is the best comparison that I can see. Two people exchange rings and make wedding vows to love, honor and serve each other for the rest of their lives. Our habit with its total covering of the body (down to the ankles), recalls our vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and is an outward sign of “putting on” the cross, and devoting our lives in love and service to God and others. Like a marriage, it’s ambitious, challenging and we never live up to it fully. It’s powerful, and there is always the danger of taking advantage of the good will it inspires in others.

What is our real “habit”? Each person’s calling in life comes from God, and it’s not about what we wear. In concept, being naked would be a truer habit. It might begin to express how completely dependent we are on God for all that we do and are. We make mistakes, and are continuously forgiven. Our life, all our days, all our energy and everything we are is a gift. Maybe our habit should be simply allowing this love from God to channel through us, and transform us — to love, serve and forgive more fully.

Friar Eric Pilarcik, ofm, completed his novitiate and made his first profession in July, 2008. He is now a student at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California. This article, published under the title, "The Big Brown Wedding Ring," originally appeared in The Way of St. Francis magazine, (vol.14, No.5, Sept/Oct 2008) and is reprinted with permission. For more information about THE WAY contact:


Anonymous said...

I was so touched by Eric Pilarcik's essay. He speaks with such a deep insight into the signifcance of the Franciscan habit. I will now have a deeper appreciation of what the Priest and Brothers wear! May God continue to bless Eric's journey in the Franciscan life. DB

Anonymous said...

Well, I've known Eric since he was 18. One of the kindest people I've ever known. KAS

Very well written article that makes you take a moment to think about your own perspectives on life and people