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Around the veil

“Photographs, some passport size, continued to pass under the eyes of Amerigo, all equally divided up into white and black spaces, the nose cone of the face framed by white headbands and by the trapezius of the breastplate, all written within the black triangle of the veil. And he had to say this: either the photographer of the nuns was a great photographer, or the nuns themselves come out very well in photographs. 

Not only for the harmony of that renowned figurative motif, the nun’s habit, but because their faces came out unaffected, similar, serene. Amerigo realized that this document control of the sisters was becoming for him a kind of spiritual repose.” It is the communist intellectual Amerigo Ormea, at the centre of Italo Calvino’s beautiful and complex novel, La giornata di un scrutatore (1963), who is speaking. Giving help at the polling station of Cottolengo in Turin on the occasion of the general elections of 1953, among the many discoveries of that day, Amerigo also discovers the sisters, figures always seen but never really thought about. This issue of “women church world” also wants to think in depth about an almost obvious presence, that “black triangle of the veil” that covers the head of many women. We have tried to meditate upon it in its various forms: in religious women, in Catholic women at Mass, in Jewish women, in Muslim women. Because today for many of us, both men and women, the veil that surrounds the female head is – despite all the differences in different contexts – the emblem of a kind of mental slavery, a more or less strong symbol of the subjugation of one sex to another. But is it true that this fabric is really just a way to hide, to imprison, to confine, to conceal in humility, to mark a sort of private and reserved property, to separate or educate into docility? Could it not be, however, also a symbol that declares a free and informed choice? It is, moreover, the veil that often, over the centuries, has accompanied depictions of Mary. To celebrate the second birthday of “women church world”, born in May, 2012, we read once again a delicate and touching verse by Alda Merini. “All the birds lowered the veil / over the face of Mary, / that she might not see the destruction of his flesh”.

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St. Peter’s Square

Aug. 22, 2019

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