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A royal crown

· The foundress of Mater Ecclesiae Abbey on Lake Orta explains the monastic veil ·

“Receive the veil and the holy habit that are the insignia of our consecration… and never forget that you are bound to the service of Christ and of his body, the Church”. With this formula the bishop gives the nun her veil and religious habit on the day of her perpetual profession and consecration. The newly consecrated religious sings: Posuit signum in faciem meam… “The Lord has set his seal upon my face, that I should admit no other spouse than him”.

Monastery of Monte Carmelo (Vetralla, 1995)

In her Spiritual Exercises,in which she renews her consecration in preparation for receiving the veil spiritually, the great mystic St Gertrude prays: “O my Best-Beloved… grant me to rest beneath the shadow of thy love…. Give me with thine own hand this veil, which represents purity; rule me and lead me evermore, that I may bring it up to thy glorious judgement-seat, with the fruit of a chaste innocence increased a hundred-fold” (Spiritual Exercises, III).

The meaning of the veil is clear. The nun, consecrated in virginity to be exclusively Christ’s bride, must remove herself from the gaze of other possible pretenders and lovers. For this reason she lives retired from the world in the cloister (claustrum, from which derive the terms “cloistered/enclosed” and cloister/enclosure), to be for ever beneath God’s gaze and, through her purity and the intensity of her love, for his pleasure alone.

The veil is thus a kind of cloister within the cloister, because in the monastery too the nun has a very reserved lifestyle and way of relating with the other cloistered nuns. However, this custom has nothing oppressive about it; indeed the veil is very dear to the nun and she wears it with devotion, kissing it every time she puts it on and takes it off.

By preventing her from letting her eyes stray, the veil helps her keep the gaze of her heart more directly focused on God in the contemplation of his face that she ever seeks and longs for. The veil is also the sign of the modesty that conceals her, in a certain sense, from her spouse himself. It was in this light that the Fathers always read the Song of Songs: “Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil… a garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed” (4:1, 12).

These splendid verses express the admiration and moved wonder of the divine Spouse before his promised bride, totally recollected and clad in humble, delicate reserve. It is the very mystery of virginal love to ask to be delicately guarded behind a veil. With St Paul we can truly exclaim how great is “this mystery”, both virginal and nuptial (cf. Eph 5:32).

Of course the mindset and perception of our time make it hard to understand and acknowledge this tradition of nuns, yet there is no lack of vocations to the cloistered life as a testimony of the value of personal faith in our society that is so widely secularized and de-Christianized.

Actually, by a plan of God, the monastic vocation serves to compensate for the emptiness of faith that exists in the world: Indeed, it is not contempt or forgetfulness but, rather, a life that excludes compromise with all that is mundane and corrupt so as to be dedicated entirely to prayer and ascesis for the benefit of all humanity.

Nuns therefore live the nuptial and maternal mystery sublimely on the supernatural level. The vivid symbolism of the veil indicates precisely the generosity and intensity with which the cloistered religious makes a gift of herself to God for everyone, remaining hidden so as to be totally free in giving.

I cannot forget the emotion I felt at the moment when the bishop gave me the blessed veil: it was as if heaven was arching above me to envelop me in the sphere of the sacred, in the intimacy of Christ’s Heart, likening me to the Virgin Mother Mary.

When in the fourth century Pope Liberius consecrated Marcellina, the sister of Bishop Ambrose of Milan, at the moment when he placed the religious veil upon her head, all the people who thronged St Peter’s Basilica served as witnesses, applauding and proclaiming “Amen, Amen!”.

The liturgical rite of the velatio virginum is highly evocative. In ancient times red veils were also used to signify that the virgin had been redeemed by the blood of her Spouse, Christ. In one of his most beautiful homilies St Ambrose – who can be described as a “consecrator of virgins” – thus describes a consecrated woman with these words: “adorned with all the virtues, wrapped in the veil stained purple by the Blood of her Lord, she advances like a queen, ever bearing in her body the death of Christ” (De institutione virginis, 17.109).

Therefore the character of martyrdom is rightly attributed to virginity too. Indeed it is held to be a form of martyrdom, since it is a life totally given. Its royal dignity is consequently recognized and crowned by the Spouse, King of the Universe. In this way the veil also comes to mean a royal crown.

Can there be any loftier dignity for a woman? But the veil itself keeps her humble. In the Basilica of San Simpliciano in Milan there is a sepulchral inscription that says, quite simply: Hic iacet Leuteria cum capite velato. This poetic verse consigns to the memory of those to come a woman distinguished by the veil, a sign of consecration to Christ and a sign of the most exalted nobility.

In speaking of the veil it is impossible not to turn one’s attention to the Immaculate Virgin, portrayed with a veil and sometimes with a veil large enough also to enfold the Baby Jesus, whom she holds in her arms.

Around her the most beautiful poetry has flourished in every epoch; to her are addressed the most heartfelt invocations that she will stretch out her veil over all of us, over all humanity of which she was made Mother. “O Virgin Mother, daughter of thy Son”, Dante chants, “created beings all in lowliness /surpassing, as in height above them all, / term by th’eternal counsel preordained, / ennobler of thy nature, so advanc’d / in thee, that its great Maker / did not scorn, himself, in his own work enclos’d to dwell… / Here thou to us, of charity and love, / art, as the noon day torch: and art, beneath, / to mortal men, of hope a living spring. / So mighty art thou, Lady! And so great, / that he who grace desireth, and comes not / to thee for aidance, fain would have desire /fly without wings. / Nor only him who asks / thy bounty succours, but doth freely oft / forerun the asking.” (The Divine Comedy, Paradise, Canto 23, 1-18).

Veiled, but present – like the Virgin Mary – is the woman entirely dedicated to the Lord in prayer; she does not become a disembodied and impassive being far from the common people, but rather a woman who is capable of sacrifice and universal love, given completely freely because she is a virgin.

This is the mystic meaning of the veil upon the head of consecrated women. They are hidden from the world to be in the heart of the world and to bring all men and women to the Heart of Christ, the one Spouse of the Church, of humanity which he redeemed at the price of his Blood, to make it holy and immaculate in his sight; resplendent with that spiritual beauty which must be preserved from all profanation behind the sacred virginal veil.

The Benedictine Anna Maria Canopi (1931) founded Mater Ecclesiae Abbey on the Island of San Giulio on Lake Orta, Novara. A prolific writer and profoundly erudite, she is the author of many books on monastic and Christian spirituality. She collaborated in the Italian Episcopal Conference’s publication of the Bible and in the Catechismo della Chiesa cattolica. In 1993 she drafted the text of the Way of the Cross for John Paul II. The photographs on this page are by Sebastiano Papa (1932-2002).

Anna Maria Canopi

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