It began simply enough. Even though I’d grown up in an Orthodox Church, none of the women in my home parish wore head coverings and so it never even occurred to me that it was something I should do. Many of the women at the parish I (very occasionally) attended in college covered their heads, but there was no way the “me” of that time was going to do something that smacked at all of female subjugation. But the reason why I finally began to cover my head in church was because my good friend asked me to do so with her. She, a new convert, wanted to wear one but she did not want to offend the other women of the church, who at the time were not wearing head coverings. At that time I didn’t really have a reason not to cover my head, and so I did so in fellowship with her, and I didn’t really think about it for a long time.
When we moved to the Seattle area almost four years ago and began attending a new parish, I went through a period when I didn’t wear my head covering in church, or at least wore it infrequently. I don’t remember when I began again or even why, but I’ve been wearing a headscarf in church regularly for over a year, and during Lent, I wear it almost every day all day long.
Since I wear it outside of church, I recently have had several people ask why I wear the head scarf (though not as many as you may think) and it prompted me to actually give it some thought. Something that began very simply has become much more complex – or rather more multi-faceted. In other words, I wear a head covering for many reasons.
First of all, let me say that my head covering of choice is a scarf that I tie behind my head and which pulls my hair back and keeps it out of my face. I find that this style helps keep my appearance neat but simple and requires very little primping and styling. Some women wear larger scarfs draped around their heads and necks. It is a beautiful and very feminine way to wear a scarf, but I find that for whatever reason, when I wear my scarf thus, I end up having to fuss with it too much and so for me defeats part of the purpose of wearing one in the first place. I’ve also seen women who wear beautiful and elaborate hats in church and I did wear one to church once on Pascha. Though technically a head covering and good enough for millions of women up until the middle of the last century, hats being expensive and fussy and hard to store run counter to the spirit of the practice for me.
Many women who wear a head covering cite 1 Corinthians 11:10 as the initial reason they began the practice: “Because of this ought the woman to have authority [power] on her head on account of the angels.” However, being a cradle Orthodox Christian, my knowledge of Scripture was in no way extensive – in fact, it was mostly limited to the readings I would hear in church during the services. This includes quite a bit of Scripture and this verse may be an Epistle reading somewhere, but if it is I don’t remember ever hearing it. And so it was only recently that I came across this verse. It is not the reason why I started wearing a head scarf, but it does intrigue me and so I’ll come back to it a little later.
Some women cover their heads because it’s Orthodox Christian tradition. Their mother, grandmother, great-grandmother going back for generations covered their heads in church so why shouldn’t they. Other women covert to Orthodoxy and wear a head covering either because other women in their church do so or they were told to wear one by their priest or Father Confessor (which both come back to “tradition”) as was the case with my friend.
The first time I covered my head in church was at my wedding, but I didn’t think of it as such – the veil was just part of my bridal costume. At the time, it was a big enough step forward for me, and a testament to how much I loved my husband, that I could stand in church and not only tolerate, but accept the words of St. Paul to the Ephesians, which are read at every Orthodox wedding service: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5: 22-24). There was a time when this passage literally enraged me, but that was mostly evidence of my ignorance of the entire passage and its full meaning as it is realized in a marriage. I have since learned to regard this bit of Scripture as both beautiful and awesome. That I stand in church every Sunday with my head covered (this time with a simple scarf), next to my husband (or relatively as I am in the choir), now accompanied by our four children is evidence of the Church’s wisdom and strength; it is not where that “me” who raged against St. Paul’s words to the Ephesians and rejected the inferiority implied by the head covering would have imagined she would end up. I am glad she’s here.
The simple reason why I cover my head, both in church and at home during Lent, is because it reminds me who I am. Who am I? I hardly know some days, but then that’s the point. When I cover my head I remember simply that I am a child of God who has specific God-given gifts and responsibilities granted to me as a woman and to me individually – in my case the greatest of these responsibilities is being a wife and a mother. In our house, Anthony is the head and the strength of the family; he supports us in everything – his hard work provides us with money to live and his love buoys each of us up in all that we do, myself included. Being who I am means that I decide the daily schedule, what needs to be done around the house by each person, what we eat, when people go to the doctor and the dentist, when homework must be done, and many of the other details that allow us to live our daily lives. My head covering makes me mindful that though I “run” the house, I am not in control. This is why I find such peace in wearing it during Lent when I’m striving to remember God moment to moment throughout my day. It helps me to remember what the Prayer of the Optina Elders has us pray:
Grant unto me, O Lord, that with peace of mind I may face all that this new day is to bring.
Grant unto me to dedicate myself completely to Thy Holy Will.
For every hour of this day, instruct and support me in all things.
Whatsoever tidings I may receive during the day, do Thou teach me to accept tranquilly, in the firm conviction that all eventualities fulfill Thy Holy Will.
Govern Thou my thoughts and feelings in all I do and say.
When things unforeseen occur, let me not forget that all cometh down from Thee.
Teach me to behave sincerely and rationally toward every member of my family, that I may bring confusion and sorrow to none.
Bestow upon me, my Lord, strength to endure the fatigue of the day, and to bear my part in all its passing events.
Guide Thou my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to suffer, to forgive, and to love. Amen
Strangely, rather than making me feel depreciated or hidden or subservient, my head covering helps me to feel calm and even empowered in the knowledge of who I am and what I am called upon to be and to do.
Thinking about why I cover my head has made reading and considering what the Scripture and the Fathers of the Church have to say about women’s head coverings quite interesting. “On Account of the Angels: Why I Cover My Head” by Elisabet* contains much that intrigues me and has helped me make sense of my experience. (All of the sources cited below are taken from the above article.)
Perhaps most interesting to me was Elisabet’s question of why the angels should care whether women have their heads covered as the Scripture implies – “Because of this ought the woman to have authority [power] on her head on account of the angels” [emphasis added]. Mother Alexandra writes in The Holy Angels that “The Celestial hierarchies are the … spiritual reality of ordered creation, the stable patterns in which disruption is unknown.” In other words, each rank of celestial being – be they seraphim, cherubim, archangels, or angels – are arranged in choirs, and none of these beings would ever consider abandoning their place to “aspire” to be something else; not only would it be a disobedience to God, but it would be a rejection of their very identity as they were created, as I understand it with my simple mind. So St. John Chrysostom writes that when a woman removes her head covering, or veil, it “disturbs all things and betrays the gifts of God, and casts to the ground the honor bestowed … For to [the woman] it is the greatest of honor to preserve her own rank.” Furthermore he adds that in taking off her head covering, a woman does not aspire to be like man; “She doth not mount up, but rather falls from her own proper honor … Since not to abide within our own limits and the laws of God, but to go beyond, is not an addition, but a diminution.”
In a time when we are told we can be “anything” we want to be, it is important to remember that though we are all equal before God, we can really only be what God created us to be. Timothy McFadden, in his doctoral thesis on the subject of “man/woman – God/Christgod, writes, “Members of the Godhead – and His image – are not interchangeable. As God Father and Son are equal and One in nature, so also they are unique and not interchangeable. Similarly, though equal in nature, man is not woman, woman is not man. They are distinguishable.” Furthermore, Fr. Basil Rhodes states in his Master of Divinity thesis on The Veiling of Women in 1 Corinthians 11 that, “Man is the head of the woman, according to Genesis and to St. Paul who compares the relationship of man and woman with that of the Son to the Father: ‘And the head of Christ is God’ (1 Cor 2:3). It would be a grave error to say that Christ is inferior to His Father. The veiling of the woman, for St. Paul, is an outward sign of the acceptance of God’s order, and His divine purpose in creation. The veil is the woman’s ‘yes’ to God, a physical, visual ‘Amen’.”
Rather than being a sign of inferiority or subservience then, the head covering has become for me that which outwardly identifies me in my distinct and God-given roll. Inwardly, it reminds me of that roll – of who I am before God, before my husband, before my children, before the angels. Elisabet writes that “As Christians we both have exousia – power, right, and authority – as children of God, but woman’s authority is distinctly feminine, as man’s is distinctly masculine. Hers does not contradict or usurp his, but complements it.” I am reminded by this comparison of the virtuous woman described in Proverbs 31 whose skill and authority is distinctly feminine and worthy of praise:
10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. 11The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. 12She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. 13She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. 14She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar. 15She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens. 16She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard. 17She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms. 18She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night. 19She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff. 20She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy. 21She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet. 22She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple. 23Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land. 24She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant. 25Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come. 26She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness. 27She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. 28Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her. 29Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all. 30Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised. 31Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.
And I would indeed be remiss if I did not mention the Theotokos, who is a perfect icon of obedience and humility. “If she whom we hymn as ‘more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim’ is always seen wearing her head-covering, it certainly cannot be a sign of ‘inferiority to men’.”
At Matins for the Sunday of Orthodoxy we sing, “Come and let us celebrate a day of joy: Now heaven makes glad! Earth with all the hosts of angels and the companies of mortal men, each in their varied order, keeps the feast” [emphasis added]. Covering my head in church then is the sign of my particular rank within “the host of angels and the companies of mortal men,” one that God has specifically given to women. Elisabet concludes that “Why head coverings matter to the angels may be unclear, but that they matter seems evident. Fr. Basil Rhodes states, ‘The angels watch what we do and rejoice when we obey.’ A scarf may be a small matter, but obedience often hinges on small things, small choices … in putting on my head-covering I mean to say to God, ‘Behold your handmaiden, be it unto me according to Your word’.”
The Church, in all her wisdom, gives us many traditions that are for our edification and help on our journey towards union with Christ. As one person in an online discussion on head coverings stated, “every tradition is an opportunity to receive a blessing. Every tradition I discard, is an opportunity lost.” However, just as those who fast are admonished not to judge those who do not fast, I who cover my head must be careful not to judge those who do not; for if I fall into judgment and pride, any blessing I have gained is overshadowed by my sin.
In preparing for this piece, I asked several women in my church why they cover their head and about their experience in doing so. I won’t share them here, if only because this is already so long**, but it was significant to me that their reasons and their experiences were quite distinct from mine. The one commonality was that we all agreed that doing so has been a blessing. In writing this, I do not hope to convince anyone to wear a head covering. Nor do I seek to justify my choice. I do not dare imagine that my specific, personal experience – as wife of Anthony, mother of four, and horribly forgetful of that which is all important – should be universally applicable to all women. All I know is the peace that it has brought to my head (literally), and I wanted to share those experiences and my thoughts about them with you.
*“On Account of the Angels: Why I Cover My Head” by Elisabet was first published in the Spring 1997 edition of The Handmaiden: A Journal for Women Serving God within the Orthodox Church, and can be found in its entirety HERE.
**If you think this blog post is long, check this one out!