The Trouble with Head Coverings

The next great hurdle after my conversion to Orthodoxy was my decision whether to wear a head covering.  Most women in the parish we converted in wore a head covering, but they were respectful of anyone who did not wear one.  They showed true Christian love and accepted everyone for where they were in their struggle toward Christ.  I did not understand why they wore head coverings and therefore did not wear one.  They told me it was in the Bible, but I never made the effort to look for it.  I tried for years to put off the idea of wearing a head covering.

Within a couple years, my family moved to Ohio.  Head coverings seemed to be a non-issue here because it was rare to see a woman wearing a head covering in the parishes we visited.  In one of the Ohio parishes we attended, there was only one woman wearing a head covering.  She was a recent convert and very zealous.  I respected her for her great courage to make the decision to wear a head covering on her own.

I went off to college with a deep commitment to the Church, but still no head covering.  I became very involved in the parish near my university.  Only a few women wore a head covering, but those were the women I looked up to.  I felt something working within me-changing.  The week before Advent of my Junior year of college, I began searching the internet for information about head coverings.  I was ready to make a change in my spiritual life.  My goal for Advent was to cultivate a rule of prayer.  I wondered how a head covering might be an outward sign of my internal spiritual life.  I felt that I needed to reconcile the head covering issue once and for all.

A quick internet search revealed that I wasn’t the only one struggling with this decision.  Women who had made the decision to wear a head covering posted their reasons in forums.  I found that there are many reasons women wear head coverings.  It all began with St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians Chapter 11:

Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. 10 For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. 12 For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.

13 Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? 15 But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her[a] for a covering. 16 But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God. (NKJV)

This passage sets a clear distinction between men and women.  Women have a responsibility to cover the beauty that God has given them.  We are to hide this beauty when praying to helps us and others to focus on God.  By choosing to cover our heads, we exercise our freewill to submit to God.  The head covering is an outward sign of inward submission, humility, and obedience.  The head covering should be worn when praying both at church and at home.  Some even argue that it is to be worn all the time.

I decided that as a woman, I had a duty.  I had to cover my head in church.  Now I knew the reasons and there was no escaping the truth.  That Sunday, I donned a head covering for the first time.  I was one of five wearing a head covering that day and the youngest.  I received encouraging comments on my decision.  After a few weeks, my peers began asking me what was with the head covering.  I confidently explained why I wore the head covering.  A few more weeks and Nativity had arrived.  Nativity was the true test of my commitment to the head covering.  I returned home to my parents’ church where no one wore a head covering.  I had made a promise to myself to carry through with my commitment so I wore the head covering into the church.  The whole service, I felt as if everyone was staring at me.  I felt as if I stuck out like a sore thumb.  This was a humbling experience for me.  Throughout the liturgy, I meditated on the Theotokos and other female saints who are shown wearing head coverings.  I knew that they were present with me with heads covered and that I wanted to strive to be like them.  It was comforting to know that head coverings have a long tradition in the church.

I have since worn the head covering to every church service with the exception of the few times I have forgotten to bring a head covering.  Those few times I felt naked; I did not approach the church in the same way.  I now keep a head covering in the glove compartment.  My belief is that women have the freedom to choose to cover their heads out of respect for Christ and men.  It is our own responsibility to learn about the tradition and to make meaning of it for ourselves.  How we dress is an outward sign of how we are approaching Christ in the sacred space of the church.


10 responses

  1. Monk Patrick made a post about this subject at Energetic Procession:

    I commend you on your decision!

    02.24.12 at 7:37am

  2. Thank you for writing this post. It is something I have struggled to my friends who see the head covering as offensive and sexist.

    02.24.12 at 2:38pm

  3. Olivia

    Nick, that is a great post. Thanks for sharing!

    02.24.12 at 6:21pm

  4. Olivia

    Head coverings seem to be counter intuitive to our culture which does not encourage modesty or humility. It takes time, experiences, and courage to go against modern culture. The heart must be in the right state to understand the value in head coverings.

    02.24.12 at 6:22pm

  5. Justina

    This is a wonderful, down-to-earth, honest exposition of a struggle towards Christ in a small way that (for you and for me both) has made a big impact on your spiritual life. I’m so glad to read this, though I have lots of reasons for covering my head as well. I especially like your comment that they are “counter intuitive to our culture”–not because they are sexist (after all, they are a choice–even as far as St. Paul is concerned) but because they encourage a modesty our skin-bearing culture cannot even begin to comprehend! Thanks again for writing this. :)

    03.18.12 at 11:58pm

  6. Susan Paxman

    I respect your decision to wear a veil. I’d also like to add some information to this discussion by quoting from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has stated that head coverings for women was a discipline based on customs of the time, not a permanent moral obligation:

    “But it must be noted that these ordinances, probably inspired by the customs of the period, concern scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance, such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on their head (1 Cor. 11:2-16); such requirements no longer have a normative value.”

    (CDF, Inter Insigniores, Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, 1976, n.4).

    10.10.12 at 8:28am

  7. Susan, thank you for the additional opinion. I think that if the Orthodox Church ever were to begin describing such actions–like a woman covering her head–as obligations that “no longer have a normative value”, it begins to eat away at yet another opportunity for humility to be entered into in the life of a Christian. Also, removing the lens of historical reason, a head covering these days still voicelessly shrouds a woman in beautiful lowliness to anyone who happens to look on, even without knowledge of Saint Paul’s admonition in Holy Scripture.

    10.10.12 at 12:00pm

  8. Olivia

    Susan, thank you for adding to the discussion. I recommend that you read the article which is linked in an above comment. In the article Monk Patrick gives a great Orthodox explanation as to why women should continue to wear head coverings today. The head covering has much more significance in the Church than simply a custom or obligation. It is true that head coverings are much less common in our society, but I believe they should still be normative in the Church.

    10.10.12 at 12:07pm

  9. The “symbol of authority” in v.10 is for “her head” which as v.3 indicates is her…husband. She should crown his not-so-glorious head, not hide her own glorious covering of hair.

    06.15.13 at 3:42pm

  10. Olivia

    Thank you for the link. That was a very interesting read. I wonder why there are not other writings on that interpretation. I think the biggest message of the passage is for women to be submissive. The Church and holy fathers read the passage as women covering their own heads. We have many icons of women saints with their heads covered. For me, the decision to wear a head covering was to be submissive to the Church and to follow the example of Mary. You might enjoy this link. I like that it points out that more important than the covering of a head, is the state of the heart.

    06.18.13 at 9:14pm

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