Beyond habits and no habits: A reflection on the identity of religious women in the U.S.

One day, I had a conversation with a psychologist friend. We talked about what we hear from our clients. When I said, “I try to listen to clients attentively, including to their non-verbal cues,” he responded, “Actually, I pay more attention to what is unsaid because that could have a deeper meaning.”  His statement reminded me of a Koan of Zen masters which states that “music is created not by sound, but by the space between music codes,” which emphasizes the power of not.

Furthermore, my friend’s comment raised questions about my understanding of the invisibility of women religious in the United States. Often people say that since most religious sisters do not wear habits, they are not visible. Some even say that because of the loss of the visible sign of the habits, there is a decrease in religious vocations or even a loss of sisters’ identities in relation to the habit. But can we really say that sisters have lost their sign in the world just because they do not wear habits? And if so, is there also a sign of not wearing habits, of their invisibility? What, then, is the sign of this invisible but strong presence of women religious?

When they were wearing habits, most women religious in the U.S. were teaching in schools or working in hospitals; their presence was obvious and visible. We remember films like “The Bells of St Mary’s,” which showed women religious wearing habits and being obedient, yet also rebellious at the same time. Many Americans went to Catholic elementary schools and have warm memories of sisters.  As a fundraising tool for retired sisters, there used to be a popular show called “Late Night Catechism,” which aired nationally. An actress who wore a habit always held a ruler, as a reminder of the old days when nuns used the ruler to reprimand kids. The audience cried and laughed, as they were reminded of their childhood memories. In those people’s hearts, habits were a nostalgic reminder of the good old times. Those nuns had lived under a very strict rule, yet were alive with a spirit of love and service. 

The wearing of habits is one of the traditional ways of representing the identity of women religious in a visible way. As the “consecrated” life means being separated from the secular world, so the sisters who wear habits indicate that their status is different from that of the secular world. Even when working in the world, by wearing their habits, they signify that they do not really belong to the world. 

As such, the habit-free American sisters can indicate a new stance of apostolic religious life, which emphasizes that they indeed do belong to this world. Without donning habits, many sisters now work for social justice and in community building among the poor. In this way, they have become invisible among the people, especially among the poor, and it carries a strong message. Not surprisingly, the new legacy of not wearing habits comes from the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council. 

Not wearing habits signifies that women religious belong to the world and are in the world. Traditional habits originated from the dress of ordinary women at a particular time when the women’s apostolic community was founded. At that time, women usually wore some kind of hair covering and a humble dress, which was often long. As wearing habits of a past time signifies the ordinariness of then, so not wearing a habit is an expression of the ordinariness of now, an adaptation of ordinariness to contemporary society.

So then, do we know what kind of meaning wearing habits vs. not wearing habits sends to the world? The intended meaning of communicating the identity of women religious could be singular, while the sent or delivered meaning varies, as each meaning depends on the receiver. In some cultures, habits ensure trustworthiness, in which case wearing it is much more convenient for sisters to work with people. In other cultures, habits represent an oddity, which can cause discomfort to the people with whom the sisters work. For some people, women religious who wear habits represent authority and privilege. For others, sisters in habits are a gentle presence.  Thus, the wearing or not wearing of a habit is not the determining factor in this so-called identity of women religious. The identity of women religious cannot be derived from habits/no habits. Then, how can we redefine their identity in the 21st-century world? 

Regarding the identity of religious women, the concept of the “master signifier” is very useful.  According to the philosopher and psychologist Jacque Lacan, there is a master signifier through which the subject communicates its own identity to the world.* The master signifier is crucial, because it very often provides the subject with the guideline or grounding space in which the true identity of the subject is rooted. In terms of religious life in the US, the master signifier can be “the apostolic religious life.” Anyone who carries the master signifier, in this case, the Apostolic religious life, is supposed to act accordingly. The women religious as individuals, as well as the group, deliver the master signifier to the people and/or the world.

However, the intended meaning of the signifier cannot be delivered to the receiver in a predictable fashion. The receiver has a unique perspective and interprets the message according to one’s perspective. In that sense, the sender cannot control the meaning of the “master signifier.” Lacan explains that in this process, the master signifier becomes equal to “the empty signifier.”** In other words, no matter how women religious try to impart the messages of their identity or life, they cannot control the created meaning of religious life. Rather, the meaning of religious life and their identity emerge in the midst of the interaction between the religious women and the world; their identity is not static, but rather dynamic.

The identity of women religious is something neither given by others nor by religious women themselves but emerges in interaction between religious women and the world. Perhaps it is wise to forgo explaining their identity and strive instead to live fully their vocation, which exists in the world among the people invisibly. Some people may think that women religious should seek identity because they have lost their identity.  This is not true. Because identity constantly evolves, seeking identity is an ongoing spiritual task. The identity of women religious in the US is constructed, deepened, and challenged in the interaction with the world. 

Thus, in today’s society, as a result of interaction with the world, religious life can mean a deep commitment to social justice, a presence with the poor, and a prayer-centered spiritual life in the world.  These prayerful actions and the reception of the society will continue to construct the true identity of women religious in the US, beyond the wearing or not wearing of habits.

This article is elaborated from my article, “Religious Life in the U.S.: A Vocation of Border Crossing,” The New Theology Review (volume 27 number 1, September 2014): 47-53.

* Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book III: The Psychoses 1955-1956, trans. Russel Grigg (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), 117-120.

** Matthew Sharpe, “Jacques Lacan (1901-1981),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

[Sophia Park, SNJM, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Holy Names University. She has written numerous articles and chapters in books focusing on biblical spirituality, cross-cultural spiritual direction and religious life from a global feminist perspective. Her main interest is how to empower the marginalized in this global society.]