Orthodox America

  On Covering the Head

...every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head... (I Cor. 11:5)

      For a visitor to an Old Believer parish, one of the most striking "differences" is the sight of all women, even girls, with their heads covered. The Orthodox tradition that women wear head coverings in church is certainly not peculiar to the Old Rite. One wonders, therefore, why this is not the common practice in all Orthodox churches. It used to be.

      There was a case not long ago of a woman who visited the Soviet Union. On a feast day she went to church and at the end of the service went forward to kiss the cross. But when her turn came the priest drew back the cross, explaining that he couldn't allow her to venerate it because her head was uncovered. She protested that she was from abroad and didn't know the local customs, and thought that it was only necessary to cover the head when receiving Holy Communion. The priest told her these were insubstantial excuses, that women should always have their heads covered in church and that he could not permit her to kiss the cross.

      Who has ever heard of a priest in this country taking such a firm stand on this question! Some priests make occasional pleas from the ambo, but they seem to have little or only temporary effect. The tradition of covering the head is so little respected nowadays that many--especially among the younger generations of women--are quite unaware of it.

      In the interest of fashion, many women are not willing to acknowledge the spiritual benefit to be gained by submitting to this very simple---and meaningful--tradition of covering their heads. This is not a recent innovation but rather an ancient tradition which has been with the Church since the beginning. The Most Holy Virgin Mary herself from a very young age covered her head as a sign of her submission to the will of God, a submission which she later manifest so perfectly on the day of Annunciation. In imitating the Mother of God in this small way, women should feel honored, not humiliated or irritated, and should be thankful for the opportunity which the Church gives them to curb their self-will and to promote a modest disposition.

      Why, some ask, aren't men required to do the same? Clergy and monastics, in fact, do have rules for covering their heads in church. But even if such were not the case, who are we to question the wisdom of the Church in requiring of us this small sacrifice of our vanity, our pride, that spark of rebellion which says "Why should I?" Let us pay less attention to how we look and more attention to adorning our souls with the virtues of humility and modesty, virtues we can help cultivate by the simple act of covering our heads in church. Not our will, O Lord, but Thine be done." 

He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much.     (Luke 16:10) (Based on an article in Blagovestnik, Parish Bulletin of the Holy Virgin Cathedral, San Francisco, CA; November, 1987)

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