Monday, October 26, 2009

What Kind of Rings Do Consecrated Virgins Wear?

Here is an enjoyable question I received from a reader recently:

“I have a question about consecrated virgins, if you do not mind. I know that nuns have to wear a ‘wedding’ ring to signify their spiritual marriage, and normally it is a ring that signifies the Order they belong to. What about consecrated virgins? I know they wear rings but are they plain bands? What do you wear? I hope this is not a silly question, I’m just genuinely curious!” —Vesper

Thanks for your question, Vesper!

Actually, not all nuns (and I’m assuming that you mean women in all forms religious life, and not just those Sisters who are considered “nuns” in a strict technical sense—i.e., cloistered Sisters who make solemn vows.) are required to wear “wedding” rings. Like many of the more minor elements of religious life, there is a great deal of diversity among the various Orders and congregations in their traditions surrounding this. And sometimes even in different monasteries of the same Order, the nuns do not always have identical practices regarding rings.

And, the specific details about which communities do and don’t wear rings might surprise you. Some of the more “traditional” women’s communities do not wear wedding rings, even if they otherwise have a strong emphasis on “Bride of Christ” imagery. E.g., I don’t think that the Nashville or Ann Arbor Dominicans wear rings—readers who may know more than I do about these two communities are welcome to correct me on this if I’m wrong. But at the same time, many non-habited religious communities still attach a lot of significance to the rings they wear and to their customs in presenting or receiving rings. (There’s an interesting discussing about this here on the blog “A Nun’s Life.”)

I believe there are a few communities which used to wear rings but stopped after Vatican II, even while retaining a fairly conservative habit. On the other hand, I know of one congregation of Sisters (who are and have always been habited) who only just began to wear rings as a result of their community’s response to the second Vatican council.

However, all consecrated virgins wear rings as a sign of their spousal relationship with Christ. Just as in an earthly marriage, the ring is a sign that she has made a permanent commitment to another Person. In the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, immediately following the consecratory prayer itself, the presiding bishop places a ring on the newly-consecrated virgin’s hand with the words:

Receive the ring that marks you as a bride of Christ.
Keep unstained your fidelity to your Bridegroom,
that you may one day be admitted to the wedding feast of everlasting joy.

The ceremony for the giving of the ring is a non-negotiable part of the Rite of Consecration. A similar ritual can be, but is not necessarily, included in the rite for religious profession, since the Church gives individual religious communities a great deal of freedom to follow their own customs and traditions regarding things like vow formulae, special blessings, and the presentation (or non-presentation) of insignia such as rings.

From a historical perspective, I believe the custom of women religious receiving a profession ring actually originated from the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. Since the earliest nuns were also consecrated virgins, they probably would have received their rings at their consecration. And it seems that the custom of receiving a ring endured in many monasteries, even as the Rite of Consecration fell widely out of use. Religious Orders and congregations which developed in later periods—such as the mendicant Orders of nuns like the Poor Clares, Reformation-era Orders like the Discalced Carmelites, and the modern congregations of active Sisters like the Daughters of Charity—may have kept the custom of a profession ring as an imitation of the Rite of Consecration, or perhaps as a intuitive reflection of the rite. (I think the same process might have been at play regarding the tradition of consecrated women wearing veils, since consecrated virgins were invested with veils long before religious life existed. But that’s a topic for another post!)

If a nun or religious sister does wear a ring, she often receives it during her final or solemn profession, as this represents the point at which she has definitively chosen to follow our Lord in the consecrated life. I think that within most communities, all of the Sisters’ rings are probably of the same style and design. But I’m not sure that this is intended as a way to identify the community to which she belongs—although this sort of “easy identification” is part of the purpose of a religious habit. Instead, I think a shared ring design is probably meant to represent the Sisters’ unity in their common life and vocation, ect.

As far as consecrated virgins are concerned, for the most part we choose and obtain our own rings, which are later presented to us during the Rite of Consecration. (Although I personally think that it might be a nice gesture if, eventually, the diocese actually supplied consecrated virgins’ rings, or if they “recycled” the rings of consecrated virgins who had already entered into eternal life. But I haven’t heard of these things happening anywhere as of yet.)

So basically, each consecrated virgin can decide what kind of ring she will have. But although presently there aren’t any official guidelines about this, I do think that consecrated virgins’ rings should be kept simple, for a few reasons:

First, although consecrated virgins do not make an explicit vow of poverty, it seems to me that entering into any public state of consecrated life obliges one to live very simply. And this “spirit of evangelical poverty” should truly affect every aspect of your life—right down to what kind of ring you wear.

Likewise, we should keep in mind that consecrated virgins are marrying the same Jesus who “emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7); who was “a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity” (Isaiah 53:3); and who had “nowhere to rest His head” (Luke 9:58) during his earthly ministry. And my thought is that something like a humongous diamond, rare gemstones, or anything similarly “over the top” would probably not be the best reflection or reminder of this!

Also, while naturally I believe it is totally and completely appropriate to refer to a consecrated virgin as a “Bride of Christ;” I think it’s also good to keep in mind that consecration to a life of virginity is ultimately more similar to a betrothal than it is to a honeymoon. In a very important sense, the REAL wedding feast is the moment when a consecrated virgin finally meets her Spouse face-to-face. So in order to resist confusing the “already” with the “not yet,” I feel that it’s best for consecrated virgins to avoid extravagance in all things pertaining to their consecration, including their rings.

As for me, my ring is a plain silver band. But around the outside, it has an inscription from the Song of Songs: “Ego dilecto meo et dilectus meus.” (Song of Song 2:16) Usually, this translated into English as: “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”

One funny story about my ring: At the reception right after my consecration, everyone of course wanted to see my ring and to know what the inscription said. One priest—who can read in Latin probably as well as I can read in English—for some reason just couldn’t figure it out! He kept reading and re-reading the inscription and muttering things like, “Umm…is that in the ablative case?” But, it seemed like every single consecrated woman there, whether they were a consecrated virgin or a religious Sister, knew exactly what it meant as soon as they saw it!

This is a photo of me holding a (hatched!) lizard egg in the palm of my hand. But it’s also the best close-up picture I have of my consecration ring.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

New Vocations Website for the Diocese of Raleigh, NC

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina just launched an excellent new diocesan Vocations website last month: And, they included a page on consecrated virgins!

As far as I know, this is the first diocesan vocations website in the country to give consecrated virginity such a prominent place.

Special thanks to Brad Watkins (administrator of the “Roman Catholic Vocations” blog) and the Diocese of Raleigh Vocation Office for inviting me to write an article on consecrated virginity for their website. As always, I’m specially grateful to those who help make this vocation better understood and appreciated.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Feast of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus

Here is today’s second reading from the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours, taken from St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s autobiography, The Story of A Soul. Although this section is already quite well-known, I thought I would still reprint it here for the benefit of my readers who may not have seen it before.

Even though St. Thérèse was only twenty-four when she died (the same age as I am now—hard to believe!), she was fairly recently named a “Doctor of the Church.” This title is bestowed on canonized saints who have made a significant contribution to our understanding of the faith. Usually, Doctors of the Church are renowned scholars, like St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Augustine. Yet St. Thérèse, who never studied any academic theology, was given this honor because she contributed so greatly to Catholic spirituality. (Emphases, in bold, are mine.)

In the heart of the Church I will be love

Since my longing for martyrdom was powerful and unsettling, I turned to the epistles of St. Paul in the hope of finally finding an answer. By chance the 12th and 13th chapters of the 1st epistle to the Corinthians caught my attention, and in the first section I read that not everyone can be an apostle, prophet or teacher, that the Church is composed of a variety of members, and that the eye cannot be the hand. Even with such an answer revealed before me, I was not satisfied and did not find peace.

I persevered in the reading and did not let my mind wander until I found this encouraging theme: Set your desires on the greater gifts. And I will show you the way which surpasses all others. For the Apostle insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love and that this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God. At length I had found peace of mind.

When I had looked upon the mystical body of the Church, I recognized myself in none of the members which St. Paul described, and what is more, I desired to distinguish myself more favorably within the whole body. Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more. I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.

Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love. Certainly I have found my place in the Church, and you gave me that very place, my God. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction.

Concluding Prayer:

God Our Father,
you have promised your kingdom
to those who are willing to become like little children.
Help us to follow the way of St. Theresa with confidence
so that by her prayers
we may come to know your eternal glory.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.