Head coverings

I have been asked to write a post on the wearing of headscarves. The better terminology would be the wearing for head coverings of which a head scarf is one particular form of head covering.

According to St Paul men and women each have an iconic function that is: man is the image and glory of God and woman is the glory of man. This iconic function is seen in the manner of the roles of each, the appearance of each and in the relationships between them. The purpose of the iconic function is to manifest the relationship of God to man and make this relationship tangible in our daily lives. The male iconic image is to portray the governance of God over man and the female is to portray the obedience of man to God. Both govern and both obey since this is the relationship of all with God but between themselves a certain order is maintained that we may participate tangibly with God through such relationships and not merely abstractly with the unseen God. This order is manifest within the different levels of relationship between men and women. Mostly notably within the relationship of marriage where we clearly see elsewhere in St Paul the distinct roles of husband and wife in terms of Christ and the Church. However, there is also a public face in terms of permission to exercise public authority and teaching within the Church, the function of the hierarchy, which is permitted to men but not to women because it is God who governs and teaches us and we do not do these things to each other at a merely human level. Thus the male icon is appropriate for the hierarchy because it portrays the divine but the female icon portraying humanity learns in quietness and remains silent in the congregations. Women can govern and teach in private at home or among other women in a convent because man too shares in the governance and teaching of God to men. A married women is expected to exercise these roles in relation to her children. Women can serve the Church as deaconesses but this is a quiet role for ministry to women and it does not perform the same function as a male deacon in leading the congregation and exercising authority over minor orders.

Head coverings are the principle iconic form in terms of establishing ourselves as icons. This is because the main relationship aspect between God and man is in terms of governance and headship. Thus, the head is covered or uncovered to demonstrate this. Head coverings are asked of women to go with long hair as a free expression of obedience to God. Obedience is not forced of man to God but freely given by man hence long hair in itself, as a natural aspect, is not sufficient but a head covering is asked to be added in addition to show the free submission of man to God. The head covering is not merely for the wearers humility and obedience, it quietly bears testimony before all to lead all to obedience and humility. Because obedience to God is due at all times head coverings are also worn at all times, particularly in the presence of others, even in the home. Head coverings are most important though in relation to God seen when praying and also if prophesying. In these activities men uncover their heads to show the authority of God and also that mankind will reign with God in synergy. Women though remain covered to show the need of our continuing obedience to share one will with God. The symbolism of head covering is also used by male monastics to show their life of obedience, although they at times uncover their heads in recognition of the male iconic role that they also convey. The symbols and actions are also for the angels who also look upon us.

A head covering is supposed to cover the head fully as being completely under obedience to God. Thus, head scarves are appropriately wrapped around the head as are also many eastern forms of head coverings as used in Muslim, Jewish or even Hindu cultures. A small hat on top of the head, particularly one that is decorative, is not as appropriate although better than being without, which in terms of its symbolism is a sign of rebellion against God and of self-will, setting oneself as ruling like God if not done according to the will of God. Just as the relationship between God and man is true in all cultures so too is the requirement of head coverings. The only variation being in the type of material and the cut and shape of the coverings but the use of and minimum extent of the covering is to be applied in all cultures as a uniform aspect of Church culture.

Iconic functions are not merely symbolic as signs to teach of something else but there also establish the appropriate form within which Christ becomes present. Because humanity has form in its material aspect then a particular form is required to ensure the true presence of Christ in an incarnate and tangible manner to reflect the reality of our material condition. The material aspect truly participates in our life and existence and this is confirmed that specific material forms are required for mysteries to be manifest, so that the mystery encompasses both spiritual and material aspects of our existence.



  1. I tend to agree, but in any culture war, you have to pick your battles. In an ideal world, American culture would be different a large number of ways beyond the sartorially symbolic. Therefore, it doesn’t strike me that head covering is the particular hill to choose to die on if you’re trying to prioritize your fights. Specifically, an over-emphasis on head covering can turn a lot of people off given today’s culture of individualism and consumerism-as-personal-expression. Tackling head covering seems like its better left for after the creation of a non-individualistic counterculture, not before.

    Which isn’t to say that there is nothing to be gained by creating a symbol of countercultural struggle. For example, one notices many more young Muslim women wearing headscarfs today than one did in the past in part because they are trying to forge a sense of Muslim identity by setting themselves apart in a crowd. In that sense, their head covering becomes an attractive symbol to those who are curious about values above and beyond mere materialistic ones. Still, I doubt that the symbol would do as well for Christians in an American context in 2012. I could be wrong though.


  2. Carl,

    I agree about picking battles and I don’t push this fight with my congregation. The framework of obedience to the gospel and its rules needs to be set in place first before one can impose any particular rule. However, it is important to ensure that the teaching of Holy Tradition is maintained correctly. Also, experience as a secondary school teacher has led me to realise that fussing about the small things often improves obedience to the large things. He who is disobedient with a small matter is unlikely to be obedient in a large matter. Obedience to a small matter tends to mean obedience in the larger matter.

    Muslims have a better sense of obedience to their religious expectations, which have been sadly undermined in Christian terms by false/poor teaching. We too should be willing to put practice of Tradition ahead of conformity to the crowd.

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  3. It is helpful to FINALLY understand the reason why we cover our heads as women! Priest would’t have to gingerly pick their battles with as many women, if they explained head coverings as you just did. You explained almost everything very thoroughly. Could you explain a little more why is it less desirable to wear a hat as a covering (assuming a plain non-adorned one that covers the hair and much of the face), when the priests cover their heads with hats at certain parts of the liturgy. I have always covered my hair during church, but I sense that there is a subtle difference in the use of “head cover” vs. “hair cover”. Could you clarify if tying the scarf behind your head to cover your hair is the same as what is meant when referring to a head cover.

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  4. You mentioned head coverings being worn at all times, even around the home. Has this ever been common practice? The only justification for headcoverings I’ve seen comes from the 1 Corinthians passage, and there head coverings are only explicitly mentioned with regard to prayer.
    As far as the actual argument, it seems to me possibly to confuse Tradition with an *expression* of Tradition. Man and woman have an iconic role, etc.. I don’t think that that can be doubted. But on the more specific question of how that iconic role must be expressed or displayed, there seems to me reason to think that the headcoverings would have meant something to Paul’s and previous cultures that it does not in ours. Perhaps there is another way that the same spiritual reality can be expressed in our own day.


  5. Dominica,

    From St John Chrysostom: “For he said not merely covered, but “covered over,” meaning that she be carefully wrapped up on every side.” This is taking the meaning of the Greek word used by St Paul. This implies a scarf tied around the chin or the head wear seen in icons. In icons women saints seem to both wrap their hair and also cover over the side of the head also, the covering coming around to the front. This is the proper covering expected. Monks traditionally wear hoods that used to cover all the head rather than a part as now. A priest is not wearing a hat for exactly the same purpose and so it is not expected to cover the head in the same manner. The focus is on covering the head rather than the hair and it may point to the completeness of obedience. However, having said that in present times, with various needs, a hat or the wrapping of the hair with a scarf is more appropriate than being bare headed, if not entirely in keeping with the type of covering required.

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  6. Jeremiah,

    That the wearing of head coverings is to be all times is clearly taught by St John Chrysostom. Looking at both icons and photos of Russia, Greece, Cyprus, and even pictures from west, they all tend to evidence that head coverings were worn at all times in all cultures.

    For St John Chrysostom head coverings were not based on local custom and meaning but on a common Tradition. We see this here:

    Their women used both to pray and prophesy unveiled and with their head bare, … but the men went so far as to wear long hair as having spent their time in philosophy, and covered their heads when praying and prophesying, each of which was a Grecian custom. Since then he had already admonished them concerning these things when present, and some perhaps listened to him and others disobeyed; therefore in his letter also again, he foments the place, like a physician, by his mode of addressing them, and so corrects the offence.

    The arguments provided by St Paul are primarily theological and only as a supplement does he refer to an argument based on nature that is perhaps “cultural” but even this is not specifically such.

    Our present “cultural” perspective in secular terms is one that is defined as anti-Christian in many aspects. The meaning of head covering is distorted with secular ideas and it is not merely a cultural meaning nor custom but an ideological meaning that is almost specifically a rejection of the previous culture of nearly two thousand years. One is not imposing head coverings on those in the world and so whether the secular understanding is consistent is irrelevant. Rather, one should hope that an Orthodox Christian shares in the Christian cultural meaning rather that the secular meaning. The point of the post is to argue that head coverings are part of Tradition and Christian culture and the only appropriate symbol for the theological meaning. The particular symbol derives from Christian principles and not from cultural norms of the time.


  7. Jeremiah,

    A reading of St. John Chrysostom’s homily XXVI on 1 Corinthians 11 (available on ccel.org) would make the issue more clear, I think. St. John shows his audience that St. Paul uses nature (not culture as you espoused) to show the appropriateness of covering or not covering the head. St. John relates the use of nature to when St. Paul uses it in Romans saying men went against nature doing sexual acts with other men. From what I understand, the same Greek word for nature is used in both cases.


  8. St. Paul also forbids men to have long hair and yet it seems to be the custom of many monks and priests to have long hair. I’m wondering what the reason is behind this. Any thoughts?


  9. I have two questions: one is to echo Jennifer’s question. These passages seem linked in St Paul, but not in tradition. (Yes, this is one of those things when I converted that never got sorted out in my mind.)

    Second, if I accept this reasoning, it presents a problem. Not only my wife (to whom I suppose I have a responsibility to at least bring this up) but in fact nearly all of the women (except the nuns) at our parish and those we visit are uncovered. Every once in a while Matushka and a couple of the older ladies wear something that might barely qualify as a head covering. My daughter’s Godmother (an otherwise deeply Orthodox woman who is very involved in our lives) calls such women “napkin heads”. I’m really not in a position to suggest such a practice be properly revived, perhaps not even in my own household.

    Really, there doesn’t seem to be any way to bring this up that doesn’t turn into a kerfuffle pretty fast.

    This falls under the, “when we keep our prayer rule and keep the fast and give alms as we should and attend Church regularly, then we’ll get to this maybe”-list.

    If you have to chose between a Church with uncovered heads and an empty Church…


  10. Jennifer,

    Traditionally monks did not have long hair, if they lived in a monastery, but they tended to keep it short and tonsure the top of the hair into a bald patch on top. Clergy did likewise. Hermit monks on the other hand did have long hair, not because they want to grow long hair but because they did not concern themselves with grooming or cutting hair. Rather they just let to go as it is want to grow. This is the result of ascetic exercise and the long hair is permissible in this context since it is unavoidable.

    As far as I am aware, since the fall of Constantinople, it has become the custom for all monks and clergy to follow the ascetics’ pattern of not cutting nor grooming one’s hair. This has replaced the traditional tonsure of the monk and clergy and is now the hair style of monks and clergy to identify their clerical or monastic vocation. In a manner, they are not growing their hair long as men but as clerics and monks; it is part of their order. They are no longer ordinary laymen, for whom I would argue it is still not appropriate to have long hair both following St Paul and also because long hair is the mark of the clergy or monastics and unless one is in such an order then one should not wear its hair style. Personally, I would prefer to see clergy and monks return to the traditional tonsure and short hair and leave the long hair to the hermits, who are hidden in the desert places.


  11. Going along with David’s comment, until early last summer we went to a mostly uncovered parish and now we go to a pretty much exclusively covered one. I suppose the more pc way to put it is that there are conservative/monastic leaning parishes, and there are more liberal/non-monastic parishes.

    I struggle with this distinction. I tend to think you need a monastic type commitment, which I’ve not attained yet, but at the same time, I don’t think those who don’t can be dismissed. I’m just a lot more comfortable at our new Church.


  12. For several years now, I have been covering my head when entering the church for any service. It’s hard to always remember to take a scarf with me when I leave the house, so I have recently put a thin but large black scarf in my glove compartment so that I always have a backup if I forget to grab one on my way out the door. For me, covering my head means that, when I enter the church and come before the presence of God, the icons and, yes, under the watch of the angels, that something changes in me and means that my purpose and the experience there is very different from when I am outside. As you have written, it’s not merely about humility or even obedience. I find especially that wearing a large scarf, I can cover my entire head and bring the scarf forward so the sides are almost like blinders. This reduces distraction and really helps me focus on my purpose there. I am able to be more attentive to the scriptures, the prayers and the hymnography in a way that I was not before I began to cover my head. I have been to a lot of parishes, and, in all, those who cover their heads are very much in the minority, but I think that more women would do so if they fully understood why we do. For the last year and a half, I have also been considering covering my head at work. I have seen photos of Muslim Nurses or nursing students with their traditional head wraps. I don’t think I could go to such a degree because of the kind of work I do, which can sometimes be quite physical, and a wrap like that could get in the way and even be a safety issue. I am a nurse, so wearing a scrub hat might not be considered too unusual. However, in the context in which I work, it would be rather distinctive. The only reservation I have had is that it could cause confusion and even potential conflict since scrub hats are typically worn by a lot of surgeons and anesthesiologists who frequently go in and out of operating rooms all day, and I am neither. In fact, as a Labor & Delivery nurse primarily, I spend a great deal of effort trying to keep my patients out of the operating room, and prayer is often a big part of my job. But I am at a juncture now, soon going to a new workplace, and I think if I start out covering my head daily at work, some people might ask, perhaps giving me the opportunity to share a little about my faith and convictions, but then people would eventually leave the matter alone.


  13. @ Amy,

    Very edifying.

    @ Everyone else:

    1Co 11:14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him…

    The Greek word for “long hair” in Strong’s (kome/komao G2863 & G2864) means:

    “the hair of the head (locks, as ornamental, and thus differing from G2359, which properly denotes merely the scalp): – hair.”

    “to wear tresses of hair: – have long hair.”

    Thus the Apostle Paul is saying that Christian males should not have “long ornamental hair” or “tresses”. This makes a lot of sense since relatively longer hair was a custom of the ancient Jews and even our Lord Himself is depicted that way.

    also see here: http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/clergy_hair.aspx


  14. Thanks for the reply(/replies). I will take a look at the passage from St. John when I have the time. Still, I don’t find the argument very convincing. One passage from Scripture which is hard to interpret and one, more clear teaching, by one father do not Tradition make. This tradition, though long lasting, has not lasted everywhere, and I can’t see that anything significant has been lost by it; indeed, as I said, I think the essential theological point could be expressed through other types of obediences. And you certainly don’t see what you mentioned in icons if you mean ‘proper head covering’ which includes all of the hair and sides of the face covered (I’m sure I could find several counterexamples, but off the top of my head, an icon of St. Barbara that I saw in my parish this morning). And there are other quotes from the early Church that can be found that tend to support the view that Paul means for long hair to be thought of as a natural covering (I haven’t been able to search the context of these):
    ‘Clement of Alexandria, Paed. 3.11, writes, “It is enough for women to protect their locks, and bind up their hair simply along the neck with a plain hair-pin, nourishing chaste locks with simple care to true beauty.” ANF 2:286.’

    ‘Macarius Aegyptius (d. c. AD 390), Homiliae spirituales 12.18, explicitly identifies the covering: “Question: Why is it said, ‘a woman praying with uncovered head?’ Answer: Since in the present apostolic time they have been permitted hair instead of a covering.” He specifically interprets 1 Cor 11:5 as referring to hair, not to a veil. Cf. See H. Dörries, E. Klostermann, and M. Kroeger, Die 50 geistlichen Homilien des Makarius (PTS 4; Berlin: DeGruyter, 1964.’

    ‘Ambrose (c. AD 339–397), Duties of the Clergy 1.46.232, writes, “Is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered; doth not nature itself teach you that ‘If a woman have long hair, it is a glory unto her’? It is according to nature, since her hair is given her for a veil, for it is a natural veil.” NPNF2 10:37.’


  15. I’ve noticed a number of St Barbara’s icons clearly show her (I did not know this until recently) “well known” curly hair. Obviously if the Orthodox person mentioned that “everyone knows” St Barbara has curly hair, it must show up in icons. I think I’ve seen a couple of St Mary of Egypt icons where she wears no covering (or much at all as I believe that is part of her story).

    I do think that there’s a strong sense that head-coverings for women seem “the norm” across much of the world and history, whereas men’s hair seems to be less clear. Perhaps this is another example of where a fundamentalist reading of scripture is dangerous. Clearly most folks/fathers/cultures whatever have thought that long hair for monastics and clergy was just fine in spite of St Paul’s exposition here, but that head coverings for women was more universally considered both “iconic” and also “wise”.

    Keep in mind that we are living in an alien time. The changes in culture caused by industrialization, urbanization, and the rest of modern life from mechanization to medicine have tampered with the traditional meanings and experiences of what had commonly thought of as the human condition. Women’s lives in particular are utterly foreign today to anything they would have experienced even 150 years ago, even 60 years ago.

    We simply have choices never before available to “nearly everyone”. This excess has changed the rules. Seems this is why the scriptures and the fathers seem muted (though not silent) on things from “family planning” to “alcoholism”. Even democracy and our unfathomable wealth, these blessings we enjoy, have also caused problems unforeseen and perhaps unsolvable.

    Still, I can chat with my wife, but I doubt it’ll get further than a chat. At least in her case, she absolutely hates drawing attention to herself. She is a professional wall-flower. In our parish, putting on the covering would most definitely have people “looking at her” in a way that would probably be emotionally intolerable, even if they didn’t mean any harm by it (which they wouldn’t, they are a really sweet group of folks). I’m just saying she would stand out. Which would be the opposite of the intended purpose.


  16. Jeremiah,

    Firstly, St John Chrysostom in not one opinion among many with the Fathers. He is an Ecumenical Teacher and as such carries great authority and should only be overturned by a vast majority of the Fathers saying otherwise. Also, St Paul guided his interpretation and so St John is almost certainly expressing the correct understanding of St Paul. Regarding the quotes from the other Fathers, the one from Clement is out of context and later he is clear that in church, an generally outside her home, a woman is to be completely covered, even with face veiled. Read further in the same section. The comment of Macarius is not conclusive and while it seems contrary, it stands alone and so it cannot be used to prove a tradition that long hair itself is sufficient. Beside many women, particularly older women, with uncovered hair also tend to wear their hair short. The comment of St Ambrose is not directly relevant and what he says is in agreement with St John and in the context of following nature and not specifically in terms of whether a woman should cover her head as well as the natural veil of long hair.

    That the tradition has not been maintained everywhere is not relevant. Large areas of heresy do not mean that particular teachings, where they differ from orthodox teaching, are not those of Tradition. We should expect to see areas of failure to maintain head coverings. If the issue has always been optional then we would expect to see clear evidence of uncovered heads generally across all places at all times.

    That there are exceptions to the rule in terms of icons does not disprove the general Traditions. There may be particular reasons for the iconic representation such as St Mary was virtually naked in the desert and had no means of covering her head. The icons of St Barbara may generally be with her hair shown but this may be a relatively modern iconic practice and even if not one would need to provide a significant group of bareheaded icons of various female saints from different times and places to disprove the Tradition.

    In the post, I referred to some other forms of how the relationship between man and woman is to be manifested such as public teaching and authority. The issue of head coverings is specifically to do with clothing and appearance rather than other types of obedience, which are also taught by St Paul. If these are sufficient without the head coverings then I doubt that St Paul would have required head coverings also, which he clearly places in the context of traditions to be maintained by those in the Church (that is Tradition). Rather it seems that the clothing issue is also important because it is the explicitly visual aspect of the iconic role. One would have to suggest an alternate clothing form that carries the same meaning else you are not finding an alternative but rather doing away with the tradition. In terms of authority and headship, a head covering is still as relevant today as it has ever been and the only meaningful symbol because it is the head that must be the focus of the symbol and either wearing something on the head or not wearing something are the only options in terms of clothing. Please feel free to suggest alternative solutions and show how they convey precisely the same meaning in all aspects.


  17. David,

    I agree that there are a number of issues for women trying to wear head coverings now, especially when one may stand out in a crowd. One can, and should, minimise standing out by standing at the back of the nave or to the side next to the wall, so that one is not obviously visible. Nevertheless, one can only do what one can manage either emotionally or physically just as with fasting etc.

    Obedience to God generally comes with a cross yet it is usually the best for the soul, if not exhibited as pride nor vainglory.


  18. Fr Patrick.
    Thanks again for your response. I suppose I remain unconvinced, but I will continue to think this over.
    However, I am VERY interested in the first part of your response about the authority of St. John Chrysostom. I have always been very curious about how we ought to interpret the Fathers. Is it sufficient for a doctrine for one Father to clearly teach it? Or must there be many? Or must there be many, plus it be an issue that also shows up in the Liturgy or elsewhere in the tradition? Or must it also be important to the more general Orthodox worldview with respect to salvation? I think a lot of our differences here might have to do with this issue, and I’d be happy to see some explicit thinking about this. I have always thought, especially based on the way Orthodox usually think about why the Ecumenical Councils were convened and the overly-quick-to-dogmatize ‘West’, etc., that what is most essential is the content of the Councils, and what can be gleaned with respect to dogma and practice from the Liturgy, as well as what is required from one’s personal spiritual father. It is harder to say where the Fathers (or even Scripture on its own) fit in. Not everything ever said on any possible issue is important, and all humans are fallible, so it seems we need the previous aspects of Orthodoxy to shape and inform our approach to Scripture and to the Fathers. Thoughts?

    I suppose more generally, I think that Orthodoxy is such a beautiful tradition, and can and always will stand as a bulwark of the Faith, but that it can do so without becoming *rigid*, allowing for different cultural expressions, etc. (and I think this has been the case historically MORE than in the recent past, before liturgical practice became so uniform (not that I think that uniformity is a bad thing)). In particular, I fear many Orthodox, in their zeal, approach towards phariseeism; “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Please understand, I am not directing this at you, as I do not know you; this is just something I worry about generally and this discussion has made me think of it.)

    Father, Bless!


  19. Under the heading of “problems we’ve never had before”: the ability to normalize practices in every parish across the globe.

    And yes, that’s not a blessing, it is a problem. Do not misunderstand me; this is not a disagreement with anything that anyone has posted, merely a comment on this calamitous change.

    All that talk of not taking your Typica to another monastery is quickly lost. We can all be as Orthodox as Athonite monks now! Wait, not every monastery on Athos practices like all the others and in fact the monks fight among themselves all the time about this? Dang. I thought I had the answer.

    And yes, I know just how wrong the opposing position is, after all, we can’t have deviation become license either. In the olden-days people were responsible to one another. In the olden-days they knew and lived with the people they learned from and the people they taught. They lived a real life of very concrete responsibility to one another. Oh sure, the bishops had two different spheres, that is: they had their iconic role at the head of our table and their communal role together as brother bishops, but they too enjoyed concrete relationships. And we are assured in scriptures and the tradition of the Church that fathers were responsible for the care of their children. Mass media has distorted this relationship and made it impossible for a well-meaning priest who writes a book to be “responsible” in any meaningful way to the people that read it.

    And it has become impossible for me, blabbing on a blog, to be responsible to anyone who reads my ramblings.

    So online, we all learn, we all advise, we all have an opinion, we all feel compelled (a bad sign, in and of itself) to speak, to “right” the wrongs, or to “justify” ourselves against those who would “right” us.

    I have heard it said that we have nothing infallible in the Church (though some will use that term for the 7 Councils or with more nuance they will say that the “acceptance of the Church of the 7 Councils” is infallible). It seems to me as a convert that the word simply has no meaning in Orthodoxy. Calling St John “ecumenical” is true enough as far as that goes. Perhaps the more catholic the teaching, like antibiotics, the less effective. Who can say?

    Father Patrick, I do appreciate the wisdom of your words and your noble attempt to somehow apply this wise and iconic tradition to my life. It is my intent to consider and apply your care to my family as I can. I am simply unable to do so without realizing, vividly, this problem.

    Pray for me, a sinner.


  20. Wearing a head covering in an uncovered parish is like wearing a picket sign. And with going up to venerate icons and for communion, you do stand out even if you stand in the back for the rest of the service. I don’t think that’s just an introvert/extrovert issue. It becomes political. I was in a pewed, uncovered parish one time where a traditionalist parishoner lady was the only one who stood during the epistle reading and went to the aisle to bow during the “Our Father” (not going into the appropriateness of that for Sunday). To me it was in everyone’s face and condemnatory.

    I don’t think a few uncovered heads stand out as much in a covered parish. Maybe because the men are also uncovered. But it’s the Priest’s family who set the tone. If the Matushka covers, I believe it is much more likely that most of the other women will too. And then it is a humble, respect the leadership thing to do instead of a self-righteous, holier than thou thing. In an uncovered parish you’re kinda darned if you do, darned if you don’t, imo.


  21. I wear a head covering whenever I go to church for a service, or when I pray daily prayers at home. When I started, I was the only woman in church to do so. Now, over many years, there are a handful of women who do so. I did fear standing out at first, but no one even looked at me or mentioned it. I feel that if you don’t make an issue of it, then neither will other people.

    My husband doesn’t completely “understand” why I feel it’s necessary, but I have his blessing, and the blessing of our priest to do so. Echoing Amy, above, for me it is a discipline of obedience. I am not more pious than those around me (I’m probably less so) and it’s not a matter of standing out or not standing out. I can’t judge whether another woman should wear a head covering or not, that’s between her, her husband, and her priest. I need the discipline and the constant reminder of humility.

    When I am covered, I get less distracted during the services and can concentrate more on the service instead of letting thoughts distract me. It also reminds me to be humble. Sometimes, I think women, more than men, need to be reminded of humility, just because without that reminder we compare ourselves to others, judging how we “measure up.” In the same vain, I’ve found that the more I wear a head covering, the less I bother about my physical appearance during the services. I’m not worrying about if my hair is just right, or if my mascara’s smudged, I can concentrate on praying. Likewise, others around me are not distracted by my appearance.


  22. I started wearing a scarf at the first parish I attended when I became Orthodox because I had read an article by an Orthodox about the iconic meaning of it and the biblical teaching finally made sense to me as not being culture-bound. It also helped that there were a fair number of other women who also wore scarves in the worship at that parish. (I am definitely not one who likes to stand out in a crowd.) Eventually, though, I couldn’t find a scarf that wouldn’t slide off all the time during the service and it began to be a distraction. (I have family responsibilities and not a lot of time to shop–at the time there wasn’t much choice of scarves in materials that weren’t slippery where I normally looked for clothing.) Eventually, I had to leave that parish and in the parish I now attend, except for a few members from “the old country”, most women (including the Priest’s wives) do not wear head coverings. We have the added complication in our U.S. culture that any woman who wears a traditional-looking head covering in public is going to be taken for a Muslim!

    One thing that is also a problem is that such an obviously counter-cultural and traditionally “proper” thing to do can become a source of very legalistic attitudes and the temptation to judge. Sadly, I do find that was a bit of an issue at my former parish. I think my present Priest may discourage the practice of such obvious and overt religious and monastic practices in our parish for this reason alone.


  23. Karen,

    While I understand the motive for preventing legalism and the temptation to judge, this in itself should not be a reason to discourage obedience to Tradition. There is one aspect not forcing women to cover their heads and quite another to discourage them from doing so. The latter can be seriously damaging to conscientious women and cause even greater problems for parishes that expect coverings. Our traditions need to be kept reasonably uniformly or at least taught as such, even if not enforced strictly in various locations or for various individuals. Teaching that one does not need to wear a head covering is to teach the we do not need to maintain Tradition in obedience to Christ. This is not Orthodox nor good for our souls. Yes we need much gentleness and compassion in helping people obey, realising the difficulties of some in trying to obey and accepting those who cannot obey for some reason but to discourage obedience is to fight against Christ.

    If we were to base our practices on temptation to legalism and judging then fasting is also another area prone to this. Should we discourage fasting because some get legalistic or judgmental? Also, even going to church or making the sign of the cross can be causes for legalism and judging, do we discourage these things? Any visible and tangible action of Tradition can be a source of legalism and judging but we nevertheless maintain them and encourage obedience even if not always maintained strictly or correctly. On the other hand, cold rigid enforcement of Tradition is not helpful either. This I understand to be the Orthodox way to maintain and teach our traditions in compassion and love; recognising our weaknesses and yet helping each other to transcend them. Having said that, excessive piety should be discouraged that is anything that goes over the top in practicing Tradition. This is a different matter, it is about excess not about the practice of Tradition. Someone may bow too much but it does not mean that they should stop bowing. One may make excessive gestures in making the sign of the cross but one should not stop making the sign of the cross. One may fast too much or too vigorously and this should be discouraged but not to stop fasting. All with discernment to individual cases and contexts and at times one does need to not follow tradition because it will do that one or others severe harm.

    More spiritual teaching needs to be given to counter legalism and the temptation to judge. This usually comes when one’s spiritual life grows deeper, past the surface signs of piety, and into the heart, where each of us discovers the depth of our spiritual weakness and sin. We then learn not to judge others, while also learning the importance of obedience.

    I can empathise with standing out in a crowd. I too am under obedience to wear a cassock, beard and hat at all times in public. I too get abuse as being confused with being a muslim. I too want to hide in a corner and not be seen. It is not easy but I am also learning that it is a cross to bear for Christ. It is a testimony to the world of something other and, most importantly for me, it reminds others and myself of who I am, which reduces many temptations for sin both for myself and others about me. I am also reminded that to remove these symbols of my order is also close to denying my order and to denying Christ. Should we judge those clergy who do not wear clerical clothing? No, I can understand why many do not. It would help though that we all do it together to set an example by our own actions and to support each other. At least we should recognise that this is expected of us by Tradition, even if not able to be maintained by all. As one person considered this post, it is not about being patriarchal nor oppressing women but wearing with discernment the appropriate clothing required for our order by Tradition, that is by Christ. Also, as a monk one wears a veil in church. Yes, it falls off, gets snagged on things, twists about etc to the point of distraction, should it be discarded? God forbid. We manage these things the best that we can.

    At home women should cover their heads in private prayer also and there is little excuse for not doing so here. In Church we should find an environment supportive of covering heads even if not strictly maintained; it is up to the priest, supported by the bishop, to set this atmosphere, if there are problems although sadly in some parishes it is very difficult to wear a head covering so one should not judge here too rapidly. In public muslim women put us to shame for their obedience and commitment to their faith, yet the environment of the world is difficult and not wearing head coverings here is understandable but again not to be discouraged.

    This post was to reinforce the Tradition of the Church as it should be taught. How it is implemented is another matter and requires much pastoral care both in a parish and in a home. Lack of implementation is not the key problem, although it does not help, undermining the Tradition by teaching that it isn’t such or not to be followed is a problem.

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  24. Jeremiah,

    The Lord.

    Sorry for the slow reply.

    The authority of one Father can be sufficient for a doctrine because Christ can teach the truth through each and any Father. However, one should not rely on one Father for any particular doctrine because each Father is also man and can speak his own opinion. The three ecumenical hierarchs are not necessarily infallible but they are considered very reliable and their teachings reflect the common tradition of the church rather than a local variation or private opinion. They carry great authority along with the Apostles. In councils there is much greater surety because when two or three gather in the name of Christ then He is present among them, yet here too councils can be gathered as that of men teaching human doctrines even if the members are bishops. A Father is a Father because Christ teaches in synergy with him. It is Christ’s teachings and commands that make up Tradition because we only have one Teacher and one Lord, Christ.

    Generally, if a doctrine is that of Tradition then it will be found among a number of Fathers and traced back to the Apostles or soon after. Evidence can be seen in the liturgy and various services of the Church as well as in other common traditions. Salvation encompasses our entire lives and way of life so issues can reach to “minor” points because Christ reaches here also. Thus, those who deny a second marriage after the death of the first partner are properly heretics, who falsely teach the Tradition of the Church even though it is not directly in regard to God or other major aspects of the practice of the Church. Yet, there is a scale of weightiness and some things are more vital than others and need much stricter obedience and teaching.


  25. Our traditions need to be kept reasonably uniformly or at least taught as such, even if not enforced strictly in various locations or for various individuals.

    I cannot help but think of the calendar issue where such uniformity has already been lost.

    (And I am NOT looking for a debate on that issue!!)


  26. Thank you, Fr. Patrick for your detailed response. I would like to clarify that I do not know for a fact that my Priest would intentionally and pointedly discourage head coverings as I have not actually heard him say so explicitly. He did tell me he disapproves of the public and visible use of prayer ropes outside of a monastic context, and I got the impression he sees it as a distraction in our particular parish context. I also suspect he considers it (and probably head coverings for women, too) in our particular context the American Orthodox cultural equivalent of the Pharisee praying on the corner to be seen by men.

    It seems to me it is possible by contrast to be much more discreet with one’s personal rules of prayer and fasting. In these areas, my Priests’ advice has been to encourage persistence in working at growing in this without succumbing to the bondage of rigid legalistic perfectionism on the one hand, or being tempted to be satisfied with completing a prayer rule only in a rote fashion (i.e., better to say one brief prayer that is from the heart and thus to attempt to cultivate an awareness of God’s Presence throughout the day, than to complete a more extensive prayer rule, morning and evening, merely to check it off one’s “to do” list). They are usually quick to point out that abstention from food without an accompanying attempt at increasing abstention from sin and increasing prayer is futile as well.

    I also suspect our Rector’s experience with our large parish situated in a strongly Evangelical community is that Christians from other conservative western Christian traditions (where legalistic understandings of such practices are common, including among those coming into the Church), tend to rather too easily confuse these very visible personal outer signs of traditional Orthodox belief and practice with the essence of the faith itself, and this threatens proper focus. Then rather than pointing to the timeless truths of Orthodoxy, because of these cultural perceptual problems, they tend to get in the way of the central message of the Orthodox faith of heart and life transformation through a communion of love with Christ in His Church.

    Like you, I look forward to a time when there may be greater spiritual maturity and understanding among Orthodox people of all backgrounds in this country so that the traditional practices may be observed more uniformly in local parishes for the right reasons without interference from these concerns.

    I appreciate the ascetic aspect of being willing to be misunderstood, maligned, etc., for your obedience to your monastic rule in keeping your cassock on in public out of faithfulness to Christ. I think if I were a nun, I would have a similar attitude and wear my cassock with joy–the same would be true if I were a man and a Priest of the Orthodox Church. I can’t explain why I don’t feel this way about wearing a head covering as a common lay person publicly in our culture. I guess it is because I do think it would distract my non-Orthodox Evangelical friends and family members (and even me) from what is really important in our faith. This may also be because I can’t completely divorce it yet from some of my earlier spiritually- wounding experiences of coming into contact with groups and individuals evidencing a very cult-like mindset of legalistic bondage who insisted on head coverings for women and very countercultural dress codes (mostly affecting women). But I admit my own weakness and discomfort in being seen as so much different than my non-Orthodox friends than I really am is probably a factor as well. It is already a challenge that they know I have become Orthodox.

    Thanks, again, for your thoughtful comments and for this enlightening post.


  27. I agree with what you say here. I love the idea of the headcovering being the Icon. Being able to be in imitation of the example of the women saints of old and the Theotokos is an honor, not a put down.


  28. Should we chalk up the lack of head-coverings in modern times, especially in America, to a liturgical abuse?

    I know some otherwise very traditional people, like John Sanidopoulos of the “Mystagogy” blog who nevertheless say that in Greece it was never really uniformly enforced, and that since today women are not expected to wear it in public, neither does the Church expect them to wear it in the holy temples.

    I am a member of a parish which requires head-coverings and skirts for women, and which has a sign in the narthex to this effect. I doubt, however, many people would even say something to someone if she didn’t know and just came in to pray.


  29. For me, Fr. Patrick, I must confess to a streak of judgmentalism. I love so much the feeling of piety and holiness that I get in congregations in which men and women stand separately and the women cover their heads, that in all honesty it is difficult for me to visit places where this is not the practice.

    I know, I know– there are many many more important things like loving God and purifying the heart, and these are simply outward manifestations of piety. But there’s something about those things that in my limited experience I have found to accompany spiritually healthy parishes with active liturgical lives.

    I’m the same way with pews, really. They crowd the worship space and make it tempting to sit more often than one should in the divine services. I love my little Russian parish– so pious, the fragrance of Orthodoxy as it is practiced in the old world is there.

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