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The Franciscan Habit

The Franciscan Habit

Author: Br Nathan-James SSF
Author Role: College Chaplain and Director of Mission

"Are you a Jedi?" a young boy asked me while I was waiting for a friend outside the cinema. I don’t normally wear my Habit when I go to the movies. I had been representing our community at a meeting, which went overtime and I didn’t have time to change out of my Habit before meeting my friend.

The reactions I get when people see me with my Habit on in public can be quite interesting, and sometimes amusing, especially when people ask the Jedi question. I sometimes forget I have it on until someone says things like: “Is that real?”, “Are you a real monk?”, “Why are you wearing that?” or “Is that like, your uniform?”. I also forget how odd it must be for people who are not used to seeing people in religious Habits anymore.

The students at my old school were so used to seeing me in it they were surprised to see me down the shops, or on the weekend, in shorts and a tee-shirt – “I didn’t know you wore real clothes,” they'd say. 

I was invited to share a little about my Habit because you will see me wearing it around a lot. So here are some fun facts:

  • Firstly, it gets its name from the word habitat. Originally people who lived in religious communities pretty much lived in their religious dress. Indeed, in some countries, it is still commonplace for members of religious orders to wear their Habits all day. In other places, like our brothers in Australia, we tend to wear it only when attending church or official occasions.
  • Most religious communities have some form of Habit; they have slight variations and designs but are unique to each community. Franciscans generally wear either brown or, in some cases, grey. When St Francis gave all his belongings, including his clothes, back to his father he took on the dress of the poor, which was a simple tunic made of the cheapest cloth and was undyed – having a brown-grey colour.
  • The Habit is made up of a simple tunic and a capuce (a small shoulder cape and hood). When laid out flat it forms the shape of a Tau Cross (like in the Chapel). A brother once said to me that wearing our Habit is like putting on the Cross, a reminder that we are consecrated to God to serve God’s people. The capuce was probably a practical addition originally for comfort in seasonal weather. At times, it has been used as part of religious services – for example, during periods of silence.
  • Most religious Habits will also have a cord (or sometimes a belt). Again, this was practical, poor people would use a rope to gather the tunic in. In religious communities, the cord represents the vows taken by members when they join the community – Franciscans take the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (or, as my previous students would say, – no money, no hunny, and no mucking around).

So, no I’m not a Jedi (how cool would that be–these are not the students you are looking for). Yes, it is a bit like a uniform in that it is worn by those who are members of Franciscan communities. And no, I’m not a monk – that's a fun fact for another day.

A hungry traveller stopped at a monastery and was taken to the kitchen where a brother was frying chips...

"Are you the friar?" he asked.

The brother replied, "No. I'm the chip monk."