The Dominican Habit
February 12 is normally the Dominican commemoration of Bl Reginald who is remembered for his association with the habit, although that may well be the least of his achievements; he was also an excellent preacher, administrator and a holy man who might well have succeeded St Dominic as Master of the Order if he had not pre-deceased him.
Excellent accounts of the life of this Dominican beatus may be found at the Australian Province's Vocations site and the Dominican's International Site. As such, I have no need to add to this largesse of biographical accounts. Instead, I wish to speak about the Habit of the Order of Friars Preachers.
Before I entered the Novitiate, I recall talking to Dominican fathers in the Philippines and they commented on the beauty of the habit and since then, I have heard other people comment on the beauty of our black and white habit and indeed, some of them told me that, in their opinion, it is the most beautiful religious habit in the Church! Perhaps this is not surprising if Our Lady truly designed it! I'd admit it is a picturesque habit; Br Paul Mills and I have been accosted by tourists in Cambridge quite a few times to pose for photos with them - the less daring tourists just photograph us as we walk past them!
But the habit, of course, if far more than a beautiful or tourist-attracting garment! At the most basic level, it is a "sign of our consecration", as the Dominican Constitutions remind us. It also unites us as one Order of Preaching friars, reaching across the centuries to the first friars who were clothed in the "white habit of St Dominic". Again and again, the Vitae Fratrum, a collection of tales about the early Dominicans, mentions the habit as the sign par excellence of belonging to the Order and a mark of salvation in Christ.
However, it is noteworthy that Dominicans are most often represented in art with the black cappa or cape over the white habit. This was worn whenever the friar ventured outside the convent, whenever preaching in the name of the Order and during the Liturgy, inside the convent, from All Souls' day until the Gloria was sung at the Easter Vigil. I think it is important that we maintain this practice because we are most easily identified as 'Blackfriars' when we don the black cappa; and this reinforces what people have already seen in representational art (of Dominican saints etc). How often in the past, I had looked at paintings of St Thomas Aquinas and imagined he was part of a now-defunct Order because I could not recall ever seeing a black and white habit in the contemporary Church! I recall also my first visit to the shrine of St Albert the Great in Cologne and when I saw the friars in white habits, I thought they were Cistercians or members of some other monastic order and that the Dominicans had 'pulled out' from that church! Of course, this is ignorance on my part... But we are visually-stimulated people who should not underestimate the visual impact of centuries of Church art and the common depiction of Dominicans in black and white has created a strong association in people's minds. Moreover, many people have wondered why Blackfriars (as we're called in England) wear white garments; this name only makes sense when we don the cappa. As such, the wearing of the full habit witnesses to the presence of the Order of Preachers (and by extension, the Church) in an area and assists people in connecting present-day Dominicans with our roots and our saints. Thus the historian William Hinnebusch, O.P. writes: "To all Dominicans then the habit is doubly dear. Mary endorsed it, Dominic wore it. The canons of Osma never carried their habit beyond the limits of their diocese; the Friars Preachers carried theirs all over the world, making it par excellence the black and white habit."
But in a sense all the fore-going is insignificant were it not for this final point: the habit is habit-forming. In fact, the Latin word habitus means 'garment, condition of style' but this term has a transferred meaning: 'nature, character, disposition'. This is the sense in which St Thomas Aquinas uses the word habitus. Thomas also teaches that we are schooled in the virtues so that we acquire them as part of our character and disposition; they become a habit, something habitual. As such, wearing the habit can help school us in the virtues; it forms the virtues. In our discussions with the Novice Master, we have commented on how wearing the habit when we're out on the streets, in the Catholic chaplaincy or in the shops reminds us that we are 'representatives' of the Order and of the Church. As such, we are constantly aware that we ought to behave as 'religious' are expected to. This awareness, at first, causes us to act in a certain manner - as religious, but with time, this manner of behaving shapes us and schools so that we become religious. As the Prior said to me once: "If you act kind, you will become kind." The Thomistic understanding of habitus (at least in my limited understanding of it) is that virtues are acquired by practising them so that they become instinctive and habitual, in the best sense of that word. As we are material creatures, the habit can and does, at best, act as a sacramental that reminds us of our consecration to God and what we are called to be.
To assist us in this, there are also prayers traditionally said as the habit is put on in the morning. This site excellently explains and shows pictures of the parts of the habit and the traditional prayers that are said as they are worn. I myself try to say prayers as I don the habit in the early morning, although I have adapted them slightly for my personal use:
Tunic: Clothe me, Lord, in the garments of salvation (cf Isa 61:10);
Belt: Encircle me, Lord, with justice and purity (cf Isa 11:5);
Rosary: (Kissing the Crucifix) Gird your sword of truth and prayer upon my thigh (cf Ps 45:3-4, Eph 6:14) The Rosary is worn on the left side where a knight hung his sword and was added to the habit in the 16th century;
Scapular: (Kissing the Scapular) I place myself under your protection, O Blessed Mother, and ask to imitate your humility in all things. It is believed that the scapular was especially given to the Order by Our Lady in place of the canon's rochet and is seen as sign of her care. It was also kissed when friars used to perform the venia, a ritual act of humility and obedience;
Capuce (Hood): Come down, O Holy Spirit, and overshadow me that I may love God above all else. (cf Lk 1:35) Incidentally, the capuce used to be connected to the scapular as was the hood of the cappa to the actual black cape, until the 14th century;
Cappa: You, Lord, are a shield around me... (Ps 3:3);
Black Capuce: ...From all my sins deliver me (cf Ps 34). This in remembrance of the Dominican identification of the colour black with penance.
With prayers like these, the habit reminds me of the virtues and habits that I am striving, by the grace of God, to practice and live in my religious life.
A final note on the habit, which I shall borrow from fr Hinnebusch:
"The friar wore it during his life and was buried in it at death... Its cloth, colour and cut expressed the poverty, chastity and obedience he had promised. Like the habit of all canons regular, the Order's habit had to be made of unfinished and undyed wool. This accounts for its being black and white. The friar saw in these two colours the expression of penance and purity, and of poverty also because no money had been spent in dyeing the cloth. Where it was hard to get wool, the friar could make his habit of other common material expressive of poverty."