The Holy Habit of St. Dominic

Out of all the things which mark the life of a Dominican friar, perhaps the most visible is the holy habit. Like many other religious orders, our habit is a symbol of our spirituality, our way of life, and a significant sacramental in our living of the consecrated life in the Catholic Church. Hence, I figured leaving out a discussion of the topic of the habit in a Dominicana series would be quite remiss.

Pope St. John Paul the Great expressed the basic idea behind the wearing of a religious habit in his 1996 apostolic exhortation, Vita consecrata:

§25 … The Church must always seek to make her presence visible in everyday life, especially in contemporary culture, which is often very secularized and yet sensitive to the language of signs. In this regard the Church has a right to expect a significant contribution from consecrated persons, called as they are in every situation to bear clear witness that they belong to Christ. Since the habit is a sign of consecration, poverty and membership in a particular Religious family, I join the Fathers of the Synod in strongly recommending to men and women religious that they wear their proper habit, suitably adapted to the conditions of time and place. …

Put simply, by wearing a “habit” (a set of distinctive clothing), consecrated religious are able to visibly express to themselves and to others their state as having given their lives totally to Christ.  The habit also serves the purpose of identifying to what community or order a consecrated religious belongs, as well as to supplement their lives of poverty (having only one outfit theoretically makes our wardrobe budget much lighter).

Historically, it seems that the wearing of habits by Christian consecrated religious happened rather early. The use of ascetical clothing was already practiced in Judaism, and it carried over into Christianity. As monastic life (the foundation of all other forms of consecrated life) became more stabilized, so too did particular styles of dress associated with that life. Among male religious in the Western Church, a common form began to emerge which derived its origin in late Roman robes. The Dominican habit is variation on this theme, and as such it has many similarities with other religious orders in the West. In particular, our habit takes many inspirations from the canons regular. Like all habits, the Dominican habit probably took its final shape over time; yet, our tradition has a unique “legend” dating back to the foundation of our Order regarding our habit.

The story is related by the hand of Bl. Jordan of Saxony, the first master of the Order after St. Dominic. According to Bl. Jordan, there was a canonist by the name of Reginald who was inspired by St. Dominic’s preaching and sought to join the Order. Unfortunately, he came down with a serious illness and was left bed-stricken. Asking for St. Dominic’s prayers, the canonist reported later experiencing a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the vision, Our Lady healed Reginald of his illness, and also revealed to him the signature piece of the Dominican habit: the scapular.

Prior to this, the early followers of St. Dominic wore the Augustinian habit of the canons regulars of Osma, which did not have a scapular (a uniquely monastic garment, by that point). Reginald reported this vision to St. Dominic, who, in turn, adopted the new habit for his nascent Order of Preachers. Reginald himself joined the Order shortly thereafter, and he is known as Bl. Reginald of Orleans, and considered one of the key players in the early history of the Order.  While we cannot be certain of the veracity of this legend handed on to us by Bl. Jordan, what is clear is that the scapular continues to hold both pride of place and Marian significance to all Dominicans. We will explore the individual parts of the habit of the friars in a later post, but for now it is sufficient to note that the full habit of the Friar Preacher in modern times looks like the following:

Naturally, the habit plays a large part in our daily lives as Dominican friars. Customarily, the habit is received by novices in a special ceremony called the “rite of vestition.” Sometimes this rite marks the beginning of the novitiate, and it consists in the local superior clothing the kneeling postulant in the habit. Once all the parts of the habit have been donned, the novice is raised up by the superior clothed in the holy habit of St. Dominic. The habit also plays an important role in our first profession rite, when novices make their first vows in the Order. During this rite, after the vows have been made to the superior, the latter blesses the habit with holy water as the newly professed hold their scapulars out for the blessing. This rite of blessing is often repeated when brothers receive new habits.

Some wonder if it is ever awkward to wear the habit. The answer to the question is a definite “yes.” Most of us are used to wearing form-fitting clothing in the modern style, and so robes tend to take some getting used to. The flip side of this however is that, over time, each friar becomes more comfortable with wearing the habit. We also develop certain “skill-sets” that allow us to, say, avoid getting food on our sleeves when reaching for a glass at dinner, or to avoid tripping on the scapular when climbing stairs. Another aspect I can personally attest to is that the habit is usually quite comfortable, and after a while one forgets that one is wearing it. As its name suggests, the habit becomes a part of one’s daily life; a fact which is exactly the point.

This is because the holy habit of St. Dominic is a gift made by our holy father to his sons and daughters. It is, as Bl. Jordan recounts, a gift of Our Lady. It makes physically manifest our commitment to follow Christ the Preacher in the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It stands as a reminder of who we are, whom we serve, and what we are called to do and be. As such, it is a precious treasure of the Order. We will explore that treasure in greater detail in a future Dominicana post. Stay tuned!