I like Will Meyer’s observation: “There is one principle that ISM clergy have never heeded well: simplicity of vesture. In the words of Mademoiselle Chanel: “Before you go out, always take something off”. In the ISM, perhaps the more appropriate statement is “The Infant of Prague is to be venerated, not imitated.” Lets all be honest – he is right. One need only make a cursory sweep through Indie websites and blogs to see an entire line up of “Infant of Pragues”. It may at first appear to be a superficial topic, however, there is a worthwhile conversation here. This is not purely about aesthetics – as Will’s post rightly points out it is about context, respecting the dignity of the moment. I also wonder if it is not an opportunity to expand on our understanding of what community is, and what it does.
Clothing is symbolic. If you think I’m joking take a moment and look at a collection of celebrity photographs. Pay close attention to the fashion labels and accessories in the image. Now, go do some people watching – where do you see those labels and accessories? How many market stalls are selling cheap chinese knock-offs? Take a moment and think about the conscious and unconscious “statements” people make, including yourself, about themselves, through the clothes that they choose to wear. Our clothing communicates social status, or aspired to social status, group affiliation, politics, and much more. Often this communication is so unconscious – because of the other choices we have made – that we assume, or take for granted the messages we project, and those that we “read” in others.
The symbolism of clothing in a liturgical setting is intensified because liturgy, by its very nature, is highly symbolic. The shape of the rite, the ritual gestures, even the ritual food, is a stripped down indicator of a larger conversation that we are all having with one another, and with God. When the priest is vested, he or she fulfils a particular role; one that is a step outside the ordinary. That slight shift in appearance can empower individual community members to step outside the ordinary with the celebrant and take in the fullness of the mystery.
Too often in our Indie context vestments become a distraction, rather than a compliment to the ministry and unity of the community. Here is where Will’s observation of the Infant of Prague comes into its own. I have over the years met too many clergy whose prized collection of vestments would put Imelda Marcos’ famed shoe collection to shame. I have seen priests scour the internet, and vintage shops for church chatchky bankrupting themselves (or their community) in the process. There is a sickness, a form of idolatry at work here. Acquiring, and then using more and more liturgical costume – sometimes even changing costumes throughout a liturgy – does not respect the dignity of the mystery. The focus shifts from the Gospel, to the individual celebrant, from we together as one, to “me” the pretty one flouncing about in satin and lace. The purpose of vestments – to shift one’s focus and step outside the mundane, is turned on its head, entrenching the community in the ordinary.
I’m a big fan of make your own. I’m lucky in that I have enough “skill” to get away with it. But if one does not, surely this is an opportunity to tap into existing creative skills within the community, and to cultivate new ones. Doing so is not about aesthetics, or vanity – it can open a door to real ministry, by taking what is learned in the process of that creative act, and shifting its purpose to serve a function outside the boundary of the community. The simple act of coming together to create, for example, a set of vestments, establishes a working bond, a creative skill set, and a sense of pride in being a liturgical community that does more than just celebrate liturgy. The idea of starting within, and then moving beyond with what one has learned, is not without precedent in Christian practice. Indeed it is exactly what the early ascetics and desert Fathers did. They retreated to locations beyond the city walls, achieved a skill in spiritual discipline, and then returned to share that skill with those inside the city – outside the desert. Drawing upon the skills to make beautiful vestments a community could then turn around and make functional items for the poor, the lonely, and the sick – but make them well, and bring some beauty and joy into the other’s world. I have seen more than one “exhibit” created by small groups designed to offer a moment of beauty and reflection for visitors. This is a gift of spirit that cannot be bought on eBay, or “worn” in multiple layers of lace and satin. This is a real community in creative action – doing ministry outside the expected boundaries of “mere” liturgy.