Saturday, August 07, 2010

It's Not a Belt, It's a Hat

The other day, Father Anonymous mentioned that, in addition to his trusty cassock, he also owns a biretta. Among subscribers to the Conf. Aug., the latter is considerably less common than the former, and may bear a little conversation. We also mentioned a droll story, although the degree of drollery may depend upon who's listening.

First, the hat itself. Ours is a traditional Roman-style cap, three points and a pom-pom. Left to our own devices, we would have chosen something else, since this is a style that only became routine in the 16th century. Even today we are told that Germans prefer four points. A small soft cap seems to us more authentically Lutheran in any case. But we claim no expertise on this matter.

Indeed, left to ourselves, it is unlikely that we own a biretta at all, in this style or any other. It is the most useless thing in the world: a hat that neither keeps the sun out of your eyes nor keeps your head warm. (Well, okay, in a draughty old church or refectory, it might help a little bit with heat loss.) It isn't remotely waterproof. During Mass, you are only supposed to wear it while sitting, and even then to remove it at the name of Jesus, which -- while a snap when visiting a Buddhist temple -- must be a colossal nuisance when worshiping with Christians. The thing exists, insofar as it does still exist, primarily as marker of identity.* Far more than the cassock, it screams "traditional." Or rather, it screams "traditionalist," in the sense of gruff old people and strident young ones, trying to rehabilitate customs that have died a respectable death.

Father Anonymous considers himself just such a traditionalist, presently making the awkward transition from stridency to gruffness. (The depth of his traditionalist eccentricity will become apparent one of these days, when he releases his Latin breviary for Lutheran use. Seriously.) But, paradoxically, he finds the company of many people like himself irritating beyond words. It's not about that trite and misleading "dead faith of the living" remark, either, so don't quote it to us. There are simply too many people for whom "traditionalism," or even "conservatism," is a codeword for preening poseurs, who gather to smoke, drink, and bitch about all the ways in which the church was better in their youth. (Never mind the number of them who were raised in some other church). For a long time, they vented their spleen against women; now that so many of them actually are women, they vent it against gays -- which is funny, considering how many of them have always been gay. Always. Been. Gay. But perhaps we digress.

Still, one hears reference to "the Biretta Belt," occasionally spoken of in hushed whispers, as though it were a vast and powerful conspiracy, or else with casual confidence, as though its existence were a demonstrable fact, no less obvious obvious than the existence of New Jersey. We have long grated against this expression, because it is misleading. There is no such thing. There are liturgical and theological conservatives -- not always the same people, mind you. Some of them do wear, or at least own, birettas. But they disagree amongst themselves as much as any other group of people, have no particular gift for organizing (at least without help from the Scaife foundations), and far from being a Dan Brown cabal, are for the most part sad, fat and mildly addicted.

And in any case, no piece of clothing -- least of all this one -- can serve as a thoroughly reliable guide to anybody's actual beliefs. To wit, our story:
A senior colleague and dear friend owns a biretta, or at least he did for many years. Since life offers few occasions to wear such a thing, he put it on a shelf in his study. This kept it from being crushed in a closet, or forgotten at home.

One day, when the parish was hosting an ecumenical service, our friend offered his study for visiting clerics to use as a vesting room. One of the visitors was an Episcopal priest, a woman, who scanned the room, pointed at the biretta, and said loudly, "Does that mean you are opposed to the ordination of women?"

Our friend was taken aback, but was able to respond, in a reasonably reasonable tone, "No, actually, my eschatological understanding of the Church and its ministry, coupled with my reading of Galatians 3 and John 20 means that I support the ordination of women. That's a hat."
Kind of smart-alecky, we admit; our friend is a little embarrassed by the tale. But we applaud him, because he made a point worth remembering: the deliberate choice of some old customs does not commit a person to the adoption of all old customs. How could it, when there are so many to choose from? Benedict XVI wears the camauro, the fur Santa Claus cap that few people ever expected to see again; that does not commit him to, for example, keep a mistress or kidnap babies. Sure, popes have done it before, perhaps even while wearing the same headgear; but the Church moves on.

All this is why when, years ago, we found a predecessor's biretta in the closet of our new parish, and suitable permission was asked and given, we adopted it as our own. We don't wear it, although we would if invited to at a suitable occasion. We leave it on our shelf, as a reminder to ourselves and an advice to passers-by, that our love of tradition does not require us to live in the past.
* Nor is the identity in question sacerdotal. Secular academics wear, depending upon their university, their own versions, some of which overlap with the ecclesiastical styles.


James of the Tonsure said...

Mine's a three pointer. I was led to believe that four points were for holders of doctorates.

When tonsured it does serve well to keep the dome covered at the graveside rites.

I'm actually rather bored with it after 25 years. And if you tell some folks you have a biretta, they want to see your gun permit. What I really want is a zuchetto! But then will some think I'm a rabbi?

Father Anonymous said...

Yeah, that about sums it up. Why did I write such a long post? Hate it when I do that.

About the number of points -- the doctorate (from a pontifical university, in the few subjects they offer) is definitely the case. The thing about Germans (and a few other nations) is from the old Catholic Encyclopedia, which means it was true once. Id don't have any up to date information, or know what European Lutheran churches do. (In Romania, it's hard enough to get them into clerical collars).