Chris McDonnell’s ‘Catholic Times’ column: A Roof Tile to Wear.

Head coverings come in many shapes and sizes, as do the terracotta tiles that roof houses. This week’s words are built round the various tiles we wear on our heads and their significant purpose.


A roof tile to wear

Chris McDonnell Catholic Times

There is a phrase we often use- ‘if the cap fits, wear it.’ Reflecting on that phrase made me think of the great variety of head coverings that we wear and how each has a particular significance.

Let’s start with the humble flat cap. We have all seen the black and white newsreel images from the early years of the last century, where hundreds of workers were filmed streaming out of the factories and ship yards, wearing their working clothes, their heads under flat caps.

It became symbolic of a class of manual workers who through the toil of their hands contributed to our national wealth. Someone I knew very well always referred to his flat working cap as his ‘toile’ or ‘tile’. It did for his head what terracotta roofing tiles do for a house. It gave protection from the elements.

How different from the crowns of kings who wore with ostentation their symbol of power, often encrusted with expensive gems and materials. We actually use the very word ‘crown’ to indicate the source of national power.

The papacy itself employed the same symbol of prestige and authority. The papal tiara, or triple crown, was worn by popes from as early as the 8th century through to the mid-20th century when it was last used by Pope Paul VI in 1963 for a short period at the beginning of his reign. Now the pope either wears a simple white zucchetto or skull cap or, when appropriate, his mitre as Bishop of the See of Rome.

Thinking back through the years, I can still remember serving Mass when the celebrant wore a black, three veined Biretta as he walked from the sacristy to the foot of the altar, there to take it off to hand to the server who placed it on the altar step. It was another small indication of his priestly dignity that made him different from us. Rarely seen these days, its loss is not mourned.

Within the orthodox Jewish tradition hats come in different forms varying from the broad brimmed black hat to the round fur head covering. The small black velvet kippah bears a close similarity to the zucchetto of the Christian community.

Caps are also associated in many ways with sport. We speak of a player being ‘capped for their country’ when, because of their skill and experience, their performance is recognised and rewarded. Another sporting connection is when a head covering is a matter of personal protection as in a Rugby scrum cap or the hard hat and face visor worn by Cricketers. For speed in the pool, swimmers wear a thin rubber stretch cap over their hair as they race through the water.

The school cap has been part of school uniform over many years when, to be found without it, was an occasion for a good telling off. I recall a De La Salle brother who stood at the school gate each evening, checking that our caps were firmly in place as we left the school grounds, only to be stuffed into bags as soon as we were out of sight.

Whether or not it was widely used, the figurative Dunce’s Cap has woven itself into classroom mythology, used to single out failure by causing its wearer public humiliation. Not I would suggest the best way to encourage and support learning.

For those who are members of the College of Cardinals, in addition to the paraphernalia of red trimmed cassock, red buttons and scarlet fascia (sash), each cardinal is presented with a broad brimmed red hat as a symbol of his position. We do in fact summarise those who become cardinals as having received the ‘red hat’.

In the UK the police helmet is a familiar sight on the streets although more and more it is being replaced by a peaked cap or a baseball style cap. Its style and manufacture gave protection to the man who wore it.

Just as the flat cap became a symbol of class, so the bowler hat and the top hat denoted a societal position. The status of wearing one or the other was valued. It was the bowler hat that became a cunning weapon when used by Odd Job in one of the Bond movies, Goldfinger.

That brief run-through of head attire has a common thread, for apart from the functionality of offering protection for our skulls, what we wear often has a social significance. You have only to reflect on the association of the ’hoodie’ with teenage misbehaviour. In the United States red baseball caps decorated with the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ have become tawdry symbols of the years of this current Presidency.

We so easily make judgments based on appearance without delving that little bit further to explore the person. The practice of wearing a baseball cap back-to-front is familiar on the streets of our towns and cities. A friend of mine visiting New York City recently, went into a store and asked for a cap with the peak at the back…. For some reason such humour wasn’t appreciated in down-town Manhattan!

For many people, what they wear is an important part of status, it says who they are and in a strange way protects their persona.

The contrast in current vestment styles with those of earlier years has to be seen to be believed. A priest in a simple white alb is to my mind more suitably dressed than one wearing an ornate ‘fiddle back’ chasuble over a laced trimmed alb. That movement away from elaborate forms of dress was one of the gifts and insights of the Council. A good friend always celebrated the Eucharist in just a white alb and a simple stole. He didn’t feel the need to get ‘dressed-up’ for the occasion. The celebration of the Eucharist is more important than that.

In a similar manner, many women’s religious orders gave up a distinctive dress and adopted a simple manner of clothing that was practical and uncluttered. Often only a simple veil remained to indicate their calling.

Our dignity comes from who we are rather than how we appear. Soon enough others will recognize our worth by what we do and what we say. Our compassion and understanding, our willingness to listen is a true mark of our personal integrity.

Watching the first Presidential Candidates debate at the end of September was an object lesson of a failure to listen to real need and anxiety. It offered a world view that was both selfish and deaf. It led Vice-President Joe Biden to come up with the memorable words “Will you shut up man?” Exasperation broke through the maelstrom of incoherent sound.

Returning to the covering of our heads. When greeting someone it is customary to raise our cap or hat if we happen to be wearing one. It is a mark of respect that we offer both friend and stranger. It is a simple action that satisfies common courtesy.

In a different gesture, when a monk pulls up his hood to cover his head, he does so with the intention of prayerful dedication. His habit is simple, it serves only a practical purpose, no frills attached.

Maybe in this secular age monastic communities still have something to teach us. There is a great difference between essentials and trivia if only we are sensitive to the circumstance of time and place.




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One Comment

  1. Kevin Walters says:

    In the early fifties as a child going to church, I was aware that all women wore a form of head covering, from a scarf, shawl, hat or veil. The poor wore scarfs, the better-off hats, some of which had veils attached, while overs wore embroidered veils/mantles some of which were ostentatious, this situation contributed to Victorian class structure which was still very prevalent at that time, and many were more than happy to concur with it, especially the privileged.

    Modesty of dress for both men and women, is the key, as inconspicuously in humble simplicity we bend our knee. Matthew 6:5-6

    When the Bishops and the Pope remove their head coverings, it symbolizes on the worldly plain, a coming out into the open, this is because it is innately known, before God, that it is a manmade covering, as in, a hiding place.

    Its removal permits a man to be aware of his place before Him, as innate knowledge requires us to bow one’s head, an action that in effect is an attempt to hide one’s soul from Him, because to have a glimpse of Him we would be awestruck (struck dumb); all would shield their essence/face from His essence, which is Truth.

    In a man he would cover/hide his face (Soul) this can be seen with Adam and Eve hiding in the bushes, a self-reflected awareness of their own nakedness (State/Shame) before His presence. As with Elijah who wrapped his face in his cloak and then went out from his hiding place and stood at the entrance of the cave.

    This covering of the face/soul is a physical (Hand to eyes/head) spontaneous reaction as it is innately (Spontaneously) known by all, as in when the accepted presence of God is contemplated (lift up one’s eyes/soul), in seeking the truth of His Truth, from within one’s own distorted ‘questioning’ heart, in effect it is an attempt to forestall the sight of one’s own brokenness, inducing us to bow our heads before Him in humility.

    As with Isaiah in the temple when he witnessed; “This awful vision of the Divine Majesty overwhelmed the prophet with a sense of his own vileness.”

    Do we not also see the significance of the face covering, from within the tomb of Jesus “and the cloth that had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but ‘rolled up’ in a place by itself” in relation to Elijah and others who covered their faces/souls/essences.

    Luke 4:18
    “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
    to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
    Then He ‘rolled up the scroll’, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

    And now we can “see” the new order, as the risen Jesus Christ goes forth from the tomb/cave with His human state/essence uncovered (transformed) towards/in, the Father, permitting us also to do the same and follow Him, in the ‘Way’ of stepping out of the tomb of death/sin, with our faces/souls uncovered, showing/owning our true state before Him and others, dressed in the free but compulsory Wedding Garment of Humility, to be worn by all, no matter what their state of being.

    The true Divine Mercy Image, one of Broken Man, given by our Lord Himself to His Church, has the potential within it, to permit ‘all’ to come out from behind the bushes (Remove the face/head covering), so to say.

    Please consider continuing via the link below.

    Kevin your brother
    In Christ

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