April 05, 2012

Suitable habits for Benedictine monks and nuns

[I first published this post several years ago.  It's still drawing questions and comments.]

A business suit consists of several items of clothing.

In the religious orders, our uniform or suit is called a “habit”.

The Order of St. Benedict (who died in A.D. 547) is the oldest religious order in the Church. From before A.D. 840 until shortly after A.D. 1200, there was almost no other religious life in the Church except the monks and nuns who lived by the regulations of St. Benedict.

The Benedictine habit is the forerunner of the habits of most religious orders that have come into being.

For the most part, the traditional Benedictine habit is simpler and has fewer elements than the habits of most other religious orders, especially those of women.

Here are the parts of the Benedictine habit. (You can click on the pictures to see larger versions.)


TUNICThe tunic is black, loose and long, covering the wrists, ankles and the base of the neck. On top of the tunic, at the waist, goes the cincture (belt)— made of black leather or black cloth. (Benedictines do not use cinctures made of rope or cord like the Franciscans.)


SCAPULAROver the tunic and the cincture goes the scapular. It was originally an apron for work, but over time it began to be seen as a symbol of the work of the Cross, and was made increasingly longer and worn all the time, not just for work. The scapular is a long panel of cloth with a hole in the middle for the head. It is shoulder-wide, straight-sided, ankle-length and square-cornered. The scapular hangs nearly to the ankles both in front of the body and behind. [The small devotional scapular that many Catholics wear is a symbolic miniature of the full-size scapular that monks and nuns have as part of the habit. The miniature devotional scapular has a front panel and a back panel like the full-sized habit scapular.]


WIMPLEBenedictine nuns wear a white, cloth wimple— a covering that drapes around the throat, chin, cheeks and head. An extra band of cloth covers the forehead.


VEILA “novice” is a new Benedictine-in-training who has not yet made vows. Over the wimple, a novice-nun wears a white veil. A nun receives a black veil when she makes vows.

A Benedictine monk has a black hood.The modern Benedictine monk’s hood is streamlined, but in past centuries it was much larger.


CUCULLAAt Mass and at Community Prayer, Benedictines add a formal, black gown, the cuculla over the habit. It has wide, deep, long sleeves, and also usually has broad vertical pleats or folds that hang the full length from the shoulders to the ankles. The cuculla is the ancestor of academic gowns, judicial chamber robes and choir robes.


Benedictines do not attach or wear a rosary as part of their habit. They also do not normally wear any visible medal, pin, emblem or crucifix. However the superior of a Benedictine monastery (an abbot for monks, an abbess for nuns) wears a pectoral cross on a chain like a bishop.

The abbot, Blessed Columba Marmion;
and St. Scholastica, the twin sister of St. Benedict.