On one of the walls of my bedroom hangs the "old lay brother habit", proudly displayed as a symbol of cooperator brother history. As I prepare the talk I will be giving the Come and See vocation discernment participants, I thought I would just write a little note on this powerful and controversial symbol of the brother vocation.
First of all, which is which? In the picture, the old lay brother habit is on the right. The distinctive features being the black scapular (apron) and capuce (hood). Most depictions of canonized cooperator brothers like St. Martin de Porres, St. Juan Macias, and St. Francis Shoyemon depict them wearing this habit. And when you see depictions of the sea of Dominican saints and blesseds beneath the mantle of the Blessed Mother in heaven, you can spot the brothers only because of this difference in habit.
Most people admire the old lay brother habit, noting the pleasant contrast between the black and white--but this is, officially, a habit not to be worn. After Vatican II, it was decided that all Dominican friars were to wear one common habit to emphasize the unity and equality of the friars. Thus, I have never worn the old lay brother habit as my habit, but merely as a historical costume.
But what do I think about the old habit? Well, I think the only good reason (and it is a good one) to return to the old habit is that it provided visibility to the cooperator brother vocation. Now, because there's no way to tell the difference, people have begun to assume there just aren't any brothers. Having a distinctive habit naturally prompted people to ask questions (i.e. Why is he wearing white, and you're wearing black?) These questions then would allow the message to be spread that there are cooperator brothers and there are cleric brothers--one mission, one order, but different manifestations. The black scapular and capuce could be a vocation promotion tool. If I was going to argue for a return to the brother habit, vocation promotion would be my foundational point.
A lesser point would be just the fact that the old habit gave the brothers something of their own. It was a point of pride and heritage, and this is not such a bad thing either.
Then again, the old habit, for some, is a symbol of all that was wrong with the Order--points I touch upon in my Ottawa reflections. The distinction in habit facilitated a culture of difference and inequality. I respect this argument, but I would counter it by saying the problem wasn't the habit, it was with the brothers (cleric and cooperator) who were building walls of separation where there should have been forums for respecting and celebrating difference.
As I said earlier, I have never worn the old habit as my daily dress, so I cannot speak with any degree of certainty on this topic, but I think the question of reviving the wearing of the brother habit should be discussed (by the cooperator brothers themselves) as the Order seeks ways of reviving the cooperator brother vocation. What once might have been a symbol of inequality could become a symbol of renewal.
Br. Paul, OP