If you've been around S Michael's on a Sunday or Wednesday the last couple of weeks, you probably noticed that i have acquired some new headwear. I thought i'd take a moment to tell you what it is, and why i decided to start wearing one.
First off, let's deal with what it's called. It's not a beanie or a skullcap (okay, yes it is a skullcap, but in the Church we like cool-sounding names in other languages, so we don't call it that); it is also not a yarmulke (because i'm not Jewish). It is properly called a pileolus, but it's more commonly known by its nickname, a zucchetto, (which sort of rhymes with the name of the the wood carver in Pinocchio.) Zucchetto comes from the Italian word which means gourd and, by extension, the head. So despite what i said above, it really can be called a skullcap. So, what exactly is a zucchetto, and why do clerics wear them?
Dating back to around the fifth or sixth century, when one was received into the clerical order, a spot was shaved on the top of his head. This spot (and the rite that accompanied it) is called tonsure. Before being assumed by the clergy, it was originally a mark of slavery. Over time, the tonsure became associated with the vows of the the monk or priest. It was a sign of the obligation of humility and obedience the new cleric was taking on. In those days, monasteries, cathedrals, and even parish churches were often quite cold and drafty and to prevent the newly tonsured clerics from losing too much heat through their newly shorn pates, they developed a small, semicircular hat to cover them. Thus was born the zucchetto. As time passed, the zucchetto itself became a sign of the vows the monks and priests had taken. To wear one meant that you were under vows, under orders.
As the centuries passed, and customs changed, the tonsure almost entirely disappeared. With it, for most, went the zucchetto. In the Church today, they are mostly associated with the pope and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Relatively few parish priests wear them any more. Recently (and i mean "recently" in church times, not as in secular fashion trends) we've seen considerable changes among clergy vestments, with more and more room being given for "creativity" (i use that term lightly) and individual expression. Whereas for centuries, street dress for priests was black (be it cassock, frock coat, or suit and shirt) and liturgical vestments adhered to specific seasonal colors and religious adornment only, it is quite common now to see just about anything worked into a priest's stole or chasuble, and i won't even begin to address the liberties we now take with clerical shirts and collars. I will limit myself to only one example of a modern priest's stole, and i will leave it to your own imagination how this fits with any season or feast of the Church.
As this trend towards free expression has gained momentum, many of the traditional ideas about clergy dress and customs are now looked upon as quaint or silly. People think of the older expressions of clergy dress and practices as "dressing up" or "playing church." Lately i've found myself wondering what's wrong with either of those. When we "dress up" and "play," we allow our imaginations to lead us out of the ordinary and the understood and into the mystical and mysterious. Imagination leads us to belief in that which is unseen and perhaps to touch for a moment that which cannot be fully grasped. The most powerful and most normative expression of our corporate worship, the Eucharist, is an imaginative re-entry into the events of the Jesus' Last Supper. Is that not the very height of "playing church"?
For me, though, the decision to wear a zucchetto reaches beyond even that. It is a visible and tangible reminder that i took vows when i was ordained, that i am a person under orders. It is a reminder that i am called to obedience, humility, and prayer, not just when i want to be or when i "feel like it" but as my obligation, my duty in the service of Christ and the Church. We are at a time in our culture when self-expression is running rampant, when the norms and expectations of decency, kindness, and respect are being cast aside in favor of viciousness, anger, and ridicule. We have come to openly admire power and egocentric greed instead of recognizing them for their addictive and destructive natures. At this moment, i can think of nothing more countercultural than to turn to a centuries-old sign of servitude and simplicity. I think it will be good for my soul.
And for those who think it is just silly, being thought of that way is probably also good for me, and besides, it's certainly no sillier than what else is out there. I'll take a zucchetto over a tardis any day.