The Power of the Religious Habit: A True Story

Sister Z herself says that her habit is a daily reminder of her vow to God. Since a religious habit is a sacramental, it is an outward sign disposing the wearer (and others who see it) to receive graces.

 St. Paul Visiting St. Peter in Prison by Filippino Lippi Capella Brancacci

Sister Mary Brendon Zajac, S.N.D., hails from a clan based in Ohio. I suppose that every Sister of Notre Dame deserves her personal Quasimodo, and for this one, I fit the bill.

Too many people are hesitant to relate to those enrolled in religious orders. True, nuns should be treated with reverence due to their special commitment and vows, and yet, like you and me, they are working out their salvation with fear and trembling. Unlike you and I, though, most of them are making great strides in sanctity because they usually keep Jesus Christ foremost in their minds—and rightly so, considering that eternity is forever, and this present life is short. Most of us are caught up in the distractions of the day.

We seem to be frightened of the idea of holiness. We get itchy and fidgety whenever we get close to it, as if suffering from an allergic reaction. We find it more comfortable to wallow in the muck of our fallen nature. This fright is silly when we stop to think about it, because we are invited by God, and to be as holy as he is. That’s why we call ourselves “Christians.”

I often kid Sister Z by telling her that I won’t put her on a pedestal, no ma’am. In fact, I’m her personal millstone. I plan on holding onto her cloak so tightly that I’ll be dragged along when she is lifted up to heaven. She reminds me that this idea did not work for Elisha, as he watched Elijah riding into heaven, and assures me that she will leave me her cloak. She knows that I, being weak and a great sinner, need at least a double portion.

Like all good brides, Sister Z follows her divine Groom’s instructions, and so she recently visited this social leper in his Virginia prison. Jesus descended into hell to preach to the souls there, after he died on the cross and before he rose from the dead. Sister Z came to this purgatory on earth to speak with me. At her visit, I had a chance to see just how powerful her cloak is. In fact, I was graced to witness one of God’s ordinary little miracles, the kind, you know, that happen all the time if you just keep your eyes open, or maybe I should say, if you look with the eyes of faith and keep an open mind.

Even though she is barely five feet tall, Sister Z drew everyone’s attention when she entered the large visiting room of Greensville Prison. It was as if a rock star had arrived. All eyes were drawn to her, and each person’s face held a slightly different expression. Some quickly looked away as if ashamed, others smiled, and some kept staring like little children. I suppose this is similar to what we will experience at the final judgment when we see Christ, face-to-face, instead of hidden in his representatives here on earth.

Their reaction was due to one small detail: Sister Z wore her religious habit. It is ironic that many nuns have given up their traditional habit in order to be more conformed to the world. Perhaps, they have rejected the habit to stress their individuality, but God saves a community of people, not just individuals. From the looks on people’s faces that day in the visiting room, it was evident that Sister Z’s habit conveyed to them something of the reality of the Incarnation, of the human linked to the divine, the subjective to the objective, the deeply personal to the institutional. The habit suggested that she was grafted onto the Vine, the supernatural cause of all natural beauty, natural life, and natural power.

Sister Z herself says that her habit is a daily reminder of her vow to God. Since a religious habit is a sacramental, it is an outward sign disposing the wearer (and others who see it) to receive graces. Even the laity can wear a habit in the form of a scapular, for a scapular is derived from a religious habit, and is also a sacramental disposing the wearer to strive for holiness in a particular vocation. Sacramentals, of course, are not to be confused with sacraments, which were instituted by Christ as efficacious signs pointing to, and actually conferring, sanctifying grace.  While sacraments work ex opere operato from the work that was performed through Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, sacramentals obtain their effects ex opere operantis, through the action of the faithful, and the intercession of the Church, led by the Holy Spirit.

Tradition attributes this saying to St. Francis—that we should always preach Christ and, if necessary, use words. Christian witness speaks volumes without so much as a word. This approach is especially valuable in a politically correct society where people hardly listen to each other speaking because words have been so abused they have lost their meaning. Scripture states that the stars give witness to God’s beauty. During her visit, Sister Z was the rock’s star, a light reflecting the Son, and shining in the sight of everyone, as an eschatological witness to his glory.

I could see that many people were curious about why she was visiting a convict like me. They continually glanced at our table, their minds excited by the visible sign of her state of life. We two were an emblem of how the Church is comprised of both sinners and saints, and how—we hope and pray—the sanctity of the one rubs off on the other.

As Sister Z was preparing to leave, I noticed a cluster of female guards had also taken special notice of her. Just then, the ordinary little miracle occurred. There was one guard who was standing outside the group. Everyone who knew her agreed that she was an unhappy person. My grandma once told me there are two types of people in the world: happy people, and unhappy people who are happy only when they make others around them as miserable as themselves. This guard would often go out of her way to make prison even worse than it already was for the convicts. Nobody could recall a civil word coming out of her mouth.

This guard, we shall call her “Miss Merriment,” motioned for me to come over to her desk. “What is that woman?”  she asked and, before I could find words, added, “Is she a nun? I’ve never seen a nun in person before.” I replied that she was correct.

Other guards had gathered round by now, probably thinking there was a security problem. Little did they realize that their secure little world was about to be shaken. Miss Merriment drew closer to my face, and in an intimate moment, sheepishly asked: “Well, if she’s a nun, then why does she wear a wedding ring?” It was as if she were embarrassed to ask the question, as if she were pointing out that a woman’s slip was showing.

I smiled and said, “Why don’t we both ask her,” and I called Sister Z to the desk. Like a fan who first meets her favorite celebrity, Miss Merriment looked amazed, pleased, and tense, all at once, as I repeated her question: “Sister, why do you wear a wedding band?” Sister Z, resorting to words, explained that she was married to Christ. The other guards now gathered closer to the mother hen, so I was effectively squeezed out of the clucking circle. I was not privy to the conversation as Sister Z fielded other questions, but judging from what I observed, she must have done very well because quizzical looks were quickly replaced by accepting smiles. A few moments later, a female guard hugged Sister, and the others soon followed suit.

I was reminded of the woman in the crowd, with the issue of blood, who touched the hem of Christ’s garment. That sacramental did what no human doctor had achieved in many years of treatment—it healed her. The female guards continued to smile, and were constantly touching Sister Z after those hugs.  Miss Merriment suddenly cried out, “I want a hug, too!” God’s grace is refused to no one who asks for it. Sister Z smiled and embraced Miss Merriment. I thought of Father Damien on Molokai.

All of us watched as Sister Z exited past the steel doors, and crossed the abyss separating the convicted from the non-convicted. Miss Merriment caught my eye as she took off her glasses to wipe away tears. Elijah’s cloak had parted the waters. Sister Z’s habit had sinners parting with tears of repentance, the sort of sacrifice God loves.

This little nun was surely a powerhouse of faith, for sacramentals operate by the power of faith put into them, faith being a God-given virtue. While Sister Z wore her habit to remind her of her vow to Christ, her habit also brought daily conversions to other people.

I have seen Miss Merriment twice since this visit. I walked up to her a few months later and, to her astonishment, began talking with her as if we were old friends: “Boy, that Sister Z is a trip, isn’t she? She asks about you ….”

“Please tell her that I said ‘hello,’” replied the guard.

The second meeting found Miss Merriment coming into my band practice and, to the amazement of the other band members, engaging me in conversation. She told me how she was unhappy with her job. We talked for over a quarter of an hour. Afterwards, the band members looked at me as if I had grown two heads. “What was that? She actually acted human!” they exclaimed. I told them she was simply misunderstood and working out some problems. Sister Z’s sacramental was still operating. God wasn’t through with his ordinary little miracle.

Old habits are hard to break. We usually say this about bad habits, but the obverse of the coin must also be considered, since habits can be good. In this case, they are called virtues, and we are glad they are hard to break. Nuns who reject wearing the garments of their religious order will find themselves kicking against the goad. Wearing the habit is a good habit.

John H. Ballentine About John H. Ballentine

John Ballentine has been in prison for 24 years in Greensville Correctional Center, Jarratt, Virginia. He converted 12 years ago and has since finished his M.A. in theology, with a summa cum laude, at Catholic Distance University. He will receive his diploma this October 2013. It was in the course of his studies that John encountered Sister Brendon Zajac, S.N.D. who was one of his teachers.


  1. Came to you from The Catholic Thing. Brazilian catholic from the inner São Paulo State. Splendid story, on a marvelous litlle miracle. How many little miracles did’nt happen due to the absence of a habit ? But tell me, dear brother and theologian, God really saves communities and whole nations exxcept the People of the Book?

  2. Avatar Phil Ferguson says:

    A religious habit is a beautiful love offering to Jesus.
    Imagine if a priest constantly wore his sacramental. One day he is on a plane and is approached by a stranger, asking for Confession. They arrange for a meeting after deplaning. The stranger is completely washed cleaned and his soul is as “white as snow.”

    Imagine if this same priest never wore his sacramental. The stranger on the plane has missed the possibility of helping to save his soul.

    • When I was a little girl in a little town far, far away from the USA, a priest dressed with that white floor length came by visiting each house. The town folks never seen one like it and the town folks look up at the sky if there is a way he could have come from there. He brought smiles to tired farmers, gardeners and just the ordinary pagan people who are going about their daily lives. That priest was holy. We children all light up, happy and wanting to touch his garment every time he comes to town. then he started talking about God, the love of God, that God wanted a friendship with us and he wanted us to know more about Him. We sat attentively and listen. Bottom line is about the power of the habit as the title of this article. It is so true and once you remove that habit, you set yourself to be an activists in your old age trying to question the pope why you seem to have been left off, left behind and so alone. Sounds like a curse to just one day thought about undressing and choose NOT to be set apart.

  3. Avatar Bishop Emanuel says:

    I am retired and I do wear ordinary clothing during my daily personal chores. But absolutely when I do perform as a religious I wear my collar and cross, at least on the street. How many faithful stop me to ask a blessing, request confession, or ask directions where to go to church, for something to eat, a night’s lodging, someone to listen, et al. It not only makes the needy feel better but I have not the words to describe how fulfilled I feel that, even though retired, I am still useful. I meet some extraordinary people whose situation demonstrates to me that there still lives a spirit of survival, and just a nudge in the right direction where miracles can and do take place. The best thanksgiving I can do is to help the helpless. Though not rich, I try to give them something and more than once invite them to an economic “fast food” meal. And do I sleep better at night because my God is looking out for me. He does not give me what I want, but He ALWAYS gives me what I need. And may He bless those that read and heed these words He guides me write.

    • Dear Bishop Emmanuel,
      God bless you and keep you and thank you for your service to Him and His Church!
      Be assured of my prayers and gratitude.

  4. Avatar Apollo F. Salle says:

    During the spectacular and nonviolent 1986 “People Power” Revolution in my native Philippines (which overthrew, in a truly peaceful way, the oppressive dictator Ferdinand Marcos and got replaced by the very devout Catholic Corazon Aquino!), virtually all of the nuns who participated in that revolution wore their respective habits!

  5. What a WONDERFUL and UPLIFTING story! As far as your Grandmother’s story regarding there being 2 types of people, the HAPPY and the UNHAPPY, I have to disagree. There are several different types of people in this world, one type is those that are CONSTANTLY MISUNDERSTOOD, and that is a MAJOR CHALLENGE! Good thing Jesus understand ALL of His children, otherwise, we would be in for a WORLD OF HURTING!!!! Living in this world, as it is CONSTANTLY DECAYING, and surpassing, by LEAPS AND BOUNDS, Sodom, it is ALWAYS encouraging to me to see a Priest or a Nun in their Habit. It is as if God is reminding us that there is still hope.

  6. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Yes the religious nuns , Brothers and priests who wear their respective habits always spread the truth about God and his community of believers. This is a wonderfull article and story that if any Religious reads it should love God and wear their habit. In Europe all of the religious wear their habit everywhere. I was taught by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, the Jesuits and the Vincentians 1935 -1955 who all wore the habit. but in the US these communities changed their habits or wore secular clothing which was not inspiring.

  7. Beautiful article and SO TRUE!! Thank you for sharing. Would it be proper to send a copy of this to “uninhabited” nuns? Nuns willing to wear their habits are a sign to the world that says Catholics care. Our local nuns dropped their habits years ago and their congregation is aging quickly–too much blending in with the world.

  8. Avatar Sr. Josefina says:

    Thanks for your affirmation that habit of religious men and women still count on this world.
    I was there during the People Power Revolution in the Philippines.
    It is not only the external habit of men and women religious but the style of life that they witness to people. From the escalating violence transformed into REVERENCE FOR EVERYONE during those days chaos …peace and respect of FREEDOM as children of the God and
    “to make Jesus known that He may be loved by all..” St. Magdalene of Canossa

  9. Thank you, John, for this wonderful story. It is so true….about the Grace which comes with the religious habit. How wonderful you have completed some solid study re Christ and his church. Many blessings for you being Christ’s disciple in prison. I am a convert and was super impressed when, as a small child, I would see a nun in a habit….fantastic.

  10. Thank you for sharing that wonderful story. It brought tears to my eyes. The witness to Christ that comes through when seeing a habit or a collar is immediate. Everyone knows (or finds out) that the person wearing those things have sacrificed themselves to God. For me, it is always a reminder of how little of myself I have sacrificed, but in a good way. We all need reminders from time to time. May the Lord bring us an abundance of priests and religious.

  11. Avatar Father Michael Monshau, O.P. says:

    Although I wasn’t surprised that some priests and Religious chose to wear casual, secular clothing some of the time once the relaxations of Vatican II were established, I was astonished that for so many of that generation, especially of the Sisters, secular clothing became the only acceptable norm almost overnight. This always evidenced for me the power of peer pressure in this dynamic. Having said that, it is clear that the 60’s tendency toward secularization has proven to be harmful to the Church and society in general, and those excesses are now being corrected. The use of Religious garb is clearly the pattern of the future if one regards those seminaries and novitiates that are full again as compared to the wastelands of empty formation houses throughout the country. And by the way, my friend, Sister “Z” (Sister Mary Brendon Zajac, S.N.D.) is clearly one of the best women on earth! Thanks for writing about her.

  12. Avatar Sr. Aurora Lopez says:

    Thank you, Mr. Ballentine for writing this beautiful article about the impact those religious women/men can make when we wear our habit. May God bless you abundantly!

  13. John Ballentine has received your kind comments regarding his essay. He has responded and asked that these be posted on his blog: Thank you for your prayers and support.


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