Veils and Coverings in “Conspiracy of Hearts”

Veils and coverings play several very important roles in Conspiracy of Hearts. First, both the Jews and the Catholics have a custom of covering their heads at prayer, although the custom differs as to which sex is to wear the covering. This sparks a humorous conversation during their preparations for the Yom Kippur liturgy, as one of the nuns says to her sister, “How very odd of them that the men should cover their heads in church and the women not. It should be just the reverse to be proper.”  The other sister replies, “They do it to be contrary. They’re a very contrary sect.”

Certainly this difference in custom highlights the difference between the religions. However, it seems to me that while the custom of whose heads are to be covered is “reversed” between the nuns and the children, the very fact that a custom of head-covering is held in common reveals a common conception of dignity as well. As Catholics, we veil what is most sacred. The nuns are veiled because each is consecrated, set apart, as Christ’s own bride. The sight of the German aide de camp ripping the veil off the head of the poor novice in the chapel in order to assault her strikes us as an outrageous sacrilege, not only because of the brutality of a man attacking a woman, but because the nun is set apart as a consecrated person. (As one of the sisters says at another point in the film to the same solider, when he tries to manhandle her: “My person is involate.”) Her veil is the outward sign of the inner, spiritual realiy of her consecration.

Similarly, the sight of the Jewish boys going one by one into the secret room in the convent, each of the boys wearing one of the hats that the nuns had made for them, is a powerful image of the restoration of their dignity, especially in contrast to the fearful and ragged state they had been in when they arrived. For the Jews, “every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord” (Luke 2:23; cf. Exodus 13:2, 12-15). They are set apart as the Israel of God, His chosen and holy people, His “firstborn son” (Ex 4:22). What the nuns have done for them in providing what is needed for their liturgy, though the materials may be poor, is of incalculable value. These children who were called “Jew dogs” and told that God’s will is to wipe them off the face of the earth are now given back their dignity, in the form of paper hats and the chance to pray. 

Furthermore, there are numerous moments throughout the film when the children are covered—not only their heads, but their whole bodies. They are smuggled out of the camp under cover of darkness, under the veil covering the back of the sisters’ old truck, even under the tarp and garbage of the pig-farmer. On a literal level, the covering is simply a practical necessity; they must be hidden from the watchful eyes of the camp-guards. On a spiritual level, however, we may say that covering means the protection and favor of God. The Psalms speak often of the covering of God in this way: “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge” (Ps 91:4); “You, Lord, bless the righteous; you cover them with favor like a shield” (5:12). The Mother Superior interprets the cover of darkness likewise at the beginning of the film; when Sister Gerta comments, “That’s the second time this week we’ve nearly been caught,” she replies, “Yes, Sister Gerta—the second time this week that we’ve been saved! God be praised!”

In fact, the most evocative of all these moments is when Sister Gerta, whose heart has been softened over the course of the story and who now is unafraid to risk her life, hides one of the children under her own habit. How can Catholic viewers fail to think of the Blessed Virgin Mary and our common prayer for her to hide us under her own mantle from the assaults of the evil one: “Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, Sancta Dei Genetrix!”

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