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 | By Fr. Bill Ashbaugh


Hair Shirts Don’t Always Itch

Last year I was with my family, getting ready to watch Narnia, when a preview of the now infamous movie The DaVinci Code flashed across the screen. In a few brief screens, it managed to portray Catholicism in the worst way. Without getting into its many problems, one scene focused on a monk doing some extreme forms of penance. He tightly wrapped something that looked like a metal net around part of his body to deliberately cause him great pain. You could hear audience members saying, “That’s nuts!” Yep. It sure was. Repentance is a good thing. Self-mutilation is not.

It is true that there are examples throughout church history of people performing extreme forms of penance. In the late Middle Ages it became popular for penitents to beat themselves with whips. They were called flagellants and had a great following during the 13th and 14th centuries. The plague known as the Black Death was spreading throughout Europe, and many were attracted to do extreme things in order to invoke God’s mercy and stop the plague. Even before this, whipping oneself – even to the point of drawing blood – was practiced by some saints. St. Dominic Loricatus is reported to have scourged himself nearly continuously over a six-day period, while repeatedly praying the 150 psalms. Another popular form of penance was to wear a hair shirt, also known as a cilice. The shirt was made of rough material like sackcloth or goat’s hair, and was worn underneath one’s clothing so no one would see it. “And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” (Mt 6:18) The shirt was uncomfortable, but did not harm the body. St Thomas More and many other saints were known to adopt this practice. What are we to make of all this?

First, we remember Jesus’ words to us as he began his public ministry: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” (Mt 4:17) Repentance means we turn away from sin and turn to God. It did not imply slashing, cutting, whipping or beating ourselves to cause physical harm. The lack of physical penance of Jesus’ disciples – at least at the beginning of his ministry – was a concern for some of the Jewish religious leaders. Some Pharisees asked, “Why do your disciples not fast?” Jesus responded by asking how can one fast when one is with the bridegroom at a wedding? Also, you don’t put new wine into old wineskins. “Otherwise the skins will burst and both wine and skins will be ruined.” (Mt 9:17) But he also said, “when the bridegroom is taken away, then they will fast.” (Mt 9:15) There are times when physical penance, also known as mortification, is appropriate.

How great is our desire to follow Jesus Christ? Jesus did penance for 40 days in the desert as a preparation for his ministry. Penance was an appropriate human expression of his complete reliance and union with his heavenly Father. Penance is directly associated with our desire to imitate Jesus and to serve God alone. We do penance because we love Jesus and hate sin. God graces penance so that it helps weaken our attachment to sin and deepens our conviction and resolve to follow him.

I know of a person who was struggling with an addiction he could not seem to break. He decided to go to confession and to do penance by going to Mass on the first Saturday of the month for five consecutive months. He also prayed the rosary after Mass, asking that God would help heal the addiction. Within a short time, he was freed! You could see the new joy and freedom within him. True penance does not put sadness in our hearts, but joy.

I am sure you will be glad to know the church condemned the severe scourging of the flagellants. Such severe penances harkened back to the prophet Elijah, who challenged the false prophets of Baal on top of Mt Carmel. The false prophets cut and slashed themselves and danced in a frenzied way in order to win favor so their god might hear them. Elijah taunted them by saying that maybe their god was hard of hearing, or maybe he had stepped out for a while to relieve himself! When Elijah called on the Lord in faith and trust, he did not cut or harm himself, but simply called on the Lord in a humble and obedient way. God responded. (cf 1 Kings 18)

What about the hair shirt or cilice? Elijah did wear a “hairy garment.” (2 Kings 1:8) Certainly a hair shirt does no harm to a person physically. It is just uncomfortable. Hair shirts are a part of our tradition, going all the way back to our Jewish roots. King David, when confronted with the sin of adultery and murder, fasted, prayed, and prostrated himself on the ground in sackcloth for seven days. His son, born from his adulterous union, was dying just as the prophet Nathan had foretold. (2 Sam 12:14) David believed his penance might gain pardon and mercy for his child. David wrote in Psalm 51, “A humbled contrite heart, the Lord does not spurn.”

Following the practice of Jesus and many saints, we know penance is good and necessary for us. We usually do not have to look far for a penance. Our daily duty, done well, offers plenty of penance for the soul. As one popular priest has noted, your hair shirt might be beside you at home or work. Hair shirts don’t always itch. How tolerant, patient and loving are we to others who rub us the wrong way?

Acts of penance strengthen the will’s resolve to reject sin and live for God alone. Penance is spiritual medicine for the soul. When done well, it causes a blaze of love to burn inside a person. Penance can break down the hard shell that surrounds our hearts and open them up so real love can flow out. It helps us live for others and not ourselves. It helps us live for God.

Spiritual Exercises:

The church still asks us to do penance every Friday of the year (unless it is a major feast day). In Lent, the church asks us to abstain from eating meat. Outside of Lent, we can substitute that penance for something else. Here are some examples of penances we can do every day!

1. Accept whatever suffering comes your way out of love for God.

2. Do the tasks asked of you, and do them well, out of love of God.

3. Fast from food you like for love of God.

4. Deny yourself some pleasure for love of God.

5. Visit the sick and lonely. I know one man who went into a nursing home to visit someone who had no family during Lent. It ended up changing his life.

6. Drive the speed limit and do not rush in traffic. Do not be angry and impatient, but pray for those who fly by you at high speeds.

7. Give alms – donate money to church, or the many charities in your local community. Seek out ways to anonymously help someone who is down and out.

8. When someone or something rubs you the wrong way – be patient and kind. Thank God for such a wonderful “hair shirt!”