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Bring Back the Hairshirts

Bring back the hairshirts. The knights barged into the cloister where Thomas Becket prayed, Archbishop and Martyr of Canterbury. “Traitor to king and country,” they cried. “I am no traitor and I am ready to die,” he humbly replied. The knights grabbed him and shaved off his hair with sword in hand. Becket knelt, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death,” and gave up the ghost. As the high bishops of the time, Thomas Becket lived in a mansion and wore priceless robes. Yet, laid out on his coffin, beneath the silk and gold, the holy man wore a simple, well-worn and scratchy hairshirt.

Hairshirts have a long legacy. The voice of David cries out in Psalm 34: “I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest” (verse 13). John the Baptist calls out in the desert, clad in camel hair. In the early Church, the hairshirt was the distinctive sign of monks in the east. History tells countless tales of ascetics and laity, and even righteous kings and princes, who wore, hidden underneath their robes, the age-old hairshirt. What a strange religion we have. What peculiar eccentrics those saints were. What do we make of all that?

“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on” (Matthew 6. 24-26).

‘Take no thought for your life’

It is easy to trip over this scripture. It is a mistake to take it too literally. Proverbs describes the noble woman, a wise homemaker, who is shrewd and diligent. “She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. . . She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard” (Proverbs 14). This woman certainly takes thought about the food and clothes of her household.

Yet, Christ says, “Take no thought for your life.”

Mὴ μεριμνᾶτε τῇ ψυχῇ ὑμῶν

The Greek phrase, μὴ μεριμνᾶτε, does not imply thoughtlessness and irresponsible. It is linked with anxiety. Mεριμνᾶτε means to be pulled apart, to be fearful, to be anxious.

But this does not make the task any easier, does it?

Who never gets anxious about food, clothes, or money?

In his book on prayer, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom describes the way our soul sends out long tentacles, which get entangled around everything under the sun.

"The tongue of a greedy person is projected like tentacles towards all the edibles of the world; the eyes of the curious person are like tentacles projected and attached to everything around . . . if you could draw a picture of what you look like in those terms, you would see that precious little is left of you inside.”

Our heart is ensnared in the externals. This is why we are anxious.

I said it is a mistake to take Christ’s words too literally. It is equally a mistake not to take them seriously enough.

In order to pray, we need to learn to detach.

Anthony Bloom continues, “we must detach the tentacles and bring them in . . . We cannot live a life of prayer, we cannot go ahead Godwards, unless we are free from possession in order to have two hands to offer and a heart absolutely open.”

Our Lord’s words, “No man can serve two masters,” are no different than St. James’ statement, “a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” (1:8), or the maxim, “the pure in heart shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

“Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them . . . Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6. 28-29).

Let’s come back to the hairshirts. There is a paradox in Christianity. On one side, it is the religion of mirth and joy. “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s laughter and dancing and good red wine” (H. Belloc). The Church teaches us to feast, as well as fast — to savor beauty wherever it is, in food, drink, fashion, music, a sunrise or blade of grass.

At the same time, the Church encourages us to become ascetics — to say “no” to our body’s cravings, to quiet the demands of our flesh. Many saints slept on stones. Many prayed for hours standing in frozen water. All the saints fasted rigorously, embracing hunger and discomfort.

The ancient book of prayer, the Philokalia, opens with meditations by St. Isaiah the Solitary. He urges the Christian to guard his heart. “Be attentive to yourself, so that nothing destructive can separate you from the love of God. Guard your heart, and do not grow listless . . .” St. Isaiah continues, “The first virtue is detachment, that is, death in relation to every person or thing. This produces the desire for God . . . shut all the gates of [your] soul, that is, the senses, so that [you are] not lured astray.”

Shut the gates of your soul, your senses . . . The saints’ teachings can be a little confusing, but offer something important. The goal of asceticism is not to deny the body. It is not about punishing yourself. The point of it all is to stir up love for God.

It is simple really. Why do we eat chocolate when sad? They say Chocolate gives you tryptophan which boosts your mood. But there is more to that. There is only ever one reason we are sad, anxious, or fearful — our soul craves union with God. But rather than turning to God in our sadness, we turn to other things. We dull our desire for God with every distraction at hand, with the munchies, by shopping, by lust, by tickling the fancies of our body.

Fasting teaches us to turn to the real solution: God.

With roots buried in our heart, there is a strong and subtle little imp — the ego — the old fellow we know so well. It wants one thing alone — worship. It wants to be God. Someone irritates us, and we get angry, because of the ego, “Doesn’t he know who I am.” We see something we want and lust after it, because the ego demands to be worshiped.

Only asceticism can starve that imp. When we deny ourselves comforts and pleasures, why train our will to look up.

‘Shut the gates of your soul, the senses, so that you are not lured astray.”

It is time to bring back the hair shirts.

We live in a culture that worships comfort. “Feel good” and “Pamper yourself” are the religious mantras of our times.

I did a google search to see if you could buy a modern equivalent to the hair shirt — something that would not smell, you know, because my wife might object. I could not find anything. I even typed in scratchy shirts, and all I found was advice on how to prevent shirts from feeling scratchy. Our world has gone to pot.

Jesus Christ showed us a different path — the path of hunger, simplicity, discomfort — detachment — the Way of the Cross. This is the path to freedom, freedom like the birds in the sky.

Bring back the hairshirts.


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