A cilice // was originally a garment or undergarment made of coarse cloth or animal hair (a hairshirt) worn close to the skin. It was used in some religious traditions to induce discomfort or pain as a sign of repentance and atonement.
Cilices were originally made from sackcloth or coarse animal hair so they would irritate the skin. Other features were added to make cilices more uncomfortable, such as thin wires or twigs.
In modern religious circles it simply means any device worn for the same purposes.
The word derives from the Latin cilicium, a covering made of goat's hair from Cilicia, a Roman province in south-east Asia Minor. The reputed first Scriptural use of this exact term is in the original Latin Vulgate of Psalm 35:13, "Ego autem, cum mihi molesti essent, induebar cilicio." This is translated as hair-cloth in the Douay Bible, and as sackcloth in the King James Version and the Book of Common Prayer ("But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth." in the King James Bible). Sackcloth is often mentioned in the Bible as a symbol of mourning and penance, and probably was a form of hairshirt. Sackcloth may also mean burlap. However, sackcloth in the Bible was usually made of coarse, black goat's hair.
There is some evidence, based on analyses of both clothing represented in art and preserved skin imprint patterns at Çatalhöyük in Turkey, that the usage of the cilice predates written history. This finding has been mirrored at Göbekli Tepe, another Anatolian site, indicating the widespread manufacturing of cilices. Ian Hodder has argued that "self-injuring clothing was an essential component of the Catalhöyük culturoritual entanglement, representing 'cleansing' and 'lightness'."
To show deep repentance, it was the custom in Biblical times in the Jewish religion to wear a hairshirt (sackcloth) as a sign of repentance and atonement (Genesis 37:34, 2 Samuel 3:31, Esther 4:1). Such garments or adornments have been worn at various times in the history of the Christian faith, to mortify the flesh or as penance for adorning oneself. Being made of rough cloth, generally woven from goats' hair, and worn close to the skin, they would feel very itchy.
It was in common usage in monasteries and convents throughout history up until the 1960s, and has been endorsed by popes as a way of following Christ, who died in a bloody crucifixion and who gave this advice: "Let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me." Supporters say that opposition to mortification is rooted in having lost (1) the "sense of the enormity of sin" or offense against God, and the consequent penance, both interior and exterior, (2) the notions of "wounded human nature" and of concupiscence or inclination to sin, and thus the need for "spiritual battle", and (3) a spirit of sacrifice for love and "supernatural ends", and not only for physical enhancement.
Some religious orders within the Catholic Church use the cilice as a form of "corporal mortification", as well as some lay people, notably some faithful of the Prelature of Opus Dei. According to John Allen, an American Catholic writer, its practice in the Catholic Church is "more widespread than many observers imagine". Thomas Becket was wearing a hairshirt when he was martyred, St. Patrick reputedly wore a cilice, Charlemagne was buried in a hairshirt, and Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany, famously wore one in the Walk to Canossa during the Investiture Controversy. Prince Henry the Navigator was found to be wearing a hairshirt at the time of his death in 1460. In modern times it has been used by Mother Teresa, Saint Padre Pio, and slain archbishop Óscar Romero.
When Thomas Becket was being prepared for burial in England in 1170, the cold English air stimulated so many of the lice occupying his hairsuit that it "boiled over with them like water in a simmering cauldron."
In popular culture
In Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, one of the antagonists, an albino numerary named Silas associated with the religious organization Opus Dei, wears a cilice in the form of a spiked chain around his right thigh. In Daniel Silva's novel The Confessor, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Marco Brindisi, wears a cilice of this type.
The Marvel Comics character Robbie Baldwin commissioned the creation of a suit with 612 internal spikes to represent each person who died in an explosion for which he felt responsible, so that he'd be reminded of their pain in everything he did.
In the Barenaked Ladies' song "What A Good Boy," the singer describes a hairshirt he wears as being woven from the hair of the woman he sings to.
In the romance Tristan and Iseult (Tristan and Isolde), Iseult wears one to do penance for disbelieving a message from Tristan. In The Black Dagger Brotherhood Series by J.R. Ward, the character of Xhex wears a pair of cilice with metal or stone spikes to help keep back her symphath urges. In Gustave Flaubert's "The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaler", Julian wears a hair shirt with iron spikes to do penance for his parricide.
Rosalind and Robert Lutece, characters from the video game Bioshock Infinite, refer to the brand on the back of Booker DeWitt's hand as "his hairshirt".
In Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, the protagonist Hazel Motes is discovered by his landlady to be wearing a barbed wire cilice around his torso after he has blinded himself. She also finds that he has been walking miles each day with small rocks and glass in the bottom of his shoes.
In George R. R. Martin's series A Song of Ice and Fire, members of the militant branch of the Faith of the Seven known as Warrior's Sons and Poor Fellows commonly wear hair shirts. The High Septon appointed in A Feast for Crows known as the High Sparrow also wears one.
- "Cilice". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-06-30.
- Ian Hodder, "Çatalhöyük: The Leopard's Tale", Thames & Hudson, 2006.
- Luke 9:23
- "The Da Vinci Code, the Catholic Church and Opus Dei". Opus Dei Official Site. Retrieved 2006-11-27.
- "The consequences of Adam's sin for humanity". Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 405. Retrieved 2007-06-13.
- Opus Dei and Corporal Mortification
- John Allen, Jr. Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church, Double Day, 2006
- History of Epidemics and Plagues (Syllabus), University of Hartford, October 2001
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