The Tiny Hair Shirt – UPDATE

Back when we talked about head coverings, I made a point of following up on it as the experiment went along.

I’m still covering at home, and still covering at Mass, too. I’m less self-conscious about it than I had been, although I do note the occasional hairy-eyeball directed my way, by some. One priest, after several weeks, finally asked, “okay, why? You tried this once before, I know, and didn’t stick with it.”

“Yeah, it’s such a pain in the neck,” I agreed. “It’s a mortification. The first time, I thought I’d cover just for Lent, but I hated it and stopped, and thought that was the end of it. But I kept getting nagged, so I gave up, and now I’m covering.”

“You don’t sound like you love it,” he said.

“No, I don’t,” I agreed. “I like covering during private prayer; I still feel a little too conspicuous sometimes, at mass, though. But it’s a sacrifice, and a humiliation, so I do it.”

The priest looked at me in puzzled amusement. “Boy, that’s some old-school Catholicism, right there,” he said.

We laughed, but I realized he was right; “offering it up” and willingly taking on humiliations for love of Christ, who took on the greatest of humiliations for us -it’s very old-school. It’s ancient, actually, and no, we don’t hear much about those ideas, any more.

But I have to tell you, being a little old-school is not so bad; for all that I get a few people thinking I’m screwy, I can sense the change in myself -for the better, thankfully- and in my interior life.

Embracing mortification is new for me; I have been entirely too permissive with myself for too long, and I see now that I am on a learning curve; I am being instructed in discipline, maturity and kindness, those thing things I sorely lack. Like an excellent parent, the Lord is patiently (because I am slow and recalcitrant) teaching me the things I should have learned long ago and must know if I am to get through the rest of my life.

Slow learner that I am, He has begun by exploiting the minuscule openings of my willingness. It is easy (and sometimes spiritually vain) to say in prayer that one is “not worthy” of anything, including His ardent love, but spiritual growth is has nothing to do with worthiness; it has to do with willingness.

Not too long ago, realizing that my faults, my assumptions, my interior noises were all setting up roadblocks in my journey, I asked to be taught. I was conceited enough to pray Solomon’s prayer, and ask for “an understanding heart.”

Be careful what you pray for. What I was given to understand was that all of the wisdom in the world amounts for nothing, if one’s heart is stony, if one’s avenues are closed, if one’s willingness has become as narrow as a crawlspace, musty with stagnant air.

So, I find I have been very much brought back to the basics I was taught in my youth: prayer, sacrifice, sacrament, “offering things up,” ejaculatory prayer (oh, stop giggling – prayer being forced from us, like water from a pressurized fountain spout, is very apt); the small reverences made before what we used to call Holy Things (touching an Icon with kissed fingers as one walks by) and embracing small discomforts, for the sake of something greater.

That last -the voluntary embracing of small discomforts- doesn’t sound like much, but in our instant-gratification culture where our comfort is everything to us, where the tiniest pain has us reaching for an analgesic, the smallest delay is considered a denial and a slow-pageload on a computer feels like more than we can bear, these small acts reverberate hugely in the soul.

Which brings me to the Brown Scapular, or -as I referred to it here –“the world’s tiniest hair shirt.”

Brown Scapular

When I say it is a hair shirt, I do not really exaggerate. Currently the one between my shoulder blades is itching me; it is uncomfortable. It is annoying because it keeps reminding me that it is there, and why.

Well, good. I need to be made uncomfortable and annoyed; I need to be reminded of something.

As I wrote elsewhere, there is a situation in my personal life that I am not dealing with as best I might; the situation is trying to teach me things, but I am not learning them well. It is trying to teach me patience. It is trying to teach me humility. It is trying to teach me to shut my mouth, sometimes.

Since I am having so much difficulty learning these lessons, so much difficulty falling in line with them, I am like a dumb ox, in need of a yoke to get me in line; to guide me and help me to obey. The scapular is that yoke. It is not heavy; as yokes go, it is light, and even “easy,” but it is a very helpful discipline. When the impatience comes surging to the surface, my awareness of this uncomfortable thing restrains me, and that restraint is humbling. That resultant humility forces me to remember that I am in the middle of hoeing a hard row, and that I need help. Knowing I need help, the impatience ebbs, and the trust kicks in. I trust that if I am willing to be open, I will learn to what I need to know -will be able to eventually do with God’s help what I cannot now do on my own.

How are things one month later?

Better than I could ever have imagined. The circumstances that have been troubling me are unchanged, but my response to them is vastly different, and I credit this small discipline with helping to foment that change. I wear the scapular all the time, taking it off only to shower, and yes, it’s itchy sometimes, but I have come to love the itch because it helps me to learn by keeping me aware of myself, and the lesser, baser instincts of my slowly-mending heart. People I live with have noticed the difference. I am gentler; I listen better; I laugh more and all of that is because I am frankly humbled every single day by this tiny spiritual tool and what its slight discomfort reminds me: that I had failed in loving, and had failed badly. That my failure to love had thoroughly trumped all of the real and imagined wrongs I had been tallying up and presenting to God as justification for my behaviors.

You can’t treat an illness, until you first identify it.

I am sure that all of this is the continuation of the lessons I encountered on my last retreat, when I came back and wrote, “everything is different.” Because I am neither saintly nor particularly clever (and because God knows my ego) I am not being given the “understanding heart” I had asked for in an instant of blinding clarity. That blessing might be for others, but for me -because I am sometimes as thick as a plank- I need the long, hard slog through the muddy furrows. I need to be taught from the beginning, in a back-to-basics manner.

I am learning a great deal, not least that the “old-school” practices had practical values that speak directly and succinctly to much that ills this present age, and to our personal, soul-deadening ways. I am also very aware of all that I do not know, and how much I still have to learn. Part of me thinks (and again, this might be mere conceit) that these practices are laying groundwork for the future; that this is almost basic-training for a coming battle for which I am being prepared. Cannons and bazookas have their place in battles, but a good soldier needs to know how to use the smallest weapons to greatest effect, as well. My battles may only be my battles -they may have nothing at all to do with the grand scheme of things- but I want everything I need to fight them effectively.

So, thumbs up for the world’s tiniest hair shirt, this weapon. I love my little, itchy discipline and I am so very grateful to have felt called to embrace it.

I am grateful for so much.

Yes, everything is different. Is, was, ever shall be.

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