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.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Gina

    *sigh* I wish women didn’t have to wrestle with something like this so much. Really, I’m sure bishops think they’re doing everyone a favor by “modernizing” and “loosening,” but that’s not the case.

  • Pam

    I am somewhat bewildered by the quandrary presented by wearing something on the head–or not. I live in California and people show up for all sorts of events, including Mass, in what to me is strange and occasionally inappropriate garb. Have to say, unless it were a “Chiquita Banana” sort of headgear, I wouldn’t give a second thought to a mantilla/hat/whatever. Perhaps it’s different on the East Coast. Now the “offer it up” does give me a chortle. Recently I was watching Fr. Corapi on EWTN and he mentioned the phrase and I really chortled out loud, as it recalled my 1 1/2 years in Catholic high school–it was a favorite admonition of the sisters, wonderful women whom to this day I recall with unabashed delight and fondness. So, Anchoress, keep on with the head covering and enjoy it, and keep offering up whatever you can, and I’ll join you, at least on the last. Regret to say I am still (I wrote you years ago about this) an “inactive Catholic”, still working on coming home. God bless you, dear woman and keep up the great blog. Warmest regards. Pam

  • Bender’s Cheerleader

    When I was little, which was the same time as when Anchoress was little, we wore chapel veils to mass. My favorite was a black lace triangle which made the little me feel all grown up. I never got to wear it because of my three big sisters who always got dibs on it. Mine was a little round doily-looking thing – I wish I still had it.

    I don’t think I’d have a problem wearing a chapel veil, so my mortification has to be much more harsh. I have too much pride, so I take insults and slights as they are offered and bear them without lashing back. That’s really hard for me.

    I also have a St. Therese of Lisieux scapular that I wear, but I don’t find any discomfort in that at all. Maybe it’s not woolly enough.

  • tim maguire

    Congrats on coming back to the cover. In some ways, failing and trying again is more meaningful than getting it right the first time.

    I have one minor quibble–I don’t believe mortification is out of style. Head coverings for non-Muslims, maybe, but there are other forms. The fast is one widely practiced mortification. The many rules of the conservative Jews is another. The point is to be always thinking about God, and to be physically uncomfortable for God is a tried and true method–you’re always aware of your discomfort and because it’s by choice, always contemplating the reason.

  • Terry Hansen

    “Embracing small discomforts” – how well put. Being Orthodox, my wife and I do the fasts – we are in the Nativity fast right now. People wonder why we would discomfort ourselves in such a pointless way. It is hard to convince our Evangelical friends of the benefits derived from these small spiritual disciplines. But the benefits are tangible. Thank you for expressing it so well.

  • Milehimama

    On a practical note, a scapular is an excellent modesty check. If your scapular’s hanging out, your shirt’s probably too low cut.

    Make excellent, quiet toys for babies in Mass, as well. And the gummed on wet scapular is extra penance when babie’s through!

  • Stan

    I have put my name in for consideration as the lay spiritual director of the work/prayer team at a retreat I go to. I am pondering the use of a scapular both before and during the retreat to remind me to keep my mind to prayer. I know that is what we are SUPPOSED to be doing but being human and there for week, i think this would be an excellent solution.

  • Milehimama

    You need to be enrolled in the Brown Scapular by a priest, for anyone that is interested in this devotion. link

    Our church has the custom of enrolling children on their First Communion day.

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  • Jeanette

    When I was a girl (longer ago than you were, Dear A) my Catholic friends told me they had to cover their heads when they went to church.

    When my Catholic cousin died when I was 18 and subsequently her mother and my mother who had all re-converted to Catholicism, I wore a lace head covering to the services out of respect for the faith.

    I purchased a Jewish prayer shawl for prayer at home. It has given me the opportunity to cover my peripheral vision and not distract me from reading God’s Word or speaking to Him.

    I found out from a Jewish friend it is supposed to be for men, but I still like to wear it. There’s something spiritual about it. Take the world out of my life and concentrate on Our Father Who is in Heaven and His Only Begotten Son. It also makes me think more of the Holy Spirit and the great comfort and conscience He is.

    I thank God that He revealed Himself to me and filled a void that only He could fill. What a joy it will be to see Him face to face, and to finally meet my Christian brethren, such as you.

    May God bless you and keep you all the days of your life, and may you have a long and healthy life so you can continue to put into writing what most of us wish we could say in words.

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  • Bill Daugherty

    I have frequently grumbled that a dispensation ought to be granted to us bald guys to wear a head covering, especially when the airconditioning is blowing directly on our suffering pates. It never occurred to me that I could accept it as a mortification, sort of the reverse of yours. So thanks. I’ll offer it up and offer a prayer for your too.

  • kirsten houseknecht

    at Easter Vigil when i finished my entry into the Catholic Church i was the ONLY woman wearing a headcovering that wasnt a nun. i bought a mantilla style lace on ebay (there is a regular seller of them, they are the nice long ones) and have been an on again off again wearer of a veil depending on whether i remember to pack something.

    its much easier to run in and catch noontime Mass and be covered if you cover at home also….( i learned some beautiful scarf tying techniques from Tzius dot com, a Jewish clothing site). not one person ever even blinked at my scarves… but i did have someone comment on my mantilla. they asked where i got it!

    you cannot buy a decent sized veil here. sadly, it must be sewn or mail ordered.

    as to the scapular. it should, of course, be worn all the time. and you should be invested by a priest, but sadly half the priests dont even know that!!!
    i tried to be enrolled, and all i got was a perfunctory blessing.

    i buy my Scapulars form the nuns at Sisters of Carmel and it doesn’t itch.
    it does occasionally inform me that my V neck shirt is too low , however.

    [Retrieved from spam filter and edited to admit links -admin]

  • By the Seae

    Every once in a while I will see a woman wearing a head covering. I always think perhaps they are from a foreign country, or of Orthodox faith! More power to you that you can do this with a good attitude.

    The mention of the Jews above made me think of some of the Jews in the area I live. Many of the men (and boys of all ages) wear skull caps. I always thought this must be extremely embarrassing and perhaps at times in their lives it is for them, but I suspect at some point it becomes second nature as well. It is a strong statement of their faith, I think, that in such a secular age and place they will wear their skull cap. I think for Catholics at some point it became more important to look “cool” in mass (and I include myself in that category), than to assume a spiritual demeanor of prayer. This coolness factor lends itself to other points of othe Mass as well. I suspect it will change at some point, for the better.

    I think of the way we dress and how conditioned it is by advertising and conformance. I wear Levi jeans because it is cool to. When I was little, my Mom bought us Sears Toughskin jeans because “they never wear out.” They were not “cool”. But my Mom dressed us with love…

  • Plain Catholic

    The head covering is a blessing and penance. How well I know that “hairy eyeball” as do all Plain Catholics. There are no perks in penance other than self-sacrifice combined with prayer. As Pope John Paul II said, “Prayer joined to sacrifice constitutes the most powerful force in human history.”

    God bless you as you continue your covering and your prayer with sacrifice. It truly IS the most powerful force in human history.

  • Rouxfus

    During summer travels this year my family stopped by the Our Lady of Clear Creek Monastery east of Tulsa, Oklahoma. We gave our children an allowance to purchase religious items for themselves at the gatehouse store. They both chose to get chains with Benedictine and Miraculous medals and small wooden rosaries. The monk-priest porter at the register asked if we would like the items blessed and we said of course. After we paid for the items the monk pulled out a laminated prayer card and put his cowl hood over his head and started doing his prayers. My son asked me why the monk put on his headgear and I told him he could ask for himself as soon as the blessing was over. It took a while – it was a very deliberate process. My son asked his question and the monk explained that the rite of blessing included the rite of exorcism before the sacramentals were blessed, and the cowl is part of the monk’s spiritual armor protection against the evil one.

    Finally, brethren, be strengthened in the Lord, and in the might of his power. Put you on the armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places. [Ephesians 6:10-12]

    [St. Benedict Medals are very powerful -admin]

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  • Patrick

    I…don’t quite get it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to some very…trendy churches, and I understand peer pressure.

    I get the piety, but does wearing a mantilla really stand out that much? Sure, it’s not common, but we’re in a world full of crazy these days. People wear all kinds of things to church, so what’s the threat of a babushka compared to receiving Communion while wearing a “with stupid” shirt (as seen from last Sunday)?

    The only thing that comes to mind is the pantsuited womyn who hate you for being feminine in any other way regardless.

  • Shari

    I found the head-covering discussion very interesting. I’m an Orthodox Jewish woman and I cover my hair all day, every day, with a cloth snood like some of those you linked to before. Since I don’t “look Jewish” I am occasionally asked by a passer-by whether I’m a nun! I take it as a compliment, and a responsibility. I try in my words and deeds to increase the holiness in the world and give glory to my Creator. I certainly don’t want to make anyone think badly of Him or of any of those who strive to serve Him. I always answer honestly and share a little information about Judaism, but it does make me smile every time.

    Covering my hair was a major decision for me on my “Jewish journey” – a very visible outward sign of my commitment to a way of life that is foreign even to many of my co-religionists. I applaud you for making the effort to give of yourself and focus on your relationship with G-d. We live so thoughtlessly so much of the time; anything we can do to remind ourselves that we are always in the presence of the King, especially when we pray, is a good thing!

    [Lovely post. Edited to admit link -admin]