The little pains of Lent lead to joy of resurrection

By | March 16, 2012

We all know about ashes — since we received them on Ash Wednesday — and about fasting and abstinence, since we are called to these throughout the year, but with more intense focus during Lent. However, sackcloth may not be as familiar.

Sackcloth is just that: cloth made from sacks, such as burlap bags. Similar in most regards is the hair shirt, sometimes called a cilice, made from animal hair, most often goat hair. In Latin, this garment is called cilicium — for example, found in Psalm 35 as induebar cilicio (put on sack cloth) — and taking its name from the Roman province of Cilicia in modern-day Turkey, where a lot of goats were raised.

Sackcloth is mentioned throughout the Bible to represent sorrow: Jacob donned it when he believed his son, Joseph, had been killed (Gn 37:34) and King David did the same as his own infant son was dying (2 Sam 12:16). Even Jesus mentions wearing sackcloth as a sign of repentance (Mt 11:21; Lk 10:13).

John the Baptist (who preached a baptism of repentance) wore a garment made of camel’s hair (Mt 3:4). Throughout Christian history, various saints have worn sackcloth and/or hair shirts in penance or for mortification. St. Thomas Becket (d. 1170) and St. Thomas More (d. 1535) wore hair shirts. Even modern era saints like Padre Pio, Thérèse of Lisieux and Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata wore hair shirts.

Hair shirts or sackcloth were also part of the process of preparation that evolved around the sacrament of reconciliation. By the turn of the first millennium, those seeking reconciliation for serious sins spent a certain period of time in penance beforehand. This time often took place during Lent and required penitents to wear certain garments to indicate their repentant state. This time was intended to be similar to the preparation being undergone by catechumens who would enter the church at the Easter Vigil.

The thing to remember, of course, is that we are not talking about extreme measures of penance or of bodily mortification for the sake of punishment. In our history, there have indeed been extremes like the flagellants, who endangered their very lives.

No, sackcloth and hair shirts, or fasting and abstinence for that matter, are tools meant to help draw us closer to God and to Jesus, who fasted for us, who suffered for us, who surrendered the glories of heaven for us. Jesus didn’t do it because he valued the pain of it — but he suffered that we might all share in the pleasures of heaven with him.

When you approach something like fasting or even sackcloth, think of using them as you would prepare for a vacation. You’d be willing to put off a vacation until there’s enough in your savings to take everyone in your family along with you, wouldn’t you? You’d scrape to get by. You’d deny yourself an ice cream cone now and eat macaroni, so you can all go to that luau in Hawaii. You’d even work overtime.

It’s the same here. Think of an athlete in training. In fact, this is how St. Paul described it to the Corinthians: “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we, an imperishable one. … I drive my body and train it …” (1 Cor 9:25-26).

Fasting and wearing ashes or even a hair shirt can be matters of penance and of mortification — two slightly different things. Mortification is a form of discipline, like St. Paul described above.

Penance can involve the same actions as mortification — little acts of suffering like giving up a comfortable shirt — but for a different reason. Penance, rather than being a form is spiritual discipline (mortification), expresses sorrow and is done with the intention of reparation — to repair something.

The world isn’t perfect. We aren’t perfect. Sometimes we need to repair things we’ve done wrong — offer penance. At other times, we offer our sufferings to help repair what’s wrong in the bigger world: to pair our sufferings to Christ on the cross in a form of disciplined self-offering — mortification.

In August 2006, Jesuit Fr. John Dear joined several other people in the desert near Los Alamos, N.M., to offer reparation for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (The bombs used in Japan were created at Los Alamos.) “…. We donned sackcloth, sat in ashes and repented of the mortal sin of war and nuclear weapons,” Fr. Dear wrote. “And in silence I apologized to God for the violence I’ve committed. … It was a humbling experience, but one offering a consolation of sorts.”

Sackcloth is humbling. Fasting and ashes should be as well. The Lord humbled himself and we all gained a share in his glory. By God’s grace, we are allowed to both make reparation and to share in the humble offerings of Christ, as we look toward the glory that is promised to us by Easter.

Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Catholic Update at; The National Catholic Reporter, Aug. 16, 2006;; Fr. William Saunders at the Arlington Catholic Herald; Faith Magazine;;

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