The Hairy Shirt as a “Hair Shirt”

As it relates to my last post, Sam Watson had written the post “The Hair Shirt“. In it, he described the practice as

Basically, it was a medieval practice of doing penance by wearing an itchy shirt. Typically made from horsehair and wool. Going through the pain and punishing themselves in this way would show how sorry someone was for what they had done.

While this is in general true historically, it’s not the whole of the reason for the practice or how the practice has evolved since those times. “The sackcloth, for instance, so often mentioned in Holy Scripture as a symbol of mourning and penance, was probably the same thing; and the garment of camels’ hair worn by St. John the Baptist was no doubt somewhat similar.” In movies, this practice is often depicted by a person who is usually somewhat disturbed with a need for self-abuse brought on by some abusive event in their past usually committed by someone in authority. This depiction is far from the truth of what this practice should be. In fact, it would not be considered ONLY as a penance as it is not an expiation for a sin that someone would have committed.

The practice has evolved to be intended more as a form of self-discipline to help oneself become right (usually with God) in a reflective way. The “pain” that was self-inflicted was more to remind oneself of a purpose in their life, but not necessarily to inflict pain to teach them a lesson. It’s the same general philosophy as “feel the burn” when working out, or more similar to Muslims fasting during Ramadan. Hakeem Olajuwon famously evolved to keeping the fast during the NBA season even if on a game day. He described it as “a spiritual mindset that gives you the stamina required to play.”

Basically, if treated as it should be, the practice is to increase self-discipline by helping one to focus on becoming a better person either by focusing on “THE goal” or to help one improve on a shortcoming in their life. A greater, as in bigger, philosophical thought that kind of comes from this is the idea of “the redemptive power of suffering” – that perhaps when one gets through tough times they are strengthened by the experience. That’s a much deeper and more involved conversation perhaps for a post in the future.

Consider it a penance if you like that I wore the hairy shirt, but to me, it only helps me to focus on fulfilling my commitment to make a blog post every week.