No matter how many drapes or towels used at the hair salon when I have my hair cut, there always seem to be a few cut hairs that find their way between the collar of my shirt and my skin. After a recent trim, I felt itchy the whole drive home. I so wanted to scratch the itch. I knew that in fifteen minutes I could change my shirt and wipe away any remaining hairs. With every urge to scratch, I reminded myself how close I was to relief. However, the thought of Saint Thomas Moore also came to mind. He wore a hair shirt as form of discipline and penance. Here I was trying to put up with some discomfort for a short amount of time, and this man purposefully welcomed being uncomfortable.
It was only after his death that it became known Thomas wore the hair shirt as penance for his own sins and the sins of his country. King Henry VIII had declared himself head of the church in England so his marriage to his first wife could be annulled. St.Thomas refused to approve and was eventually imprisoned for it, but he added to his own suffering by enduring this personal penance. The garment was made of rough cloth, possibly from goat’s hair. The ancestor to this clothing is the sackcloth that is mentioned in the Old Testament. It was worn close to the body to remind the wearer to resist temptations of the flesh. Used by both religious and lay people, it was a rejection of luxury and comfort, and a reminder of the sufferings of Jesus. As Thomas was a man of means and power, and a close adviser for the king, wearing this shirt helped to keep him humble and to remember that he was, “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
I wonder how he got used to wearing it, or if he ever did. Did he begin wearing it for small amounts of time to build up his tolerance? Did he have skin issues as a result of all that irritation? This kind of penance calls me to rethink the comforts in my own life; how attached am I? I don’t know if wearing a garment that irritates the skin is for everyone, but are there other penances that could be just as effective? As we are all unique in God’s eyes, I wonder if we each have our own penances based on our weaknesses and temptations?
The saints provide great examples for us and help us in our moment of need. They challenge us to reflect on our actions and our relationship with God so that we keep moving closer to Him in our daily lives—sometimes embracing discomfort rather than seeking relief.