AskDefine | Define cilice

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A hairshirt.
  2. (mostly in Opus Dei) A leather strap studded with metallic barbs that cut into flesh as a constant reminder of Christ's suffering.

Extensive Definition

A cilice was originally a garment or undergarment made of coarse cloth or animal hair (a hairshirt). In more modern religious circles, the word has come to simply mean an object that can be worn to induce some degree of discomfort or pain.


Such garments or adornments have been worn at various times in the history of the Christian faith, to mortify the flesh or as penance for adorning oneself. Being made of rough cloth, generally woven from goats' hair, and worn close to the skin, they would feel very itchy. When worn continuously, it could form a breeding-ground for lice, which would heighten the discomfort.
Cilices were worn by ascetics, saints, monks, and lay persons. Thomas Becket was wearing one when he was murdered, St. Patrick reputedly wore one, Charlemagne was buried in a hairshirt, and Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany, famously wore one in the Walk to Canossa during the Investiture Controversy. Prince Henry the Navigator was found to be wearing a hairshirt at the time of his death in 1460.
This type of mortification has a long history in Christianity, especially the Catholic Church. It has been endorsed by Popes as a way of following Christ who died in a bloody crucifixion and who gave this advice: "let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me." (Lk 9:23) Supporters say that opposition to mortification is rooted in having lost (1) the "sense of the enormity of sin" or offense against God, and the consequent penance, both interior and exterior, (2) the notions of "wounded human nature" and of concupiscence or inclination to sin, and thus the need for "spiritual battle," and (3) a spirit of sacrifice for love and "supernatural ends," and not only for physical enhancement.

Sackcloth and ashes

To show deep repentance, it was the custom in Biblical times to wear a hairshirt (sackcloth) and ashes. Jesus expected people to repent using sackcloth and ashes: "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes." (Luke 10:13; see also Mt 11:21)

Modern usage

In more recent times the word has come to refer not to a hairshirt, but to a spiked metal belt or chain worn strapped tight around the upper thigh. Many religious orders within the Roman Catholic Church have used the cilice as a form of "corporal mortification," but in recent years it has become known as a practice of numeraries (celibate lay people) of Opus Dei, a personal prelature of the Roman Catholic Church. It is worn for two hours a day, and while it causes discomfort, it does not draw blood or even break the skin. Paola Binetti, the conservative Italian senator and member of Opus Dei, is one modern figure known to wear the cilice. According to an American Catholic writer, its practice in the Catholic Church is "more widespread than many observers imagine." In modern times it has been used by Blessed Mother Teresa, Saint Padre Pio, and slain archbishop Óscar Romero.


The word is SILL-iss, and derives from the Latin cilicium, a covering made of goat's hair from Cilicia, a Roman province in south-east Asia Minor.
The Latin word for hairshirt is cilicium, and the reputed first Scriptural use of this exact term, rather than some other earlier term, is in the original Latin Vulgate of Psalm 35:13, "Ego autem, cum mihi molesti essent, induebar cilicio." This is translated as hair-cloth in the Douai Bible, and as sackcloth in the Anglican Authorized Version and the Book of Common Prayer ("But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth." in the King James Bible). Sackcloth is often mentioned in the Bible as a symbol of mourning and penance, and probably was a form of hairshirt. Sackcloth may also mean burlap.


External links

cilice in Breton: Gouriz-reun
cilice in German: Bußgürtel
cilice in Spanish: Cilicio
cilice in French: Cilice
cilice in Italian: Cilicio
cilice in Dutch: Cilice
cilice in Polish: Cilice
cilice in Portuguese: Cilício
cilice in Russian: Власяница
cilice in Slovenian: Cilicij
cilice in Swedish: Cilice
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