What Is A “Cilice”?

Silas, the albino monk in The Da Vinci Code, wears a cilice belt round his thigh as an “instrument of mortification”. He keeps telling himself that “pain is good” because he believes that in this way he will receive absolution from God for the evil deeds he feels obliged to perpetrate against those he sees as “God’s enemies”.

The cilice is a spiked chain that leaves nasty little pricks in the flesh, but it would need to be worn unusually tightly in order to inflict the kind of tearing wounds that Silas sees as necessary in order to gain God’s forgiveness.

The cilice seems to have developed out of the more commonly known hair shirt, which was originally made from rough goat’s hair from Cicilia in Asia Minor. It was a penitential device meant to make the wearer decidedly uncomfortable in order to remind him that he was a sinner in need of absolution, but it was hardly of the same order as the later spiked metal device designed to be worn round the thigh.

This later development had barbs like small fish hooks that dug into the flesh and was apparently intended to deter the wearer’s sexual urges. Unless the victim were addicted to sado-masochistic practices - in which case the cilice might have played a stimulatory role -  one can safely assume that it achieved its purpose!

There is some evidence that the cilice continued to be used by a small number of Catholic monks as recently as the mid-20th century, but its use has apparently been discontinued for several decades, except by certain members among the Numeraries of the Opus Dei who are said to wear it for up to two hours a day.  However, probably because the practice smacks of masochism and may even have links with the auto-erotic, few members will admit to the cilice’s existence today.


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