Excerpt: Cincture

Posted by Jeffrey Pinyan at 10:58 PM


The priest fastens the alb around his waist with a cincture (from the Latin cingere, meaning “to gird”), although this is optional if the alb is made to fit close to the body.  The cincture is a rope serving as a belt or a girdle, like the “golden girdle” which St. John saw Christ wearing around his breast. (Rev. 1:13)  As the priest ties the cincture, he prays:
Præcínge me, Dómine, cíngulo puritátis, et exstíngue in lumbis meis humórem libídinis; ut máneat in me virtus continéntiæ et castitátis.

Gird me, Lord, with the cincture of purity,                                   Eph. 6:14
and extinguish in my loins all fleshly desires,       Gal. 5:16; Col. 3:5; 1 Pet. 2:11
that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide within me.        1 Th. 4:3
As the prayer indicates, the cincture is a symbol of the virtues of chastity (sexual purity) and continence (abstinence from sexual activity).  In an age where prime-time television is filled with sexually suggestive images and immodesty in dress pervades our schools, workplaces, and even churches, these virtues are especially important to Latin Rite priests who, ordinarily, are unmarried men.[1]  In this way, the cincture is an emblem of the need for bodily mortification.
Mortification is a form of Christian asceticism, the practice of self-discipline and penance to overcome sinful tendencies and grow in virtue.[2]  The word comes from the Latin mortificatio, which means “a killing; a putting to death.”  St. Paul wrote of the practice to the Romans:  “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13) and “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Rom. 13:14)  To the Corinthians, he wrote:  “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor. 9:27)  And to the Colossians, the same:  “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you.” (Col. 3:5)
It was a primary theme in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, in which he repeatedly contrasted living in the flesh apart from Christ with living in the flesh subjected to and renewed in Christ:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God… (Gal. 2:20)
Are you so foolish?  Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? (Gal. 3:3)
[W]alk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. (Gal. 5:16-17)
Paul reaches the summit of this teaching by professing plainly that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:24)  This crucifixion of the flesh, putting the flesh to death so that it may be brought to new life in Christ, is an identification of each Christian with Jesus in crucifixion; it takes on a deeper meaning for priests who are conformed in a special way to Christ by ordination.
Although the word may have fallen out of fashion in recent decades, it was mentioned in the Vatican II decree on priestly ministry and life:  “priests consecrated by the anointing of the Holy Spirit and sent by Christ must mortify the works of the flesh in themselves and give themselves entirely to the service of men.” (PO 12)  Pope Paul VI, writing in 1966 on penance, explained and promoted mortification to the whole Church:
True penitence, however, cannot ever prescind from physical ascetism as well.  Our whole being, in fact, body and soul … must participate actively in this religious act whereby the creature recognizes divine holiness and majesty.  The necessity of the mortification of the flesh also stands clearly revealed if we consider the fragility of our nature, in which, since Adam’s sin, flesh and spirit have contrasting desires.  This exercise of bodily mortification – far removed from any form of stoicism – does not imply a condemnation of the flesh which sons of God deign to assume.  On the contrary mortification aims at the “liberation” of man, who often finds himself, because of concupiscence, almost chained by his own senses. (Paenitemini, II)
The communion fast – abstaining from food or drink (save water and medicine) for an hour before receiving Holy Communion – is a form of mortification that teaches us to order our physical hunger to our spiritual hunger for God’s sustenance in the Eucharist.
The expression “gird your loins” is a Biblical phrase which means “make yourself ready.”  This was done by tucking the garment, usually a robe or tunic, into the girdle (belt) so that it would not impede physical movement.  God used the phrase when instructing Israel on how they should eat the Passover meal (cf. Ex. 12:11) and when commissioning prophets. (cf. Jer. 1:17)  Jesus used it when He admonished His disciples to remain ready and vigilant, saying “Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning.” (Luke 12:35).  The phrase has a military connotation as well, because the girdle was also the belt which held the sheath for a soldier’s sword. (cf. 2 Sam. 20:8; Nah. 2:1)  It is primarily in this context that St. Paul uses the phrase, speaking about the “armor of God” and the spiritual warfare which the Christian wages against the powers of evil:  “Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth.” (Eph. 6:14) 
The cincture calls to mind the cords with which Christ was bound at His arrest and scourging. (cf. Matt. 27:2; John 18:12)  The priest, because of the sacramental character he received at his ordination, acts in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”) when he administers the sacraments of the Church; he is thus “bound” to Christ, and can expect persecution and ridicule rivaling that received by his Master. (cf. John 15:20)

[1] While the Latin Church, as a rule, only ordains unmarried men as priests, the Eastern Churches have retained the discipline of ordaining married men as priests, although neither the East nor the West permits priests to marry after they have been ordained.  There have been a small number of married priests in the Latin Rite in recent history, owing to the 1980 “pastoral provision” of Pope John Paul II which can permit a married minister of some other Christian community (e.g. the Anglican or Lutheran communions) to be ordained a priest after converting to the Catholic faith.  Even a married priest is required to exercise chasity in relations with his wife.
[2] St. Paul cautions that mortification could be taken to the unwise extreme of “self-abasement and severity to the body” without a spiritual goal of “checking the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col. 2:23)