Sackcloth and Showers

For the past three months, I have been taking cold showers every morning. Back in February, as I stood under the freezing water, I could look through the open bathroom window and see snow piled on apartment building rooftops. Why do I do this? I am very impressionable and have tried all manner of things, from studying with the Jehovah’s Witnesses to canvassing for Greenpeace on the sidewalks of Manhattan and marching with a kung fu school in San Francisco’s Chinese New Year’s parade. I am not Chinese.

I tell people that I do not own a television, which is true, but then I spend hours on YouTube. I have watched countless videos about the grassy knoll, the financial crisis, aliens, demonic possession, September 11th, Marian apparitions, haberdashery, intestinal bacteria, and Noam Chomsky, who, to hear Amy Goodman tell it, has written at least one book on each of these topics. Isaac Asimov still has him beat with a cookbook. Perhaps that is pending from Noam.

The motivation for my cold showers comes from Wim Hof, a Dutchman known as “The Ice Man,” whose YouTube videos fascinated me. His message is that if you get used to the cold and the shock of freezing temperatures, your body’s alkaline levels will rise and you will be in much better health all around. Breathing is the key to this as is getting used to discomfort, because it can be pretty uncomfortable hiking naked in the snow, which Hof does. Of course, you might make friends that way, in which case you can warm up pretty quick.

Then I came across one of those TedX videos by a dude whose mentor advised him to take cold showers for a month so that he could become emboldened in his personal life and entrepreneurial in his work. He put it in terms of risk. So, he started, at first crying but eventually getting used to it. Now, he has a fancy house with a pool, a girlfriend with plastic lips, and a shiny, plastic car.

There are a lot of these evangelists on social media. They tell you that if you sacrifice, buckle down, and become disciplined, you will succeed. They give personal testimonies. One guy writes on a white board as he strolls around his mansion and talks about business principles distilled from “thought leaders.” It reminds me of Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk who says at the end, “Be somebody!” while sipping a fancy drink with a pink umbrella.

One morning as I was showering, it occurred to me that cold showers and Hof’s breathing were the contemporary equivalent of ascetic and penitential practices in the Medieval Church. What else would you think about in a cold shower? These, too, were designed to induce discomfort that would, in turn, keep you focused on the Lord and your utter reliance on Him. Practices included wearing a cilice (‘sɪlᵻs/) or hair shirt made of sackcloth. Its name comes from the Roman province in Asia Minor where cilicia, or capes of goat hair, were made. 

Later, metal cilices were developed to wear around the waist, thigh, and leg, which became common practice even among the laity. You see remnants of them today in grapevine arm tattoos, choke collars, Dan Brown books, and YouTube videos about demons. At least I do.

Then there is breathing. Shallow breathing leads to acidity in the body. I cannot tell you how many times I have caught myself holding my breath instead of breathing normally through what I was doing. I have even held my breath while passing other people on the street. Considering I live in New York, that could be a problem.

Lest you think all this talk about cold water and breathing is a lot of hot air, let me tell you that the TedX dude wasn’t the only one emboldened. Cold water showering and hyperventilating twice a day have produced in me greater resilience and fortitude. Why, I am even encouraged to invite someone I know named Alice. Just think of it: a “cold shower cilice with Alice.” The possibilities are endless.

“Cilice” Flickr photo by romaryka shared under a Creative Commons (BY 2.0) license. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance


  1. Hey, I don’t do this and every day is still a new day with new stuff to learn. Love those creature comforts and the calm and secure feeling they give me as I tackle new challenges. But, if you’re still into it, let me know about any new insights….

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