Question about the Tonsure

The Tonsure is not in use in the Anglican Catholic Church, nor, unfortunately, are the Minor Orders and the Subdiaconate. Some of those ministries are fulfilled by Lay Readers. I hope there will one day be a reflection in our Church in view to their restoration.

Personally, I received the Tonsure and the Minor Orders in the Roman Catholic Church in a seminary where they are in use. I received the Tonsure in Rome from Cardinal Pietro Palazzini in December 1990 in his titular church of S. Girolamo della Carità, where St Philip Neri first established the Oratory. The same prelate ordained me a deacon in 1993. The Tonsure for secular clerics is a symbolic ceremony in which five tiny amounts of hair are cut away with a pair of barber’s scissors: from the back of the head, from the front, from each side and on the top, in the form of a cross. Afterwards, there is no visible difference to the new cleric’s hairstyle.

Until about the 1960’s, secular clerics (they became clerics through receiving the Tonsure from the Bishop) would have a small circles shaved from the crown of their heads about the size of a large coin. It was a miniaturised version of the medieval tonsure, which a bishop would have shaved for the day of his consecration. This is the reason for the skull cap, violet for bishops and black for the “low” clergy. Of course, some clerics do not need the tonsure because they are going bald at exactly that part of their heads! In the middle ages, priests did not usually wear cassocks in the street but civil dress. What distinguished them as clerics was the tonsure and the skull cap covering it. In the eighteenth century, when powdered wigs were in fashion, the skull cap was worn over the wig. Below, Cardinal Altamirano in The Mission set in the 1750’s, wearing what would have been normal gentlemen’s street dress for a high-ranking prelate.

A question was entered into my search box – how to grow hair faster and neater after tonsure. This question referring to the clerical tonsure would seem to of little sense. The word tonsure is French, and the corresponding verb is tondre meaning to crop, shear or mow, depending on whether the object of this act is a human head, a sheep being fleeced or a lawn of grass. People have their heads shaved or their hair cut very short for any number of reasons that are not always religious. The French word for shaving is raser or se raser which involves leaving no length of hair above the surface of the skin.

I am not really qualified to answer this question since I am not a hairdresser, a barber or a member of the medical profession. As someone who has taken interest in the symbolism of human hair, I would venture to say that a person grows his or her hair by ceasing to cut it – just letting it grow. If there are scalp problems, then one should see a doctor or try various non-prescription skin ointments or shampoos that can be bought at a pharmacy. At half an inch a month, “hair farming” is a very slow process, and it takes patience and character.

Neater? From about four months to over a year after a short haircut, a person can expect his or her hair to go through an “awkward stage”. It is too long to style and too short to tie up. Cutting and trimming only prolong this part of the growth process. The alternative is painfully simple – cut it or grow it. Cutting does not stimulate growth. The speed of hair growth depends on the genetic make-up of each person. The average is half an inch or a tiny bit over one centimetre per month – nothing to get impatient about. The person can take biotin, keep himself in good health and favour a good head of hair (if he’s not going bald), but there is no miracle substance that makes hair grow faster. It grows at its natural speed, healthy or sickly. After eighteen months, with most people, the hair can be tied up via a ponytail or other styles. After that, the person can decide on a target length or go for terminal length, the maximum length determined on the time a hair remains attached to the person’s head before falling out.

It is for each person to assume his choices in life and their consequences.

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2 Responses to Question about the Tonsure

  1. James Morgan says:

    Hope your hair grows long! And your life too, Father.

    I had rather long hair in a pony tail for several years, but had it cut off as it was problematic in several waves…..ways. I got tired of fussing with it after a while.

    • Indeed, tertium non datur, you grow it or cut it. Everyone is free in these questions of personal life. I think long hair has symbolic value, at least for the person who grows it. For others, it signifies many things from popular subcultures to neglect of one’s appearance or not caring about fashions which now favour short hair like in the 1930’s.

      It does take work, but I think it is a good discipline that encourages other regular observances like praying our Office and looking after our homes. Europe seems to be more open to men’s long hair than the USA, but in the end, we need to have courage of character and the ability to break with conventions.

      I also wish you health and long life, with short or long hair as is your personal choice.

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