The Body’s Forgotten Ally: A Brief Defense of Corporal Mortification
by Fr. Michael Giesler
It’s an interesting question. Did Leonardo wear a cilice or use a discipline? Though not mentioned in Dan Brown’s fantasy novel, The Da Vinci Code—with its bizarre and misleading description of corporal mortification—and granting Leonardo a certain religious fervor, it’s possible.
The cilice, a sharp chain worn around the leg, is really a derivation of the ancient hair shirt, which originated in the region of Cilicia in Asia Minor. It was used for many centuries in the medieval and Renaissance Church as a means of purifying the senses, atoning for sin, and winning grace for others. So too was the discipline, a whip of knotted cords applied to the back, imitating Christ’s scourging at the pillar. One of Leonardo’s contemporaries, St. Thomas More of England, wore a hair shirt under his garb as Lord Chancellor of England. He also used the discipline.
Mortification is an unpleasant word to the contemporary ear. For many, it has something vaguely to do with “being embarrassed”—but it also conjures up pain, humiliation, even cruelty. This is hardly surprising: What isn’t understood often produces shock and incredulity. In our world of high tension, uncertainty, and psychological stress, why would any sane person welcome more affliction?
Despite all this, voluntary mortification has an enduring power for both the body and soul. Self-denial helps a person overcome both psychological and physical weakness, gives him inner energy, helps him grow in virtue, and ultimately leads to salvation. It conquers the insidious demons of softness, pessimism, and lukewarm faith that dominate the lives of so many today.
In contrast to the extremes of sadism or masochism, corporal mortification is grounded in a healthy view of man and the world around him, namely, that all of us are flawed and have sinful tendencies within us. The practice itself dates back to biblical times and finds its greatest expression in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
But corporal mortification isn’t confined to Christians. Most religions throughout the centuries have recognized the need for powerful, even bloody sacrifices to appease the divine. At times, these sacrifices were grossly immoral—the Aztecs’ offering of their human victims’ hearts to their gods, for example. Others involved extensive fasting, as in the case of Ramadan in the Muslim world; or elaborate rites of purification along with the sacrifice of certain animals, as the Jews did for centuries before 70 A.D. There are also many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that speak of wearing sackcloth and ashes as a way of obtaining favors and atoning for sin. The enduring message of the various practices is the same: Nothing valuable in this life is obtained without some voluntary sacrifice and suffering.
The postmodern world readily endorses the practice of voluntary pain regarding sports and physical fitness. Many admire those who adhere to long and rigorous diet and exercise regimens. Others endure painful, costly surgeries to add a few years to their lives. Some also find value in fasting and long days of labor to promote noble social causes, like solidarity with disenfranchised groups. Yet we’ve become strangely blinded to the great spiritual benefit of mortification and sacrifice for the sake of God and one’s own soul.
We cannot lay the blame for this entirely on individual selfishness or blindness. For almost 400 years, the Western world has been infected with the philosophical disease of subjectivism, which encourages people to value their own perceptions over what is objectively true. The net result is that God and His commands have been refashioned upon man’s view of Him, not upon His view of man. If there’s no higher power beyond one’s own mind and feelings, then the whole idea of voluntary mortification will obviously seem absurd: Why die to yourself, if your self is the only thing that really exists?
Materialism and relativism also have much to do with our flight from God and penance. In a world where material things and pleasures are glamorized and made into the very objects of life, the spiritual life grows distant indeed. If there are no standards of right or wrong, then there’s no compelling need for individual sacrifice and mortification.
The word “mortification” comes from the Latin words mortem facere, meaning “to produce death.” A person who is mortified has accomplished a kind of death in himself to those obstacles separating him from God, and therefore genuine happiness. These barriers include pride, the excessive emphasis on the self or one’s own feelings or ideas; laziness, the tendency to do the minimum; and sensuality, the excessive attachment to bodily pleasures, whether food, or drink, or sex. Mortification is the process of “putting to death” these lower desires and appetites so that the purified man might live.
Very close to their Savior in time and experience, the first Christians practiced much voluntary sacrifice and mortification, and the penances they did for sin were extraordinary. Hair shirts date back to the ancient Church and were worn by both priests and lay people. Sts. Jerome, Athanasius, and John Damascene all bear witness to its use. The first monks and hermits in the desert, from the third century onward, themselves practiced severe austerities; they were to have a profound influence on the spiritual development of the Church.
Of course, there were abuses in the use of corporal mortification—one thinks here of the flagellants of certain fanatical sects in 14th-century Italy and Germany, which were condemned by the Church repeatedly. But with greater judgment, the saints knew how to combine love for God and others with the most painful mortifications. It was their purity of purpose and burning love for Christ that made their sacrifices so powerful. St. Francis of Assisi, and more recently Padre Pio, were favored with the stigmata of Christ’s own wounds. St. Catherine of Siena wore a sackcloth and would scourge herself three times a day in imitation of St. Dominic. St. Ignatius of Loyola, who recommended a spirit of “continual mortification” to his brethren, wore a hair shirt and heavy iron chain. Even St. Thérèse of Lisieux, famous for her “little way” and her love for God and others, fasted and used the discipline vigorously, “scourging herself with all the strength and speed of which she was capable, smiling at the crucifix through the tears which bedewed her eyelashes,” according to one biographer.
The ultimate strength and effectiveness of all Christian mortification lies, of course, in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary. “And I, if I be lifted from the earth, I will draw all things to myself,” He said. Uniting themselves to His pain and blood, the saints—and those earnestly trying to become saints—have always recognized that they had to die to themselves, sometimes in very dramatic and painful ways, in order to gain eternal life. They did not perform painful sacrifices because they thought the body was evil. This would be the heresy of Manicheism, long condemned by the Church. Matter and the human body are not evil in themselves, but because of the body’s substantial unity with the soul, it’s often the staging ground for a person’s inordinate desires. As a result, the saints knew that their unruly tendencies needed to be corrected and purified.
But let’s go even further. It’s clear that simply being a good person requires some kind of mortification. If a man doesn’t control his anger or resentment, he’ll be impossible to live with, and may even end up a murderer. Furthermore, if a person doesn’t know how to deny his excessive desire for alcohol, he’ll become useless to himself and others. The child who wants to pass his exam must say no to, or at least postpone, his desire to watch television or play computer games. There is enduring human and divine wisdom in Christ’s powerful words: “For unless the grain of wheat die to itself, it shall not produce fruit.”
St. Thomas More coined the English word “atone” by combining two words, “at one,” to produce one meaning “to reconcile opposing sides of a conflict.” One of the most powerful effects of mortification is the atonement for sin. Indeed, this is the central meaning of the Jewish feast Yom Kippur. Since all sin is a kind of violation of the order of things—whether that of justice, chastity, or human life itself—there’s a need to repair that order, in very much the same way that one is obliged to repair a broken window. Mortification or voluntary suffering restores that order, both in relation to God, who has been offended, and to the person’s own soul, which has been hurt by the sin committed.
St. Paul describes in an existential and vivid way his own battle with himself. It is a conflict that sincere men and women of all centuries and social classes will recognize: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?”
The root cause of this rebellion goes back to the origins of the human race, to what Catholics call original sin: It is the wound in human nature that produces disordered passions and desires that must be controlled and even punished at times—much as you must hammer straight a wire that is twisted. Paul describes just such a punishment when he compares the spiritual life to an athletic contest. To win the contest, one must be hard on oneself and refuse to succumb to the soft weakness of the flesh: “I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Despite the tremendous good that mortification can do for a person—within the proper limits and under the guidance of a good spiritual guide—it will always be a shock. When he learned of the coming crucifixion, Peter reacted as any human would: “God forbid, Lord, that this should ever happen to you!” Yet had it not, the human race would not have been redeemed. Given our own weakness and lack of spiritual vision, we rebel at the demands of life. Not only great mortifications but also the smaller ones will seem unpleasant to us—getting up on time, beginning work punctually, smiling when we are annoyed. But therein lies the challenge and the glory of it.
When speaking of sacrifice to the pagan world, Paul faced the same disbelief we witness today. His words are charged with irony, energized by his own suffering: “Where is the wise man? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?... But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
Perhaps this great Pauline insight explains why many of today’s elites cannot—or will not—grasp the real value of penance. Or why so many in the popular media make mortification material for lurid news stories, when it’s really meant to be performed in silence, for the love of God and others.
Humanly, it’s inexplicable that a person could be deeply joyful in the midst of suffering. Yet the greatest saints—who suffered the most for Christ—have also been among the most joyful figures in history. Suffering offered generously for God and others liberates a person from his own miseries. Witnesses recorded that many of the early Christians actually sang as they were escorted to their deaths in the arena. That was the joy that brought down pagan Rome.
St. Josemaría Escrivá, who himself suffered many persecutions and misunderstandings, performed heroic mortifications and sacrifices to serve God and help souls. Through it all, he was able to maintain a cheerful and optimistic attitude that inspired those around him. “If things go well, let’s rejoice, blessing God, who makes them prosper,” he once wrote. “And if they go wrong? Let’s rejoice, blessing God, who allows us to share the sweetness of his Cross.”
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Fr. Michael Giesler is a priest of the prelature of Opus Dei and the chaplain at the Wespine Study Center in St. Louis. Article reproduced with permission of Crisis Magazine
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