Sunday, May 25, 2003

Self-mortification and religion:

Shiite Muslims in Iraq celebrate the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by slicing their foreheads open with razor blades. In the Philippines, 14 Roman Catholics nail themselves to the cross in a macabre, Good Friday re-enactment of the suffering of Jesus. Closer to home, dedicated members of Opus Dei, a traditional Catholic lay group, privately practice "mortifications of the flesh" such as self- flagellation with a small whip and the wearing of a "cilice," a spiked wire mesh band wrapped around the upper thigh.

Why do people whip and cut themselves in the name of God?

What's pain got to do with it?

.....The Roman tradition has many stories of saintly self-mortification, but these practices are rare among Catholics today.

"We have moved away from physical penance to a more enlightened sense of spiritual penance," said the Rev. Gerald Coleman, president of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Seminary in Menlo Park. "What makes us holy is not wearing down our bodies."

Coleman acknowledged that some priests, monks and traditionalist lay people still hurt themselves in the name of God. But he doesn't look kindly upon those penitents.

"Any group that does something like that has not moved into a balanced sense of spirituality," he said. "They think there is something evil about the body. That is a denial of the incarnation."

"The Catholic church profoundly believes that there has been only one sacrifice," Coleman added. "That is Christ and he died for all of us, once and for all."

Yup. Living simply and accepting the suffering that comes your way is not the same thing as purposefully inflicting pain on yourself, which despite its presence in some strains of our tradition, has never struck me as having anything to do with the Gospel.

Well, perhaps not having "anything" to do with the Gospel is a mite strong, but I stand by my point.

Jesus tells us over and over that if we are his disciples, we must expect suffering. His way is our way, and since his way involved suffering, ours will as well.

But what is this "suffering?" The key to understanding this, it seems to me, lies in the Gospel first. When we read the Gospels and listen to and observe Jesus, the suffering that is called for seems clear. We are called to bear any suffering, first, that comes our way as the consequence of being faithful to God and all God calls us to be. That can be anything, can't it? It can be the suffering we endure as others mock us for sticking to our values. It can be the pain that results when we make the right choice, leaving the momentary pleasure of the wrong choice behind.

Secondly, we are called to bear suffering that is a result of living out the specifics of the Good News: to forgive, to live simply, to not strive after earthly things, but to trust in God's provision for us, to put God first, to put the needs of others before our own. To love "because He has loved us first" as today's reading from John's letter said. When we think about the ways we could be living that out in our own lives, the way they are now, it might give us pause. We see what we're called to. We see how we're only going halfway or less, and the reason is that we know drawing closer to the path Jesus forged will involve some kind of suffering.

Third, we are called to bear the suffering that comes our way from tragedy, illness and death - ours and of our brothers and sisters. Here, we look to Jesus again, and see how he bore his cross. We see that the ultimate hope that carries us through is the deep trust that despite all appearances, God will work through these events, and bring good out of them.

In Christianity, the general term for the practices discussed in this article is "mortification." They are generally embraced for one of two reasons: as a means of penance, and (related but not exactly the same) as a means of bringing temptation and desire under control - of disciplining oneself in the ways of suffering so as to better prepare oneself for the suffering that one might be called to endure, to focus one's mind, not on physical comfort, but on God, so that one might be able to truly experience God in all things.

Which is fine - and which is not unique to Christianity, either, I might add. It must be a inherent human instinct to practice this kind of mortification and self-discipline as a means to self-control and submission. That's fine. There is great diversity within spritual practices, even within Christianity, and when I wrote my Loyola Kids' Book of Saints, I explained these types of things when they came up - with Catherine of Siena or Simon Stylites, for example - as practices these people engaged in because they felt that they helped them come closer to God (for the reasons I outlined above.) A person who is tormented by lust, for example, in earlier ages, would have found it normal and even spiritually valuable to counter the temptation with mortification. That's fine.

The problem is twofold. First is that it becomes some kind of model for the rest of us, and there's no reason for it to be. This purposeful mortification is not what I see Jesus calling us - in general - to in the Gospels. I think that if we threw ourselves fully into the life he calls us to, which is truly seeing and treating each person as our brother and sister, and truly forgiving, and truly giving ourselves over to love, no matter what the price - that's sacrifice a plenty.

(Although there are those who find the self-mortification necessary in order to strengthen them for that we come around to that point again. Just to let you know I haven't forgotten).

But the other risk is of hubris. (And there are risks in any spiritual practice or stance. The other side, which might completely discount the value of mortification, can fall quickly into sloth and indifference). There is a strain in the writings of some of those who have practiced mortification which would probably make most you very uncomfortable if you read it. It is an implication, as a commentor noted, that the sacrifice of Jesus was not sufficient. That God won't continue to forgive sinners unless I wrap wire around my middle to do penance for their sins. That's dangerous.

Finally, I leave you with a quote from a letter of St. Jane de Chantal to a priest to whom she was giving spiritual direction:

Take my word for it, our Lord is more pleased with our accepting the relief our body and spirit require, than by all these apprehensions of not doing enough and wanting to do more. All God wants is our heart. And He is more pleased when we value our uselessness and weakness out of love and reverence for His holy will, than we do violence to ourselves and perform great works of penance. .....What God, in His goodness, asks of you is not this excessive zeal that has reduced you to your present condition, but a calm, peaceful unselessness, a resting near Him with no special attention or action of the understanding or will except a few words of love or of faithful, simple surrender, spoken softly, effotlessly, without the least desire to find consolation or satisfaction....