Mortification of the flesh
Mortification of the flesh is the institutional expiatory self-flagellation of a person or group's penance for atonement of sins and path to sanctity. The term is primarily used in religious and spiritual contexts. The practice is found in many cultures, most notably the Roman Catholic Church and their penitential saints. The more common forms of mortification today include fasting, walking barefoot, motion by pious kneeling or laying face down on the floor. Also common amongst religious orders in the past were the wearing of sack garments, and flagellation in imitation of Jesus of Nazareth's suffering and death by crucifixion. Some forms unique to some Asian cultures are carrying heavy loads and immersion in water.
Etymology and Catholic roots
The term "mortification of the flesh" comes from the Book of Romans: "For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live." The same idea is seen in the following verses: "Put to death what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry"; "And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires".
According to Christian exegesis, "deeds of the body" and "what is earthly", refer to the "wounded nature" of man or his concupiscence (evil inclinations due to forming part of the Fall of Man); humanity suffers the consequences of the original sin. The author of Romans expected believers to "put to death" the deeds of the body, which was later taken literally by the Catholic Church.
In its simplest form, mortification of the flesh can mean merely denying oneself certain pleasures, such as permanently or temporarily abstaining (i.e. fasting), from food, alcoholic beverages, sexual relations, or an area of life that makes the person's spiritual life more difficult or burdensome. It can also be practised by choosing a simple or even impoverished lifestyle; this is often one reason many monks of various religions take vows of poverty.
Traditional forms of physical mortification are the cilice and hair-shirts. In some of its more severe forms, it can mean causing self-inflicted pain and physical harm, such as beating, whipping, or piercing.
In the same way that people who change their appearance through painful means will sacrifice and deny themselves in order to attain some physical or material goals, some people voluntarily perform self-inflicted sacrifices in order to receive spiritual or intangible goals, e.g. union with their god, a higher place in heaven, expiation for other people's sins, self-realization, or the conversion of sinners. The root of the modern-day perplexity over mortification, according to some theologians, is the "practical denial of God," a denial of any but material realities.
The Rev. Michael Geisler, a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature in St. Louis, wrote two articles explaining the theological purpose behind corporal mortification. "Self-denial helps a person overcome both psychological and physical weakness, gives him 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" (Crisis magazine July/August 2005).
Members of the modern Church of Body Modification believe that by enduring pain they make a connection to their spirit. Some indigenous cultures' shamans believe that endurance of pain or denial of appetites serves to increase spiritual power.
Some theologians explain that the redemptive value of pain makes pain lovable in its effects, even though by itself it is not. Pain is temporal and limited, thus to undergo it is worthwhile to gain the real benefits. For those with this viewpoint, pain is seen as a means to an end. Thus, a modern Catholic saint, Josemaria Escriva said, while consoling a dying woman who was suffering in a hospital, "Blessed be pain! Glorified be pain! Sanctified be pain!"
Various religions and cultures
Various forms of self-denial or voluntary suffering (commonly referred to as asceticism) are practiced in various ways by members of many religions. Various indigenous peoples and animists also incorporate voluntary pain, suffering, and self-denial as part of their spiritual traditions as vehicles to the divine and/or rites of passage or healing.
The early Christian leader Paul allegedly wrote: "I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps when I have preached to others I myself should be castaway" (1 Cor 9:27); "In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, that is the Church." (Col 1:24).
Through the centuries, some Christians have practiced voluntary penances as a way of imitating Jesus who, according to the New Testament, voluntarily accepted the sufferings of his passion and death on the cross at Calvary in order to redeem humankind. Some Christians note that the cross carried by Jesus is the crossbar or patibulum, a rough tree trunk, which probably weighed between 80 to 110 pounds.
Christ also fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, an example of submission to the first person of the Trinity, God the Father, and as a way of preparing for ministry. Some canonized Catholics and founders of Catholic religious organizations practiced mortification in order to imitate Christ. The early Catholics mortified the flesh through martyrdom and through what has been called "confession of the faith": accepting torture in a joyful way. It is important to note here that in some early cases, some provoked persecution on purpose so as to suffer, be persecuted, tortured and die, thus seeking to become martyrs of the faith.
Another way of self-denial which developed quickly in the early centuries was celibacy, giving up sex and procreation for higher supernatural ends.
Starting in the 4th century, hermits started to populate the deserts as their way of doing penance.
Saint Jerome, a biblical scholar who translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), was famous for his severe penances in the desert.
Catholic viewpoints and history
Other Christian viewpoints
According to some Evangelical Christian commentators, using Paul's writings and other passages from the New Testament to justify the practise of mortification of the flesh is a complete misinterpretation. In the verses leading up to Col 1:24 Paul holds a very high view of Christ's redeeming work. "He understands this redemptive work to be finished, completed, and perfected. Nothing remains to be done, and the suffering of Christ's followers does not put the finishing touches on the triumph of Calvary. Paul does not believe that suffering has any atoning benefit for himself or for others. It does, however, 'serve to increase Paul's living knowledge of Christ.'" This suffering Paul refers to comes as one takes on the commission to share the gospel. Persecution and suffering such as that experienced by Christ will follow and Christians should see this suffering as a divine necessity. In chapter 9 "Paul compares the evangelistic lifestyle of believers to athletes who sacrifice normal pursuits for the sake of strict training and a competitive edge". In the Corinth church there were grey areas of lifestyle and behaviors (see 1 Cor 8) not specifically covered by the Mosaic law, and Paul was encouraging them to discipline themselves to abstain from those behaviors and practices for the sake of winning others to Christ. Mortification of the flesh being self-flagellation is something that is read into the text and an errant interpretation of it.
Indigenous practices and shamanism
In many indigenous cultures, painful rites are used to mark sexual maturity, marriage, procreation, or other major life stages. In Africa and Australia, indigenous people sometimes use genital mutilation on boys and girls that is intentionally painful, including circumcision, subincision, clitoridectomy, piercing, or infibulation. In some Native American tribes enduring scarification or the bites of ants are common rituals to mark a boy's transition to adulthood. Human rights organizations in several areas of the world have protested some of these methods, which can be forced upon the participants, although some are voluntary and are a source of pride and status.
Shamans often use painful rites and self-denial such as fasting or celibacy to attain transformation, or to commune with spirits.
It has been speculated that extreme practices of mortification of the flesh may be used to obtain an altered state of consciousness to achieve spiritual experiences or visions. In modern times, members of the Church of Body Modification believe that by manipulating and modifying their bodies (by painful processes) they can strengthen the bond between their bodies and spirits, and become more spiritually aware. This group uses rites of passage from many traditions including Hinduism, Buddhism and shamanism, to seek their aims.
In some contexts, modern practices of body modification and plastic surgery overlap with mortification. Often, secular people will undergo painful experiences in order to become more self-aware, to take control of their bodies or "own" them more fully, to bond with a group that is spiritual in its aims, or to overcome the body's limitations in ways that do not refer to any higher power. Many times these rites are intended to empower the participant, rather than humble them. This represents a very different aim than many traditional mortifications. One of the personal characteristics found to have a positive statistical correlation with self-harm is hopelessness.
Roland Loomis re-creates Sun dance ceremonies and suspensions for those who want to access these painful technologies to expand their consciousness. Musafar explains his use of these rites as a way to awaken the spirit to the body's limits, and put it in control of them. Others who have used these experiences to transcend physical limitations report a feeling of mastery over their physical circumstance, along with a widened perspective.
- Day of Ashura
- Guardia Sanframondi
- Mortification (theology)
- Observance of Muharram
- Romans 8:13
- Colossians 3:5
- Galatians 5:24
- Josemaria Escriva. Founder of Opus Dei -Blessed be Suffering
- Darrel E. Garland (1998). Colossians and Philemon. The NIV Application Commentary. Zondervan. p. 127. ISBN 978-0-310-57098-1.
- Craig L. Blomberg (1994). 1 Corinthians. The NIV Application Commentary. Zondervan. p. 189. ISBN 978-0-310-48490-5.
- Rites of passage in Indigenous cultures, article
- Sacred Pain-Hurting the Body for the sake of the Soul, A. Glucklich, 2003
- Church of Body Modification
- In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification, Victoria L. Pitts, 2003
- Gay Body, a Journey through Shadow to Self, M. Thompson, 1999
- Modern Primitives, Vale and Juno, RE/Search press, 1989
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