Discipline (instrument of penance)

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A discipline with seven cords lying on top of the Raccolta, a Catholic prayer book containing several acts of reparation, and other devotions. Beside it are several sacramentals: a rosary, the Fivefold Scapular, a crucifix, and a phial of holy oil of Saint Philomena.

A discipline is a small scourge (whip) used as an instrument of penance by members of some Christian denominations (including Anglicans,[1] Lutherans,[2] and Roman Catholics,[3] among others)[4] in the spiritual discipline known as mortification of the flesh.

Many disciplines comprise seven cords, symbolizing the seven deadly sins and seven virtues. They also often contain three knots on each cord, representing the number of days Jesus Christ remained in the tomb after bearing the sins of humanity. Those who use the discipline often do so during the penitential season of Lent, but others use it on other occasions,[5] and even every day.[6]

History and practice[edit]

Fresco in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella showing Saint Dominic with a discipline in his hand, kneeling before a crucifix
A confraternity of penitents in Italy mortifying the flesh with disciplines in a seven-hour procession; capirote are worn by penitents so that attention is not drawn towards themselves as they repent.

In the Bible, Saint Paul writes:[7] "I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:27 NRSV).[7][8] Christians who use the discipline do so as a means of partaking in the mortification of the flesh to aid in the process of sanctification;[9][10] they also "inflict agony on themselves in order to suffer as Christ and the martyrs suffered."[11] In antiquity and during the Middle Ages,[12] when Christian monastics would mortify the flesh as a spiritual discipline, the name of the object that they used to practice this also became known as the discipline.[13] By the 11th century, the use of the discipline for Christians who sought to practice the mortification of the flesh became ubiquitous throughout Christendom.[13]

In the Roman Catholic Church, the discipline is used by some austere Catholic religious orders.[3] The Cistercians, for example, use the discipline to mortify their flesh after praying Compline.[3] The Capuchins have a ritual observed thrice a week, in which the psalms Miserere Mei Deus and De Profundis are recited as the friars flagellate themselves with a discipline.[8] Saints such as Dominic Loricatus,[14] Mary Magdalene de' Pazzi,[15] among others, have used the discipline on themselves to aid in their sanctification.[16]

Votarists of some Anglican religious orders practice self-flagellation with a discipline.[17] Within Anglicanism, the use of the discipline became "quite common" among many members of the Tractarian movement.[1] Martin Luther, German Reformer, practiced mortification of the flesh through fasting and self-flagellation, even sleeping in a stone cell without a blanket.[2] Congregationalist writer and leader within the evangelical Christian movement, Sarah Osborn, practiced self-flagellation in order "to remind her of her continued sin, depravity, and vileness in the eyes of God".[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Yates, Nigel (1999). Anglican Ritualism in Victorian Britain, 1830-1910. Oxford University Press. p. 60. ISBN 9780198269892. Self-flagellation with a small scourge, known as a discipline, became quite common in Tractarian circles and was practised by Gladstone among others.
  2. ^ a b Lindberg, Carter (1988). Martin Luther: Justified by Grace. Graded Press. p. 16. ISBN 9780939697557. Luther subjected himself to long periods of fasting and self-flagellation. He spent many sleepless nights in a stone cell without a blanket to protect him from the damp cold that was characteristic of the area.
  3. ^ a b c Attwater, Rev. Fr. Donald (16 December 1997). A Catholic Dictionary. TAN Books. p. 293. ISBN 9781505107456. DISCIPLINE. A small whip or scourge of cords variously arranged, used for self-inflicted mortification (q.v.). Its use is prescribed in the more austere religious orders and congregations; among the Cistercians, for example, it is self-administered on most Fridays of the year after the night-office for the space of a Misere.
  4. ^ a b Rubin, Julius H. (1994). Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America. Oxford University Press. p. 115. ISBN 9780195083019. In the many letters to her correspondents, Fish, Anthony, Hopkins, and Noyes, Osborn examined the state of her soul, sought spiritual guidance in the midst of her perplexities, and created a written forum for her continued self-examination. She cultivated an intense and abiding spirit of evangelical humiliation--self-flagellation and self-torture to remind her of her continued sin, depravity, and vileness in the eyes of God.
  5. ^ Yelyr, R. (16 April 2013). The Whip And The Rod - An Account Of Corporal Punishment Among All Nations And For All Purposes. Read Books Limited. p. 24. ISBN 9781473391857. The favourite time for the infliction of the discipline was during Lent, though it was administered on other occasions.
  6. ^ Yelyr, R. (16 April 2013). The Whip And The Rod - An Account Of Corporal Punishment Among All Nations And For All Purposes. Read Books Limited. p. 24. ISBN 9781473391857. And yet again there was the Bishop of Bellay, who, it was alleged, whipped his body every day to such an extent that his skin was never free from weals and bruises.
  7. ^ a b Cultic Studies Journal, Volumes 16-18. The Foundation. 1999. p. 149. Opus Dei is also rebuked for its practice of "taking the discipline," which consists of striking oneself with a rope whip (Walsh, 1991, pp. 110- 112; Tapia, 1997, p. 34). St. Paul states: "I chastise my body and bring it into subjection" (1Cor, IX, 27).
  8. ^ a b Black, Christopher F. (28 August 2003). Italian Confraternities in the Sixteenth Century. Cambridge University Press. p. 100. ISBN 9780521531139. Capuchins particularly promoted public flagellation in the confraternities they sponsored, since it was a regular penitential practice for themselves. The constitutional reforms, inspired by Giovanni de Captistrano, ordered discipline to be exercised thrice weekly, with a fixed ritual based on the psalms Miserere Mei Deus and De Profundis. The Biblical inspirations were 1 Corinthians 9:27: 'I bruise my own body and make it know its master, for fear that after preaching to others I should find myself rejected'; and Colossians 1:24: 'It is now my happiness to suffer for you. This is my way of helping to complete, in my poor human flesh, the full tale of Christ's afflictions still to be endured, for the sake of this body which is the church.'
  9. ^ Jones, Lindsay (2005). Encyclopedia of Religion, Volume 9. Macmillan Reference. ISBN 9780028657424. Among its most extreme forms are self-flagellation and the wearing of a hair shirt. [...] intended to have a transformative effect, aiding in the transition from a life devoted to the gratification of the desires of the body to a higher, sanctified life in the spirit.
  10. ^ The Privilege and the Precept: a Scripture Manual, Containing a Concise Statement of the Leading Doctrines of the Gospel, Proved by Quotations from the Holy Scriptures. P. Dixon hardy and Sons. 1854. p. 108. Sanctification is evidenced by love to God, mortification of the flesh, and habitual holiness of life and conversation.
  11. ^ Rutherdale, Myra; Pickles, Katie (14 May 2014). Contact Zones: Aboriginal and Settler Women in Canada's Colonial Past. UBC Press. p. 97. ISBN 9780774851688. Within the culture of devotion, women religious undergo self-mortification by applying the "discipline" – a small whip - to themselves. They inflict agony of themselves in order to suffer as Christ and the martyrs suffered.
  12. ^ Stravinskas, Peter M. J.; Shaw, Russell B. (1998). Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Encyclopedia. Our Sunday Visitor Publishing. p. 333. ISBN 9780879736699. Discipline • A small whip with which some ascetics in antiquity and the Middle Ages lashed themselves to discipline, mortify and punish themselves for their sins.
  13. ^ a b Simon, G. A. (1 April 2009). Commentary for Benedictine Oblates: On the Rule of St. Benedict. Wipf & Stock Publishers. p. 65. ISBN 9781606082669.
  14. ^ Ranft, Patricia (31 October 2012). Theology of Peter Damian: "let Your Life Always Serve as a Witness". CUA Press. p. 164. ISBN 9780813219974. Because of the example of Dominic Loricatus, renowned for his extreme use of the discipline, "the custom spread in our area so that not only men but even noble women eagerly took up this form of purgatory."
  15. ^ Favazza, Armando R. (18 April 2011). Bodies under Siege: Self-mutilation, Nonsuicidal Self-injury, and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry. JHU Press. p. 37. ISBN 9781421401119. Born in Florence in 1566 of an aristocratic family, Caterina de'Pazzi was religiously precocious. At age 10 she made a vow of perpetual chastity, secretly whipped herself, and wore a crown of thorns.
  16. ^ Scheckel, Roger J. (2006). "Seeking Sanctification Through the Practice of Mortification". Marian Catechist Apostolate. Archived from the original on 10 June 2018. Retrieved 14 June 2016. Sacred Tradition expressed through the lives of the saints provides innumerable accounts of the necessity and importance of the practice of mortification. [...] Mortification is a good that is relative to a higher purpose or end, namely the pursuit of holiness. Pain or suffering in and of itself is a physical evil, one of the consequences of humanity's fall from grace; however, when suffering or pain is accepted in faith it can be redemptive and a source of sanctification.
  17. ^ Marsh, Jan (29 November 2012). Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography. Faber & Faber. p. 74.