Self-mortification is basically the infliction of pain or deprivation on one’s own body. It’s a term that has strong religious connotations, but I suppose that a girl cutting herself in a fit of teenage angst or a man flogging himself for the sake of masochistic pleasure could also be said to be engaging in this practice.
Writing about Kateri Tekakwitha, the 17th century Mohawk woman who essentially tortured herself to death in the name of Catholicism and was rewarded with sainthood for her quite literal pains, piqued my interest in self-mortification of the religious variety. The impulse to torture the flesh for spiritual purposes, in one way or another, is a surprisingly common one. I’ve always associated it primarily with the Catholic Church, thinking of such stereotypical examples as Flagellants in the Middle Ages (whom the Catholic Encyclopedia actually considers to have been heretics) and willing crucifixion victims in the Philippines, but there are many non-Catholic self-mortifiers. Some Shia Muslims like to beat themselves bloody as part of the Ashura celebrations, and the aboriginal Sun Dance of the North American prairies can involve piercing of the skin of the torso. There is even a Church of Body Modification, which enthuses about “body suspension, hook pulling, play piercing, fasting, binding, corsetry [?!], firewalking, and other rituals that test and push the limits of the flesh and spirit”.
Nevertheless, I would award the self-mortification championship to the Catholic Church with little hesitation. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia admits that self-flagellation has often, throughout history, been practised by proper Catholics as well as by heretics like the actual Flagellants. At the opposite end of the scale, the whole concept of “giving up something for Lent” could be considered a very mild form of self-mortification. The idea that it can be meritorious to deny oneself the pleasures of the flesh is deeply embedded in Catholic thought, and it’s easy to see how this could lead to inflicting suffering by means other than mere denial. Basically, the Church has a long, rich and thoughtful tradition of starving, whipping and otherwise punishing the sinful flesh in the name of salvation and spiritual refinement, as part of the broader notion of asceticism.
Even Pope John Paul II apparently practised self-mortification in private:
“Not infrequently he passed the night lying on the bare floor,” the monsignor wrote, and people in the Krakow archbishop’s residence knew it, even if the archbishop would mess up the covers on his bed so it wouldn’t be obvious that he hadn’t slept there.
“As some members of his closest entourage were able to hear with their own ears, Karol Wojtyla flagellated himself both in Poland and in the Vatican,” Msgr. Oder wrote. “In his closet, among the cassocks, there was a hook holding a particular belt for slacks, which he used as a whip and which he also always brought to Castel Gandolfo,” the papal summer residence south of Rome.
Many atheists and even some Catholics react instinctively to this sort of thing with disgust, incomprehension or at least disapproval. Personally, I’m more inclined to find self-mortification and other outré religious practices simply intriguing. What value, exactly, might John Paul II have seen in beating himself at Castel Gandolfo with a “particular belt for slacks”? The trusty Catholic Encyclopedia provides some insight:
Temptations to sin it overcomes by inducing the will to accept hardships, however grace [sic], rather than yield to the temptations. To this extent, mortification is obligatory on all, but those who wish to be more thorough in the service of Christ, carry it further, and strive with its aid to subdue, so far as is possible in this life, that “rebellion” of the flesh against the spirit which is the internal incentive to sin.
And here, as further contributing to increase it spiritual efficacy, another motive for which [self-mortification] is practiced comes in. It is practiced likewise as an expiation for past sins and shortcomings, for it is the belief of the Catholic Church, that, although only the Atonement of Christ can offer adequate expiation for the sins of men, men ought not to make that an excuse for doing nothing themselves, but should rather take it as an incentive to add their own expiations to the extent of their power, and should regard such personal expiations as very pleasing to God.
So the point of self-mortification is supposed to be strengthening the will, plus expiation of sin in the eyes of Yahweh. As an atheist I’m naturally dismissive of the latter part, but I can more or less see the Church’s point with regard to the former. There is something to be said for cultivating a stoical ability to endure suffering and resist petty temptations.
I can even think of another reason to engage in the odd bit of self-mortification: repudiation of our culture’s tendency to take the body and its appetites a little too seriously. This is the common thread that runs through botox injections, fad diets, anti-tobacco and anti-obesity campaigns, tanning salons, foodie cookbooks, beauty contests, and overwrought moral concern over brief physical suffering even when experienced (in some sense) by fucking fish. Leaving aside their neural architecture, bodies are just intricate machines made largely of meat, bone and gristle, and perhaps a dose of the trusty old belt for slacks would be a worthwhile reminder of how little their comfort matters in the grand scheme of things.
I doubt that I’ll go that far anytime soon, and I certainly won’t join the Catholic Church or the Church of Body Modification. However, I might give up something for Lent next year, for entirely non-religious reasons.