The Crucifixion (Mantegna)

W. P. Bennett

Physical Penances and the Mortification of the Flesh

One of my favorite movies of the last few years is “The Way.”  It is the story of a father whose son, a world-traveling searcher, dies unexpectedly while walking the Camino de Santiago. Upon arriving in Europe to receive his son's body, the father, Tom, decides to walk the Camino in the place of his son, and along the way encounters different folks all searching for the reason they are on pilgrimage.  I won’t give away anything else, but there was one very quick scene that stands out for seemingly not fitting in.  As the pilgrims that we follow in the movie are walking they come across a group of young men who are dressed all in black.  One of them is carrying a life size cross and another has a whip and is whipping his own bare back.  The pilgrims stare at them, saying nothing, and they move on.  Nothing more is said of these young men.  But the idea of whipping oneself, or somehow purposefully inflicting physical pain to oneself is a fascinating one to our culture.  When The DaVinci Code came out, first as a book and then a movie, people were somehow drawn, not attracted but drawn, to the albino monk named Silas’s habit of wearing a cilice.  A cilice is a painful wire chain that is worn on the arm or leg that will under the clothing and has sharp pieces of wire that can pierce into the skin.  At times throughout The DaVinci Code, Silas tightens this in order to inflict even more pain.  Dan Brown, the author of this book, juxtaposes Silas’ religious devotion with his actions of murder and leaves a not-so-subtle judgement of those who would engage in practices like wearing a cilice. 

The Practice of Mortification of the Flesh

We can juxtapose these examples where people have been presented with images of characters inflicting pain upon themselves for religious reasons with the images of some holy popes and saints who would often do the same.  Pope Paul VI was said to wear a hair shirt during Lent.  And if you’ve ever been bothered by a single hair rubbing your skin the wrong way, you can imagine the physical discomfort of an entire shirt made of hair that you would wear under your clothes.  According to multiple news reports, it came out during the beatification process of St. Pope John Paul II that he would engage in practices that would purposefully be designed to remove comfort from his life- for example he would often sleep on the cold floor rather than his bed; even going so far as messing up the sheets of his bed so others wouldn’t find out. 


In short, practices of physical penances, officially known as "mortification of the flesh" have a long history and are often misunderstood today.  It does well to look at scripture and the Saints on this practice in order to put this practice into context for today’s culture.  For as we begin Lent, most of us will take on some penitential practice; it may not be whipping ourselves, but even the denial of that sweet, sweet chocolate is along these same lines.

Scripture and Saints on Mortification of the Flesh 

In his Letter to the Colossians St. Paul writes “[n]ow I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions…”[1]  There are two things to note when we look at this verse.  The first is that one of the trademarks of Christianity, especially in the early centuries, is joy in the midst of suffering.  Suffering was certainly a hallmark of Christianity in the early Church, and it still is in many places in the world today.  But physical suffering is not the only kind of suffering.  Even in places where we enjoy the right of religious freedom we still suffer.  We will always know suffering this side of heaven.  But the Christian can be known by his or her joy.  Joy is not a saccharine sappy happiness, but a deep contentment in the knowledge and belief that this world and its sufferings are not the end. The knowledge that heaven is awaiting us gives us that ability to endure the sufferings of this world with joy.  St. Louis de Montfort even has a prayer to the Virgin Mary in which is beseeches to be able “to suffer joyfully without human consolation.” [2] 

This, along with other scripture passages, has inspired many saints to engage in the practice of mortification of the flesh: Sts. Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila, Thomas More and others. St. Therese of Lisieux is described as looking forward to engaging in this practice at the age of 3. 

How do we reconcile these two seemingly viewpoints of the legion of saints who practiced this and our own culture today that looks upon this practice with confusion and distate, and often strives for comfort above all.  The key comes in how we look upon this suffering- do we see it as a means or as an end in itself?

Lending Meaning to Suffering

The physical suffering we endure, whether self inflicted or just present in our lives, must point us to He who suffered for us.  This is the mystery of suffering.  That through our suffering, through our pain, we come closer to Christ.  It is often thought that we Christ heals us of the various wounds in our lives he rewinds time to the point where we don’t suffer and we continue as if we have never suffered.  But the greatness of Jesus Christ is that He meets us exactly where we are suffering and uses that suffering to heal us, to invite us into a deeper relationship with Him.  We come to know Christ in a way that would not have been possible if we had not suffered.  This can only work if we look at our suffering as a means to the end goal of union with Jesus Christ.

But, we all know those people who look to give up something big during lent and then complain about it the entire time and focus completely on their suffering and never let their eyes move from their pain to our Lord and Savior.  They allow their suffering to become an end in itself.  They choose to suffer just so they can suffer.  This is dangerous.  Instead of becoming more selfless, they are becoming more selfish.  Instead of loving Christ more, they begin to love themselves more, love their suffering more.  They begin to build a barrier to Christ being able to enter into their suffering live and deliver redemption.

And for us, that becomes the challenge of Lent.  How do I join in the suffering of Jesus Christ in a way that allows me to join in his resurrection at Easter?  For suffering for the sake of Christ leads to the resurrection whereas suffering for the sake of suffering leads to more suffering, eternal suffering.  No matter how severe the suffering you choose to endure this Lent, be it the self-denial of chocolate or sleeping in, or something more severe such as placing a small rock in your shoe or maybe using the suffering already present in your life; how are we going to use this suffering?  Can we use the suffering to grow closer to Jesus Christ or are we going to focus only on the suffering and fall into the same trap that our society has fallen into when it looks at suffering as something to be avoided at all costs?  

[1] Col 1:24
[2] St. Louis de Monfort “Prayer to Mary”