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Mortification of the flesh
Mortification of the flesh literally means "putting the flesh to death". The term is primarily used in religious contexts, and is practiced in a variety of ways.
In its simplest form, it can mean merely denying oneself certain bodily pleasures, such as by abstaining from chocolate, from meat, from alcohol, or from sex. It can also be practised by deliberately choosing a simple or even impoverished lifestyle; this is often one reason many monastics take vows of poverty.
In some of its more severe forms, it can mean actually inflicting pain and physical harm to oneself, such as by beating, whipping, or other means. Some psychologists associate this practice with algolagnia.
Practices in Different Religions
Mortification of the flesh is practised in various ways by members of several different religions, including Christianity (particularly Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic monks, and adherents of Opus Dei), Islam (particularly in Sufism and Shi'a Islam) and Hinduism (especially in the festival of Thaipusam).
It has been speculated that the more extreme practices of mortification of the flesh may be used to obtain altered states of consciousness for the goal of experiencing religious experiences or visions.
The Sanskrit term for mortification is tapas.
Etymology and Christian roots
The term “mortification of the flesh” comes from St. Paul in this quote: “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.” (Rom 3:13). 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.” (Col 3:5) “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
The context of these quotes show that Paul means that the Christian is already alive and born in Jesus, and therefore must “put to death” (in Latin, mortem facere) his inclinations and fleshly sins which do not belong to the life of being a follower of Christ.
Paul also said the following: "I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps when I have preached to others I myself should be castaway" (I 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)
Moreoever, Jesus Christ himself preached: "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me."
Through the centuries, Christians have practiced these voluntary, corporal penances as a way of imitating Jesus Christ who voluntarily accepted the sufferings of his passion and death on the cross at Calvary in order to redeem mankind. The great saints and great founders of Christian religious organizations led the way in this imitation of Christ.
Examples of mortification of the flesh in Christian history
The early Christians fulfilled the desire of imitating Christ in his passion and death in an "ultimate" way through martyrdom and through what has been called "confession of the faith": accepting torture in a joyful way.
Another way of self-denial which developed quickly in the early centuries is the practice of virginity, giving up the pleasures of sex and of having children for higher supernatural ends.
Starting on the fourth century, hermits started to populate the deserts as their way of doing penance.
St. Jerome a biblical scholar who translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate) was famous for his severe penances in the desert.
In the second millenium, St. Francis of Assisi, who is known to have received the stigmata, painful wounds like those of Jesus Christ, is said to have asked pardon to his body, whom he called Brother Ass, for the severe self-afflicted penances he has done: vigils, fasts, frequent flagellations and the use of a hairshirt.
In the 16th century, St. Thomas More who was the Lord Chancellor of England wore a hairshirt, deliberately mortifying his body. St. Ignatius while in Manresa in 1522 is known to have done severe mortifications. In the Litany prayers to St. Ignatius he is praised as being “constant in the practice of corporal penance.”
During the early part of the 20th century, St. Thérèse of Lisieux at three years of age was described by her mother: "Even Thérèse is anxious to practice mortification.” And Thérèse later wrote: "My God, I will not be a saint by halves. I am not afraid of suffering for Thee.”
The seers of Fatima were also told by the angel: "In every way you can offer sacrifice to God in reparation for the sins by which He is offended, and in supplication for sinners. In this way you will bring peace to our country, for I am its guardian angel, the Angel of Portugal. Above all, bear and accept with patience the sufferings God will send you." The idea of making sacrifices was repeated several times by the Virgin Mary. The children wore tight cords around their waist and abstained from drinking water on hot days. At one point the Virgin Mary told them that God is pleased with their sacrifices and bodily penances.
At the latter half of the 20th century, St. Josemaría Escrivá practiced self-flagellation and used the cilice, a modern-day version of the hairshirt. St. Pio de Pietralcina (Padre Pio), a modern-day saint who received the stigmata wrote in one of his letters: "Let us now consider what we must do to ensure that the Holy Spirit may dwell in our souls. It can all be summed up in mortification of the flesh with its vices and concupiscences, and in guarding against a selfish spirit... The mortification must be constant and steady, not intermittent, and it must last for one's whole life. Moreover, the perfect Christian must not be satisfied with a kind of mortification which merely appears to be severe. He must make sure that it hurts."
The Christian Church has also institutionalized the practice of self-inflicted penance and corporal mortification through its mandate on fasting and abstinence for specific days of the year. Many Christian communities throughout the world still practice processions of public flagellation during Lent and Holy Week.
Recent theology affirms the practice of mortification. The catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes” (n. 2015). Pope Paul VI also preached: “The necessity of mortification of the flesh stands clearly revealed if we consider the fragility of our nature, in which, since Adam’s sin, flesh and spirit have contrasting desires. This exercise of bodily mortification — far removed from any form of stoicism — does not imply a condemnation of the flesh which the Son of God deigned to assume. On the contrary, mortification aims at the 'liberation' of man.”
Modern secular man finds it difficult to understand the meaning of mortification of the flesh. In order to explain this notion, theologians point to the contemporary motto of "no pain, no gain" associated with the modern practice of rigorous athletic training, demanding diets for weight reduction, painful surgical operations to enhance physical beauty and wearying business workloads. In the same way that modern athletes, weight reducers, vain people and zealous businessmen sacrifice and deny themselves in order to attain some physical and material goals, serious Christians voluntarily perform self-inflicted sacrifices in order to receive higher, other-wordly goals, e.g. union with God, a higher place in heaven, expiation for sins of other people. The root of the modern-day perplexity over mortification, according to these theologians, is the "practical denial of God," a form of atheism which is prevalent in modern-day secular society.
The teaching of Pope John Paul II: the salvific meaning of suffering
John Paul II wrote an entire Apostolic Letter on the topic of suffering, specifically the salvific meaning of suffering: Salvifici Doloris.
This he wrote after suffering from the bullet wound due to the assasination attempt of Ali Agca. Six weeks after meeting his attacker, he wrote one of the most beautiful teachings about suffering in Christianity:
Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: "Follow me!". Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross.
Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. He does not discover this meaning at his own human level, but at the level of the suffering of Christ. At the same time, however, from this level of Christ the salvific meaning of suffering descends to man's level and becomes, in a sense, the individual's personal response. It is then that man finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy.
Saint Paul speaks of such joy in the Letter to the Colossians: "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake"(88). A source of joy is found in the overcoming of the sense of the uselessness of suffering, a feeling that is sometimes very strongly rooted in human suffering. This feeling not only consumes the person interiorly, but seems to make him a burden to others. The person feels condemned to receive help and assistance from others, and at the same time seems useless to himself.
The discovery of the salvific meaning of suffering in union with Christ transforms this depressing feeling. Faith in sharing in the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person "completes what is lacking in Christ's afflictions"; the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of Redemption he is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable cervice.
In the Body of Christ, which is ceaselessly born of the Cross of the Redeemer, it is precisely suffering permeated by the spirit of Christ's sacrifice that is the irreplaceable mediator and author of the good things which are indispensable for the world's salvation. It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls. Suffering, more than anything else, makes present in the history of humanity the powers of the Redemption.
In that "cosmic" struggle between the spiritual powers of good and evil, spoken of in the Letter to the Ephesians(89), human sufferings, united to the redemptive suffering of Christ, constitute a special support for the powers of good, and open the way to the victory of these salvific powers.
He says: "Christ did not conceal from his listeners the need for suffering. He said very clearly: "If any man would come after me... let him take up his cross daily (81), and before his disciples he placed demands of a moral nature that can only be fulfilled on condition that they should "deny themselves" (82). The way that leads to the Kingdom of heaven is "hard and narrow", and Christ contrasts it to the "wide and easy" way that "leads to destruction."
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