Mortification of the flesh

The Television & Movie Wiki: for TV, celebrities, and movies.

For the Christian metal band Mortification, see Mortification (band).


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. The institutional and traditional terminology of this practice in Catholicism is corporal mortification.



In its simplest form, it can mean merely denying oneself certain bodily pleasures, such as by abstaining from chocolate, from meat, from food generally (fasting), 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 & Cultures

Various forms of self-denial or voluntary suffering (commonly referred to as Ascetism) are practised in various ways by members of many religions, including Christianity (particularly Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic monks, and numeraries of the Prelature of Opus Dei), Islam (particularly in Sufism and Shi'a Islam).

Various indigenous peoples also incorporated voluntary pain, suffering, and self-denial as part of their spiritual traditions as vehicles to the divine and/or rites of passage.

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.

Etymology and Christian roots

The term “mortification of the flesh” comes from Saint 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 8:13). 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.”

Image:Paul of Tarsus.jpgThe 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)

Moreover, 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.

Christ also fasted for forty days and forty nights, an example of self-inflicted pain for a higher purpose, as a way of preparing for an intense but fruitful ministry. 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

Image:Karwats.jpg 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. Image:Thomas More.png Starting on the fourth 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.

In the second millennium, Saint 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. Image:Franasis.JPG In the 16th century, Saint Thomas More who was the Lord Chancellor of England wore a hairshirt, deliberately mortifying his body. Saint Ignatius of Loyola while in Manresa in 1522 is known to have done severe mortifications. In the Litany prayers to Saint Ignatius he is praised as being “constant in the practice of corporal penance.” During the early part of the 20th century, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus 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. Image:Ignatius Loyola.jpgAt 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, Saint Josemaría Escrivá practiced self-flagellation and used the cilice, a modern-day version of the hairshirt. Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, 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." Like St. Josemaria, Padre Pio and Mother Teresa of Calcutta used the cilice and discipline regularly as means of doing penance.

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 Image:Pio of Pietrelcina.jpgChristian communities throughout the world still practice processions of public flagellation during Lent and Holy Week.

Modern Christian theology

Recent Church documents

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).

"Jesus' call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, "sackcloth and ashes," fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance." (CCC 1430) [1]

Pope John XXIII who convened the Second Vatican Council taught in Paenitentiam Agere an encyclical he wrote on July 1, 1962:

But the faithful must also be encouraged to do outward acts of penance, both to keep their bodies under the strict control of reason and faith, and to make amends for their own and other people's sins... St. Augustine issued the same insistent warning: "It is not enough for a man to change his ways for the better and to give up the practice of evil, unless by painful penance, sorrowing humility, the sacrifice of a contrite heart and the giving of alms he makes amends to God for all that he has done wrong." ...But besides bearing in a Christian spirit the inescapable annoyances and sufferings of this life, the faithful ought also take the initiative in doing voluntary acts of penance and offering them to God.... Since, therefore, Christ has suffered in the flesh," it is only fitting that we be "armed with the same intent." It is right, too, to seek example and inspiration from the great saints of the Church. Pure as they were, they inflicted such mortifications upon themselves as to leave us almost aghast with admiration. And as we contemplate their saintly heroism, shall not we be moved by God's grace to impose on ourselves some voluntary sufferings and deprivations, we whose consciences are perhaps weighed down by so heavy a burden of guilt?

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.”

Pain as means for a higher end

Mortification of the flesh is difficult to understand from a modern secular perspective. 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 Rev. Michael Geisler, spiritual director of Opus Dei in St. Louis, wrote two articles attempting to explain 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)

Pain is to be loved relative to the positive end

Theologians also explain that the redemptive value of pain makes pain itself lovable, even though by itself pain is a physical evil. Physical evil though is temporal (not eternal) and limited (not infinite). Thus to undergo pain is "nothing" compared to the eternal and infinite benefits it gains for the person undergoing the self-inflicted suffering. And for those with this supernatural viewpoint, pain is loved relative to the good it produces. Thus, one of the more contemporary saints like Josemaria Escriva said, while consoling a dying lady who was suffering in the hospital, "Blessed be pain! Glorified be pain! Sanctified be pain!"

Pain as an integral part of human nature united to the Person of Christ

Theologians also explain that the Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, united himself as a person (through the hypostatic union) to everything human, including pain.

The mystery of the incarnation is that God, who by his divine nature cannot change, has united him with changing human nature, and therefore with human pain. The "I" of the Second Person suffers. He feels pain. He is one with pain through Jesus Christ. Thus Christ's experience of pain (like all the human acts of Christ like sleeping, crying, speaking) whose subject is the divine Person is an infinite act. This is based on the classic dictum that the acts belong to the Person (actiones sunt suppositorum). It is the Person who acts: It is God who walks, God who talks, God who is killed in Jesus Christ. And God who is in pain. Thus a Christian who is united to Jesus Christ through pain is one with his infinite act of saving the world.

This also goes together with another dictum in theology: whatever is not united (to the Divine Person) is not saved. Thus, his intellect, his will, his feelings, are all united with the Person. And thus are all sanctified and redeemed. This includes pain. Pain is therefore a sanctified, redeemed and redeeming human reality.

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. It is considered a major contribution to the theology of pain and suffering.

This he wrote after suffering from the bullet wound due to the assassination attempt of Ali Agca. Six weeks after meeting his attacker, he wrote what some consider to be one of the most beautiful teachings about suffering in Christianity.

Some of the salient points are (italics added to highlight specific teachings):

Need for suffering

"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, and before his disciples he placed demands of a moral nature that can only be fulfilled on condition that they should "deny themselves". 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."

Process of revealing the meaning of suffering

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. ...It is then that man finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy.

Joy in suffering: sharing in the redemption

Saint Paul speaks of such joy in the Letter to the Colossians: "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake". A source of joy is found in the overcoming of the sense of the uselessness of suffering.

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.

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.

See also

External links

Personal tools