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Mortification of the flesh

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Title: Mortification of the flesh  
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Subject: Flagellant, Mortification in Roman Catholic teaching, Dominic Loricatus, Rita of Cascia, Flagellation
Collection: Asceticism, Catholic Penitential Practices, Christian Terminology, Religious Behaviour and Experience
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Mortification of the flesh

Flagellants mortifying the flesh, at the time of the Black Death
Flagellants' self-harm, flagellation, mortification of the flesh, Bustos, Bulacan, Philippines

Mortification of the flesh is the institutional expiatory act of a person or group's penance for atonement of sins and path to sanctity. The term is primarily used in religious and spiritual contexts. The practice is found in many cultures, most notably the Roman Catholic Church and their penitential saints. The more common forms of mortification today include fasting, walking barefoot, motion by pious kneeling or lying face down on the floor. Also common among religious orders in the past were the wearing of sack garments, and flagellation in imitation of Jesus of Nazareth's suffering and death by crucifixion. Some forms unique to some Asian cultures are carrying heavy loads and immersion in water.


  • Etymology 1
  • Forms 2
  • Purposes 3
  • Various religions and cultures 4
    • Christianity 4.1
      • Roman Catholicism 4.1.1
      • Lutheranism 4.1.2
      • Other Christian viewpoints 4.1.3
    • Indigenous practices and shamanism 4.2
    • Modern practices 4.3
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


The term "mortification of the flesh" comes from the Book of Romans: "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."[1] 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";[2] "And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires".[3]

According to Christian exegesis, "deeds of the body" and "what is earthly", refer to the "wounded nature" of man or his concupiscence (evil inclinations due to forming part of the Fall of Man); humanity suffers the consequences of the original sin. The Apostle Paul, who authored Romans, expected believers to "put to death" the deeds of the flesh.


In its simplest form, mortification of the flesh can mean merely denying oneself certain pleasures, such as permanently or temporarily abstaining (i.e. fasting), from food, alcoholic beverages, sexual relations, or an area of life that makes the person's spiritual life more difficult or burdensome. It can also be practised by choosing a simple or even impoverished lifestyle; this is often one reason many monks of various religions take vows of poverty.

Traditional forms of physical mortification are the cilice and hair-shirts. In some of its more severe forms, it can mean causing self-inflicted pain and physical harm, such as beating, whipping, or piercing.


In the same way that people who change their appearance through painful means will sacrifice and deny themselves in order to attain some physical or material goals, some people voluntarily perform self-inflicted sacrifices in order to receive spiritual or intangible goals, e.g. union with their god, a higher place in heaven, expiation for other people's sins, self-realization, or the conversion of sinners. The root of the modern-day perplexity over mortification, according to some theologians, is the "practical denial of God," a denial of any but material realities.

The Rev. Michael Geisler, a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature in St. Louis, wrote two articles explaining 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).

Members of the modern Church of Body Modification believe that by enduring pain they make a connection to their spirit. Some indigenous cultures' shamans believe that endurance of pain or denial of appetites serves to increase spiritual power.

Some theologians explain that the redemptive value of pain makes pain lovable in its effects, even though by itself it is not. Pain is temporal and limited, thus to undergo it is worthwhile to gain the real benefits. For those with this viewpoint, pain is seen as a means to an end. Thus, a modern Catholic saint, Josemaria Escriva said, while consoling a dying woman who was suffering in a hospital, "Blessed be pain! Glorified be pain! Sanctified be pain!"[4]

Various religions and cultures

Reproduction of the crops used in the Middle Ages

Various forms of self-denial or voluntary suffering (commonly referred to as asceticism) are practiced in various ways by members of many religions. Various indigenous peoples and animists also incorporate voluntary pain, suffering, and self-denial as part of their spiritual traditions as vehicles to the divine and/or rites of passage or healing.


The early Christian evangelist and church-planter Paul wrote, "I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps when I have preached to others I myself should be castaway" (1 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).

Through the centuries, some Christians have practiced voluntary penances as a way of imitating Jesus who, according to the New Testament, voluntarily accepted the sufferings of his passion and death on the cross at Calvary in order to redeem humankind. Some Christians note that the cross carried by Jesus is the crossbar or patibulum, a rough tree trunk, which probably weighed between 80 to 110 pounds.

Christ also fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, an example of submission to the first person of the Trinity, God the Father, and as a way of preparing for ministry. The early Christians mortified the flesh through martyrdom and through what has been called "confession of the faith": accepting torture in a joyful way. It is important to note here that in some early cases, some provoked persecution on purpose so as to suffer, be persecuted, tortured and die, thus seeking to become martyrs of the faith. Saint Jerome, a Western church father and biblical scholar who translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), was famous for his severe penances in the desert.

Roman Catholicism

Some canonized Catholic saints and founders of Roman Catholic religious organizations practiced mortification in order to imitate Christ. Another way of self-denial that developed quickly in the early centuries was celibacy, which the Roman Catholic tradition interprets as forsaking sex and procreation for a superior chastity and higher supernatural ends.


The Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran Church supports the practice of mortification of the flesh, stating:

For they [our teachers] have always taught concerning the cross that it behooves Christians to bear afflictions. This is the true, earnest, and unfeigned mortification, to wit, to be exercised with divers afflictions, and to be crucified with Christ. Moreover, they teach that every Christian ought to train and subdue himself with bodily restraints, or bodily exercises and labors that neither satiety nor slothfulness tempt him to sin, but not that we may merit grace or make satisfaction for sins by such exercises. And such external discipline ought to be urged at all times, not only on a few and set days. So Christ commands, Luke 21:34: Take heed lest your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting; also Matt. 17:21: This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting. Paul also says, 1 Cor. 9:27: I keep under my body and bring it into subjection. Here he clearly shows that he was keeping under his body, not to merit forgiveness of sins by that discipline, but to have his body in subjection and fitted for spiritual things, and for the discharge of duty according to his calling.[5]

In the Lutheran tradition, mortification of the flesh is not done in order to earn merit, but instead to "keep the body in a condition such that it does not hinder one from doing what one has been commanded to do, according to one's calling (Latin: juxta vocationem suam)."[6] In The Ninety-Five Theses, Martin Luther stated that "inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh."[7]

Other Christian viewpoints

According to some Evangelical Christian commentators, using Paul's writings and other passages from the New Testament to justify the practise of mortification of the flesh is a complete misinterpretation. In the verses leading up to Col 1:24 Paul holds a very high view of Christ's redeeming work. "He understands this redemptive work to be finished, completed, and perfected. Nothing remains to be done, and the suffering of Christ's followers does not put the finishing touches on the triumph of Calvary. Paul does not believe that suffering has any atoning benefit for himself or for others. It does, however, 'serve to increase Paul's living knowledge of Christ.'"[8] This suffering Paul refers to comes as one takes on the commission to share the gospel. Persecution and suffering such as that experienced by Christ will follow and Christians should see this suffering as a divine necessity. In chapter 9 "Paul compares the evangelistic lifestyle of believers to athletes who sacrifice normal pursuits for the sake of strict training and a competitive edge".[9] In the Corinth church there were grey areas of lifestyle and behaviors (see 1 Cor 8) not specifically covered by the Mosaic law, and Paul was encouraging them to discipline themselves to abstain from those behaviors and practices for the sake of winning others to Christ. Mortification of the flesh being self-flagellation is something that is read into the text and an errant interpretation of it.

Indigenous practices and shamanism

In many indigenous cultures, painful rites are used to mark sexual maturity, marriage, procreation, or other major life stages. In Africa and Australia, indigenous people sometimes use genital mutilation on boys and girls that is intentionally painful, including

  •  "Mortification".  

External links

  1. ^ Romans 8:13
  2. ^ Colossians 3:5
  3. ^ Galatians 5:24
  4. ^ Josemaria Escriva. Founder of Opus Dei -Blessed be Suffering
  5. ^ Neve, Juergen Ludwig (1914). The Augsburg Confession: A Brief Review of Its History and an Interpretation of Its Doctrinal Articles, with Introductory Discussions on Confessional Questions. Lutheran Publication Society. p. 150. 
  6. ^ Weber, Max (2002). The Protestant Ethic and the "spirit" of Capitalism and Other Writings. Penguin Books. p. 54.  
  7. ^ "Theses, Ninety-five, of Luther.". Concordia Publishing House. 2000. 
  8. ^ Darrel E. Garland (1998). Colossians and Philemon. The NIV Application Commentary.  
  9. ^ Craig L. Blomberg (1994). 1 Corinthians. The NIV Application Commentary.  
  10. ^ Rites of passage in Indigenous cultures, article
  11. ^ Sacred Pain-Hurting the Body for the sake of the Soul, A. Glucklich, 2003
  12. ^ Church of Body Modification
  13. ^ In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification, Victoria L. Pitts, 2003
  14. ^ Gay Body, a Journey through Shadow to Self, M. Thompson, 1999
  15. ^ Modern Primitives, Vale and Juno, RE/Search press, 1989


See also

Roland Loomis re-creates Sun dance ceremonies and suspensions for those who want to access these painful technologies to expand their consciousness.[14] Musafar explains his use of these rites as a way to awaken the spirit to the body's limits, and put it in control of them. Others who have used these experiences to transcend physical limitations report a feeling of mastery over their physical circumstance, along with a widened perspective.[15]

In some contexts, modern practices of body modification and plastic surgery overlap with mortification. Often, secular people will undergo painful experiences in order to become more self-aware, to take control of their bodies or "own" them more fully, to bond with a group that is spiritual in its aims, or to overcome the body's limitations in ways that do not refer to any higher power. Many times these rites are intended to empower the participant, rather than humble them. This represents a very different aim than many traditional mortifications.[13] One of the personal characteristics found to have a positive statistical correlation with self-harm is hopelessness.

It has been speculated that extreme practices of mortification of the flesh may be used to obtain an altered state of consciousness to achieve spiritual experiences or visions. In modern times, members of the Church of Body Modification believe that by manipulating and modifying their bodies (by painful processes) they can strengthen the bond between their bodies and spirits, and become more spiritually aware. This group uses rites of passage from many traditions including Hinduism, Buddhism and shamanism, to seek their aims.[12]

A group of people engaged in a modern secular ritual called pulling

Modern practices

Shamans often use painful rites and self-denial such as fasting or celibacy to attain transformation, or to commune with spirits.[11]


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