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SURPRISING IS NUMBER OF SAINTS AND POPES WHO PRACTICED WHAT SOME SEE AS STRANGE 'SELF-MORTIFICATION'

The other day we received a call inquiring about the curious and to many even bizarre practice of self-flogging. Those who know folks in prelates such as Opus Dei have expressed concern about "mortification" this group (as famously portrayed in The DaVinci Code) apparently uses.

Is it true? Do members of Opus Dei and perhaps others really wear spiked chains around their thighs? Do they actually whip themselves? 

The answer is yes -- albeit not as in that movie. The organization itself has issued statements affirming it but adding that "The DaVinci Code's bloody depictions of mortification are grotesque exaggerations that have nothing to do with reality. When members or former members see the monk go at it in the movie, they just burst out laughing, it's so nutty.""

Still, there are surprising elements, and celibate members of Opus Dei who wish to "mortify the flesh" do use what's called the "cilice" and "discipline."

A cilice is a small light metal chain with little prongs and indeed is worn around the upper legs. It makes the person uncomfortable, admits Opus Dei, but causes no bleeding or injury of any kind nor does it hinder normal activity. A discipline is a knotted cord made of woven cotton. Opus Dei asserts a typical one weighs less than two ounces and is a practice in humility. The organization compares it to fasting from food (or sitting in sackcloth and ashes).

The justification for self-mortification is often found by adherents in Romans 8:13: "If you live after the flesh, you shall die, but if through the spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live."

"Mortification helps us resist our natural drive toward personal comfort which so often prevents us from answering the Christian call to love God and serve others for love of God," states Opus Dei.

Nothing wrong with that. To each his or her own.

But does "mortify" mean knotted cords and metal chains for self-inflicted discomfort?

Another surprise is who practiced it. Saint Dominic Loricatius (995-1060) is said to have performed a hundred years' worth of penance by chanting twenty psalters accompanied by 300,000 lashes over six days. (Three hundred thousand?)

Saint Francis of Assisi is reported to have used flagellation and a hairshirt (a garment of rough cloth made from goats' hair and worn in the form of a shirt or as a girdle around the loins, a Catholic encyclopedia informs us) for his penance.

St. Catherine of Siena wore sackcloth (this too made of goat's or camel's hair or hemp or flax or rough cotton) and scourged herself three times a day.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola is known for such severe mortifications that "corporal punishment" is mentioned in his litany.

Teresa of Ávila likewise undertook severe mortifications (she a Doctor of the Church, as was Saint Catherine), according to accounts, and Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque of the Sacred Heart revelations practiced mortification quietly. So did Blessed Junipero Serra of California -- and Saint John Vianney.

Add to the list: Thérčse the Little Flower (a third Doctor). And the seers of Fatima (who wore tight cords around their waists, flogged themselves with stinging nettles, gave their food to beggars, and abstained from drinking water on hot days). One of them, Sister Lucia dos Santos, wrote that God was pleased with their sacrifices and bodily penances, which were offered for sinners and were kept very moderate.

Saint Padre Pio and Mother Teresa of Calcutta used both the cilice and the discipline. It is something that would be done over a short time in conjunction with prayer. Sometimes, a bit of pain was associated with it, especially among the more ascetic. ("He must make sure it hurts," Pio is quoted as advising in the practice.)

Self-mortification was practiced, to a degree, by Popes Paul VI and John Paul II.

"Pope John Paul II always took penitence seriously, spending entire nights lying with his arms outstretched on the bare floor, fasting before ordaining priests or bishops and flagellating himself," said the promoter of his sainthood cause, according to the Catholic News Service (owned by the U.S. bishops. "Monsignor Slawomir Oder said Pope John Paul used self-mortification 'both to affirm the primacy of God and as an instrument for perfecting himself.'"

And so we have it.

We're not quite sure about using it ourselves.

But fasting?

Yes, a couple times a week; how powerful this is in clarity.

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[see also: Times writer defends Catholicism]

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