The chattering classes are abuzz. The journalistic elite are aghast. And even the faithful are a bit confused. 

A new Italian book on Pope John Paul II, “Why He’s a Saint,” by Msgr. Slawomir Oder, gives a rather startling answer to the question its title asks. Not only, Msgr. Oder argued, was Pope John Paul a master of faith, hope and love, but he also was a devotee of corporal mortification. He spent long nights on a cold bare floor, arms outstretched. And in his closet hung a whip that he used on his own body. 

Early disciplines 

“How could such a seemingly smart, apparently happy and holy man do something so thoroughly medieval?” many a pundit has asked. 

It’s a good question, and one plenty of Catholics have asked as well. After all, Catholics aren’t Gnostics. Our theology doesn’t boil down to “spirit good; flesh bad.” And yet, Pope John Paul wasn’t the first Catholic to sleep on the floor or whip his body. 

“Until 1960-1970, such mortification was quite accepted and normal,” said Father Michael Giesler, chaplain of the Wespine Study Center in St. Louis, Mo. “If you wanted to become a saint, it was assumed you would do corporal mortification.” 

That assumption dates back to the earliest centuries of Christianity (c. A.D. 150), when professing faith in Christ almost guaranteed you a one-way ticket into the arena. Once Christianity moved above ground, and claws and jaws could no longer be depended upon as a means of mortification, less lethal forms of corporal penance were devised, with the hairshirt serving as a preferred method of disciplining the flesh for Church Fathers such as St. Jerome. 

By the early Middle Ages, in addition to fasting, sleeping on the cold, hard ground and walking around with pebbles in their shoes, aspiring saints donned the cilice (a chain or rope with sharp points bound tight around some part of the body) and lashed themselves with whips (often called “the discipline”). The list of devotees of “the discipline” reads like a Who’s Who in the world of saints: St. Dominic, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Thomas More, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Ávila, and, yes, even St. Thérèse of Lisieux. 

Outdated practice? 

It can be tempting to dismiss the practice as outdated, the product of minds not as enlightened as our own and a belief system deprived of the theology of the body. But that’s a problem considering that the man who introduced the phrase “theology of the body” into the Catholic lexicon — Pope John Paul — had a whip of his own. So what can account for his (not to mention his saintly counterparts’) practice of corporal mortification? 

The answer, according to Father Giesler, begins with Christ’s crucifixion. 

“That voluntary pain and sacrifice which redeemed each one of us, and indeed the whole world, provides the foundation for all forms of Christian mortification,” said Father Giesler. 

On Calvary, the Word made Flesh bled in atonement for man’s sins. Scourged at the pillar, crowned with thorns and nailed to a cross, Jesus paid the price for the sins of Adam, Eve and the entirety of their descendents. 

In the centuries since, most aspiring saints have sought union with Christ in his pain. By mortifying their flesh, they made themselves Christ’s “co-workers” (1 Cor 3:9), and, like St. Paul, rejoiced in their sufferings for Christ’s sake, seeking to complete in their flesh “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the Church” (Col 1:24). 

They also have taken Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians fairly literally. There, Paul wrote, “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (9:26-27). Accordingly, by strapping cilices around their thighs and lashing whips against their backs, holy men and women have likewise attempted to keep sin at bay. 

Saints like Dominic and Teresa, however, didn’t do it because they believed their bodies were bad or the source of sin. Quite the contrary. Believing such a thing would have disqualified them from contention for sainthood. 

Rather, they, and other holy men and women like them, knew that bodies are a good gift from God, as much a part of who we are as our souls. Because of that body-soul union, they understood, in the words of Father Edward Connolly, a priest of the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., “Mortification of the flesh is mortification of the self. We reach the self through the flesh.” 

Which means exterior disciplines have an interior effect. The saints sought out bodily suffering in order to teach their souls patience, fortitude, chastity, humility and all the other virtues that work to inoculate us against sin.

Selfless suffering 

They also sought out suffering because they knew that what they did with and to their bodies in this life mattered. 

“We are body persons, not simply spirits,” Father Connolly explained. “So we have to incorporate our bodies into the whole process of salvation. We’re going to be resurrected into either heaven or hell, and our bodies will participate in either the joy or the agony of the next life. We’re not Gnostics, so the body has to be involved.” 

That understanding is what separates masochists from saints. 

Saints, Father Giesler said, “seek purification and identification with Christ through corporal mortification,” while masochists “suffer from a psychological disease that leads them to seek a kind of satisfaction in self-inflicted pain.” 

Saints also seek to benefit others through their pain, while masochists only think of their own desires. For example, according to Msgr. Oder’s book, the evenings prior to ordinations were frequent occasions for Pope John Paul’s use of the whip. Before he ordained men to the priesthood and episcopacy, he first suffered for them. 

That willingness to suffer for others is why Sister Mary Timothy Prokes, Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist and author of “Toward a Theology of the Body” (Continuum International, $33.95), believes Pope John Paul’s practice of corporal mortification reflects rather than contradicts his theology of the body. 

“What he told us was that the body was meant to be self-gift,” she said. “We have this great and wonderful capacity to be self-gift. Through his practice of self-mortification he was intensifying this capacity to be self-gift.” 

‘Call for the spiritual elite’ 

For all the saints, love and self-mortification have gone hand in hand. But for many postmodern men, those two things seem hard to reconcile. 

That, Father Giesler said, is because “there’s something known as hedonism out there.”  

He explained, “Our culture has bought into the idea that the good life, a life of pleasure and convenience, is the only life, and anything that goes against the desire for pleasure and convenience is just plain weird.” 

“But,” he added, “you can’t really be a good human being unless you’re prepared to have some kind of sacrifice or mortification in your life.” 

But that doesn’t mean all aspiring saints need to run out and pick up a whip. Severe forms of corporal mortification are, said Father Connolly, “a very high calling.” 

“They’re like the stigmata,” he explained. “God chooses who he gives the call to and gives it out only sparingly. It’s a call for the spiritual elite — not for those who consider themselves the spiritual elite.” 

Accordingly, he stressed, anyone who thinks God might be calling them to adopt any discipline that might hurt the flesh needs to make their way posthaste to a good spiritual director, lest they take on penances God is not giving them the grace to perform. 

“Love comes first,” he said. “Love and humility. So you must let your spiritual director decide if you’re loving and humble enough.” 

And for the 99.9 percent of the human race that isn’t? 

“Work on the ordinary things,” advised Father Giesler. “Be more patient. Finish your duties on time. Lose some weight. Smile when you’re in a bad mood. Wait in a traffic jam without giving in to road rage. Once you’ve mastered that, then you can move on to the more serious disciplines.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

Give Your Body A Spiritual Workout (sidebar)

Just because God calls precious few souls to undertake the kind of penance that Pope John Paul II performed, that doesn’t mean the rest of us are off the hook when it comes to corporal mortification. 

God calls everyone to holiness, which means that God calls everyone to unite themselves to Christ in his sufferings, offer up sacrifices for others and incorporate their body into the process of salvation. 

Lent is the perfect time to get serious about answering that call, and (figuratively) whip your soul into shape by giving your body a spiritual workout. 

Your Lenten fitness regimen could include: 

  •  Mortifying your eyes by fasting from “Dancing with the Stars” (or any and all television programming) 
  •  Mortifying your appetite, by fasting from second helpings at meals, sweets or some other culinary indulgence 
  • Mortifying your thirst, either by abstaining from alcohol or coffee or by drinking extra glasses of water 
  •  Mortifying your tongue, by giving up gossiping, criticizing, speaking ill of others and offering unsolicited advice 
  •  Mortifying your ears, by turning off the radio in the car and driving in silence 
  •  Mortifying your hands, by doing some small act of charity with them for another 
  •  Mortifying your desire for sleep by forgoing the snooze button on your alarm clock for all of Lent 
  •  Mortifying your love for warmth by turning down the thermostat at night or taking cold showers in the morning