How ‘taking the discipline’ can get us into better spiritual shape

Perhaps you were startled to learn recently that Pope John Paul II regularly practiced the form of mortification called “taking the discipline” — striking his body with a whip. 

Apparently he hung the disciplinary belt in his closet, along with his vestments, and never failed to take it with him. He also, we learned through a book recently released in Italy, sometimes slept on the hardwood floor of his bedroom as an ascetic practice.

Long-standing tradition 

I realize that activities such as these can strike many contemporary people as bizarre, perhaps even as the fruit of psychological disorders, complexes and repressions. Though the author who reported these events did so in order to convince us of the pope’s sanctity, some people today might actually think less of him. 

These revelations might be a good occasion to reflect more deeply on the typically Lenten practices of mortification and asceticism. I would first observe that “taking the discipline” was hardly something unique to Pope John Paul. Many of the great masters of the spiritual tradition over the centuries both practiced it and recommended it, and it was a staple of the asceticism of most of the mainstream religious orders up until the time of the Second Vatican Council. 

A second observation is that “taking the discipline” should never be confused with a wanton display of masochism. “Da Vinci Code” fantasies about vicious self-flagellation should be set aside. 

In imitation of Christ 

But what precisely is the point of this unusual practice? First, it is a means of imitating Christ by participating in his suffering. The goal of the spiritual quest is to allow Jesus to live his life in us fully. St. Paul said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” This means that we must strive to conform ourselves to Jesus’ humility, his compassion, his joyful prayer, his identification with sinners, his teaching, his manner of thinking and feeling and his vicarious suffering. By taking upon himself unmerited suffering, Jesus atoned for the sins of the world. We can enter, however imperfectly, into this dynamic by accepting — for our own sins or those of others — some physical or psychological discomfort. Thus St. Dominic recommended that one pray with one’s arms outstretched for a long period in the attitude of the crucified Lord, St. Benedict urged his monks to fast frequently and St. Anthony endured myriad hardships in the solitude of his desert hermitage. 

Again, this isn’t masochism but spiritual participation, an attempt, as St. Paul put it, “to make up in our own bodies what is still lacking in the suffering of Christ.” A corollary to this principle is what theologian Charles Williams called “co-inherence,” the idea that we are all, at the deepest metaphysical level, connected to one another. Because we are so inextricably bound together, we can bear each other's burdens, one person offering his suffering on behalf of someone else. 

Taming desires of flesh 

A second spiritual reason for Pope John Paul’s practice is the legitimate disciplining of the body. Catholics are not dualists or Puritans. We don’t think that the flesh is, in itself, sinful or problematic. However, we know that the desires of the body have become, through the fall, disordered. We experience the fact that they are no longer consistently subordinated to reason and that, consequently, they can appear in exaggerated form or assert themselves disproportionately. 

Thomas Merton commented that the needs of the body — food, drink, sleep and sex — are like insistent children that demand to have their way. Just as children have to be disciplined lest they come to dominate the household, so the desires of the flesh have to be curtailed lest they come to monopolize all of one’s energies. Merton said that we fast from time to time precisely so as to allow the deeper spiritual hungers to surface and be satisfied. The use of the discipline is an extreme instance of this practice. It is a vivid reminder to oneself that the pleasure of the body is not one’s determining and ultimate good. 

For our spiritual health 

I realize that some readers might still be balking at this point, wondering whether this particular discipline seems rather over the top. But stop and consider for a moment the activities that go on every day in the typical workout center. People labor away on stationary bikes, elliptical machines and treadmills; they sweat their way through pull-ups, pushups and deadlifts. In all sorts of ways, they discipline their bodies so as to overcome the natural tendency toward laziness and self-indulgence. More to it, these same people most likely deny themselves all sorts of pleasurable foods, resisting cravings. 

And all of this punishment is in service of a healthier body. Why can’t certain forms of corporal discipline be in service of the far more important health of the mind and spirit? 

Father Robert Barron, founder of WordOnFire.org is the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at Mundelein Seminary.

In This Issue (sidebar)

Learn the history of self-mortification, and why the penitential practice is still relevant in today’s hedonistic society. Pages 14-15