It has recently come to the fore that John Paul II possibly whipped himself every night with a belt that hung in his closet. The new book, “Why He is a Saint: The True Story of John Paul II,” hangs its claims on the “witness” of 114 people who all claim they heard the whipping from outside of the room at different times. This story has already received wide attention. And of course the character Silas in “The Da Vinci Code” has brought penance to the level of hysteria. I bring it up now because as we begin Lent, it is important to once again examine the rationale for self-mortification. Are there any good reasons, to put it starkly, to whip oneself, and what might they be?
First, some objections. I won’t offer the standard objections offered by those with no background in Christian asceticism. But good objections can be offered along this line by a reader of Andrew Sullivan. Please forgive the lengthy quotation:
Let’s bracket for a moment whether or not this can be worked out within a revealed theology. The question is whether it can be worked out in a natural theology and, more specifically, in a natural morality such as the the “new natural law”, which purports to show that practical reason is capable of arriving at certain conclusions about human behavior irrespective of religious beliefs.
As you know in the NNL, as promulgated by, for example, Germain Grisez, John Finnis, and Robert George, there are “basic goods” that cannot be attacked for the sake of other goods, among those basic goods we find “life”–and it would seem that whipping oneself is tantamount to attacking one’s own life, which includes, as I understand it, one’s bodily integrity. But even if that could be accommodated, there is a more pressing problem: a constant theme in NNL is that one cannot use one’s own body as a mere instrument in order to create a subjective experience in a way that “disintegrates” the unity of body and self.
It seems to me, unless I’m missing something, that something has to give: either the NNL is wrong, or JPII (along with many in our pantheon of saints) committed a moral crime. I just wonder, if I’ve represented the NNL’s position accurately, which horn of this dilemma they’ll choose. Or, they’ll just ignore this problem completely.
We must take this objection seriously. On a basic human level, without the aid of divine revelation, it can be known that the body cannot be used instrumentally as a means to the end of the soul. Since the body and soul are one, and since whipping oneself attacks the life of the body, whipping oneself constitutes an attack of one’s own integrity, thus violating a basic human good. A good spiritual end cannot justify an evil physical means to that end.
Interestingly, this argument comes close to the passionate discussions going on in American Catholicism about torture. What exactly constitutes torture, and whether it can be used as a means to an end are the key questions. So, is this case similar? Was John Paul II torturing his body in order to help his spirit? The ends do not justify the means, so was he thereby sinning?
First, we can say that this case is different since torture seeks to coerce the will, as the Catechism defines it, while John Paul was whipping himself voluntarily. But still, wasn’t he performing an evil?
Now we get to the fine points of whipping. I don’t know what to say about those saints who nailed themselves to crosses or whipped themselves until they bled. So I’m just going to leave them out of it. But what about John Paul II, who whipped himself and didn’t bleed? This was a very common practice among Jesuits up until the mid-60’s. Ignatius even prescribed it in the Spiritual Exercises. I will reproduce his suggestions in their entirety:
Tenth Addition. The tenth Addition is penance. This is divided into interior and exterior. The interior is to grieve for one’s sins, with a firm purpose of not committing them nor any others. The exterior, or fruit of the first, is chastisement for the sins committed, and is chiefly taken in three ways.
First Way. The first is as to eating. That is to say, when we leave off the superfluous, it is not penance, but temperance. It is penance when we leave off from the suitable; and the more and more, the greater and better — provided that the person does not injure himself, and that no notable illness follows.
Second Way. The second, as to the manner of sleeping. Here too it is not penance to leave off the superfluous of delicate or soft things, but it is penance when one leaves off from the suitable in the manner: and the more and more, the better — provided that the person does not injure himself and no notable illness follows. Besides, let not anything of the suitable sleep be left off, unless in order to come to the mean, if one has a bad habit of sleeping too much.
Third Way. The third, to chastise the flesh, that is, giving it sensible pain, which is given by wearing haircloth or cords or iron chains next to the flesh, by scourging or wounding oneself, and by other kinds of austerity.
Note. What appears most suitable and most secure with regard to penance is that the pain should be sensible in the flesh and not enter within the bones, so that it give pain and not illness. For this it appears to be more suitable to scourge oneself with thin cords, which give pain exteriorly, rather than in another way which would cause notable illness within.
First Note. The first Note is that the exterior penances are done chiefly for three ends: First, as satisfaction for the sins committed; Second, to conquer oneself — that is, to make sensuality obey reason and all inferior parts be more subject to the superior; Third, to seek and find some grace or gift which the person wants and desires; as, for instance, if he desires to have interior contrition for his sins, or to weep much over them, or over the pains and sufferings which Christ our Lord suffered in His Passion, or to settle some doubt in which the person finds himself.
Notice how Ignatius, a good student of Aquinas, avoids body-soul dualism. It is hard for moderns to understand penance, hungover as they are with Cartesian duality. But Ignatius is careful not to speak of chastising the “body” for the sake of the “soul.” Instead, there is “interior” and “exterior” penance. But these are both “physical.” Or, better, these are both “personal” penance — penance of the person, not of the body or the soul. Penance of an “exterior” type, on the exterior body (flesh, skin) rather than the interior self (emotions, such as “grief”), includes fasting, sleeping in some discomfort, and self-wounding. Notice that John Paul did two of these, allegedly. Ignatius is clear: These are to be done without causing injury to the self. And notice that Ignatius does not say that the person is not to injure his body. No, the person is not to injure himself.
In other words, to make my point without belaboring it, the person, as John Paul II said over and over again, is his own body. I am my body. My body is me. There is no dualism. When one does penance, as Ignatius is clear about, one chastises or corrects, not one’s body, but one’s self, one’s person. There is no dis-integration. The whole self is chastised.
If one understands John Paul’s theology and philosophy clearly, then his emphasis on this point is important. Borrowing from Gabriel Marcel, John Paul was clear that there can be no separation between the person and the body.
So the new question is, can non-coercive, non-injury causing pain of a small nature be inflicted on the person in order to cause a certain disposition of the self that is more in tune to the sufferings of Christ?
I don’t think it’s wrong. It should still be done carefully and in consultation with a spiritual director. My goal here is not to justify the act for everyone, but to allow it for some who may be called to a mystical form of penance. For the rest of us, accepting the trials of our daily lives is probably enough. But we have all at one time or another wanted to help dispose ourselves for a task at hand, or for a situation. We would deprive ourselves of things for the sake of making our selves more disposed. I think that this is what self-flagellation does.
To conclude: penance is of the person, not the body. This is because there is no such thing as doing “spiritual” penance that is also not “bodily.” Sitting in meditation for long periods of time? That is mortifying the brain, which is physical. Praying the rosary all day? That is mortifying the mouth, the tongue, the fingers, etc. All penance is of the whole self, the person. As long as the act itself follows Ignatius’ guidelines of doing no physical harm of a lasting nature, I see nothing wrong with disposing ourselves better to reflect on the mysteries of Christ’s Passion.
Have a good Lent. And I always recommend a spiritual director.