Monday, April 14, 2014

Mortification- Then and Now

A few nights ago, I saw a picture that was purported to be of a woman who had her mouth and one eye sewn shut by Saudi Arabians because proclaimed Jesus was her savior. The first thought many Christians had was of her bravery, to face such pain out of loyalty to God. Yet, later in the evening, I found out that the story was only a fraud. The picture was a form of "performance art," and a Japanese woman had volunteered for this treatment. She chose it- for art. (I've placed the link to this picture very low on the page. If you think you might be triggered by looking at this, don't worry. Just don't click the bottom link.)

Let's look around and see what people are doing in the world today. As of this moment, if I were to go to a therapist and tell him that I had a corset sewn into my skin for pleasure, that would be considered healthy and okay. As long as I did not have a problem with that, it would not considered mentally ill. I could talk to that same therapist about choosing genital mutilation for myself and he would not blink an eye. I could tell that same therapist that I pierced or slit my tongue, that I or that I walked my boyfriend around with a leash and collar like a dog, and that would be fine too. If I am comfortable and happy and expressing myself in the way I want, that's fine.

The focus in therapy, especially in "pop psychology," tends to be on using only "positive" ways of speaking to and treating ourselves. We are to have "unconditional positive regard" for anything we feel like doing, even in the above examples.

Positive approaches are good but they are not the only approaches that are good.  Practices of discerning judgment are not necessarily unhealthy.

What is the goal of bodily mortification today? Some people want to endure pain because they genuinely like it. Others think it it cool to endure the pain and show off their bravery to others. Some find the practice to be a way to be creative and express themselves. In either case, the motives are purely self-gratifying.

The old way of self mortification was the opposite- It was to help people move beyond the self, into a closer relationship with God, and a life of greater service to others. When bodily mortification for the sake of penance is done today, this is often considered "sick" by psychologists. However, if someone comes into their office with a peeing fetish, (by modern diagnostic manual standards) that is not considered sick.

Furthermore, if I were to intentionally cause discomfort through self-denial for the purpose of becoming stronger to withstand sin, such as Catholics do during Lent, that would be also be considered ill to many modern therapists. For certain mental health professionals, it's considered sick to judge yourself, to feel guilt, to feel fear of any kind. While not all therapists take such an extreme view, the basic structure of this perspective permeates most mainstream therapy. 

Today's Catholics practice penance, such as fasting or giving up something we enjoy, especially during the season of Lent. Most people never practice severe bodily mortification, as was done in the middle ages, because the point of penance is not simply to suffer and hurt. The point is to help us turn our hearts away from the many harmful consolations of the world and towards the loving arms of God instead. It's a form of re-training. The point of mortification is not to suffer for suffering's sake. Today, mortification most often takes the form of fasting and giving up things we enjoy for a certain period of time. It's not what it used to be.

People often think back to medieval practices of penance and bodily mortification and contemplate how mentally disturbed they seem to us now.  I'm talking about the kinds of things people used to do (and some still do, in a few very rare orders now,) like sleeping on hard floors or self-flagellation. Many people don't understand the reason people did these things. It is assumed they must have hatred towards their bodies or that they believed that the body was bad. However, that was not the true reason in many cases. In order to draw closer to God, people practiced self-denial. Today, as well as then, the goal of self-denial is to cultivate gratitude and love for God regardless of pain or pleasure, regardless of whether we get what we want or not.

Another goal in self-denial is to imitate Jesus in offering sacrifice, to experience union with him through "suffering with," which is the heart of compassion for our dear friend, Jesus. Catholics don't see the body as bad. The body is good but we would rather be controlled by our choices than our automatic bodily passions towards things. The practice of self-denial can bring unity and harmony to body and soul, not separation.

Many people today want to separate the body from the soul. This is hatred of the body on a whole new level. "Feminism" has been becoming more and more defined as celebrating all that is not motherhood. We want to deny that our biological bodies have anything at all to do with our "gender," or the societal concept of who men and women are. Many believe it is possible to be born in the wrong body- female instead of male, for example. Yet, the same people who say God puts the wrong people in the wrong bodies will say that God does not make mistakes and that He created gays, so being gay must be the way they were intended to be.

I include no moral perspective in the above comments about bodies and gender. I offer only  logic for reflection. My hope is that whether people agree with what I'm saying or not, people will see a different perspective and know what that perspective involves. It's so odd to live in a world where everything is okay, as long as you are doing it for selfish reasons, but to sacrifice for others is considered ill.

To learn more about the Catholic perspective on suffering, take a look at this really thorough article:

Do not follow this link if you might be triggered by looking at a picture of a girl with her mouth and one eye sewn shut. (The picture is midway down the page.)

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