Disciplines, hair shirts, cilices – all things of the past? Perhaps not.
Most people are afraid to talk about the subject of corporal mortification. Some Catholics even denounce it. Thus, the few that practice it risk being ostracized. But why are our modern sensibilities so offended? Perhaps it is because we have been raised in a society that encourages instant gratification and pleasure-seeking above all else.
Corporal mortification is not intended to be an outlet of self-hatred or masochism. Its purpose is to draw us closer to God. Christ suffered on the Cross. The Christian way is the way of the Cross. We must suffer and sacrifice in order to be closer to God.
This is supported by Scripture.
“Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” – 1 Peter 4:1-2 (NASB)
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” – Colossians 1:24 (NASB)
“..but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” – 1 Corinthians 9:27 (NASB)
Countless saints have practiced corporal mortification, including: St. Kateri Tekakwitha, St. Thomas More (my patron saint!), St. Thérèse, St. Dominic, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Josemaría Escrivá, and St. Catherine of Siena.
Blessed Pope John Paul II also practiced corporal mortification. Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the postulator for Pope John Paul II’s canonization cause, recorded in his book, Why He Is a Saint, that Pope John Paul II would regularly whip himself with a belt that he kept in his closet.
I, too, have practiced corporal mortification.
When I was a Protestant, I suffered from apathy. I had a general belief in God, and I had a healthy fear of Him, but I was certainly not devout. Occasionally, though, I would get consumed with guilt. I can not really explain it. Maybe it was the Holy Spirit pushing me towards a deeper faith. Anyway, every once in a while, starting in about eighth- or ninth-grade, I would take a belt and whip my legs with it a few times.
It appears crazy, I know. I am not really sure what drove me to it. I had no real understanding of penance at the time, but I suppose that I saw it as my way of “apologizing” to God for serious sins. Regardless of what inspired me, I can reveal to you that, in those moments, I felt very close to God.
And that is why I always hesitate to condemn corporal mortification. I know firsthand that it can be very beneficial. I realize that, if not for those moments, I might have abandoned God completely.
In short, I would not encourage anyone to adopt these practices. That is not my goal. I only desire everyone to understand them. All I can recommend is that a person inclined towards such practices should not necessarily run from them, but should consult a priest or spiritual advisor before taking action.