Mar 112007

Catholic World News has an interesting comment on modern-day mortification of the flesh.

Senator Paola Binetti, who is also a medical doctor, spoke out after another legislator, the homosexual activist Franco Grillini, made a reference to “sadomasochistic practices” of Opus Dei— specifically mentioning the cilice, a chain that is worn around the thigh, chafing and pricking the user’s skin.

Explaining why celibate members of Opus Dei wear the cilice for a few hours each day, Dr, Binetti told the Italian television audience that the practice is a small mortification, helping members to appreciate the value of sacrifice. “The cilice,” the lawmaker said, “causes us to reflect on the fatigue of daily life, such as the sacrifice of the mother who wakes during the night because her child is crying.”

I finally found a book with a thorough account of the flagellant movements of the 13th and 14th centuries, and the papal condemnation in 1349: Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (Pimlico, 2004).

The flagellants were a populist movement who, apart from flogging themselves around churches, also advocated attacking the clergy and nobility, and claimed to be able to perform miracles. Their leaders, lay worshipers called Master or Father, took confession and offered absolution. The people treated them like living saints.

This was too threatening for the powers that be. Pope Clement VI had once authorized mass public flagellations in Avignon, but a year later in 1349 he flip-flopped and issued a papal bull banning flagellation. Religious and secular authorities colluded and effectively stamped out the movement with excommunication and executions, though it flared up every now and then until the 1480s.

The irony is that the Church maintained flagellation as an ascetic and monastic practice (not a sacrament as the flagellants had it) after the papal bull. Some former flagellants repented by being flogged by priests in St. Peter’s in Rome.

Opeus Dei still practices corporal mortification to this day, though it’s generally mild stuff like taking a cold shower, fasting, remaining silent for certain periods. This is practiced by numeraries (celibate lay worshipers).

It looks to me like the issue was about control. Flagellants were a populist movement, mainly comprised of peasants and artisans, who experienced their self-inflicted pain as an imitation of Christ and a personal experience of contact with the divine. This was in contrast to the Church’s monopoly on religious experience. If you want to touch God, you couldn’t do it on your own, or see someone else do it. It had to be sanctioned by the Church.

Perhaps that this is what drove flagellation and mortification out of religious life for the laity, and made it reappear in the low culture of brothels and broadsheets. A few centuries later, we have the modern BDSM culture in Western civilization.

Incidentally, I can’t help drawing comparisons between the flagellants and the Space Monkeys of Project Mayhem in Fight Club: salvation through self-inflicted violence, growing into a paramilitary organization, plus a populist critique of elites and an apocalyptic mentality.

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