Self mortification... what do you think?

I’ve been reading a book on the life of St Gerald Majella, a very interesting and major saint. Among his many saintly attributes is the practice of self disipline, or self mortification, sometimes or often times taken to extremes.

It was done (and probably still is done) by many orders of priests or brothers.

What may seem like fanacism or insanity to us, is of course quite ordinary and normal to God.

The point to which Brother Gerald and probably many other similar saints would be appalling to many who are not familiar with this practice. It has been the subject of much ridicule by the popular media, and even to many devout Catholics may seem to be excessive or radical.

I must say that St. Gerald is by far one of the holiest and exceptional saints that I have ever read or head about. It is said that he not only never committed a mortal sin, but he quite possibly may have never even committed a venial sin.

The many miracles and extraordinary gifts that he posessed is quite incredible. Not only is his name associated with literally hundreds of miracles, but he exhibited gifts that far surpassed any mystic.

By todays standards he would have been considered the ultimate nerd or wimp, but by any measure of sainthood he would be among the highest. In his childhood he was literally the playmate of the infant Jesus. Later on, theologians would have considered him Christ’s friend and confidante. He had knowledge about the Holy Trinity that some would say could only come from Our Lord Himself, even though he never
studied theology.

Part of his Redemptorist routine was to have daily “discplines” with “discipline to blood” every 8th day. During Lent it would be even worse. On several occasions he begged other to flog him until he was bleeding from all sides.

A modern day doctor would say he was a completely crazy fool. But he was voluntarily a fool for God.

He ate but very little food, and what little he ate he seasoned with bitter herbs. Other clergy found his food to be totally inedible. He would go for days with almost nothing but a little bread or water, and some days he would skip that as well.

To say he was more of the next world than of this one would have been more true than not. Among his other gifts/wonders, he would elevate to about 3 feet while praying, on a couple of occasion he went up into the air about 3/4 of a mile.

Like Padre Pio, he could bi-locate, he could become invisible when he did not want to be disturbed, he would instantly know what his superiors wanted even if they were miles away. His superior could summon him merely by asking for him even though he could be in another town.

He slept on a bed of stones and thorns. His superiors had to order him to sleep on a normal bed. St Gerald took loving God to the utmost extreme, there was nothing too hard or too harse that he would not endure. On Good Friodays, he would displine himself with metal spikes.

He raised the dead on many occasions, he healed the sick or dying, he could read folks souls and state of sin as Padre Pio could, he could see into Heaven, Purgatory or Hell. He could tell where and when folks entered into each. (like Santa, he knew when folks were naughty or nice) He knew when folks had made a good confession or not and he could list what sins folks left out even if they themselves forgot it.

In feeding the poor he duplicated Christ’s feat of multplying food many times over. Small amounts if food would last indefinitely, shelves would replenish themselves. Small loaves of bread would magically appear from nowhere.

On a couple of occasions he was almost beaten to death, but instead of crying for help, he invited more suffering. One assailant finally realized that he was about to kill a saint, and put Gerald back onto his horse and accompanied him home. There Brother Gerald merely said he had fallen from his animal.

I believe there are still some orders who advocate self disciple. What do you think of this and could you see yourself ever doing such things ???

I find it funny that we tatoo ourselves, pierce all sorts of body parts, force our big feet into small pointy-toed shoes, rip out the hair on our bodies with hot wax, surgically cut our flesh and rip fatty parts out while sewing it up tight, but find self-mortification in order to grow closer to God excessive. :wink:

I would say that you can mortify your senses and become a saint, without drawing blood. :thumbsup: There are saints that did not use the discipline, St. Therese would be one of them.

I believe, and I could be wrong, the St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila both moved from using the discipline to not using it. :slight_smile:

It’s about turning our will into God’s will, not how severe we can live.:smiley:


Not to mention punishing our bodies in other ways - bizarrely restrictive diets that would rival Majella’s, throwing up food after eating, and strenuous exercise - and all in the name of vanity!

well does that mean that hypothetically, St. Gerald could beat up and whip his neighbors if he wanted to since the Lord said to love your neighbor as yourself? I mean no offense to St. Gerald by this post.

My own opinion is that our bodies are Temples Of The Holy Spirit. Doing any kind of lasting damage to this temple is not Holy. I do fast and abstain, but under my Physician’s watchful care. I would do the same for any other planned mortification. (I have nothing planned. Quite happy to fast and abstain.)

Question related to this thread:

How come it seems that so often when you read the life of a saint, the saint performs excessive mortifications while the spiritual advisor counsels against it? In which case, how much do these spiritual advisors actually know? How many of these spiritual advisors who counsel moderation become saints themselves? Should perhaps these spiritual advisors follow the examples of the more extreme saints?

~~ the phoenix

At least a few off the top of my head - St Margaret Mary’s adviser (Claude de la Colombiere) is either a blessed or a Saint, St John of the Cross WAS a spiritual advisor to St Teresa of Avila and her nuns (interesting that they jointly decided to tone down the mortification) - St Francis de Sales advised St Jane de Chantal, St Francis of Assisi did the same for Sts Clare and Agnes, as did St Vincent de Paul for St Louise de Marillac.

Point being few to none of the saints disobeyed - and one of the heroic virtues many of them share is great obedience at all times.

Dear LilyM,

Thank you for your answer. It’s comforting to know that both those seeking a hard life of penance and those cautioning to tone it down can be on the right track, and that obedience to the Will of God is the common factor.

I had always thought the penance-driven saints to be portrayed as so heroic, and had wondered how their spiritual advisors who were supposed to be experts could hold a different or at times even opposite view.

For some reason, it’s the lives of the more extreme saints that I tend to remember. :o

~~ the phoenix

. . . and get up at 4:30 a.m. in every weather, summer and winter, to run 4 miles breathing in polluted air, pounding our feet and giving ourselves shin splints in order to be “fit.” Diet until we risk malnutrition.

But fasting is considered unnecessary, and getting up at 4:30 to pray is fanatical. :rolleyes:

I personally have a problem with mortification of the flesh as a religious exercise. At what point is the self-inflicted pain more of a concentration on the ‘flesh’ rather than a denial of the ‘flesh’? How much pride could enter - 'I’m so holy, I deny myself etc etc". I find this to be very slippery ground, hard to keep my feet on the path to the Lord.

I saw part of a show on TV about people into Extreme Piercings, who inflict huge amounts of pain on themselves. They report it to be a very religious experience as they move beyond the pain and into a ‘higher’ state of conciousness, so much pain, that they ‘leave their bodies’ behind and enter the spiritual realm. Is this what St. Gerard did?

I believe that pain and suffering, both physical and emotional, will come to us in the course of our lives without our having to give ourselves more. How we deal with this pain is a measure of how much we are Christ-centered and how much we are self-centered.

I posed a question in my prayer group concerning one aspect of St Gerard’s devotion - mainly his meals. I really really like fresh cherries but they are a luxury item that costs more than steak. If I indulge myself with cherries (or chocolate, etc), am I concentrating on the ‘flesh’, spending money on myself that could have been given to help others? But, Jesus told us that he came that we might have ‘life in the full’. He also enjoyed himself at parties (such as the Wedding at Cana) so we an infer that enjoying oneself is not sinful, yet some of our greatest saints denied themselves any enjoyment at all, even to the point of eating bitter herbs with every meal to make the food unpalatable.

Any answers, guidance?

Certainly there is a danger of pride and probably other spiritual (and psychological) harms if it is pursued in the wrong way - which is precisely why it should always be done under the guidance of an experienced spiritual director who will look out for signs of such.

Any answers, guidance?

I don’t think it’s always necessary. Thomas Aquinas, for example, is reputed to have been a large fellow, so obviously enjoyed his food. It’s one path to sanctity and detachment from selfishness, whereas clearly St Thomas’ was in his celibacy as a religious, as well as his employment of his intellectual gifts in the service of his God.

I think the main idea of self-mortification, rather than seeking a mystical experience of God through the pain, is to learn not to be dependent or attached to physical comfort and to toughen up the spirit to not give up in the face of difficulty or hardship.

St Jose Maria Escriva described mortification as ‘prayer of the senses’. On one hand it is simply a denial of one’s self in favor of offering one’s pleasure to glorify God instead, hence it becomes a prayer. The other end is to keep your senses indifferent to worldly pleasures and in the process avoid being a slave to pleasure of the senses. Hence one becomes less prone to commit sins because his choices are not guided with what is pleasurable to the senses or not but what is pleasing to God.
Here’s a link to another (short) thread, which has some wise posts in it, basically saying “listen to your spiritual director”

Rather than pride, it seems to me the driving force behind St. Gerald extreme austere mortifications, fasting and more bizarre behavior, is love of God. He saw pain and suffering as a way to share in the sufferings of Our Savior. He offered up all his hardships in union with Christ as a sacrifice for the expiation of sins and for the benefit of the poor.

He said “it is hard to focus on God when one is well fed”.

He often gave what little food was alloted to him to the poor. He spent many hours and often entire evenings in prayerful adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. He probably slept less than a couple hours per day.

The more I read about him the more impressed I am with him. His reputaion was legendary. literally thousands of miracles are attributable to him. His presence commanded crowds as if Jesus Himself were holding court. Although he tried not to draw attention to himself, every where he went folks would annouce “the saint, the saint is here”.

Even long after his death, many other miracles were accomplished by seeking his intercession, conversions, healings, childern and adults being saved from near fatal illnesses, children who were declared dead were restored to life. It was often seen as God showing his approval and gratitude for this great saint having displayed such great love and devotion to Jesus, the Holy Trinty and to our Blessed Mother.

Some of his contemporaries considered him one of the greatest saints behind only the holy Apostles and St Paul. He spent his entire life devoted to the phase “the will of God”. He considered the poor “the visible presence of Jesus Christ” and he considered the Blessed Sacrament " the invisible presence of Jesus Christ".

His great joys in life were helping the poor, obeying his superiors in whatever work or assignment, suffering for Christ, art depicting Christ or Mary, and once in a while admiring the great beauty of nature revealing God’s handiwork.

He even delayed his own death (by a month) when commanded by his superior. He was literally at the point of death when his superior ordered him not to die. He recovered fully and instantly, but a month later died as he predicted, and in the manner that he predicted.

Most believe Jesus also enjoyed good food and wine. I’m not into wine, but I do like a good meal.

My problem is I probably have too many good meals. We are taught to eat 3 square meals a day, certain amounts for each of the food groups.

What we do not do is fasting or voluntary abstinence. I think the general consensus in Chruch teaching is that fasting is good for the soul. For most of America, that can be extended to say fasting would be good for their waist line as well.

Even Jay Leno’s standard joke is that most of America is just too darned fat.

I used to try to fast once or twice a week, that didn’t last too long (I probably got too hungry and ate more before or afterwards). I now try to eat less per meal, that seems to work a bit better. I’m not overweight but I have developed a larger waist line and I’m not nearly as thin as I used to be.

Folks who used to have to fast for all 40 days of lent really had it tough. We only have to do 2 days now, which by comparison is not much.

Very good point.

Did others actually fulfill his wishes and flog him? It seems like while it might bring him closer to Christ, it sounds spiritually dangerous to the person who would be flogging him.

Good sense of humor! I could not help laugh when I first read this, and I am still laughing now! :rotfl:

Since our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, I don’t think we should mortify the temple on purpose. :slight_smile:

I believe a better form of mortification is to pick up our cross, dying to self and live in Christ. Every time we overcome a weakness, a flaw, or a sin, every time we die to our old self, striving for holiness, it is a kind of mortification.

People’s concept from centuries ago are obiously different from today. And the old concept of mortification has to be modified, if not deserted.:wink:

Yes on at least 2 occasions another person did the flogging. They were very uncomfortable doing so, especially when he kept asking for more than they thought he could bear.

By our standards most anyone would have said he was a real weird nutcase but in retrospect most consider him a true prodigy and genius in the love of God.

It’s interesting that the Redemptorist director upon hearing that Gerald was formally beatified or canonized, the director ordered all in the society to ‘discipline’ themselves in celebration. Now that’s one party that I can’t relate to.

One item that is lost or at least not mentioned so far in this discussion is the fact that self mortification is probably seen as a means to divert our focus on comforts, sexuality and other temptations.

When you are in pain, especially severe pain, the last thing on your mind is sexuality or pleasure. Given the number of threads in this site on this topic, we all know it is a huge problem in modern society, and was probably almost as big a problem throughout the ages.

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