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March 27, 2008
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faith article
Christian Asceticism: Breaking Consumerism's Destructive Hold, by Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek
“Consider penance. It is a powerful means of transformation because it is an exercise of the divine love which has been bestowed on every Christian reborn into the death and resurrection of Jesus… Through self-denial the Christian turns away from the inessential desires of his will and his flesh, being content with God's will for his life.” [Houston Catholic Worker]

My Tallahassee Purgatory, by Brian Pessaro
Will I be such a different person when God is done with me that I’ll look upon Tallahassee with new eyes, and laugh at the fool I was for ever wanting to leave?

The Deadliest Sin, by Brian Pessaro
There was a time when I looked upon certain types of Catholics with disdain. But I've since learned that the future of the Church doesn't depend on my being its self-appointed bouncer.

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We consider it normal to punish ourselves to attain physical perfection. So why is it considered odd to mortify our bodies for the sake of spiritual perfection?

The light on my alarm clock says 5:30 a.m. I rub my eyes with disbelief that I’m up at such a godforsaken hour. I stand in front of my dresser for what seems like eternity as I struggle against my desire to crawl back under the covers. In the end, I conquer… sort of.

In the darkness of our bedroom from beneath the comforter comes the voice of my half-asleep wife, “Don’t even think about resetting your alarm. Go run.” I groan and head to the bathroom to get changed. I pull on my sweatpants and sweatshirt and don my scarf, gloves, and wool cap. It’s about 35 degrees on this cold December morning. Apparently, Tallahassee never got the memo that it’s in Florida. Downstairs in the living room, I stretch my aching muscles. When I was younger, they would ache after my workout. Now they ache before I begin, as if they’re anticipating the punishment I’m about to inflict on them.

I make the sign of the cross and whisper a prayer. 'Lord Jesus Christ, I offer up to you this cold shower in penance for my sins.'
The first mile of my run is always the slowest, but by the second I’m warming up and finding my groove. On the third mile I pass by the lake and shiver at the thought of being in water that cold. By the fourth mile I’ve increased my stride, and my kneecaps feel like they’re about to explode. I see the final part of my route up ahead, a long hill. I feel tempted to walk, but I resist the urge and sprint with the last bit of energy I have. At the top, I slow to a trot and then to a walk and catch my breath. Despite the frosty weather, my back is drenched in sweat. As I climb the steps to my front porch, I give myself a pat on the back for working through the pain.

I’m sure many people, even non-joggers, could relate to what I’ve just described. When it comes to physical exercise, there is nothing particularly shocking about the old adage of no pain, no gain. What I do next though probably would shock a lot of people, or at a minimum, strike them as odd.

Back upstairs in the bathroom, I stand naked outside the shower door. Before entering, I make the sign of the cross and whisper a prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, I offer up to you this cold shower in penance for my sins. I also offer it up as a prayer for…” I state the name of the person and intention for which I am praying, and then I open the door and step into the shower.

The fact that this practice shocks people says something about our priorities.
Because I’m still hot with sweat, the initial burst of water is a shock, but I get used to it. The water isn’t so much cold as it is cool. I have it at about 70 percent cold. After I finish washing, I put my hand on the handle bar that controls the temperature. I take a deep breath and crank it the rest of the way to 100 percent cold. There’s about a two second gap where the last of the warmer water clears out of the pipes, and then it hits me. I gasp as the water stings my flesh like a hundred ice cold needles. This final part of my ritual doesn’t last long. I say four prayers, an Our Father, a Hail Mary, a Glory Be, and finally the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.

Tempting though it is to rush through the words and be done with it, I force myself to say them at a normal pace. “St. Michael the Archangel defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray. And do thou O prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.” At the end of the prayer, I turn off the water and dry off to get ready for work.

Corporal mortification received a lot of press recently thanks to The Da Vinci Code. In the weeks leading up to the film’s release, there was a cornucopia of news stories about Opus Dei, and in almost every one of them, the topic would eventually turn to corporal mortification. Inevitably the story would include a picture or a demonstration of the cilice, a spiked metal chain worn by the celibate members of Opus Dei around their upper thigh for two hours a day, and/or the “discipline,” a cordlike whip used once a week against the back or buttocks while reciting a brief prayer. It became so commonplace that I started referring to that part of the report as the money shot.

When I offer up my suffering from a cold shower, it’s out of love not fear.
Putting aside that The Da Vinci Code’s portrayal of corporal mortification was as inaccurate as it was lurid, the fact that this practice shocks people says something about our priorities. In our society, it’s considered perfectly normal to mortify our bodies so long as the reason is secular and the goal is physical. No one bats an eye at cosmetic plastic surgery, Botox, tattoos, and body piercing. Even physical fitness taken to extremes is looked upon as almost de rigeur. I’m all for staying in shape, but when I see joggers here in Florida sweating in 95 degree heat during their run at lunch hour, I have to wonder: Are you trying to have a stroke?

None of these examples are controversial. Titillating perhaps, but not controversial. But if you perform corporal mortification for religious reasons, to achieve some spiritual good, you’re an oddball. To borrow an analogy from Boston College professor Peter Kreeft and give it a twist, if I were to announce at a cocktail party that I just got my tongue pierced, I would be surrounded by an eager crowd of spectators. But if I were to announce that each morning before work I take a cold shower as a religious ritual, I would soon be talking to myself.

So why do I practice corporal mortification? First, I do it to identify with the sufferings of Christ. By his Passion, Jesus Christ redeemed the world for all eternity. But because he opened himself to all human suffering, including mine, I can share in his redemptive work. That is why I can say with St. Paul that “…in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col. 1:24).

The second reason is to cultivate virtue. Most of us who grew up Catholic are familiar with the phrase “Offer it up.” As a child I was taught that in some mysterious way my suffering could be offered up to God as a prayer, and he would use it to help someone else. What I didn’t realize was that he would also use my suffering to transform me.

This reality became clearer to me when I became a father. Recently, my daughter broke one of my neighbor’s lawn ornaments. Although she’s only 3-1/2, there was punishment, or if you like, penance—she lost her book and story privileges for a week. When I tucked her in the first night, she wailed because story time is her favorite activity. But the next night, she looked at me and said, “No books or story tonight Daddy. I’ll listen next time.” In her own innocent way, she accepted her suffering and offered it back to me as a gift, and that gift transformed her into a more virtuous person.

 If I, as my children’s earthly father, use penance to build up goodness in them, how much more will our heavenly Father use penance to shape us into the sons and daughters he wants us to be for all eternity? That’s what many people don’t understand about corporal mortification. When I offer up my suffering from a cold shower, it’s out of love not fear. It’s not an attempt to punish myself in order to dodge God’s wrath. It’s my way of asking him to transform me into the son he wants me to be.

My body has gotten used to cold showers. It’s the interior mortifications that I struggle with the most.
The third reason why I practice corporal mortification is to be liberated from evil. Yes my body is sacred, but it’s also a rebel waging a civil war against my soul. Either I learn how to keep my passions and appetites under control, or they will control me. Too often when temptation comes, I find myself echoing the words of St. Paul: “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Rom. 7:15) These conflicts permeate all aspects of my daily life from the serious to the petty.

For example, my boss’s secretary keeps a tin of chocolates on her desk for the staff. On several occasions, I’ve begun my day with the intent that I would fast from sweets for a particular prayer intention. But by three o’clock, I’ am distracted to the point of becoming a chocoholic version of Gollum and Smeagol from Lord of the Rings—“Must have the precious!” Unlike the One Ring though, there’s nothing evil about that piece of chocolate. It won’t do me any good to go on a perilous journey to Pennsylvania and cast the One Chocolate into the fires of Mt. Hershey from whence it came.

That illustrates the fourth reason why I practice corporal mortification—to build perseverance. If I can’t resist something as inconsequential as a piece of chocolate, how am I going to be able to resist real temptation when it comes my way? These little acts of self denial build spiritual endurance in the same way my morning runs build physical endurance.

Finally, I practice corporal mortification to remind myself that this world isn’t heaven. I live a very comfortable suburban life. Other than the occasional illness, pain and suffering are not part of my daily experience. Almost anything I want is at my fingertips—something as simple as a glass of filtered water with ice cubes or something as complex as music downloads from Napster. These are good things, but the danger of having all these creature comforts is that I’ll start to get too attached to this world and its false idols—money, power and lust. I’ll fall into the trap of thinking this is my permanent home, when it’s not. Corporal mortification rouses my senses and reminds me that in regard to this “earthly city,” to use St. Augustine’s term, I am but a sojourner in a strange land.

Think of a husband and father denying himself the pleasure of an extra hour’s sleep for the sake of his wife and children.
As morbidly fascinating as things like cilices, disciplines, and cold showers might be to the uninitiated, the truth is that exterior mortification is a piece of cake compared to interior mortification. To be completely honest, my body has gotten used to cold showers. It’s the interior mortifications that I struggle with the most. Like my need to cultivate the virtue of patience and kill my selfish preoccupation with “my time”, as if there really were such a thing. What makes this type of mortification so difficult is that when the occasions to practice it arise, they usually involve situations over which I have no control. Cold showers may be uncomfortable, but at least I’m the one controlling the temperature. What’s more, they usually arise at moments when I’m at my weakest, like when I’m hitting every single red light on my way home from work after I’ve already had a rough day. Or getting a phone call from someone just as I’m sitting down to finally read that book I’ve been dying to get to. Or having to rock my son at 3 a.m. because he’s gasping and wheezing with croup, and there’s nothing I can do to console him.

So do me a favor if you happen to read or watch The Da Vinci Code. When you get to the scene where Silas is flagellating himself to a bloody pulp at his “luxurious brownstone residence on the Rue La Bruyère,” after committing the mortal sin of murder and planning to go out and do it again, think of this real life scene instead. Think of a husband and father denying himself the pleasure of an extra hour’s sleep in order to exercise and stay healthy for his wife and children. Think of this same man denying himself the pleasure of a warm shower in order to grow in the virtue of self-discipline. The cold water bouncing off his head and shoulders remind him that sin causes pain, and he reflects on the pain he has caused others through his own lack of self-discipline. He carries that thought with him the rest of the day so that later that evening when his family needs him and he is tempted to be selfish with “his time”, he’ll remember the icy pain from that morning shower, and he will put their needs ahead of his own. When you can picture that, only then will you begin to understand corporal mortification.

September 19, 2006

BRIAN PESSARO writes from Tallahassee where he lives with his wife and two children.

© Copyright 2006, Brian Pessaro. All rights reserved.

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03.13.07   troubledgoodangel says:
Reading Brian Pessaro's "I Scourge the Body Electric" has caused me a great deal of consternation. For me, suffering is a subject so holy and profound, that any gobblegygook "Zen-like stream of consciousness" style of writing seems irreverent. I can understand that the meaning of suffering has and continues to elude even the greatest of minds. The article did struck me as having some positive value, yet my conclusion remains that it is one-sided, not exhausting the subject. When it comes to suffering, there is no room for superficiality nor trivialization. Let's do the analysis. Brian postulates that "he practices corporal mortification so that he can share in Christ's redemptive work." He does it through jogging, cold showers, and other "minor" mortifications. This is true, but it is sorely not enough, as I shall explain later! Brian gives four reasons why he engages in certain ascetic practices. First, he says, it hardens the body and it purifies the mind, "and asks God to transform him into the son God wants him to be." It is noble for the sons and daughters to want to be good children, and this is the most profoud insight in the whole article: the Fatherhood of God requires that the sons and daughters mirror Him in all things, and a healthy human instict of fatherhood is just that. The second reason Brian gives is an extension of the first. Our deprivations are for the purpose of "cultivating virtue." I fully endorse this reason: fatherhood requires strength, physical in moral. There is the need to defend the family and nation and the need to instill virtue in children, through discipline. Trying to be more like God certainly serves that purpose. A great caution is here in place, for evil is known to use suffering also! The third reason Brian indulges in self-negation, is "to be liberated from evil." This again is a complementation of the reasons that preceded, if adequate cautions are observed. To be like God is to hate evil (Prv 8:13; 2 Tm 2:19), and to be like God is to be virtuous. The last reason Brian adduces in favor of mortification is that "it builds perseverance." Another valid and important insight indeed, for avoidance of evil demands a strong will to do good, and perseverance is important in this regard. But here comes the inherent difficulty of Brian's analysis: while Brian makes an excellent case for the value of asceticism (which incidentally all major religions practice), he entirely misses the more important subject of suffering as cross - the hallmark of Christianity! And yet, when it comes to human suffering, the meaning of the cross is so crucial, that its omission thereof devalues the article! I am not an apologist of Hans Urs von Balthasar (on that, see my article "A Painless Christianity?," in Studies in Spirituality 16/2006, Brandsma Instituuut, ed. Peeters - Bondgenotenlaan 153 - B-3000 Leuven, Netherlands), but in deference to his amazing intellect, I will say what I mean with his words: "the personified sacrifice, in which at the same time the riddle of suffering, of being despised and rejected, becomes Light, [makes sense only] as a vicarious suffering of the just 'for the many' (Is 52:13 - 53:12). In this Light, the Cross becomes the most important key to the meaning of the apparently meaningless - the innocent suffering" (paraphrased from www. Godspy.com, "Hans Urs von Balthasar, "The Cross, for us"). This is how important the aspect of the cross is for Christians! We suffer for we want to be like Christ, and through Christ, like the Father ... we suffer because we need the Truth! St. Edith Stein, the great mistic of the cross, understood this better than anyone when she said: "la sofferenza e la morte di Cristo continuano nel suo Corpo Mistico e in tutte le sue membra. [...] forse la Provvidenza Divina usa la sofferenza per liberare chi e oggetivamente incatenato" (cf. Waltraud Herbstrith, Edit Stein - Wege zum inneren Stille, Frankfurt 1978). We need this Light that comes to us from innocent suffering, "this light that penetrates the greatest depths of human suffering and dying, [...] this Spirit that casts out evil spirits with Himself" (Balthasar, op. cit.)!

01.24.07   RUDY says:
How 'bout some mortification that actually does somebody else some good in the process, like riding a bike instead of driving the 'V, or would that ruin the spiritual value?

12.16.06   wildermuthn says:
The story I posted was meant to make a point about sacrifices we offer God - that these sacrifices come from living out our Christian calling. In other words - we won't have to go out of our way to find small sacrifices to make to God. If we are truly living out our call, our life will be full of sacrifices. But I still admire the discipline and zeal of all those who seek to give up more and greater things for God. I'm only pointing out that we give things up not for the sake of giving things up, but for the sake of love. Jesus didn't carry the cross for the purpose of suffering. He carried it for the purpose of love, and in doing that, transformed suffering.

12.13.06   BP says:
As the author, I’m happy to see that this essay has been linked to extensively, and that it has spurred conversation. That being said, I feel compelled to offer a clarification in case there has been any misunderstanding. In no way do I believe that by performing corporal mortification I am earning my justification before God. I believe that I am saved by Christ, through grace alone, by a living faith working in love. These “works” are works of God in me, by and through the Holy Spirit. I thought I had made that clear in the essay where I wrote, “It’s my way of asking him to transform me into the son he wants me to be.” God is the one doing the transformation not me. He is the one who operates. My stepping into the cold shower is simply the equivalent of voluntarily laying on the operating table and giving God my consent to operate.That being said, I think some people, particularly Evangelicals, are more influenced by Gnosticism than they realize. I’m referring here to the basic premise of Gnosticism that the spirit is good and matter is bad. In this light, God would never use something as crude as a cold shower to instill holiness. It’s the same skepticism that leads to the entire rejection of a sacramental system. After all, God would never be so crude as to use something like water to regenerate through baptism. He would never be so crude as to actually be bodily present in bread and wine. The problem with this is that we’re not just souls, but body AND souls. Jesus knows this. He could have simply willed back the blind man’s sight, but he chose to use mud. He simply could have willed away the people’s hunger, but he chose to multiply the loaves and the fishes. From a Catholic viewpoint, God uses all of his creation in order to achieve his goal, which is to get us to heaven.Brian Pessaro

12.08.06   wildermuthn says:
While I admire the discipline and restraint of the author, I think there is a real danger lying hidden here. Let me just tell a story to show what I mean.There was once a small town which was built alongside a river. The people used to go and wash themselves in the river every morning. But one day they went out to the river and discovered that it had dried up. A courageous man - Paul - was chosen from among the young, and he was sent upstream to discover why the flow had shut off. After many months of travel, Paul came to the source of the river - a large lake. And to his great surprise, he saw two things next to it - a very large city and a brand new dam. The dam had reduced the river's flow to a trickle!So he entered into the city and found a stranger. The stranger was a kind man, friendly, smiling, and invited Paul to lunch. Paul kept his mouth shut (he was listening carefully), and went to lunch with the stranger. "You see, my young friend," said the stranger, talking while chewing. "Our city has become very rich lately. When I was a boy, we didn't have much money. Everyone used to have to take short showers that were very cold. But now things are different. Now we can take long hot baths, twice a day sometimes.""And you think this is okay?" Paul said, repressing his anger.The stranger smiled in a friendly and confused way, shaking his head. "Well," he said, weighing his words. "I'm not like them. I still take cold showers."Paul felt relieved. The stranger wasn't like the rest of the city. Perhaps this stranger would be an ally in saving Paul's village."And what about the dam? Has anyone talked of taking it down?" Paul asked.The stranger who took cold showers gave a confused look. "What dam?""What do you mean, what dam?" asked Paul, heat gathering in his voice. "The dam that's destroying my village!""What village?"Paul couldn't speak through his anger. When he did, all he could muster was one question."Why do you take cold showers?" he whispered.The kind stranger smiled again. "I like them."

11.13.06   johng says:
Beautiful articleThe imagery in the last paragraph brought me to tears at work! Keep writing!John

10.28.06   lvargasbianchi says:
Thanks for such a clearly written, ordered and properly argumented article. You really don't need to be a practicing catholic (or even a catholic) to get a the common sense standpoint from which corporal mortification gets it sense that you transmit in the paper. I'll email it to several of my friends. This comment comes from Peru!

10.06.06   neutron says:
Great article! I always thought that corporal mortification was kind of eccentric. Hide shirts and all that. Reading The Da Vinci Code didn't help. But you wrote about it in terms that makes me wonder why I'm not doing something like that myself. Thanks for opening my eyes.

10.06.06   BP says:
Wow! I am amazed at the response this essay has generated. And from as far away as Australia to boot.MichaelCharles, I'll think of you the next time I'm feeling lazy and don't want to take my cold shower. I'll offer up my pain for you.Simpleton: What you wrote about Fr. Doyle reminds me of a quote by St. Josemaria Escriva. I'm paraphrasing because I can't remember it exactly. He said, "St. Francis threw himself in a thorn bush. St. Bernard of Clairvaux used to jump in an icy pond. You. What have you done?"JanetK: Keep the faith down there. Reading the Epistle of Jude helps me to keep going when things get depressing.Brian

10.06.06   MichaelCharles says:
Hi Brian. Thanks for such a wonderful inspirational article. I am a 39 year old father of 3 beautiful girls and have spinal damage on every level. Suffering in acute pain 24/7 and being on morphine the last 2 years, I have begun my journey to come off all medication, (not to be a hero), but to learn to love my pain. Three days ago my medication was changed and am now on the way to coming off. I don't believe I came across your article by coincidence, but by GODINCIDENCE! Keep up your Good work and may Our Lord Bless You in all you do.Michael - Sydney

10.05.06   The Simpleton says:
"Out of love, not fear". Great line, Brian. I remember reading somewhere that the love that the saints had for God was sometimes so intense - violent, even - that they had to out this intensity in some physical way...Anyone ever heard of Fr William Doyle, SJ? An Irish Jesuit who was eventually killed in Flanders during the first world war, he was a great practitioner of corporal mortification. When in Ireland, he used to creep out in the middle of a wintery night and stand up to his neck in water in the freezing pond. WOW! The really edifying thing was - and perhaps surprising to one who doesn't understand what it's all about - he had a great sense of humour, and everyone loved to be around him. I guess that's real holiness, though. If the divine isn't resting on the fundamentally human, it ain't holiness!I enjoyed your humour, too Brian and look forward to your next article!

10.05.06   JanetK says:
What a refreshing article! Thank you! And what a great website! I am delighted to have stumbled upon it! To read of the "real" Catholic faith is truly wonderful. Surprisingly, I got to this article via CathNews, a rather liberal Australian online Catholic news service. They don't usually support anything orthodox. Laity in our diocese of Sale (south eastern Australia) "rebelled" against the liberalism here 4 years ago and started our own orthodox Catholic newsletter called Into the Deep (www.stoneswillshout.com). It has grown enormously, also indicating the genuine hunger and love for the Catholic faith in all its glory, rather than the watered-down, unappealing modernist/liberal version. Isn't it great to be among fellow Catholics! God is good! Thanks for your great work.

09.29.06   BP says:
Thank you Deni101 for the kind comment. I wasn't sure what type of response this essay was going to receive. So I'm glad you liked it and want to share it.Brian

09.29.06   Deni101 says:
Just wanted to say that I think this is a great article. It perfectly compares exercise for physical health with spiritual practices for growth in virtue. Why indeed is running "normal" and fasting "abnormal"? I completely relate to the examples of chocolates (maybe a little too much, KWIM?) and parenting. Thank you! I think I will share this with my non-Catholic husband who runs. I think he will get it!

09.28.06   BP says:
Mark,I'm sure many people, including Catholics, find the topic of corporal mortification peculiar. What I hoped to accomplish with the essay was to put corporal mortification into proper perspective. I wanted to demonstrate that when it's done with the right intent, it's not about self-loathing. It's about wanting to mature as responsible sons and daughters of God. Let's face it. Some of us are physically flabby, but all of us are spiritually flabby. Corporal mortification is akin to spiritual exercise. No pain, no gain. Thanks for your comments and the link.Brian

09.27.06   mkern65 says:
Hi Brian. Great story! Definately a good example of the no pain no gain rule. I find it very inspirational to see story's from other men who have been able to get control of the life and able to exhibit the discipline to do the right thing. Makes me think that there is hope for me yet.. I have linked to your article from my blog at www.Catholicfamilycampaign.com. Hopefully it will inspire others as it did me.Goid Bless! Mark

09.25.06   Godspy says:
We consider it normal to punish ourselves to attain physical perfection. So why is it considered odd to mortify our bodies for the sake of spiritual perfection?

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