The best-selling novel "The Da Vinci Code" pays hostile attention to the zealously conservative Roman Catholic order Opus Dei and its use of "corporal mortification" _ voluntarily punishing one's own body as a spiritual discipline.
This practice may seem odd if not odious to many nowadays but it was used by such revered Catholic saints as Francis of Assisi, England's Thomas More, Jesuit founder Ignatius Loyola and Jerome, translator of the Latin Bible.
In modern times, mortification is associated with some Catholic and Eastern Orthodox monks, but Opus Dei advocates it for lay members in everyday life.
The Rev. Michael Giesler, an Opus Dei priest in St. Louis, defends mortification in the current issue of Crisis, a Catholic magazine. He describes two methods: the cilice, a sharp chain worn around the leg, and "the discipline" or flagellum, a small whip of knotted cords applied to one's back.
One of his arguments is that the practice "dates back to biblical times."
Giesler finds biblical precedent for self-whipping in the scourging of Jesus before his crucifixion. The intent is for the believer to identify with the savior's sufferings. However, Jesus himself provided no example for self-abuse of the body; his punishments were inflicted upon him by others.
The cilice, Giesler says, is a version of the ancient hairshirt, a rough garment of animal hair worn next to the skin for penance. In turn, the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1914 says the hairshirt "was probably the same thing" as sackcloth, an Old Testament garment usually made from goat's hair. Giesler also sees sackcloth as a biblical precedent.
But others disagree. Perhaps with Catholic practices in mind, a Protestant work, "The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible," says "there is no indication that the coarseness of the (sackcloth) produced physical discomfort when worn or that it was used for the purpose of self-punishment, but it was put on as a sign of mental anguish at times of personal loss and national calamity."
Sorrow was indeed the stated motive when Old Testament figures wore sackcloth. However, three verses specify extreme circumstances where sackcloth was worn next to the skin, possibly providing background for the hairshirt: Job 16:15, 1 Kings 21:27 and 2 Kings 6:30. The third passage seems to indicate the garment was worn beneath outer clothing to keep it secret, not necessarily for physical punishment.
From the New Testament, Giesler quotes Paul's statement, "I pommel my body and subdue it" (1 Corinthians 9:27), translated in Catholicism's New American Bible as "I drive my body and train it." This passage compares athletic training with spiritual discipline and modern Catholic commentaries do not apply it to mortification.
Other New Testament teachings cited by Opus Dei are generalized admonitions of self-denial or overcoming of bodily temptations, for instance Jesus' statement, "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23).
In another passage cited by Opus Dei, Paul spiritualizes punishments others inflicted upon him: "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church" (Colossians 1:24).
There are ample and unambiguous examples from Jesus and other biblical figures for one form of physical denial: fasting (going without food for the purpose of spiritual cleansing and concentration).
Biblical materials aside, it's certain that physical mortification began to be practiced by the hermits and monks during Christianity's early centuries. Giesler acknowledges that things got out of hand with the fanatical "flagellants" in certain 14th-century sects that were repeatedly condemned by Catholic authorities.
Opus Dei notes modern support for its practice in writings by the recent popes John XXIII and Paul VI and by Wisconsin's Bishop Robert Morlino, in a 2003 article criticizing "The Da Vinci Code." Also, Giesler says, Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escriva, who died in 1975 and was named a saint 27 years later, "performed heroic mortifications."