In previous articles, I have looked at various psychological aspects of sexually masochistic behaviour. However, some masochistic behaviours have religious (rather than sexual) motivations. Many people’s first awareness of religious masochism might have been Paul Bettany’s portrayal of the self-flagellating albino Catholic monk (Silas) in The Da Vinci Code film (based on Dan Brown’s bestseller). Silas was a member of Opus Dei, a branch of the Catholic Church that has a reputation of being highly secretive. The inflicting of pain upon oneself by Opus Dei adherents is one of a number of self-initiated behaviors involved in the practice of mortification. According to the Wikipedia entry on Opus Dei:
“Mortification [is] the voluntary offering up of discomfort or pain to God; this includes fasting, or in some circumstances self-inflicted pain such as self-flagellation. Mortification has a long history in many world religions, including the Catholic Church. It has been endorsed by Popes as a way of following Christ, who died in a bloody crucifixion and who gave this advice: ‘let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me’ (Lk 9:23). Supporters say that opposition to mortification is rooted in having lost (1) the ‘sense of the enormity of sin’ or offense against God, and the consequent penance, both interior and exterior, (2) the notions of ‘wounded human nature’ and of concupiscence or inclination to sin, and thus the need for ‘spiritual battle’, and (3) a spirit of sacrifice for love and ‘supernatural ends’, and not only for physical enhancement. Critics claim that such practices that inflict pain are counterproductive given modern advances. As a spirituality for ordinary people, Opus Dei focuses on performing sacrifices pertaining to normal duties and to its emphasis on charity and cheerfulness. Additionally, Opus Dei celibate members practise "corporal mortifications" such as sleeping without a pillow or sleeping on the floor, fasting or remaining silent for certain hours during the day”.
According to a BBC news story on why Catholics engage in self-flagellation the article asserted that such behavior is acted out for symbolic purposes during penitential processions (typically in Mediterranean countries during Lent—to remind devout believers that Jesus was whipped before he was crucified). It was even alleged that Pope John Paul II possibly engaged in self-flagellation. Other devotees in other countries (such as the Philippines, and some South American countries) participate in "Passion Plays" where people will engage in painful practices that draw blood.
A few years ago, I was interviewed about religious self-harm as part of the television series Forbidden—a program on which I was the resident psychologist. The documentary focused on a man from Brazil (Adriano Da Silva) who was totally devoted to God. However, weekly praying wasn’t enough to prove their dedication and faith. As the production notes reported:
“They are hardcore penitents who feel to get closer to God you need to endure the literal suffering of Jesus Christ—you need to cut yourself with razor blades…[Adriano is a] very spiritual man, he prays many times a day, reads his bible, and attends church. However, Adriano is about to take his faith to a completely new level. He’s about to undergo the biggest change of his young life. He is about to become the leader of a group of hardcore and extreme religious penitents, The Brotherhood of Canindezinho. He’s been in training for this moment for a long time, self inflicted punishment is what being a penitent is all about. He’s gone without food for days, walked for miles and miles in the desert to get closer to God. But before he can become leader he must do something he’s never done before. He must make a leap of faith he’s observed for years but always been too frightened to go ahead with. On the biggest day of their religious calendar, Adriano will self-flagellate for the first time, cutting himself with blades until the blood runs down his back and drips to the street below”.
Adriano was taking over as the leader of the ‘Brotherhood of Canindezinho’ (Chico Varela). In fact, Chico was the person that taught Adriano how to attach the razor blades to the string and mentored him through the process of how to psychologically prepare himself for the self-inflicted harm he was about to undertake. His first self-flagellation took place in front of his fellow penitents in the resurrection ritual—the largest religious event of the Brotherhood calendar:
“This is a mass self-flagellation event where The Brotherhood of Canindezinho join up with a neighbouring group of penitents—The Brotherhood of Varzea Alegre [led by Antonio Viera]. They will meet up in the local town square and then drag a giant cross through the town till they get to the cemetery. It is here that they will then begin to cut themselves. Chico will be performing a vital task during the event. He’ll be monitoring Adriano and the other penitents to ensure their safety so that they don’t lose too much blood. ‘When consumed with the passion of the Christ it is easy to lose yourself in the pain, your own safety becomes secondary, this is why it’s important for us to look after our fellow Brothers’. The sun goes down over the cemetery and still the penitents continue to lash themselves…As blood drips down, the penitents report feeling no pain or withstanding the pain for a higher purpose: ‘Jesus gives me the power’, says a penitent."
For the Brotherhood of Canindezinho, the purpose of self-flagellation ritual is to (i) purify their soul and redeem them on unholy acts, such as women and alcohol, as a step to be closer to God; and (ii) thank God for granting them graces they previously petitioned for (e.g., somebody recovering from a serious illness or somebody that got themselves out of a serious financial situation). The television production notes also reported that:
“The selected penitents take their shirts off, at once, and go at it. They self-flagellate for 20 minutes, approximately, hitting their backs with sharp razor blades attached to the end of a string relentlessly. Children, from age 10 up can also participate in the ritual. Women, on the contrary cannot, since they are already believed to be ‘sufferers’. Once the self-flagellating is over, the penitents put their shirts back on—as if nothing just happened, and go home to cleanse the wounds”.
Other articles on religious flagellation (such as one by Geoffrey Abbott in the online version of Encyclopaedia Britannica) also claim that self-flagellation is used as a way to drive out evil spirits, to purify, and “as an incorporation of the animal power residing in the whip” but that none of these reasons encompass the whole range of the religious custom. In fact, Abbott claimed:
“In antiquity and among prehistoric cultures, ceremonial whippings were performed in rites of initiation, purification, and fertility, which often included other forms of physical suffering. Floggings and mutilations were sometimes self-inflicted. Beatings inflicted by masked impersonators of gods or ancestors figured in many Native American initiations. In the ancient Mediterranean, ritual floggings were practiced by the Spartans, and Roman heretics were whipped with thongs of oxtail, leather, or parchment strips, some being weighted with lead”.
During my research for this article, I came across numerous academic papers that noted religious and cultural factors may influence self-harm but none of these papers indicated how prevalent religious self-harm was (but I am assuming it was rare given the lack of statistics). Given that we know little about the incidence or prevalence of such behaviour, this is certainly an area worthy of further academic research.
Abbott, G. (2016). Flagellation. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, June 12. Located at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/209255/flagellation
Babiker, G. & Arnold, L. (1997). The Language of Injury: Comprehending Self-Mutilation. Leicester: British Psychological Society Books
BBC News (2009). Why do some Catholics self-flagellate? November 24. Located at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8375174.stm
Walsh, B.W. & Rosen, P.M. (1988). Self-Mutilation: Theory, Research and Treatment. New York: Guilford Press.
Wikipedia (2017). Mortification of the flesh. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mortification_of_the_flesh
Wikipedia (2017). Opus Dei. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opus_Dei