Monday, May 24

reflection on mortification and ascetism

Today is the feast of Saint Simeon Stylite the younger and reading about this saint led me, in a round-about manner, to thinking about mortification and asceticism in general. This is a topic which, I shall admit, has piqued my curiosity for some time. There is a long and storied history of devout people who have suffered a myriad of self-inflicted injuries upon themselves for spiritual and/or religious reasons. Why? That is to say, to what end is this willful denigration of the body performed?

For certain Muslims, the act of mortification (zanjeer) is a way of publicly and symbolically mourning the death of their sects founder, Husayn ibn Ali. For some Christians, it is done for the purpose of absolution of perceived sin. For others, it is putting oneself in pain, distress, and discomfort for the purposes of achieving a closer relationship to the spiritual at the cost of their physical form. In the Christian tradition, it appears that the scriptural justification comes from Romans, Galatians and Colossians. What is of interest is that all three talk about how one should pursue the Spirit-filled life, rather than a life of the flesh.

That said, there is a substantive difference here between pursuing the spirit and denying the world. Recall, if you will, that James exhorts that pure religion is to help out those in their distress and to keep yourself unpolluted by the world (James 1:27) and it is Christ which prays for us, his disciples, to be not of the world though we are remain in the world(John 17:11-17).

So where is the Divine in all of this ?

The whole of the earth is a place of wonder and beauty in which the fingerprints of the Pancreator can be seen. We cannot deny who and what we are, which is to say mortal creatures of flesh and blood and thought and emotion. We are created this way, all of us, in the image of the Divine. To strive for a more perfect union with the Divine is commendable and to discard those things which distract us from that pursuit is logical and reasonable. That is a cleansing process to remove ourselves from being of the World.

But to actively denigrate our bodies (whether by pharmacology or flagellation) dishonours the One who made it, desecrating the temple of the Holy Spirit, which is from the Divine (1 Cor 6:19). To purposely cheapen our physical form which is a gift from the Pancreator is no less of an error than to revel in the carnal pleasures.

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