Rod Dreher

Did you hear the latest revelation about the spiritual life of the late Pope John Paul II? Excerpt:

Pope John Paul II not only practiced severe bodily penance – including whipping himself with a belt and sleeping on the floor- but also wrote a letter in which he offered his resignation in the case he was incapacitated.
The revelations were made in an Italian book just published by the promoter of John Paul’s sainthood process, Msgr. Slawomir Oder.
The reports of the pope whipping himself first surfaced a couple of months ago in another Italian book, “Santo Subito,” by Andrea Tornielli. The Pope saw those penances, along with fasting and sleeping on the floor, as a way of uniting himself to the suffering of Christ.

Well, as someone who has slept on the floor for the past four nights (our stuff still hasn’t arrived from Dallas), and who has had multiple occasion to thank the Almighty Lord for Advil, let me say that there’s a reason why John Paul is being considered for sainthood and I probably never will be. I told Julie after night two that it’s helpful to remember that the monks of Mount Athos sleep in similar or worse conditions every night, as part of their asceticism. St. Seraphim of Sarov, the great Russian Orthodox monk, lived a life of extreme asceticism (see here for his amazing story), and taught that through suffering, one could overcome the passions.
I am not aware that Protestantism has this tradition of strict fasting and mortification as part of its spiritual tradition. In any case, it has largely been left behind by contemporary Catholicism, and while I don’t have sufficiently wide experience to judge the extent to which practicing Orthodox Christians honor the comparatively rigorous fasting requirements of our church, the more rigorous forms of asceticism are generally understood to be reserved for monastics.
Clearly corporal mortification has long been a part of the Christian tradition, as well as the traditions of other religions (e.g., the baroque mortification of some Hindu mystics, and the strict fasting Muslims observe during Ramadan), so one should be very careful about judging it. That said, I must confess that I find it hard to distinguish at all times between healthy asceticism, and a kind of masochism. We Christians are not Manichaeans; we do not believe the body is evil. I don’t think the late Pope, St. Seraphim or any other Christian who treats his body roughly as a form of achieving spiritual advancement does so because he hates his body. Rather, he does it as a form of self-discipline; this is what St. Seraphim meant when he said, “The passions are destroyed by suffering and afflictions.” The way to holiness for all Orthodox Christians is to unite oneself to Christ and to thereby become the master of one’s passions. In the Orthodox tradition, prayer and fasting are not nice ideas that might help you; they are an unavoidable part of the way to sanctification.
Still, while I can understand accepting the discomfort of sleeping on the floor, or abstaining heroically from food, as a spiritual discipline, I am slightly unnerved by the idea of self-flagellation as a form of mortification. Perhaps this is because the idea of beating with a whip is inextricably associated with slavery, and its evil. Thoughts?
(Anyway, perhaps I should ask John Paul to pray that my bed will come soon. Or maybe, in light of this extraordinary report, not John Paul, but Pius XII!)

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