VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II whipped himself with a belt, even on vacation, and slept on the floor as acts of penitence and to bring him closer to Christian perfection, according to a new book by the Polish prelate spearheading his sainthood case. The book was written by Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the postulator, or main promoter, for John Paul's canonization cause and was released Tuesday. It was based on the testimony of the 114 witnesses and boxes of documentation Oder gathered on John Paul's life to support the case.There will be no shortage of raised eyebrows at this revelation that a man we consider an example of holiness and extraordinary virtue included self flagellation among his spiritual disciplines. Yet, the image of John Paul II at whatever age whipping himself with a belt is one that, if we are honest, most of us are not completely comfortable with.
At a news conference Tuesday, Oder defended John Paul's practice of self-mortification, which some faithful use to remind them of the suffering of Jesus on the cross. "It's an instrument of Christian perfection," Oder said, responding to questions about how such a practice could be condoned considering Catholic teaching holds that the human body is a gift from God.
In the book, Oder wrote that John Paul frequently denied himself food — especially during the holy season of Lent — and "frequently spent the night on the bare floor," messing up his bed in the morning so he wouldn't draw attention to his act of penitence. "But it wasn't limited to this. As some members of his close entourage in Poland and in the Vatican were able to hear with their own ears, John Paul flagellated himself. In his armoire, amid all the vestments and hanging on a hanger, was a belt which he used as a whip and which he always brought to Castel Gandolfo," the papal retreat where John Paul vacationed each summer. While there had long been rumors that John Paul practiced self-mortification, the book provides the first confirmation and concludes John Paul did so as an example of his faith...
The practice of asceticism as a path to Christian holines has an ancient history. Though not exclusively a Christian practice, it has been present in the church both east and west. The Apostle Paul speaking to the Church at Corinth, speaks of punishing his body and keeping it in servitude. Asceticism, including fasting, limited sleep, work and mortification of the body are in mild forms practiced among Christians today. More severe forms such as self flagellation, found still in popular Holy Week devotions in the Phillipines and Latin America are not officially sanctioned by the church.
For most 21st century American Christians mention of such a practice is not comforting! It may evoke obscure tales about the Middle ages or worse images from popular culture and film. The most memorable perhaps the image of Silas, the murdering albino monk featured in the Da Vinci Code, nude before a crucifix while whipping himself until bleeding. I am not sure where to fit the image of the saintly John Paul engaging in this practice without the picture of Silas intruding!
Maybe it is us! We live a much more confortable Christianity where the idea of self inflicted suffering does not fit in. Maybe we are bombarded with the reality of suffering, images flooding our eyes and ears through the media and see it as an evil, not an instrument of holiness. As for me, it seems I have seen enough suffering in the lives of people, including those I love, to last me ten lifetimes! There is surely more to come, it is an unescapable fact of life!
Humans suffer in mind and body, often in ways which seem senseless.It may be that we participate on the sufferings of Christ, that we learn through the trials which life brings us, that we are consoled in our misery so we can console others, Scripture assures of many of these things. Yet in the state of uncertainty, fleeting happiness and despair which characterize much of human life it seems self defeating to add to the pain we already must bear! I can not help but to think of the Roman soldiers whipping Jesus, the devil or the taskmasters whipping slaves into submission...it is hard to see flagellation as a spiritual discipline without feeling an accomplice to those whom I would be free of! Perhaps I am not healed enough, nor strong enough nor free enough nor mature enough...but I sure feel I have been whipped enough!
I need to be consoled by Christ, in my sorrow, my woundedness, sadness, insecurity. Humans clamor for healing from the emotional scars left by sin, the whipping of the belts of rejection, illness, separation from loved ones, the death of dreams and innocence, the certainty of death! It feels as though we need no whips or belts but oil to soothe, life restoring grace, a helping hand a loving embrace, a kind word, a litsening ear, a champion, a deliverer!
I will always admire and revere John Paul II though I may not understand this aspect of his spiritual discipline. Maybe it is a grace given to some, or a path to be freely chosen, God only knows and he guides each soul as he sees fit. Perhaps I need a little whipping sometimes but... for now no belts please....Christ have mercy on me a sinner!