Monday, February 21, 2005

"God doesn't want us to hurt ourselves!"


So said a nun of my acquaintance, whom I happen to be fond of. Yet, "truth is dearer than friends," as Aristotle says. She said this in a discussion of mortification, and how those benighted medievals used to beat themselves ("And do you know, Opus Dei still does this!"), and how we are much more enlightened because we know God wouldn't want us to hurt ourselves. I think she is wrong. I think it is clear that God does want us to hurt ourselves. But what God doesn't want is for us to harm ourselves. Sometimes, hurting ourselves is the only to prevent harming ourselves.

By "hurt", I mean cause pain, either positive (through kneeling or prostration or even something like the cilice), or negative, through the absence of something we desire. By "harm", I mean to damage, to make less good. Now, given the fallen state in which we find ourselves, it happens quite often that humans can be caused pain by removing things which harm them. The drug addict feels pain when the heroin is taken away, but the hurt of taking the drugs away prevents the harm of using the drugs. In the same way, the hurt or pain caused by the various bodily disciplines of the saints is directed towards the prevention of harm to the whole person. Would God want us to hurt ourselves, in order to prevent harm, especially the harm of separation from Him? Of course!

In fact, that's what Lent is all about. It's what fasting is all about. It's why Christ spent forty days not eating in the desert before he began to preach. It's what the Exodus was: forty years of imposed hurt, to try to keep Israel from the harm of idolatry. Furthermore, we have the witness of the great saints of the Church, who almost all do some form of mortification, from the hairshirt of Thomas Becket to the forty years on a pillar of Simeon Stylites. As St. Josemaria Escriva points out in a passage on lust, Francis threw himself into a thornbush to avoid the sin of lust; what have you done? Or, as Fr. Corapi says: "Have you sweat blood yet?" Or as Tom at Disputations says, over and over: "Have you tried prayer and fasting?" (I recommend that last one be printed out and put on the refrigerator door.)

I am certain that I am so disordered that what is good for me will not always be what is pleasant for me. As long as this is the case, God surely wants me to hurt myself.

(Disclaimer: only undertake severe mortifications with the guidance of a wise spiritual director.)

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