Tuesday, November 24, 2009

John Paul II and the 'discipline'.



Hidden acts of penance.

One of my very best friends in the whole world is a very holy priest.  He once asked a very holy prioress of a very holy Carmelite monastery if the community still used the discipline and if so, where may he obtain one?  Mother responded sweetly, "Oh Father, that is a rather indiscreet question."  As was her custom, she discreetly changed the subject and poor Father never got his answer.  Unfortunately he initially felt slighted, but we all feel slighted when someone surprises us with a direct answer and charitable rebuke.  I'm quite sure my friend laughs about it now.
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I mention this as news of Holy Father John Paul II's use of the discipline has come to light this week - apparently testimony from a Polish nun who worked in the papal household has been leaked from the Causes of Saints investigation.  Talk about indiscreet.  It is especially unfortunate since contemporary society has little to no knowledge about the practice of corporal penance in the spiritual life, and have no understanding of such voluntary mortification.  (Perverted sexual practice and fetish aside of course - which poses the question, what will Theology of the Body hedonists make of this news?  I'm being sarcastic.)
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People 'get' dieting or going through painful surgical procedures to lose weight or look better.  They understand the need for an athlete to go through continual repetition of arduous exercise and practice to perfect his game.  They understand that type of body-punishing sacrifice - but not a priest or a nun whipping one's self in a spirit of penance.
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Since the Council, few religious orders continued using the discipline.  Perhaps on account of St. Therese and her Little Way, most religious superiors and spiritual directors would advise against such corporal penances - but the practice was never lost, as Pope John Paul's story reveals.  Nevertheless, it is a very private matter, isn't it.  That said, the revelation that a modern Pope, who endured so much suffering throughout his life, practiced such corporal penance can be a wonderful reminder for the Christian to return to the practice of voluntary mortification and penance in his every day life...    
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Corporal penance in the lives of the saints.
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While the Saints regarded interior penance (that is, denial of the will through the vow of obedience) greater than any kind of exterior penance, nonetheless instruments of penance have been used by the Saints throughout history, and were in widespread use in religious communities for centuries up until the 1960's. One type of exterior penance common in religious life was known as "The Discipline" (self-flagellation, using a whip, rod, or lash), which was used in Padre Pio's friary. Saint Pio was known to have continued this penance even when it was no longer required of him to do so. The Discipline was also commonly used in Saint Faustina's convent as well.
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It should again be noted that these mortifications were always done within the context of a religious community (with permission from a superior), or under the direction of a spiritual director. We might also recall that the Saints were careful to do these penances in secret, and even went out of their way to hide such instruments from their own communities. To be considered an average religious, to them, was of far more value than to be highly regarded as an austere aesthetic. Any instance that would draw the praises of men was to be severely shunned. As the Lord reminded Saint Faustina that what pleases Him most, above exterior penances, even above fasting, is the denial of one's own will through obedience to superiors and the rules of the community (which cannot be fully practiced apart from religious vows). A humble and obedient soul before God wins the most graces. - Redemptive Suffering - The Science of the Saints
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John Paul II on suffering:
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"Christ did not conceal from his listeners the need for suffering. He said very clearly: "If any man would come after me... let him take up his cross daily, and before his disciples he placed demands of a moral nature that can only be fulfilled on condition that they should "deny themselves". The way that leads to the Kingdom of heaven is "hard and narrow", and Christ contrasts it to the "wide and easy" way that "leads to destruction." Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but he states: "Follow me!". Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross. Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. ...It is then that man finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy." - Source
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Art:  Flagelation of Christ, Ruiz - Source

17 comments:

  1. I just love your blog. Although a Catholic from infancy, there is world of knowledge about which I remained ignorant, until reading your blog. I learn so much. Just wanted to say thank you.
    Maria

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  2. I understand, sort of, the idea of uniting oneself to Christ's passion in this way. But these things can morph into something less holy (and I think this has happened in the past). There are kids who cut themselves, on purpose, and habitually. It is said in some way that it relieves anxiety for them. It wouldn't be a good thing for them to get the idea of mixing religion with this type of abuse.
    I wouldn't deny that saints who were spiritual giants have practiced flagellation; but I think most of us would benefit more from St. Therese's Little Way.

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  3. Melody - you are right - which is why this type of penance should be approved by a solid spiritual director.

    I tried it when I was younger, but I used silk ribbons. Kidding - I'm just kidding.

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  4. Pink - thanks - I'm happy you like the blog. Most people start out that way... wink, wink.

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  5. Corporal penance of this sort is strictly, and I mean strictly, under the guidance of a superior or spiritual director.
    God knows there is enough suffering in daily life that, when offered up in union with Jesus' Sacrifice on the Cross, is meritorious enough.
    But there are special people and special circumstances that may be God's will that they offer something in what is called "superogation" or above and beyond the call of duty...that's why a director of some kind is necessary in order to guide and control what can be, at times, something excessive.
    Spiritual pride can be the tool of the devil in this regard for those who want to love and serve the Lord.

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  6. Oh, and good for Mother Prioress.
    That WAS an indiscreet question...as far as I know, Carmelite Nuns want to keep their acts of penance, love, and service hidden in order to save souls...good for her!

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  7. Thanks Father for commenting on this.

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  8. Silk ribbons! That was funny!

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  9. Terry--I have been reading your blog for about a year. I just had the most ridiculous thought. Who provides spiritual direction to a Pope?
    Maria

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  10. Pink - I'm not sure - but I know they have them.

    SF - I laughed at adoration today knowing you picked up on that.

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  11. Terry - a friend revealed to me that before he surfs the Internet, he mortifies himself by reading my blog. Talk about penances!!
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    Oh, I'm just kidding...

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  12. Oh, you guys have just made me laugh OUT LOUD! Happy Thanksgiving!!
    Maria

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  13. pinsky: I believe the Pope has a personal confessor that would be not a superior, but someone he is accountable to in his spiritual life.
    Pope John Paul II was a Third Order Carmelite and even wanted, at one point to enter the Carmelites, and if reports are correct (I'm not sure about this) he even thought of retiring to a Carmelite monastery in his last years after resigning the papacy...he was formed in Carmelite spirituality in his youth by a layman (whose name escapes me)...this report of his using the discipline sounds right to me knowing of his Carmelite spirituality.

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  14. This is simply fascinating. Thank you.

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  15. I don't know how anyone can love JP II with one side of their keyboard, and then vicariously hate him posthumously a few hours later with the other. It's the American way to not to be fooled by anyone at any time, and God help the sod who tries it, so just in case, let me set thee up and paint thy holiness black -- others can refute it with facts that some other souls delved into, and thou art on thy own in finding it? Indeed, the Son of Man is likely going to find a bunch of gum wrappers where faith once lived. We see photos of Obama pardoning a big white turkey while condemning countless Afghanis and 37,000 more of our folks, and not look into the symbolism or implications of any of it, but let a Pope kiss what other decent souls revere as God's word, which helps form a holy life for them to live, and his alleged error blushes us? He is a cause for scandal? O Jerusalem, Jersusalem, I would've gathered your children.. but thou wouldst not.

    Nonetheless, I am tremendously grateful to read that JP II was a Carmelite, and maybe even that he disciplined his body. This new knowledge is sheer gift.

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  16. I'm glad if I helped anyone, esp. pinky and Carol.
    Saints are very complicated sometimes; just read the "Lives of the Saints" by Butler. Sometimes they are wrong; but nevertheless, because they are humble and desire to love and serve the Lord, all is well.
    It may sound a bit "fuzzy", but Jesus Christ is Lord, and the rest of us just kind of "stumble about"...
    Blessings!

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  17. At my first (Catholic) church, there was an ex-nun. Not the polyester sort - devout and orthodox. I was speaking with her on the church steps one day, and she mentioned discipline. I was speechless. Never heard of it before then. Still don't understand it.

    But then, I don't understand a good many things.

    Like, what is it about polyester and dissenting nuns? Is there some explanation for this?

    I know, I'm completely silly sometimes. But there are things that cannot quite be grasped. I have a large file (in my mind) marked "Mysteries".

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