Friday, February 11, 2011

Saints who disfigured themselves.




Pagans do it now.
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Today many people like to point out all the oddities of Catholicism; for instance the veneration of saints and their relics is one.  Another is mystical phenomena such as stigmata and visions.  The other day one of my online friends brought up the subject of saints who disfigured themselves - why did they do it?  (I tried to do it, but no matter what I did to my face, the more ruggedly handsome I got!  LOL!  JK!)
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Seriously, I do find it curious that people today would make fun of Catholic saints who tried to disfigure themselves to safeguard their chastity or ward off suitors, seeing how fashionable bodily mutilation has become - tattoos, piercings, implants, along with such grotesque make-up and fashions...  pretty disfiguring if you ask me.  One might say it's part of neo-pagan cult.
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In times past, culture was obviously quite different.  Did you know the saying, "Cutting off the nose to spite the face" is believed to have originated from the 12th century?  I know!  It has been attributed to various instances of nuns/virgins disfiguring themselves to avoid rape by invaders.  Wiki cites St. Ebba and company doing so to repulse Viking raiders.
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Refusing to marry.
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Other saints scoured their faces and shaved their heads so as not to be appealing to suitors or the men their father's chose for them.  Women had no rights and were given in marriage, you know.  In their charity, other saintly types were genuinely concerned about not inciting men to lust, a few over zealous girls may have deliberately disfigured themselves, yet most simply prayed for God to make them unattractive.  Others like Margaret of Cortona fasted herself to anorexic levels, thus her unattractiveness occurred naturally.  In fact in modern times we see a sort of inversion to the phenomenon.  What was some times regarded as a supernatural virtue in the past, has become a morbid disorder in the present.  It is my understanding that not a few cases of extreme anorexia, morbid obesity, hair-pullers and cutters are often unconscious attempts by  women - who may have been abused or raped - to make herself unattractive as a means of self-defense and or protection.
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I believe deliberate mutilation of our bodies is of course sinful and would never be approved by any spiritual director.  I'm not sure about praying for such a grace however.  I'm not even sure about being preoccupied over it.  St. Maria Goretti did nothing to make herself attractive, in fact she was probably unconscious of her beauty - yet a boy attempted to rape her.  Not her her fault.  Sadly, today little girls are taught to wear make-up and wear sexy clothes - it might be heroic virtue on the part of girls to go against that trend - but I digress.
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How St. John of the Cross sees it.
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I promised my friend Mercury I'd find out what John of the Cross said about this business of disfiguring oneself.  The saint only mentions those who prayed for disfigurement - not those who took a knife to their face.  We know St. John is first of all writing for contemplatives - although it seems to be a higher and more difficult standard, I think that of which he speaks can be moderated to fit any state in life.  In the Ascent the saint explains the principle he is following in discussing the need for self-denial in the spiritual life:  "There is nothing worthy of a man's joy save the service of God and the procurement of his honor and glory in all things.  His use of things should be directed to this and turned away from vanity, and exclude concern for his own satisfaction and consolation."  [Bk. III, Ch. 20: 3]Today one might add "pleasure".
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Prayers for disfigurement are therefore related to the mortification of the will as regards vain rejoicing in natural goods:  meaning, "beauty, grace, elegance, bodily constitution, and all other corporal endowments."  Go to a beach or a gym, watch TV or read a magazine - our culture is obsessed with this stuff.  St. John tells us:  "These natural gifts and graces are such a provocation and occasion both to the possessor and the beholder that there is scarcely a heart that escapes from this snare or birdlime.  We have known many spiritual persons with these endowments who have prayed God to disfigure them, in fear lest they be an occasion to themselves or others of some vain joy or attachment." [Ascent III, Ch. 21: 1]  Notice how he mentioned "to themselves"?  Remember Narcissus, some have fallen into self-pleasure because of "themselves".
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So anyway - I kept my promise, I found what St. John had to say about it.  It also helps explain why virtuous women prefer to wear a chapel veil to Mass - to safe guard modesty and preserve recollection.  I guess I have to say I'm no longer against it.  BTW - be sure and vote at Fr. Z's poll on the subject of women wearing veils in church - he has over 4000 votes already!
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Photo:  Gaga on the cover of Vogue.  I once worked with a guy who looked like that.  Hi Kelly!  LOL!

12 comments:

  1. Terry: The real oddity is that Lady Gaga is a Sacred Heart girl. She went to 91st Street. Not sure what this says about the Madames of the Sacred Heart!

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  2. Madonna went to Catholic school too, didn't she?

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  3. Yep.lol. Post VII. Whoopee, right?

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  4. Terry this post fascinated and I don't know why, very well written it was.

    Gaga went to SH along with the Hiltons and lots of other socialites. Can we get a visitation for Catholic schools from the Vatican?

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  5. I went to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, also. My sin? It would make a sailor blush; however, I came round after many, many decades in the far country, so there is help for us all....

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  6. Terry, thanks for this post. I guess my problem is just that when I look at the Saints as people to emulate, I am at a loss. Like I've said before, they scare the crap out of me.

    Obviously, the lesson to draw form something like this is not "pretty girls should pray for disfigurement" or "beautiful people should be ashamed of themselves and try to hide it as much as possible" - but I can't help but draw that conclusion. Stupid OCD. You other normal people out there obviously do not draw that conclusion.

    I guess this is in the same category as those male saints who decided that they'd never look women in the face, or even hug their mothers. This is not a path for us to emulate in itself, though we should admire them for it? I dunno, I still find it weird and somewhat Puritanical. I'm not trying to make fun - I'm just trying to balance out what the Church actually teaches (beauty is a good thing made by God, as is our attraction to it), and the lives of the ones who've made to Heaven ahead of me.

    Of course, our culture's worship of physical beauty is disgusting, as is the worship of any other created good. I like telling the teenage girls at work that Gaga is a symbol of the downfall of the West - they look at me with blank stares 'cause they don't even know what Western Civilization is ...

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  7. Read this to its conclusion:

    http://vigilantcitizen.com/?p=6223

    very interesting look at things.

    Sensitive people should take a pass on the article.

    *

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  8. +JMJ+

    This reminds me of a reflection from Protestant writer, Benedictine oblate, and "uncatagorisable" poet Kathleen Norris on the virgin martyrs. She had been studying them for a while and then heard of the case of a teenage girl who was so desperate to escape her abusive boyfriend that she slashed her own genitals with a knife to make them more unappealing to him. Norris' imagination looked through the fact that the modern girl wasn't a virgin to the same desperate grab at freedom that characterises the many women saints who have chosen death--or disfigurement--in pursuit of a higher good.

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  9. Mercury - I know what you mean OCD or not people can get pretty scrupulous at times - or go through extreme periods of 'don't look now!'

    I have always found Therese of Lisieux and those like her to be the best saints to emulate and look to for guidance. for guys, Pier Giorgio Frassati is another one. He had a wonderful freedom of spirit about such things.

    When it comes to some of the extreme saints, I think it is best not to know too many details about them and just admire the beautiful works of art that have been made in their honor - asking their intercession of course.

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  10. "If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out."

    With all the cr*p on TV, in magazine racks, billboards, and the way some people dress and the like - I wonder if our Lord was prophesying a bit with that passage.

    And mayhaps some took that too literally - still, they're in heaven now, and will be fully restored on the Last Day.

    (I tried to do it, but no matter what I did to my face, the more ruggedly handsome I got! LOL! JK!)

    Same thing happened to me! What a co-inky dink!

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  11. Embrethiliel, you and I must have been reading the same book. I liked Kathleen Norris' take on the virgin martyrs.

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  12. St Francis de Sales, the Quattriochhi, St Isidore, ... lots of "normal" saints :)

    And monastic writers - calm, peaceful, free of spirit ...

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