Every year during Holy Week, I am asked why we have extreme forms of self-inflicted pain among Filipinos, the most dramatic of which are the flagellants and the ones who get themselves crucified.
These practices are generically called penitensiya, meaning it’s presumed they are done to atone, to do penance, for sins. But more than penance, these acts, or at least those that are done around Holy Week, are part of the panata or religious vows taken as part of negotiations with God for special favors, or as thanksgiving for appeals that have been granted. In the case of Ruben Enaje, a sign-maker who was featured in Wednesday’s Inquirer, will allow himself to be crucified for the 27th year in a row. The first nine crucifixions were thanksgiving for his having survived a fall from a three-story building without sustaining any injuries, the next nine for the health of his eldest daughter, and the most recent nine for his wife’s health.
I thought I’d expand the discussion of pain to a broader context of religious cultures. These cultures vary in their views of pain. For example, Christians are taught to offer pain, say from an illness, to God—a way of emulating Christ’s own suffering. Meditative Buddhist traditions—Zen and Chan, for example—say we can transcend pain because, like other emotions and feelings, it is illusory and fleeting.
In actual practice, the pain and suffering can be so intense that it is difficult to think of it as something to offer to God, much less to look at the torment as something that will pass. Nevertheless, a person’s religious affiliation and its teachings about pain can help make the pain more tolerable.
Self-inflicted pain, found in all major religious cultures, is another matter. Our flagellants pale in comparison to the participants of the Tamil Thaipusam festival, where they attach hooks to various parts of their body, sometimes even pulling carts and chariots with the hooks attached to chains. In terms of collective self-inflicted pain, Shia Muslims are the most dramatic, with large crowds of men beating their chests and flagellating themselves and others (even young children) during Muharram, a religious event to mourn a Shia Muslim martyr.
As I mentioned earlier, self-inflicted pain has elements of atonement. These acts also have an element of negotiation as people appeal to the heavens, almost like saying: no pain, no gain. Older Filipino Catholics have many of these forms of self-inflicted pain as part of supplication—for example, going up the altar of a church on one’s knees.
The Catholic Church is ambivalent on self-inflicted pain. On one hand, Catholics and other Christians inherited a Greek Stoic tradition which sees the body as dangerous, a source of temptations, mainly carnal but extended to include other corporal pleasures. Catholic bishops warn, repeatedly, about the dangers of yoga and other “New Age” practices not so much because they are seen as “diabolical” (which is the view of some Protestant evangelicals) as because they supposedly overglorify the body. I have heard priests who disapprove even of body-building, seeing it as vanity and—again, the sexual element—as inciting lust.
If indulging the body is seen as sinful, then virtue is attached to taming the body. The taming may consist of small sacrifices, such as fasting, or abstinence from meat, as Christians do during Lent. But others move to more serious forms of self-mortification, including wearing rough or coarse clothes (“hair shirts”), flagellation, the use of a cilice (barbed-wire contraptions).
The Catholic group Opus Dei is probably the best known for using some of these practices of self-flagellation, but non-Opus Dei members also have their share. In fact, the Catholic Church has a long history of asceticism—for example, hermits, who lead very simple lives that involve depriving themselves of many rudimentary comforts in life. The ascetics may combine the self-deprivation with self-infliction of pain.
Back in 2010, a book by Msgr. Slawomir Oder reported that the late Pope John Paul used flagellation and other forms of self-mortification. Oder was the postulator, a person given the official function of arguing for canonization—in this case, for the late pope. The report stirred a minor controversy mainly because John Paul was known for his theology of the body, which argued that the body is beautiful and mysterious and needs the utmost respect. It was this theology of the body that was often used to argue against the use of contraceptives, which were said to pollute and harm the body.
Catholic Church officials were quick to respond to the revelations of John Paul’s self-mortification, summarized in an article in the National Catholic Reporter that came out on Feb. 5, 2010. (Go to ncronline.org.) The clerics point to a long history of self-mortification in the Catholic Church, mainly arguing that this was a form of self-discipline, even as it was an exercise of one’s freedom.
Fr. Mihaly Szentmartoni, a Jesuit at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, explains to the National Catholic Reporter that “flagellation and other disciplines for inflicting pain on the flesh—chains, pebbles in one’s shoes, etc.—are used to demonstrate that the person is the master even of pain,” rather than being “the slave of basic needs.” The religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Szentmartoni explains, are “institutionalized expressions of this desire to be free.”
This observation takes us back to the Philippines, where self-mortification is actually quite common, even outside of Holy Week. Participation in the Nazarene traslacion (transfer of the image) with thousands of devotees is self-mortification, too, as are the many pilgrimages Filipinos do throughout the year. Where men are involved, I suspect a strong element of machismo as mastery of pain and suffering, spurred by an “I can do it” (Kaya ko ito) ethic as well as, in the case of the sign-maker Ruben Enaje, to show one’s ability to negotiate for divine intervention to ensure the health of family members.
Szentmartoni does warn against corporal penitence becoming pathological, as when self-mortification becomes a way of self-punishment for some real or imagined sin, or when pain becomes an aim in itself. We are talking here about masochism, where pleasure is derived from pain.
Cardinal Georges Cottier, theologian of the papal household under Pope John Paul, talks about the need to have such practices done with a spiritual guide, which raises many questions as to how such a guide can determine what is permissible or not, especially when we have a religious culture like the one in the Philippines, with all its emphasis on penance and pain and suffering, and the debasement of the body.
Szentmartoni has a more positive approach, suggesting that teenagers be encouraged “to leave their comfort zones by engaging in direct service to the poor.” That, he says, is a form of self-discipline as well.