Tuesday 7 August 2012

Hairshirts Flagellations and the Repayment of Debts

 God loved us so much that He gave us His only Son to die for us.

Christ’s was the ultimate sacrifice, to lay down His life to redeem us and to re-build our relationship with God which sin had destroyed.

There is nothing we can do to repay that sacrifice. Not a million candles lit in church, not a million flowers, or a million Rosaries. Nothing we do will repay what Christ did for us.

That is not to say that we should stop doing these things. We do them out of reverence, love and respect for our Creator and not as an act of repayment. I have lit many a candle in my time and will continue to do so.

Fasting and abstinence are also similar forms of sacrifices which we do out of reverence rather than as an act of repayment.

And then … we come to the wearing of hairshirts, flagellations and similar bodily punishments practiced by the faithfuls since times long past.

Saint Francis of Assisi suffered severe self-afflicted penances like flagellations and the use of a hairshirt.

Saint Catherine of Sienna used to undergo extreme fasting for long periods, wore sackcloth and scourged herself three times a day.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola practiced severe mortifications. He wore a hair shirt and heavy iron chain, and was in the habit of wearing a cord tied below the knee.

Saint Thomas More, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Marguerite Marie Alacoque, and many other Saints and elders of the Church practiced mortification and self-punishments.

Even Pope John Paul II, I understand practiced self-flagellation and fasting before important events.

I’m sure you can name other Saints and prominent members of our Church who did the same.

I understand the need for such extreme sacrifices originate from many quotations from the Bible, but mainly from the words of Jesus when He asked us to take up our Cross and follow Him.

I wonder and ask:

Did He really mean that we should inflict pain and mutilation on our bodies to gain forgiveness for our sins and that of others?

Or did He say that this world is full of suffering, some of which will come our way, and that we should accept it as best we can in Faith and trust that it is His will and that it will turn out for the good? And that He will not allow more suffering to come our way than we can possibly endure?

Does self-inflicted bodily harm have a place in our lives today and does it buy us any favors with God?

Christ’s Commandment to us was to love Our God and to love one another. No where can I find Him saying that we should punish ourselves in order to gain entrance to Heaven.


  1. Hmm... I had thought that such practices were for the mortification of the body than to "earn" a place in heaven as an attempt to harness in and gain more control of the wayward passions of the body, making them subject to the will.

  2. Possibly true Blue Henn. I've also read that it is to gain forgiveness of our sins and that of others.

    I really cannot understand how God requires self-flagelation in order to forgive sins.

    God bless.

  3. Hi Victor,
    I agree that God doesn't require self-flagellation to forgive sins. Blue Henn's answer is very good and that's how I understand mortification of the body too. Hairshirts might be over the top but fasting isn't harmful to most people and likely is very helpful. Without love, fasting would be useless though.
    The clothes are so uncomfortable these days that hairshirts are unnecessary anyway ;)

    God bless.

    1. I agree Mary; fasting is not harmful if done with love and respect for Our Lord. But not in excess though.

      I did not know, until I researched this subject, that Pope John Paul II practiced self-flagelation.

      I also learnt that some hairshirts of old were made of metal and had spikes on the inside which tore one's flesh.

      God bless you Mary.

  4. Hi Victor, In the spirit St Benedict, I always try to preface my responses knowing...I'm always a beginner..What do I know really? : )
    It's been my experience from scripture teachers that Jesus here is referring to the cross of suffering we carry in our identification with Him in the world, each in our own vocation.

    Obedience to Christ in the world ...is, in a sense, a mortification as we die to ourselves daily. But it's also a cause of great joy because of our love for Him. Does that make sense? God would never require us to punish ourselves for salvation...You can't earn it. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling
    under-girded by the grace we receive in the sacraments. Our works are labor and proof of our love.

    I love the saints...one day I hope
    I'll understand. +

    1. I agree entirely Caroline with your understanding of Jesus' reference to the Cross and our suffering.

      What you say makes great sense.

      God bless.

  5. I've always wondered about the same thing. What I do know is that self denial at any level helps create and nurture the virtue of self control which as Galatians 5: 22-23 tells us is a fruit of the Spirit. So, like the seed must be physically broken before it can bear fruit, perhaps those who practice self flagellation are attempting to do something similar.

  6. Good point TJ. Such people may be attempting to do something similar, as you say, yet somehow, I doubt that this is what God really asks from them.

    Self-flagellation etc ... seems to take things too far.

    Thank you for visiting me TJ and for your comments.

    God bless.

  7. I've always wondered this too, Victor. I guess I always viewed fasting and things as a way to respect what our Lord did ... to suffer a bit for Him. But I once heard a priest say that these kinds of things helped us stay in control over our bodies, which are worldly and yearn for worldly things. I can understand that. What I'm not clear on is where would Jesus draw the line? Fasting is one thing, severe harm is another.

    God Bless.

  8. Hi Michael,

    I can understand fasting as a means of staying in control of our body. I also prefer when I fast, or abstain from chocolates etc ... to give the money saved to charity. But to self-harm is not something God ever asked for. I was surprised, when I researched this post, how many Saints and even the last Pope did it.

    God bless.

  9. Self-inflicted penances such as flagellation and hair shirts should only be done under the guidance of a spiritual director lest the person give way to pride over his perceived "holiness". God doesn't ask these things of most people. He usually presents us every day with many opportunities for self mortification. For those God asks the unusual from, He gives the grace to do it and this is something discerned by the person and the spiritual director together.

    The Church has always encouraged fasting, which is Biblical, for everyone. Even if we only do it on Fridays, following the old ways, we are doing something blessed by God. But every good spiritual director will tell you not to do the more extreme stuff without being under obedience to one.

  10. Thank you so much Barb for this great explanation. I'm grateful.

    God bless you Barb.



God bless you.