(This week I’m going to mix it up a little bit and publish a long(er)-form piece I’ve been working on about the role of eating disorders and self-harm among female saints. Trigger warnings ahoy.)
I’ll admit to a certain macabre fascination with mortification of the flesh, the Catholic practice of using self-inflicted pain as form of penance. I started reading about it because along with relics, it occupies a weird little niche in the Catholic faith: things that are absolutely part of Church doctrine and even crucial to the history of the Church, but really aren’t talked about in polite company anymore, especially in America where most parishes prefer the post-Vatican II approachability of guitar masses and CYC soccer. Ancient, mysterious rituals invite ridicule from rationalists (witness the recent everyone’s-a-comedian week of pope-electing jokes) and awkward apologetics from believers.
Unlike so many other historical aspects of the Catholic Church, you also can’t talk about mortification without talking about women. The most zealous practitioners, the ones whose self-inflicted punishments are still whispered about, were almost exclusively mystic women from the late Middle Ages through the early Renaissance. They were the ones who drank pus, ate spiders, violently purged food, burnt their genitals and mutilated their faces.
But taken in context in their lives, their actions reveal a sane, even logical mind. They acted this way because they heard the world telling them that punishment is what they needed and deserved. Once they accepted the punishment, they controlled it and pushed it past superficial revulsion and concern into awe. Because of their sex, their words and motives were suspect, but their actions showed the depth of their self-loathing and paradoxically, by buying into the misogyny of their time it made them powerful. Their oppression became their choice and by choosing it they were allowed places in history usually reserved for men.
In their writings, they’re keenly aware of the both their self-loathing and the power it brings them, but sincere in their belief that their strange power over men and their urge to punish themselves are equally God-given. They are, as a group complex, contradictory, and relatable women who seem to walk among us even today. But to get to a place where we can understand them, we’ll have to take a look around Catholic dogma and first find the place where pain, sin and gender meet.
Part I: The Sins of the Flesh
"For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live." –St. Paul, Romans 8:13 KJV
The holy blood, Salamanca Cathedral, Spain
The only piece of hate mail I’ve ever received was from an evangelical Protestant who was angry about the “glorification of the Catholic culture of death” on my blog. She wasn’t entirely wrong. To outsiders, Catholics seem like a morbid bunch. Walk into any Catholic church and the first image you’ll see is probably one of death. Even the most modern, sanitized parishes favor the crucifix, with the corpus of Christ suspended in agony, over the barren Protestant cross. Relic chapels contain fragments of bone and viscera from the bodies of saints and martyrs. The martyrs are pictured alongside images of torture and death. St. Lawrence stands by the gridiron he was roasted alive on. St. Bartholomew wears his flayed skin draped around him like a toga. St. Denis carries his head, St. Agatha her amputated breasts, and St. Lucy her ripped-out eyes.
Flayed St. Bartholomew, Duomo Cathedral, Italy
A martyr’s saintliness comes more from their death than their life. There are quite a few executioners who beheaded martyrs during the Roman persecutions who became saints themselves because they converted and were subsequently martyred. In terms of eternal punishment or reward, it was probably a good deal for them. Martyrs go straight to heaven and bypass purgatory, regardless of prior sins. To become a martyr is to make death the ultimate religious expression. Their death demonstrates their faith in the afterlife, their hope for the resurrection, and perhaps most importantly, purifies their souls through the physical pain they endure during their last moments on Earth. It’s this purification makes the fires of purgatory redundant.
A scorched handprint from the Purgatory Museum in Rome
But by the Middle Ages, martyrdom was a thing of the past for most Europeans. The large-scale persecutions were over and Roman Catholicism settled in as the dominant religion. But the martyrs were still present. From late antiquity through the Middle Ages the bodies of the martyrs were dug up, divided, and redistributed to relic shrines throughout the Western world. The bones didn’t just sit there; they were active citizens in the towns they rested in. They participated in ceremonies. They attracted tourists. The miracles they worked became a part of daily life.
The skull of St. Agnes, preserved in a reliquary, Italy
But while the faithful venerated and lived among the martyrs’ bones, they lacked a way to mirror the martyrs’ sacrifices in their own lives. If the majority of people were Catholic then they couldn’t be persecuted. If they couldn’t be persecuted, they had no opportunity to sacrifice themselves. But if choosing death was no longer an option, choosing pain still was. Through pain, devout men and women could mimic the final purifying moments of a martyr’s life even if they couldn’t die for their faith. In this context, self-created, self-controlled suffering for the purpose of purification is called mortification. The word’s second meaning, “shame”, is also relevant.
In Catholic doctrine, the body was the first source of shame in the Garden of Eden and it’s been a vehicle for sin ever since. The body is the home of original sin - a sin committed by the first humans that was so great that it’s been passed down to every member of the human race from birth. It’s the ur-sin, the one through which all others are seen. It was also a gendered sin and it’s made all sin gendered. The perception of every sin that’s been committed ever since depends on the body of the sinner looking more like Adam or Eve.
For Adam (and thus all men) sin is just a bad response to external stimulus. In the story of the garden, Adam doesn’t find the forbidden fruit Eve presents it to him. It’s only in his response to her that he sins. Eve’s sin, on the other hand, was less reactive and more contemplative. When the serpent tells her that fruit from the Tree of Knowledge will make her “as a god”, she doesn’t take the fruit directly from the snake as Adam takes it from her. Instead, she contemplates what being “as a god” might mean, and alone through some interior fault, decides to eat it and sins.
Adam and Eve, Gloucester Cathedral, England
Unlike Jesus (who by all accounts was a radical egalitarian) St. Paul and St. Jerome latched on to this idea of Eve and womankind’s inherent weakness. It was a subject they retuned to over and over again in their writings. That weakness was what this group of female mortifying saints were trying to drive out of their bodies, in addition to paying for any sins they actually committed. They forged a two-tiered model of mortification rooted in this idea of inherent sin coupled with freely committed sin.
For men who practiced mortification, serious pain was usually meted out in proscribed amounts, a certain number of lashings or fasting for a particular number of days. Even when it seemed excessive, they stuck to a few reasonably mainstream sources of pain like whips, tight rope-belts, and hairshirts. Women’s mortification tended to consist of this plus private, highly personalized rituals for indefinite periods of time- even lifetimes. They made St. Dominic Loricatus’ 300,000 lashes over six days look manageable. His pain was definable, controllable, whereas the frantic energy of female saints’ mortification overtook everything else. She didn’t just punish her flesh, but her very essence.
But even if women were forced to inherit Eve’s sinful nature, they could still manage to avoid the second part of her shameful legacy by remaining virgins. Without sex and marriage, the curse God leveled at Eve could never apply to them.
“Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Genesis 3:16 KJV
For theologians like St. Paul and St. Jerome, virginity became more than an ideal. It became a prerequisite to holiness for women. St. Jerome’s love letter to virginity, Against Jovinianus, was shocking even to his friend and fellow saint Pammachius who was disturbed by the vitriol he aimed at women and the institution of marriage. Using a series of biblical references and frankly bizarre twists of logic, St. Jerome concludes that it would be best if everyone were a virgin, but fortunately for the continued existence of the human race, not everyone has the moral fortitude. (An idea built upon St. Paul’s good old “tis better to marry than burn” passage in Corinthians.) In his view, the only value a married woman has is her ability to produce more virgins.
“I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because they give me virgins. I gather the rose from the thorns, the gold from the earth, the pearl from the shell. ” –Against Jovinianus, Chapter 20
Throughout Against Jovinianus, St. Jerome draws a line between male and female sexuality. Using original sin as a template, he paints female sexuality as a corrupting force. Lust is feminine. It degrades both the woman and the man, but originates from inside the woman. So all women, even virgins, are left to sort out the sins of Eve, and more personally, the sins of their mother who in degrading herself and her husband, gave them life.
“Will the woman not then be saved, if she bear children who will remain virgins: if what she has herself lost, she attains in her children, and makes up for the loss and decay of the root by the excellence of the flower and fruit.” –Chapter 27
If we continue with his metaphor, the fruit already knows that the decayed root is within her and part of her. She couldn’t exist without it. But it just takes one sexual encounter to permanently transform her from flower to root. This turns sex into a cataclysmic event for the woman. There’s no going back. The root may be fruitful, but it will never be fruit again.
St. Jerome in his Study, Caravaggio
Catherine, Veronica, Margret, Teresa, Umiliana, Francesca, Columba, Angela and Jeanne, a few of our case-study mortifying saints, got the message. Their inferiority was considered self-evident. They were instilled with a deep loathing for their bodies and their very nature as women. But bit by bit, they freed themselves from the curse of Eve as well as the patriarchy she was doomed to serve by serving that same patriarchy.
Continued in part two, the vitae of the mortifiers… and three, their psychological sisters.