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They Whip Themselves, Don’t They?

Posted By John Wauck On 21st February 2006 @ 09:25 In On Opus Dei, The Church, The Da Vinci Code, Mortification, Recommended Posts | 38 Comments

After reading the book and seeing the movie trailer, I think it’s safe to say that this – “oh yeah, the guys who use cilices and whip themselves bloody” - will be the impression of Opus Dei that most people take away from The Da Vinci Code. When all is said and done, what sticks in the mind are those gruesome whips and chains.

Characterizing members of Opus Dei in this way is as ridiculous as characterizing Mother Teresa’s nuns by their (essentially identical) practices of mortification: ah yes, the Sisters of the Charity… the ones who use the cilice and discipline. Well, that’s true enough, but wouldn’t that be missing the point? Everyone knows that’s not what the Sisters of Charity are all about. And it’s not what Opus Dei’s about either.

Of course, the answer to the question in the title above is “Yes… just like a good proportion of the canonized saints and countless uncanonized Christians both today and throughout history.” Truth to tell, it’s not that big a deal. Anyone who is shocked by this is simply unfamiliar with the ascetical traditions of Christianity.

An example will give an idea of what I’m talking about. Don Juan de Palafox y Mendoza (1600-1659) was archbishop and acting viceroy of Mexico. After he was ordained a priest in 1629, he began a program of penance and mortification, which he called his Rule of Voluntary Penance (“Regla de Penitencia Voluntaria”). It required him to do the following: use the disciplines three times a day, like S. Dominic; wear a cilice, like S. Bruno; sleep on a board like S. Francis; not eat fruit, like S. Bernard; on Fridays, drink only vinegar mixed with oil, like Henry Suso.
It is clear that, in his practices of penance and mortification, this famous bishop from the Baroque era understood himself to be entering into a great tradition of Christian asceticism.

It must be said immediately, however, that the reality in Opus Dei is quite different from what one finds in The Da Vinci Code. In fact, I’m a little afraid that, should someone who’s seen the movie happen upon a real cilice and discipline they’d just laugh – like someone who shows up for a duel expecting to see a .44 Magnum only to face a water pistol instead.

In The Da Vinci Code, the cilice is a notched leather belt studded with metal barbs which cut the flesh and cause Silas to bleed profusely.

In reality, the cilice (pronounced “sillis”) is a small metal chain with sharp points facing inward. No leather, no belt, no notches. Of course, it’s uncomfortable (this is penance, after all), but it shouldn’t cut the flesh or cause bleeding. The version used by members of Opus Dei is worn around the thigh, and the custom within Opus Dei is to wear it two hours a day – except on Sundays, feast days, and certain times of the year.

In The Da Vinci Code, the discipline is a “heavy knotted rope” with which Silas slashes his back until blood flows.

In reality, the discipline is a length of knotted cord (like the cilice, it is small and light enough to carry in a closed fist), ordinarily applied to one’s backside. This is used once a week. It is hard to imagine a discipline ever drawing blood, especially since, in Opus Dei, it is used only for the duration of a short vocal prayer, such as the “Our Father” or “Hail Mary.”

Anyone who wants to know more about it should read John Allen’s chapter on corporal mortification in his book on Opus Dei. He speaks about some Italian nuns who manufacture cilices and disciplines for various groups and individuals in the Church – he even reproduces their price list - and it turns out that the members of Opus Dei use the smallest models on the market. The wimps!

In fact, what you encounter in the novel is grossly misleading at several levels - not just the physical description, but also the psychological and the theological significance of such practices.

First of all, a bit of terminology. Despite the impression you’d get from The Da Vinci Code, the expression “corporal mortification” is not a synonym for the use of the cilice and discipline. Corporal mortification is a much broader category. It includes any kind of bodily suffering born in a Christian spirit. It refers to both “passive mortification,” when people patiently bear the aches and pains that life sends their way, and “active mortification,” when the sufferings are self-imposed. The best-known form of active corporal mortification is fasting, but there are many other forms. To read the lives of the saints is to encounter a truly encyclopedic range of self-imposed “mortifications.” The cilice and discipline form part of this vast tradition.

As the adjective “corporal” implies, there are other “non-corporal” forms of mortification. They are often called “interior mortifications.” For exmaple, in his book entitled The Way, the founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaria Escriva, writes, “The appropriate word you left unsaid; the joke you didn’t tell; the cheerful smile for those who bother you; that silence when you’re unjustly accused; your kind conversation with people you find boring and tactless; the daily effort to overlook one irritating detail or another in those who live with you… this, with perseverance, is indeed solid interior mortification.”(n. 173)

The Christian practice of corporal mortification has its roots in the Bible. In the New Testament, St. Paul writes, “we always bear the death of Jesus in our bodies so the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our bodies.” (2 Cor. 4:10) The Latin word translated here as “death” is, in fact, “mortificationem” – the Latin text reads “semper mortificationem Iesu in corpore circumferentes” – so it is fairly easy to see where the langauge of “corporal mortification” comes from.

Today, the cilice and discipline, while still in use, are less common than they once were, and so they may strike some people as odd and grotesque, but they have very conventional pedigrees. The cilice is nothing but a modern descendent of the hairshirt or sackcloth of ancient times, and the discipline was popularized as a convenient substitute for the long fasts often imposed in the sacrament of penance in the Middle Ages.

Most people are familiar with the custom of penitential fasting and the Biblical expression “sackcloth and ashes.” In the New Testament, Jesus himself speaks of both: “The day will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and then they’ll fast” (Matthew 9:15); “Because if the mighty works that happened in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes long ago.” (Matthew 11:21) Of course, people still fast, and the Biblical ashes live on in the tradition of Ash Wednesday, but, appearances notwithstanding, the sackcloth hasn’t really disappeared either, because it lives on in the cilice.

In the Biblical story of Achab and Naboth’s vineyard, we read: “And when Ahab heard those words, he rent his clothes, and he put sackcloth upon his flesh and fasted” (1 Kings 21:27). The Latin word for “sackcloth” here is “cilicio.” In essence, it refers to cloth made of goats’ hair or horsehair. In this scene, we see that its use goes hand in hand with fasting. We find the same language elsewhere in the Old Testament: “I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting.” (Ps. 34:13; the Latin is “induebar cilicio…”)
In short, we’re in the realm of Biblical penance. The English word “cilice” comes from the French word for “haircloth,” which in turn comes from Latin “cilicium,” from Greek “kilikion” from “Kilikia” – the Greek name for the area “Cilicia” in Asia Minor, because the coarse uncomfortable cloth was made of Cilician goats’ hair.

As for the discipline, its great popularizer was St. Peter Damian (today’s his Feast day), who lived in the 11th century. In Butler’s Lives of the Saints, we read, “This saint recommends the use of disciplines whereby to subdue and punish the flesh, which was adopted as a compensation for long penitential fasts. Three thousand lashes, with the recital of thirty psalms, were a redemption of a canonical penance of one year’s continuance.” Interestingly, Butler continues, “Sir Thomas More, St. Francis of Sales, and others, testify that such means of mortification are great helps to tame the flesh, and inure it to the labours of penance; also to remove a hardness of heart and spiritual dryness, and to soften the soul into compunction. But all danger of abuses, excess, and singularity, is to be shunned, and other ordinary bodily mortifications, as watching [i.e., a vigil] and fasting, are frequently more advisable.”

This emphasis on more ordinary bodily mortifications is precisely Opus Dei’s approach. The strict limits that Opus Dei places on the use of the cilice and discipline – they are, in any event, only used by a minority within Opus Dei – reflect the wisdom of Butler’s words. In The Da Vinci Code, the character Silas flagrantly violates these limits, as, to his credit, Dan Brown does note. In fact, if a member of Opus Dei insisted on doing what Silas does, he would be shown the door in a hurry.

My main point here, though, is that – leaving behind the fantasy world of The Da Vinci Code - when we’re talking about the cilice and discipline, we are not in the whips-and-chains realm of masochistic “monks.” We are dealing with a variation on the old and familiar Biblical theme of sackcloth and fasting.


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