AskDefine | Define mortification

Dictionary Definition



1 strong feelings of embarrassment [syn: chagrin, humiliation]
2 the localized death of living cells (as from infection or the interruption of blood supply) [syn: necrosis, gangrene, sphacelus]
3 an instance in which you are caused to lose your prestige or self-respect; "he had to undergo one humiliation after another" [syn: humiliation]
4 (Christianity) the act of mortifying the lusts of the flesh by self-denial and privation (especially by bodily pain or discomfort inflicted on yourself)

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. The act of mortifying.
  2. A sensation of extreme shame or embarrassment.
  3. The death of part of the body.

Extensive Definition

For the Christian metal band, see Mortification (band). For the record label, see Mortification Records.
Mortification of the flesh literally means "putting the flesh to death". The term is primarily used in religious and spiritual contexts. The institutional and traditional terminology of this practice in Catholicism is corporal mortification.

Etymology and Christian roots

The term “mortification of the flesh” comes from Saint Paul in this quote: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live” (Epistle to the Romans 8:13). The same idea is seen in the following verses: “Put to death what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24).
According to Christian exegesis, "deeds of the body" and "what is earthly", refer to the "wounded nature" of man or his concupiscence, evil inclinations due to forming part of fallen human race-- humanity that suffered the consequences of the first man's disobedience.
Thus, Jesus expected people to repent using sackcloth and ashes: "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes." (Luke 10:13; see also Mt 11:21)


In its simplest form, it can mean merely denying oneself certain pleasures, such as by abstaining from chocolate, meat, food generally (fasting), alcohol, or sex. It can also be practiced by choosing a simple or even impoverished lifestyle; this is often one reason many monks of various religions take vows of poverty.
In some of its more severe forms, it can mean causing self-inflicted pain and physical harm, such as by beating, whipping, piercing, or cutting.


Mortification of the flesh is sometimes difficult to understand from a modern perspective. In order to explain this notion, some compare it to the motto "no pain, no gain" associated with the practice of rigorous athletic training, demanding diets for weight reduction, and surgical operations to enhance or change physical appearance.
In the same way that people who change their appearance through painful means will sacrifice and deny themselves in order to attain some physical or material goals, some people voluntarily perform self-inflicted sacrifices in order to receive spiritual or intangible goals, e.g. union with their god, a higher place in heaven, expiation for other people's sins or balancing of karma, self-realization, or the conversion of sinners. The root of the modern-day perplexity over mortification, according to some theologians, is the "practical denial of God," a denial of any but material realities.
The Rev. Michael Geisler, a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature in St. Louis, wrote two articles attempting to explain the theological purpose behind corporal mortification. "Self-denial helps a person overcome both psychological and physical weakness, gives him energy, helps him grow in virtue and ultimately leads to salvation. It conquers the insidious demons of softness, pessimism and lukewarm faith that dominate the lives of so many today" (Crisis magazine July/August 2005).
Members of the modern Church of Body Modification (CBM) believe that by enduring pain they make a connection to their spirit. Some indigenous cultures' shamans believe that endurance of pain or denial of appetites serves to increase spiritual power.
Some theologians explain that the redemptive value of pain makes pain itself lovable, even though by itself it is not. Pain is temporal and limited, thus to undergo it is worthwhile to gain the real or imagined benefits. For those with this viewpoint, pain is seen as a means to an end. Thus, a modern Catholic saint, Josemaria Escriva said, while consoling a dying woman who was suffering in a hospital, "Blessed be pain! Glorified be pain! Sanctified be pain!"

Practices in various religions and cultures

Various forms of self-denial or voluntary suffering (commonly referred to as Ascetism) are practised in various ways by members of many religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam (only in Sufism and Shi'a Islam, see Remembrance of Muharram). Various indigenous peoples and primitivists also incorporate voluntary pain, suffering, and self-denial as part of their spiritual traditions as vehicles to the divine and/or rites of passage or healing.
It has been speculated that extreme practices of mortification of the flesh may be used to obtain altered states of consciousness to achieve spiritual experiences or visions. In modern times, members of the Church of Body Modification believe that by manipulating and modifying their bodies (by painful processes) they can strengthen the bond between their bodies and spirits, and become more spiritually aware. This somewhat secular group uses rites of passage from many traditions to seek their aims, including Hindu, Buddhist, shamanic, and Christian methods of seeking altered states of consciousness.

Indigenous practices and shamanism

In many indigenous cultures, painful rites are used to mark sexual maturity, marriage, procreation, or other major life stages. In Africa and Australia, indigenous people sometimes use genital mutilation on boys and girls that is intentionally painful, including circumcision, subincision, clitoridectomy, piercing or infibulation. In some Native American tribes enduring scarification or the bites of ants are common rituals to mark a boy's transition to adulthood. Human rights organizations in several areas of the world have protested some of these methods, which can be forced upon the participants, although some are voluntary and are a source of pride.
Shamans often use painful rites and self-denial such as fasting or celibacy to attain transformation, or to commune with spirits.

Modern practices and opinions

Some psychologists associate these practices with algolagnia and refer to it as self-harm. They sometimes attribute these practices, outside of a formal cultural context, to causes such as Borderline personality disorder or other mental illnesses.
In some contexts, modern practices of body modification and plastic surgery overlap with mortification. Often, secular people will undergo painful experiences in order to become more self-aware, to take control of their bodies or "own" them more fully, to bond with a group that is spiritual in its aims, or to overcome the body's limitations in ways that do not refer to any higher power. Many times these rites are intended to empower the participant, rather than humble them. This represents a very different aim than many traditional mortifications. One of the personal characteristics found to have a positive statistical correlation with self-harm is hopelessness. Rites intended for personal empowerment may be related to this.
Roland Loomis re-creates Sun dance ceremonies and suspensions for those who want to access these painful technologies to expand their consciousness. Musafar explains his use of these rites as a way to awaken the spirit to the body's limits, and put it in control of them. Others who have used these experiences to transcend physical limitations report a feeling of mastery over their physical circumstance, along with a widened perspective.


References to mortification in the Hebrew Bible:
  • Genesis 37:34 : "Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth, and mourned for his son many days."
  • 1 Kings 21:27–29 : "When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: "Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.""
  • Joel 1:13–14 "Put on sackcloth, O priests, and mourn; wail, you who minister before the altar. Come, spend the night in sackcloth, you who minister before my God; for the grain offerings and drink offerings are withheld from the house of your God. Declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD."
  • Isaiah 22:12–14 "The Lord, the LORD Almighty, called you on that day to weep and wail, to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth. But see, there is joy and revelry, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine! "Let us eat and drink," you say, "for tomorrow we die!" The LORD Almighty has revealed this in my hearing: "Till your dying day this sin will not be atoned for," says the Lord, the LORD Almighty."
All passages taken from the NIV of the Bible.


Examples of mortification of the flesh in Christian history

Paul wrote: "I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps when I have preached to others I myself should be castaway" (I Cor. 9:27); "In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, that is the Church." (Col 1:24) Jesus Christ is quoted: "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me."
Through the centuries, some Christians have practiced these voluntary penances as a way of imitating Jesus who, they believe, voluntarily accepted the sufferings of his passion and death on the cross at Calvary in order to redeem mankind. Some Christians note that the cross carried by Jesus is the crossbar or patibulum, a rough tree trunk, which probably weighed between 80 to 110 pounds.
Christ also fasted for forty days and forty nights, an example of self-inflicted pain for a higher purpose, as a way of preparing for ministry. The saints and founders of Christian religious organizations practiced mortification in order to imitate Christ. The early Christians mortified the flesh through martyrdom and through what has been called "confession of the faith": accepting torture in a joyful way.
Another way of self-denial which developed quickly in the early centuries was celibacy, giving up sex and procreation for higher supernatural ends.
Starting in the fourth century, hermits started to populate the deserts as their way of doing penance.
Saint Jerome, a biblical scholar who translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), was famous for his severe penances in the desert.

Catholic viewpoints and history

In the second millennium, St. Dominic Loricatus is said to have performed 'One Hundred Years Penance' by chanting 20 psalters accompanied by 300,000 lashes over six days. Later, Saint Francis of Assisi, who is said to have received the stigmata, painful wounds like those of Jesus Christ, is said to have asked pardon to his body, whom he called Brother Ass, for the severe self-afflicted penances he has done: vigils, fasts, frequent flagellations and the use of a hairshirt.
Doctor of the Church, St. Catherine of Siena (died 1380), was a tertiary Dominican who lived at home rather than in a convent, and who practiced austerities which a prioress would probably not have permitted. She is notable for fasting and subsisting for long periods of time on nothing but the Blessed Sacrament. St. Catherine of Siena wore sackcloth and scourged herself three times daily in imitation of St. Dominic.
In the 16th century, Saint Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England, wore a hairshirt, deliberately mortifying his body. He also used the 'discipline.'
Saint Ignatius of Loyola while in Manresa in 1522 is known to have practiced severe mortifications. In the Litany prayers to Saint Ignatius he is praised as being “constant in the practice of corporal penance.” He wore a hair shirt and heavy iron chain, and was in the habit of wearing a cord tied below the knee.
St. Teresa of Ávila, a Doctor of the Church, undertook severe mortification once it was suggested by friends that her supernatural ecstasies were of diabolical origin. She continued until Francis Borgia reassured her. She believed she was goaded by angels and had a passion to conform her life to the sufferings of Jesus, with a motto associated with her: "Lord, either let me suffer or let me die." St. Marguerite Marie Alacoque (22 July 1647-17 October 1690), the promoter of the devotion to the Sacred Heart, practised in secret severe corporal mortification after her First Communion at the age of nine, until becoming paralyzed, which confined her to bed for four years. Having been cured of her paralysis by the intercession of the Virgin Mary, she changed her name to Marie (French: Mary) and vowed to devote her life to the service of Mary.
Blessed Junípero Serra (November 24, 1713 – August 28, 1784) was a Franciscan friar who founded the mission chain in Alta California. A statue of Fr. Junipero Serra rests in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building, representing the state of California. He was known for his love for mortification, self-denial and absolute trust in God.
An outstanding saint in the 19th century is St. Jean Vianney who converted hundreds of people in laicist France. Pope John XXIII said of him: "You cannot begin to speak of St. John Mary Vianney without automatically calling to mind the picture of a priest who was outstanding in a unique way in voluntary affliction of his body; his only motives were the love of God and the desire for the salvation of the souls of his neighbors, and this led him to abstain almost completely from food and from sleep, to carry out the harshest kinds of penances, and to deny himself with great strength of soul...[T]his way of life is particularly successful in bringing many men who have been drawn away by the allurement of error and vice back to the path of good living."
During the later part of the 19th century, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, another Doctor of the Church, at three years of age was described by her mother: "Even Thérèse is anxious to practice mortification.” And Thérèse later wrote: "My God, I will not be a saint by halves. I am not afraid of suffering for Thee.” The "Little Flower", famous for her "little way" and love of God -- fasted and used the 'discipline' vigorously, "scourging herself with all the strength and speed of which she was capable, smiling at the crucifix through the tears which bedewed her eyelashes," according to one of her biographers.
In the early 20th century, The seers of Fatima said they were told by the angel: "In every way you can offer sacrifice to God in reparation for the sins by which He is offended, and in supplication for sinners. In this way you will bring peace to our country, for I am its guardian angel, the Angel of Portugal. Above all, bear and accept with patience the sufferings God will send you." They reported that the idea of making sacrifices was repeated several times by the Virgin Mary. The children wore tight cords around their waist and abstained from drinking water on hot days.
Catholics believe that God, who in their view by his divine nature cannot change, has united with changing human nature, and therefore with human pain. The "I" of the Second Person suffers and feels pain. He is one with pain through Jesus Christ. Thus Christ's experience of pain (like all the human acts of Christ like sleeping, crying, speaking) whose subject is the divine Person is an infinite act. This is based on the classic dictum that the acts belong to the Person (actiones sunt suppositorum). It is the Person who acts: It is God who walks, God who talks, God who is killed, and God who is in pain. Thus a Christian who is united to Jesus Christ through pain is one with his infinite act of saving the world.
This also goes together with another dictum in theology: whatever is not united (to the Divine Person) is not saved. Thus, his intellect, his will, his feelings, are all united with the Person, and are all sanctified and redeemed, including pain. Pain is therefore a sanctified and redeeming human experience.
The teaching of Pope John Paul II: the salvific meaning of suffering
John Paul II wrote an entire Apostolic Letter on the topic of suffering, specifically the salvific meaning of suffering: Salvifici Doloris. It is considered a major contribution to the theology of pain and suffering.
He wrote this after suffering from a bullet wound due to the assassination attempt of Ali Agca. Six weeks after meeting his attacker, he wrote about suffering in Christianity.
"Christ did not conceal from his listeners the need for suffering. He said very clearly: "If any man would come after me... let him take up his cross daily, and before his disciples he placed demands of a moral nature that can only be fulfilled on condition that they should "deny themselves". The way that leads to the Kingdom of heaven is "hard and narrow", and Christ contrasts it to the "wide and easy" way that "leads to destruction."
Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but he states: "Follow me!". Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross.
Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. ...It is then that man finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy."
Joy in suffering: sharing in the redemption
Saint Paul speaks of such joy in the Letter to the Colossians: "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake". He had found a source of joy in overcoming the sense of the uselessness of suffering.
Faith in sharing in the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person "completes what is lacking in Christ's afflictions"; the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of Redemption he is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters.
He states that it is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls. Suffering, more than anything else, makes present in the history of humanity the powers of the Redemption.
The need for prudence
The Desert Fathers emphasize that mortification is a means, not an end. They generally recommended prudence when practicing mortification, with severe mortifications done only under the guidance of an experienced spiritual director. Consequently, practicing mortification for physical pleasure is seen as a sin. Likewise, mortification for reasons of scrupulosity (which is similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder) is considered very harmful: a contemporary example is fasting due to anorexia nervosa. Catholic moral theologians recommend that the scrupulous not practice mortification, avoid persons and materials of an ascetical nature, and receive frequent spiritual direction and psychological help. 1 Not all forms of self-mortification are approved of by the Catholic church. Practices such as the nonlethal crucifixions performed on Good Friday in the Philippines are generally frowned upon by Catholic officials. Participants imitate various parts of the Passion of Christ, including his crucifixion. The spectacle draws a large amount of tourism every year.
The teaching of Benedict XVI
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who later became Benedict XVI told Peter Seewald in God and the world: "When we know that the way of love — this exodus, this going out of oneself — is the true way by which man becomes human, then we also understand that suffering is the process through which we mature. Anyone who has inwardly accepted suffering becomes more mature and more understanding of others, becomes more human. Anyone who has consistently avoided suffering does not understand other people; he becomes hard and selfish. Love itself is a passion, something we endure. In love I experience first a happiness, a general feeling of happiness. Yet, on the other hand, I am taken out of my comfortable tranquility and have to let myself be reshaped. If we say that suffering is the inner side of love, we then also understand by it is so important to learn how to suffer — and why, conversely, the avoidance of suffering renders someone unfit to cope with life." He also said in the Way of the Cross: "In sinking to the depths he rose to the heights. Now he has radically fulfilled the commandment of love, he has completed the offering of himself, and in this way he is now the revelation of the true God, the God who is love. Now we know who God is. Now we know what true kingship is. Jesus prays Psalm 22, which begins with the words: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Ps 22:2). He takes to himself the whole suffering people of Israel, all of suffering humanity, the drama of God's darkness, and he makes God present in the very place where he seems definitively vanquished and absent. The Cross of Jesus is a cosmic event. The world is darkened, when the Son of God is given up to death. The earth trembles. And on the Cross, the Church of the Gentiles is born. The Roman centurion understands this, and acknowledges Jesus as the Son of God. From the Cross he triumphs ­ ever anew."
Cardinal Ratzinger states that pain, the very product of evil and sin, is used by God to negate evil and sin. He states that by freely suffering the pains that went with his passion and death on the cross, the Jesus fully reveals his love, making up for Adam's and mankind's sin, and makes man grow into maturity.

Protestant Christianity's view and use of mortification

Mortification in Protestant Christianity, especially the reformed tradition, differs widely from the mortification presented in this article. This difference lies mainly in the interpretation of "body" and/or "flesh" in key biblical passages such as Romans 8:13.
One view of mortification depends on a body as defined in opposition to the soul. This view typically portrays the body as evil and the soul as good. Therefore, one must kill, injure, or impair the body in order to free the soul from evil. Protestants believe that this view has more in common with Asceticism and Gnosticism than it does with a sound Biblical exegesis of the passages involved.
The opposing view is that passages such as Romans 8:13 are dealing with a regenerate or born again individual. This individual has undergone and is undergoing a radical transformation of nature. This transformation is known as sanctification, and is characterized in the Bible in several different ways, including: flesh/spirit, old man/new man, old nature/new nature, light/darkness, life/death etc. Mortification therefore is referring to killing this old nature. Since this old nature is not the literal physical body; the killing, injuring, or impairing of this body only helps to kill the old nature insofar as it helps to change the behavior of the individual. For example, someone might pinch himself to help get his mind off an evil thought.
The goal here is not to hurt the body, but to use the body as a tool to affect the mind. It is easy to see how this view could eventually be transformed into or confused with the self-mutilating view of mortification.
Also, many non-Catholic Christians (not only Protestants, but also some Eastern Orthodox Christians) believe that the practice of inflicting pain (even on oneself) is not compatible with Jesus's teaching and healing miracles.
The Catholic view is linked to the concept of concupiscence, or evil inclinations present in all human beings who have a "wounded nature". As against the Lutheran view that man is totally depraved due to Adam's sin, Catholicism views man as intrinsically good, but with evil tendencies, which need to be curbed through penance and mortification.


Karl Marx saw "mortifications of the flesh" as a kind of apology or excuse for the rich to maintain the status quo seasoned with a little mortification. To quote Marx, Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the state? Has it not preached in the place of these, charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.
Secondly, Marx says that in a "commodity culture" that fixes everything into a formatted product, the worker lose his self-awareness. His idiosyncratic or unique self is mortified. The one who works today, unlike in some ideal time, hands his product over to the market, to some corner of the globe. This sacrifice of his life's work and craft is described by Marx as "alienating". The physical work is part of this alienation and so becomes self-mortification, Marx again:
External labor, labor in which man alienates himself, is a labor of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Finally, the external character of labor for the worker is demonstrated by the fact that it belongs not to him but to another, and that in it he belongs not to himself but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, the human brain, and the human heart, detaches itself from the individual and reappears as the alien activity of a god or of a devil, so the activity of the worker is not his own spontaneous activity. It belongs to another, it is a loss of his self.


mortification in German: Kasteiung
mortification in Dutch: Zelfkastijding
mortification in Portuguese: Mortificação

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Albigensianism, Catharism, Day of Atonement, Franciscanism, Sabbatarianism, Trappism, Waldensianism, Yoga, Yom Kippur, abasement, abashment, abstinence, anchoritic monasticism, anchoritism, asceticism, austerity, awkwardness, caries, carrion, chagrin, cold purgatorial fires, comedown, confusion, debasement, decay, decomposition, deflation, descent, discomfiture, discomposure, disconcertedness, disconcertion, disconcertment, discountenance, disgrace, distress, disturbance, dry gangrene, dry rot, dump, embarrassment, eremitism, fasting, flagellation, foulness, gangrene, gas gangrene, hair shirt, hangdog look, humbled pride, humiliation, letdown, lustration, maceration, mendicantism, moist gangrene, monachism, monasticism, necrosis, necrotic tissue, noma, penance, penitence, penitential act, penitential exercise, purgation, purgatory, puritanism, put-down, putrefaction, putrescence, putridity, putridness, rancidity, rancidness, rankness, repentance, rigor, rot, rottenness, sackcloth and ashes, self-abasement, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-diminishment, self-mortification, setdown, shame, shamefacedness, shamefastness, slough, sphacelation, sphacelus, spoilage, tooth decay, voluntary poverty
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