The other night CBC ran a special about Opus Dei, the Catholic organization that is now famous due to the role attributed to it in the Da Vinci Code. I have not read the book and will probably not see the movie, even though intimates inform me it is a rousing tale of the potboiler type. The CBC was making an effort to appear understanding, even though the simple fact of presenting such a topic on national television presupposes criticism. We saw and heard a pleasant member of Opus Dei explain how he wears an uncomfortable spiked chain around his leg for two hours a week, and periodically whips himself on the bare butt with a toy whip – all this in the hope of sharing the suffering and pain of his hero and saviour, Jesus Christ. Indeed, he is hoping that in imitating Christ, some of the spiritual closeness will rub off. He believes his hero must have felt just like this, and so this is what it feels like to be Him!
Is this weird? Well, I am pretty sure that despite its strained neutrality on this topic, our national network once again saw itself as playing a crucial role in showing us that religion, especially Catholicism is, um, very retro. The message was that self-inflicted pain, or so-called “self-mortification,” is weird (and so religion is weird). Now I am not certain of the meaning of the phrase, but I suspect it has something to do with dying to yourself, or making your own physical “self”die, so to speak, so that your spirit can be free from the bonds, allurements, pleasures, and deceptions of the flesh. The underlying notion is that the spirit is always threatened with enslavement to the body.
This reminds me that most of the key writings in our tradition document a continuous struggle in which central figures attempt either to lose the self through immersion in bodily pleasure, or to escape the body and its appetites altogether in search of a purely spiritual experience. For the former type, intense pleasure is the road to ecstasy. There is even a drug called “ecstasy” that serves this purpose. I believe this word is rooted in “ex-stasis” – to exit from the static, or from what is, from ordinary bodily life and awareness. At any rate, this type escapes the self through physical enjoyment. The latter type exits, or escapes the self through mortification, or physical pain.
How common are these two escape methods today, and is there a sense in which not just Opus Dei members, but our entire civilization is caught up in one or the other of these methods of escaping the self? For sure. It is quite possible the CBC interviewer, perhaps a confirmed secularist, after leaving the studio feeling gratified that he had exposed religion as a weird self-punishment thing, happily strapped on his jogging shoes and ran a very painful 10K … to make himself feel purified and “fit,” or to get “an endorphin high.” There are millions of people, and I am one of them, who make a daily habit of this sort of self-mortification. And I am absolutely certain that two hours a week of whipping your butt with a toy whip to feel better spiritually is no match for a two hour ride over punishing hills with my son. I mean, we really grind it out. There is intense pain in the thighs, burning lungs, lactic acid in the mouth, and stiffness that can last for days. And for sure, sometimes we wear the yellow bracelet, or even a special Lance Armstrong biking shirt … and we imagine for a moment, on the crest of a hill, that we are feeling what Lance felt, that this is what it feels like to be him.
And when I go to the gym, I see hundreds of people pumping huge machines, blood vessels popping, carpets wet with sweat, wiping themselves off with towels, exiting painful “spinning” classes they brag about; assuming horribly twisted and painful poses in their Yoga classes; some even don boxing gloves and slug the hell out of each other, or suffer broken hands, ribs, or feet in smelly karate classes; or – I have seen it – lose an eye to a squash ball. Fitness and sport are popular forms of ecstasy we are convinced lift us above or out of ordinary life, and hundreds of millions of people daily drive themselves through this experience of reaching for the feeling of emotional or spiritual purity – even superiority to other human beings – through pain. We say “no pain, no gain,” and coaches tell their athletes, “Go hard, or go home,” meaning – if it doesn’t hurt, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.
And on it goes. Afterward we often get into a popular form of ecstasy called beer, and many of us suffer the painful consequences after. Some people actually kill themselves this way. During the day, I see thousands of women suffering voluntarily for hours at a time in high heels for the pleasure of personal vanity. In my own case, all my physical pains – a broken and now disabled shoulder joint (three surgeries) and emergency back surgery ten years ago (from an old long-jumping injury) – both of these give me daily pain for a lot more than two hours a day, often even waking me at night. But I don’t regret a thing. It was all for the glory and the high of sports I have loved. So it’s not just Opus Dei. We are all doing it. And maybe the CBC should do a little corrective programming about how normal it all is.