An object that looks like a braided horse’s tail sits on a shelf near my desk, because I cannot bring myself to throw it away. At the end of one of the braids is a tiny dark reddish-brown stain. The muscles tightened around my heart the day I realized that stain was dried blood.
Very old dried blood, mind you. My uncle, who was a Jesuit priest, has been dead for years. We found this among his personal effects. “Effects”—the objects so intimate to us, they are affected by us? Or they are part of the way we affect the world? In this case, his effects were the few possessions conveyed to his biological family by the community to which he had transferred his primary allegiance.
Really, though, he had transferred his allegiance to God, a word I heard him intone daily in both Latin and English, his voice taking on a funny, formal, slightly affected tone. Uncle Dick sounded like someone else when he said Mass, even if he was saying it in our living room.
He stood six-four, with bright blue eyes and fine-cut, somber features, and I imagine the young women in his English lit. classes flirted just a bit. But between the trying-slightly-too-hard classroom wit and the solemn, careful enunciation of the liturgy, he (I realize now) was desperately insecure.
He had no reason to be. The firstborn of seven, he was the apple of my Irish grandmother’s eye, and she doted on him in a way the next six kids could only envy. All the world heard about it when he entered the priesthood. But he had my grandfather’s earnest, introverted sensitivity, and he was perhaps not quite as cerebral as his fellow Jesuit scholastics. Word in the family was that the novitiate was brutal for him, the demands of that pastoral seminary fiercer than military drills in the Cambodian jungle.
He made it through, then lived a rather timid Jesuit life—no missionary work in Africa, no stunning intellectual achievements. I google him, something I have never done, and find only a short, restrained obit.
Nothing about the way he prayed in the quiet of his room. Nothing of how he suffered.
These whips are called “disciplines” or “scourges.” Some are made of leather; his seems gentler, a coarse fine rope. It is the pale tan of wheat, which makes the bloodstain more prominent. When I take hold of its knotted handle and swish it lightly over my shoulder (God forbid that I should cause myself pain) I see that it was easily long enough to slice into his broad back.
To me, such a practice has nothing to do with prayer. To him, it was, I assume, a “mortification of the flesh.” The phrase literally means “putting the flesh to death,” a concept that sends chills down my spine. If we are indeed created by a spiritual being, we should celebrate our flesh. And if we just happened to evolve, why not enjoy it?
In my uncle’s generation, though, the idea of faith was to take on as much of Jesus’s suffering as possible, all the while humbling yourself with constant reminders of your flawed humanity. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, you said as you beat your breast. Or swung the scourge.
What was he thinking as it bit into his skin? Was he reliving the stations of the cross, the mockery and physical torture Jesus endured when he was scourged, or did he relive the small moments of ego or selfishness in his tame academic life? He loved fineness—good wine and food, beautiful art, literature—but his pleasures were rare, and I wonder if he ever felt he deserved them. There was no sense of cutting loose or kicking back in his demeanor—none of the head-thrown-back laughter of his baby brother, the youngest of the seven, who worked for an ad agency and once posed for a whiskey ad in Playboy. The baby gets the freedom of rebellion; the eldest bears the burden of the parents’ dreams.
I read more about scourges and stifle a grin, wondering if Uncle Dick knew that the eunuch priests of Cybele, an Anatolian mother goddess, were among the first to use them. At least he did not wear the cilice, a spiked metal garter brought back to popularity by the orthodox lay Catholics in the order of Opus Dei. Worn beneath one’s clothing, its sharp points dig into the thigh all day while you type memos or take meetings, forcing a constant reminder of…whatever you have decided it should symbolize.
I hope the pain of scourging at least released endorphins, took Uncle Dick’s mind off the struggle of celibacy and his sense of inadequacy, made him feel that he was worthy to be a priest. “I chastise my body and bring it into subjection,” wrote St. Paul, “lest perhaps when I have preached to others I myself should be castaway.” Is it healthier to use physical pain to ease mental anguish? People tear at their hair in wild grief, cut their flesh to feel alive. I have never trusted this notion of “offering up” pain and suffering and self-denial. As though God wants it? Human beings have long relied on punishment and self-denial to build character, but I could never even swear off chocolate for Lent. The bunny lost its ears in Week Seven.
The other purpose of self-mortification was to beat the sin out of oneself. I am virtually positive that my uncle never did anything mortally wrong. I am not sure, however, that his sort of caution is always a virtue. Might it have been a greater act of faith to overcome his fears?
We all find different ways to feel holy. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “scourge” as “a whip, lash. Now only rhetorical, with reference to the torturing of human beings, or to ascetic discipline.” But it is more than rhetorical: Pope John Paul II scourged himself and spent entire nights lying on a hard floor with his arms outstretched. Even the kindly Pope John XXIII wrote, “The faithful must also be encouraged to do outward acts of penance, both to keep their bodies under the strict control of reason and faith, and to make amends for their own and other people’s sins.” Centuries earlier, Congregationalist Sarah Osborn practiced self-flagellation “to remind her of her continued sin, depravity, and vileness in the eyes of God.”
Fingering the blood stains, I wonder if they are holy. All I feel is sad.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.