When being holy hurts

An historian talks about the modern face of "sacred pain," which religions use it the most and how self-cutters carry on the tradition.

Published November 26, 2001 9:31PM (EST)

The Catholic mystic Sister Maria Maddalena de Pazzi sometimes wore a tight crown of thorns; other times she firmly strapped a girdle to her body so that its sharp nails dug into her flesh. She walked barefoot in winter, burned her skin with hot candle wax and resisted the desire to eat and sleep. When spirits invaded her, she would hurl her body against the ground until her face swelled, all in the hope that her pain would drive the devil away.

Sister Maria embraced these various forms of self-torture over 400 years ago, but voluntary religious pain still exists today. Some of those who endure sacred pain believe that when they hurt, they come that much closer to God. Others feel cleansed of spiritual maladies. To a secular person, these views might seem superstitious and pointless; after all, modern society devotes time, energy and tons of money to healing, finding cures for and eliminating suffering. Pain, in our eyes, is a problem to be solved. But to Ariel Glucklich, an associate professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington, who has studied forms of sacred pain in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, pain can have spiritual and emotional benefits. Sometimes in order to heal, we have to hurt -- physically -- first.

In "Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul," a wide-ranging investigation and history of the topic, Glucklich attempts to make sense of pain as a transformative experience, a biochemical phenomenon and, sometimes, a secular remedy. One of his more controversial arguments -- that self-mutilators aren't necessarily afflicted by psychological malaise or radical self-hatred -- goes beyond the realm of the religious and into the minds of seemingly troubled young women (called "cutters") who often have been sexually or mentally abused. But can acts that appear entirely destructive really have benefits?

Salon spoke to Glucklich by phone about the role of pain in mysticism, which religions ritualize suffering the most and how people in secular societies try to make sense out of being hurt.

What form of sacred pain goes on today? What kind of sacrifices are religious people making, and for whom?

They're not necessarily sacrificing themselves and it doesn't really feel like a form of destruction. It feels more like a fulfillment. Unlike the man who steps on a landmine and feels explosive pain, these mystics and saints hurt themselves in a gradual way. They don't start off by tormenting themselves. There's a ratcheting up of their pain. They do this while worshiping a God or committing themselves to a community and they start thinking of this as an act of self-sacrifice. It's very fulfilling.

What is the most convincing example of sacred pain that you've encountered?

A pilgrimage is a journey to the sacred -- geographically. For the pilgrim, it's also a journey to that more important center of being. A lot of pilgrimages involve pain: walking barefoot on hot ground for long distances, or lying down prostate every few steps and getting back up, or not eating or drinking as you would, or sleeping on hard ground. There's self-flagellation. Pilgrims are taking their secular self and making it more like their divine self through this path of deprivation and pain. From what I understand though, some Muslim pilgrims going on the Haj will go on five-star air-conditioned buses and fly first-class. Times have really changed.

In the descriptions of pilgrims is where you're going to meet most of the people today who practice sacred pain. You talk to pilgrims and you look at the bottoms of their feet and they say, yes, I feel the pain but I feel so much closer to God. But maybe if they were traveling in a fancy bus, they wouldn't feel it.

Which religion takes this to the greatest extreme?

Christianity. Christian monks, nuns, martyrs. Although you find it everywhere.

What kind of pain are we talking about today?

Here at Georgetown, which is a Jesuit university, there are a few Jesuit priests who might use what is like a garter belt. You put it around your thigh. It has pricks pointed in and the higher you put it on and the bigger the muscle, the sharper it feels. So you can control that kind of pain. There are some who still use knotted ropes to lash themselves a little bit.

Does the Catholic Church condone this?

Not at all. Although, if you're up for a canonization, like Padre Pio -- the [Italian] monk who had stigmata -- the church looks at his pains and they think they're wonderful. They look at it as if he was wrestling with demons.

Do they admire this because it seems to say that holy people can endure what the average person cannot?

There's some of that. There's also the recognition that you're wrestling with something that requires pain to overcome, for instance, temptation, the weakness of the body.

I would think that religious guilt -- especially in Christianity -- would make people believe that they deserve pain.

It definitely plays a role there. It even plays a role in lay or secular people who go to pain clinics and tell their doctors that they think they deserve their chronic pain. Here they are, they have chronic pain and they're being sent to group therapy to talk about it and they contextualize their pain in this sense of guilt. It's a very Christian thing. One of the things, though, is that it turns the pain into something meaningful so it's not entirely masochistic. You're trying to structure you're experience.

And do they feel cleansed?

Yes, sometimes it's better to hurt than to feel guilty or depressed.

Besides Christianity, how do other types of religious use sacred this?

Judaism is not so hot on this, though there are notable examples, like Rabbi Akiva who almost had himself martyred -- the Romans combed flesh off his bones. In the early Enlightenment, up to the 17th century or so, Jews would perform certain practices. If you were penitent, you would sit in freezing water in the winter. And there are symbolic things that don't involve pain anymore but used to. For instance, in funerals, you tear the shirt or the button; in the old days, you would tear out your hair. Judaism doesn't have much. Islam has much more than Judaism, but not nearly as much as Christianity.

What brand of sacred pain is used in Islam?

There are communal events where the Shiite Muslims whip themselves, marking the murder of Hussein. In Buddhism and Hinduism, there's quite a bit of self-hurting; in fact, a lot. But there's a slightly different goal there. You don't ratchet up the pain like you do in the West so that you're always in pain. You work your consciousness through the pain so you can regard either pain or pleasure as equal things and move beyond opposites.

Is martyrdom a form of sacred pain?

Islamic martyrdom is immediate death. That's not the same. What I'm talking about is a kind of a creative religious force. What a lot of these [Islamic] martyrs are being promised is eternal pleasure. It's a separate question. But the martyr who is up there taunting his torturers, daring them to hurt him, that's sacred pain.

You decided to write this book because of your friend, Jacob Goren. What happened to him?

I call him my friend but he's my father. He lost his leg in the Second World War in Italy and he's been living with phantom leg pain ever since I can remember.

What is that like?

He's missing half of his left leg up to the knee, and his foot hurts all the time even though it's not there. It feels like somebody's driving a screwdriver into his big toe. There's nothing anybody can do about this and it's really affected his life. One day, the subject of religion and pain came up and he said, "That's crazy. I'd give anything to get rid of this pain." So I decided to write a book and explain why religious people hurt themselves.

Then, at the end of the book, you say that his pain was transformed, not in a religious way, but into his passion for Israel. Is that an analogy for how religious people transform pain?

Yes, maybe not as intense, but it's there.

How did his pain influence his Zionism?

If he were an American or Frenchman or if he lost a limb in a car accident or something, he'd suffer from depression or he wouldn't be able to have a career. But because he lost his limb for some kind of noble cause -- helping the Jews and being a Zionist -- and because he lives in a culture where sacrifice of the individual to the group is very highly valued, he's always felt that his pain and misery is a meaningful kind of pain. It's not just destructive pain.

So this is an appropriate secular analogy for the sacred pain you write about in your book?

In secular life, what you do see, and I experienced this because I served in the Israeli army, are the trials that you undergo for something that you think is much more important than yourself, such as becoming a good soldier. A good soldier is capable of sacrificing himself for something greater. Training towards that kind of thing involves pain and suffering but the kind that's meant to strengthen, not tear down.

Can you see differences between how Israelis view pain -- because of Israel's collective goal -- and Americans view pain?

Yes, although Israel is becoming more and more Americanized. The basic difference is that in Israel you're part of a community that has a purpose as a community. If your pain was caused by a terrorist act or war, then the pain becomes part of the collective ritual. It's meaningful in the sense of being a sacrifice made for the collective consciousness.

Imagine that someone's injured in a terrorist explosion in New York. Right now we're all so united, but five years down the road this will all be distant memory. Everyone will be left to suffer his own trauma personally, like Vietnam veterans. You'll have a lot more mental illness and depression because you don't have the sense of the collective consciousness that gives meaning to your sacrifice and rituals that contextualize this dynamic. In the absence of that, you will suffer worse than you would in Israel. That's why Holocaust survivors have it harder in the U.S. than in Israel. Here, these moments of patriotism flare up and then it goes away and we settle into the usual routine.

You write about self-mutilators and you say that it can be helpful in some way. Obviously, this is shocking considering what we've learned about teenage girls who cut themselves.

There's a lot of literature about young women mutilating themselves. The literature has a consensus that a lot of it is about sexual abuse or some sort of trauma and stress in their lives. Obviously, I agree that what causes this behavior are bad things. What I am saying is that the pain itself for these girls, to them, has the feeling of something good and empowering. It doesn't really mask the other misery, but it changes that other misery into a form of power in their conscious mind. They might become empowered because they control their bodies now, or they might feel empowered because they're identifying with the idea of the father or powerful figure who made their life miserable. Obviously it is not a psychological solution. But the pain isn't the enemy, it's the abuser or whatever happened to them.

Do they see their bodies as their body or as representative of something else?

They do see it as their body, but the interesting thing is that it doesn't hurt as much as you think it would. When you're in distress and you slash away at your thighs, a bystander would think, oh my, that's so painful. But when you read the accounts of these people -- and I've read dozens -- there's this consensus that it doesn't really hurt that much. It feels good. It's not that they don't feel like it's their body, but they do kind of internally separate the cutter/slasher part of themselves from the body that gets cut. That's what allows them to feel empowered.

But is there a biochemical response that might explain this?

Yes, the trauma to the nerves and a signal traveling up the nervous system toward the brain triggers a response, a sort of downstream response of endorphins, natural opiates. That results in temporary states of euphoria. Very temporary. But what I'm saying is that that's not enough to explain what's going on.

To some degree it accounts for the fact that it doesn't hurt as much as you think it would. But it doesn't account for the feeling of being empowered for whatever it is that these women see in their mind's eye. The content of their consciousness is not determined by biochemistry. Biochemistry gives the pain a certain kind of texture. Also, a lot of the self-hurters in religious literature, or these girls, cut themselves so often and for such a long duration, that the bad endorphins don't really kick in anymore. It's not really about riding this rush.

So you don't think, for religious people or these women, that it's a form of self-hatred?

The part in the self-hatred is not the hatred, it's the self. What is going to some extent is that the self that they experience as their empirical self isn't enough. They're not trying to annihilate that self in favor of nothing. They're trying to supercede it or move on to a greater self. For the mystic, the greater self is a god or something like that. For a self-hurter that other self is identifying with the victimizer. She wants to be the father or she wants to be like the father to that self. So, yes, it helps her leap-frog her limited self onto something else.

Are you saying that this helps people come to some different understanding about what happened to them that they otherwise wouldn't have come to?

I think so. I'm not a psychologist or a therapist, but my intuition as a result of doing research is that if I came across a relative or a friend who was in a situation like that, I would never say, "Go and slash yourself," obviously. But I might say suggest working out at the gym intensively or jogging intensively to the point where you feel the strain and the stress of the workout. That could be a very positive thing.

Is this about diverting focus from the internal to the external? A diversion from their emotional pain?

I don't think it's a diversion. In the act of cutting, they really are confronting their suffering. They're not confronting the psychological issue at hand but they are confronting their feelings about what's going on and moving to some kind of experience of themselves as something greater than they were before. At the same time, I have to admit, it's also a way of taking their mind off of the fact that, let's say, the home they're growing in is really stressful and they don't know how to deal with that so they are also taking their mind off of what's really going on.

In India, in that stage of life, you get a lot of cases of possession, especially girls and young women who become possessed by ghosts. When they become possessed by ghosts, they self-mutilate.

What do you mean they become possessed by ghosts?

Or spirits. It's very common in a lot of cultures. Suddenly, this 18-year-old girl feels this force -- boom! -- and this spirit entered her and she's possessed by them.

What cultures?

In India, Japan, Korea, Israel, villages in Europe. Boom, they become possessed. And when they become possessed, very often they tear their hair out, they hit their heads against the floor, all kinds of self-hurting. They become identified with the spirit or the ghost and they have to be exorcised.

How would an American identify these ghosts or spirits or feelings of possession. What would we call that?

You might call it a form of identifying with whoever is causing you distress.

So the cause is some kind of emotional trauma?

Yes, but you're not able to acknowledge to yourself that this is the case. The spirit could be an aunt. You have rage against your mother and suddenly you become your aunt or, you're not just your aunt, but you have two personalities. Your aunt can scream and curse at your mother and act out how you want to act out. It's various forms of ego defense mechanisms.

How does voluntary self-inflicted pain compare to pain that's done to you, like in the Inquisition?

If the pain that's done to you is done by the police or some secret service or some kind of political, militaristic force and what they're trying to do is break you and get the truth, then it's the worst pain imaginable, the worst torture, because they destroy or devastate you.

The Inquisition wasn't about that. The Inquisition was about conversion. It was trying to get questionable members of the community to join the table. So the type of torture they applied was regulated and it was ritualized. It wasn't the kind that just breaks your body. That was a way of doing what I'm talking about -- moving your consciousness upward from your individual sense of identity to a higher sense of identity.

But you also said that it gets rid of shame somehow?

When you're done with the torture and you confess and so forth, then they put you through the penitential rituals. You're marched out in public in the city, you have to lash yourself and you have to go barefoot in the cold. Now you've got pain that's changing your shame. Before you had shame -- you were dressed in this ridiculous dunce cap, you were an alien, you were despicable. Now you're hurting yourself in front of the whole public and they see you truly tormenting yourself. The same people who derided you, now identify with you because you're playing out the drama of salvation. You're Jesus in front of the Romans. That turns your shame into some kind of achievement and victory.

Today we look at pain as a medical problem that we want to fix and often can. Despite all that, people who are suffering are always seen as heroic in some way simply for their act of endurance. I always wondered if people cry out in pain or complain all the time or if they admit that they can't handle the pain, does that then make them less heroic? And does this all go back to religion?

I think so. In a marathon, some of them are obviously working through their pain. You feel this really strong empathy for them. The fact that they overcome their pain gives us this feeling that we're being cleansed vicariously. That experience is modeled to some extent on religious drama but religious drama is modeled on some kind of natural tendency for identifying with each other.

Because pain is an equalizer. It shows that we're all flesh.

Exactly. But the [Catholic] Church sometimes sees this differently. In 1905, an African in the Belgian Congo was a slave to a Belgian employer. The boy wore a cross, he was very devout and the employer got sick of this boy's holier-than-thou attitude. He locked him up and whipped him and slashed him up for a week until the boy died. The Church had to decide whether to canonize him. They decided not to because the witnesses to this said that throughout all this the boy cried out for mercy and showed human suffering. He didn't move beyond the suffering, therefore he's not to be beatified.

But they don't have any specific stance on pain?

Not formally speaking. But the assumption is that if you do have pain, you overcome it. By overcoming it, that doesn't just mean that you don't go crazy. It means that you don't go to the doctor all the time. When Padre Pio was wrestling with the demons in his cell, he had a lot of pain. It's not clear what was hurting him, but he overcame it.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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