The essential idea was that to become pleasing to God, the Christian had to master certain secret knowledge (hence, the name). The truly holy were separated from the lower-level Christians by their superior knowledge.
(1 Tim 6:20-21) Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, 21 which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith. Grace be with you.
As the Wikipedia says,
Above all, the central idea of gn?sis, a knowledge superior to and independent of faith made it welcome to many who were half-converted from paganism to Christianity. The Valentinians, for example, considered pistis (Greek: “faith”) as consisting of accepting a body of teaching as true, being principally intellectual or emotional in character.
The early church branded the Gnostics as heretics, and yet some elements of Gnosticism were absorbed by Christianity — not so much directly from the Gnostics as by syncreticism from the same cultural roots that gave rise to the Gnostics.
Thus, orthodox Christianity soon considered asceticism as the highest form of spirituality. We read of hermits who lived on the top of poles for years, and entire orders of monks living in the desert away from all other people so they could be devoted to study and prayer. We read of monks who wore hairshirts and whipped themselves in an effort to restrain themselves from impure thoughts. Eventually, the church came to honor celibacy above marriage, so that church officials were not permitted to marry.
This is from “Mortification of the flesh” in the Wikipedia,
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, asked pardon to his body for the severe self-afflicted penances he had 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 sixteenth century, Saint Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England, wore a hairshirt, deliberately mortifying his body. He also used the ‘discipline.’ Also, in the sixteenth century Catherine of Aragon, Queen of England wore a hairshirt.
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 October-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 nineteenth 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 nineteenth 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 twentieth 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.
The Virgin Mary reportedly told them that God was pleased with their sacrifices and bodily penances.
At the latter half of the twentieth century, Saint Josemaría Escrivá practiced self-flagellation and used the cilice, a modern-day version of the hairshirt. Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, a saint who received the stigmata wrote in one of his letters: “Let us now consider what we must do to ensure that the Holy Spirit may dwell in our souls. It can all be summed up in mortification of the flesh with its vices and concupiscences, and in guarding against a selfish spirit… The mortification must be constant and steady, not intermittent, and it must last for one’s whole life. Moreover, the perfect Christian must not be satisfied with a kind of mortification which merely appears to be severe. He must make sure that it hurts.” Like St. Josemaria, Padre Pio and Mother Teresa of Calcutta used the cilice and discipline regularly as means of doing penance.
To understand the “hairshirt” or cilice,
Such garments or adornments have been worn at various times in the history of the Christian faith, to mortify the flesh or as penance for adorning oneself. Being made of rough cloth, generally woven from goats‘ hair, and worn close to the skin, they would feel very itchy. When worn continuously, it could form a breeding-ground for lice, which would heighten the discomfort.
It was in common usage in monasteries and convents throughout history up until the 1960s, and has been endorsed by popes as a way of following Christ who died in a bloody crucifixion and who gave this advice: “let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Lk 9:23) Supporters say that opposition to mortification is rooted in having lost (1) the “sense of the enormity of sin” or offense against God, and the consequent penance, both interior and exterior, (2) the notions of “wounded human nature” and of concupiscence or inclination to sin, and thus the need for “spiritual battle,” and (3) a spirit of sacrifice for love and “supernatural ends,” and not only for physical enhancement.
Some religious orders within the Roman Catholic Church use the cilice as a form of “corporal mortification“, as well as some lay people, notably some faithful of the Prelature of Opus Dei. According to John Allen, an American Catholic writer, its practice in the Catholic Church is “more widespread than many observers imagine.” Thomas Becket was wearing a hairshirt when he was murdered, St. Patrick reputedly wore a cilice, Charlemagne was buried in a hairshirt, and Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany, famously wore one in the Walk to Canossa during the Investiture Controversy. Prince Henry the Navigator was found to be wearing a hairshirt at the time of his death in 1460. In modern times it has been used by Mother Teresa, Saint Padre Pio, and slain archbishop Óscar Romero. The Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was also known to wear a hairshirt.
Pretty nasty stuff. And the whole idea arises from the notion that God despises the flesh and loves the spiritual — even though God made the flesh and declared it “very good.”
This kind of thinking is known as “dualism,” in that it draws a radical distinction between spirit and flesh, treating the flesh as evil and spirit as good. It’s not Christian. Rather, the true Judaic/Christian understanding is that the material world is good and holy, being God-made — but fallen. After the fall, the flesh became imperfect — neither totally good nor totally wicked. Rather, it’s is essentially good but in need of repair.
God’s work among mankind since that time has been to fix what’s broken — and the final stage of his work is through Jesus and the Spirit. One goal of the church and Christians, therefore, is to honor the material and the flesh by restoring it to its pre-Fall condition. Thus, marriage and the having of children — in Christ — is very good. Just so, enjoying the Creation — the Garden — is very good. And sensual pleasures, when enjoyed through Christ, are very good. Hence, we see a major thought of Judaic/Christian thought is the joy of God’s community eating together, enjoying the good and drink that God gives. God gives us good things for our pleasure.
These can all be abused — from marriage, to children, to food — but they are not innately wrong. Thus, mortifying the flesh is to mortify God’s own creation and to give pain where God intended pleasure.