Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Don't Beat Yourself Up Over It.

Let's start with a little visual aid...

Monty Python & The Holy Grail: The Monks' Chant

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As the title said, this is a scene from the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." For those of you not versed in Latin or the 'Requiem', what the monks are chanting is 'pie jesu domine....donna eis requiem'. It is a prayer for the dead that roughly translates into "Merciful Lord Jesus....grant them rest." * But what's with the planks of wood?

It's called flagellation (from the Latin for 'to whip') and while most religious orders in the 13th century used it to one degree or another as punishment (who didn't), for a time self-flagellation (with a whip of some sort not a plank of wood) was considered a valid means of expressing repentance. The question is - why?

It began with Peter Damien. Peter was prior (2nd in command to the abbot) to Fonte-Avellana (an order of hermits) during the 11th century. Around 1042 he introduced the practice of penitential exercise as part of a monks self-discipline schedule. The idea was to 'lightly' scourge oneself with a small whip containing small bits of metal so as to identify with the flagellation of Jesus Christ on the night before his Crucifixion. Damien's notion was that this practice would increase the devotion of the religious community because they would have a better understanding of how much Christ suffered on our behalf.

Damien also believed the practice would serve to curb the lusts of the flesh, the avoidance of which was why many became hermits in the first place. The practice quickly spread throughout the monastic community. The zeal of some led to the introduction of a daily siesta so that it's practitioners could recover from their evening's 'exercise'. By 1045 that zeal had increased to the point that Damien had to moderate the custom due to the negative affect it was having on the number of monks available for other duties. (Yes, they were maiming themselves beyond the capacity to serve and a few had even died as a result of their injuries.) For a short time the practice abated in all but the most remote monasteries.

During a dreadful plague in 1259, many preachers declared that God was angry at the world. Something had to be done to demonstrate to God how penitent they were and turn away his wrath. This was the motivation behind a resurgence in flagellation. Large groups of monks started gathering in public to flog themselves for their own sins and the sins of the world. Soon they were joined by laymen who stripped to the waist and marched in processions, sometimes numbering ten thousand penitents, whipping themselves until they bled. At first the practice was tolerated but by 1261 religious authorities realized they had to do something, so they publicly opposed the movement. It died out, but it refused to die completely.

When the Black Plague swept across Europe the call went out once again that people needed to demonstrate to God their fervent repentance. Bands of hysterical flagellants sprang up; this time not just men were involved. Along with the questionable penitent exercise other strange teachings began to rise among the practitioners such as uncontrollable dancing and the open hunting of Jews. But the most prevalent of these was the idea that the plague was the first step in the destruction of the world by Jesus Christ himself. However, the Virgin Mary had interceded and this great destruction could be avoided if enough people would join them for 33 days. As their blood flowed, they claimed it was mingling with Christ's blood to save the world.

Though the mania ended with the plague, the practice flourished among the religious into the fourteenth century. Following an outbreak of the whippings in France, the University of Paris appealed to the pope to suppress the exercise calling it heresy. Pope Clement VI sent letters to the bishops in Western Europe condemning the practice and teachings of the flagellants.

But even this measure did not fully succeed. Various groups of flagellants have appeared again and again over the centuries and in some areas of the world public flagellation occurs even today as part of specific religious rituals, particularly during the Easter season. Though the practice is still officially condemned by the Vatican, it is tolerated as long as it is restricted to specific feasts and celebrations.

That letter, condemning the practice of flagellation, was sent by Pope Clement VI on October 20th, 1349 - 658 years ago this week.

* The chant in the movie is a shortened version. The common chant goes like this...

Latin: Pie Jesu / Qui tollis peccata mundi / Donna eis requiem / Angus Dei / Donna eis requiem sempiternam /

English: Merciful Jesus / Who takest away the sins of the world / Grant them rest / Oh Lamb of God / Grant them eternal rest

1. "flagellation." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 16 Oct. 2007 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9034461>.
"Flagellation", The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VI. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, September 1, 1909.
3. Various other Internet articles.

Video credit: myspacetv.com (http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&VideoID=12415049)

Other events that happened this week in church history:

October 15, 1949: Billy Graham skyrockets to national prominence with an evangelistic crusade in Los Angeles

October 16, 1978: The Roman Catholic College of Cardinals chooses Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla to be the new pope. Taking the name John Paul II, he became the first non-Italian pope in 456 years. By the time of his death in April 2005 he would be recognized as the most popular pope in modern history.

October 17, 108: According to tradition, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was martyred on this date. A disciple of the Apostle John, Ignatius wrote seven letters under armed guard on his way to Rome—some asking that the church not interfere with his "true sacrifice".

October 18, 1867: The United States purchases Alaska for $7.2 million, or about 2 cents an acre. Ten years later, after lax military administration had only worsened the territory's moral condition, an army private stationed in Alaska begged, "Send out a shepherd who may reclaim a mighty flock from the error of their ways, and gather them into the true fold." Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson answered the call and spent decades raising funds, building schools and churches, and crusading for better laws.

October 19, 1856: A Sunday evening service led by Charles Haddon Spurgeon turns tragic when someone shouts "Fire!" in London's enormous Surrey Hall. There was no fire, but the stampede left 7 people dead and 28 more hospitalized. Though the episode plunged Spurgeon into weeks of depression, it also catapulted him to overnight fame.

October 21, 1555: Finding that the recent martyrdom of bishops Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer had intensified Protestant zeal, Catholic monarch Queen Mary (daughter of Henry VIII, who separated the church of England from Roman) launches a series of fierce persecutions in which more than 200 men, women, and children were executed.


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