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Members of Dutch religious communities shocked by mortification and flagellation

14 October 2009

Until the 1950s and 1960s, Dutch monasteries and convents still practised religious mortification and flagellation. Thousands of religious across the Netherlands self-flagellated, fasted to extremes and were submitted to punishment if they committed errors. This was often an enormous shock for novices; they did not know of these practices in advance. This has been revealed by research conducted by theologian and religious psychologist Emke Bosgraaf, who will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 22 October.

It is hard for us to imagine in a time when self-actualization and a personal link to God in religious experience play major roles, but humility before God was for many an important ingredient of belief as late as the 1950s and 1960s. In order to banish sin and strive for perfection, Dutch monasteries and convents even indulged in wide-scale mortification, Emke Bosgraaf’s thesis reveals. The research can even be called revelatory – never before has this phenomenon been systematically charted. For his research, Bosgraaf interviewed 18 religious from orders and congregations across the Netherlands. The youngest interviewee was 70 years old, the oldest 92.

Kissing feet

In order to promote spiritual growth, conventuals had to mortify their wills and their bodies. During the chapter of faults, a weekly meeting where transgressions of the rules and constitutions were confessed, religious were given punishments for misdemeanours such as sleeping in or accidentally breaking something. Punishments ranged from extra washing up duties to strict fasting or an extra portion of self-flagellation. In order to practise humility, in addition to the chapter of faults there were the so-called refectory penances (refectory = dining room), such as kissing the feet of all the fellow religious. The body could be mortified by eating bitter herbs that affected the sense of taste and removed all pleasure in eating. In addition, some religious wore a cilice (an iron chain with spikes) and self-flagellation took place on a structural basis in all Dutch monasteries and convents.

Medieval practices?

Novice religious were apparently not often aware of these practices, it appears. Bosgraaf: ‘It was shrouded in secrecy, a forbidden topic. Novices certainly expected a strongly disciplined life but thought that self-flagellation was something medieval, just as many people nowadays think. That was and is a misconception.’ Some religious found the practices spiritually beneficial and regarded mental and physical mortification as a way of practising humility before God. The majority, however, did not see the point of such practices and only experienced humiliation.

Theological, psychological and medical criticism

The mortification practices disappeared in a period of about thirty years throughout the Netherlands. Bosgraaf: ‘Religious use the metaphor of ‘brother donkey’ in this context. Previously, the body was compared mainly with a donkey, a stubborn animal that continually commits the same mistake – lust. However, gradually people came to view the donkey as a brother, an animal with which they had to co-exist in harmony.’ Criticism also came from the medical and psychological professions. Some people could simply not cope with mortification practices, people began to realise. Active congregations which devoted themselves to care and education, among other things, gradually began to realise that a weakened body was less able to perform social tasks.

Psychological mechanisms

In the world of psychology, mortification is often seen in the light of feelings of guilt and self-punishment. Bosgraaf comes to different conclusions. ‘The idea that people choose a religious life from an unconscious feeling of guilt, so that they can punish themselves, is far-fetched. After all, religious who entered a community did not know precisely what they were choosing.’ According to the researcher, narcissistic and humiliating feelings provide a better explanation. The stricter the rule and the more physical pain you suffered, the better you were in the eyes of God. Some of the monks and nuns withstood the mortification practices – which usually took place in the first or second year of the novitiate – by keeping in mind the final aim, for example achieving the priesthood or love of God. Some religious considered the practices pointless and avoided them where possible, for example by punching their pillow hard in their own room and then groaning with ‘pain’.

Curriculum vitae

Emke Bosgraaf (Drachtstercompagnie, 1980) studied Theology in Groningen. His supervisors were Prof. P.M.G.P. Vandermeersch and Prof. M.E. Monteiro (Nijmegen). Bosgraaf is currently a researcher and religious psychology lecturer at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen. His thesis is entitled ‘Gebroken wil, verstorven vlees. Een historisch-psychologische studie over versterving in het Nederlandse kloosterleven (1950-1970)’ [Broken will, mortified flesh. A historical-psychological study on mortification in Dutch monastic life (1950-1970)].

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.27 p.m.

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