…During the podcast, the guests made several in-passing negative references to the monastic practice of self-flagellation, which were never challenged. In particular, they made a couple points: the first is that God, being fundamentally non-violent and opposed to suffering, could not condone such a practice; second, that monks who engage(d) in such a practice were trying to earn holiness. Yet we find that many great saints, who were in no dangers of such spiritual aberrations, nonetheless undertook this practice.
I would want to say a couple things, here.
The first is that, of course, today we have a very great awareness of the psychological harm caused by self-abuse (except for one kind of self-abuse, amirite) and masochism, and this is indeed something of which we should be aware, and indeed all the great Catholic spiritual writers emphasize that self-mortification should only happen within the context of wise, discerning spiritual guidance. So, absolutely, it is possible for flagellation to be the product of psychological disorder (or, indeed, just everyday pride), and awareness of this is necessary.
That being said, though, one aspect of human nature of which we recently have much less awareness is the need for us to discipline our passions through asceticism. …
Undertaken within the right context, and with the right goals, then, mortification of the flesh, can usefully remind us of our mortality, of our bodily and creaturely nature, and be a useful weapon in spiritual warfare. Catholicism–Christianity–is a religion of the real, of the Earth, of incarnation, of the tactile. For us the crucifix, not the bare cross. The nails. The crown of thorns. The battered body. These are realities, not abstractions. “Blood of Christ, inebriate me; Water from the side of Christ, wash me; Within Thy wounds, hide me.”
I would say another very important thing: flagellation is typically undertaken as a kind of penance. Within Catholic theology, penance is not undertaken as a way to “earn” forgiveness, but rather as a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the forgiveness graciously and undeservedly granted.