Elder Joseph the Hesychast’s Saying: “The cane is the remedy for every passion”

In Chapter 21 of Monastic Wisdom, Elder Joseph states, “But the cane is the remedy for every passion. Demons fear it and shudder when they see a man punishing himself like a martyr for the love of Christ.” This is accompanied by a cleverly worded footnote, “The elder is not advocating some kind of masochism here, but advises counteracting sinful pleasure—whether it be due to thoughts of anger, pride, or carnal thoughts—with physical pain.” It then lists a few of the numerous Orthodox saints who have used similar techniques—i.e. inflicting pain upon themselves to counteract sinful pleasure, not caning themselves. Though Geronda Joseph Mammis (MI) did the initial translation of Monastic Wisdom, the manuscript was passed around Arizona for the older fathers to edit and add input. One of the monks suggested this footnote and it was added to the manuscript (this footnote is not in the original Greek edition of Monastic Wisdom).

The footnote about masochism is not in the Greek edition of Monastic Wisdom.
The footnote about masochism is not in the Greek edition of Monastic Wisdom.

It is important to examine some terminology to understand why using the term “masochism” makes this footnote a cleverly worded statement which avoids the true nature of caning oneself:

  • Masochism: a sexual perversion characterized by pleasure in being subjected to pain or humiliation especially by a love object; pleasure in being abused or dominated:a taste for suffering.
  • Auto-sadism: Also known as automasochism, is behavior inflicting pain or humiliation on oneself. It may be related to self-harm, or a paraphilia involving sexual arousal. It can be viewed as a form of masochism, a sublimated form of sadism, or a means to experiencing algolagnia, a sexual tendency which is defined by deriving sexual pleasure and stimulation from physical pain.
  • Self-defeating personality disorder: Also known as masochistic personality disorder, SDPD is a personality disorder that was never formally admitted into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It involves a persistent pattern of behavior which is detrimental to the self, including being drawn to problematic situations or relationships.
  • Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI): is defined as deliberately injuring oneself without suicidal intent. The most common form of NSSI is self-cutting, but other forms include burning, scratching, hitting, intentionally preventing wounds from healing, and other similar behaviors.

Stating that “the elder isn’t advocating some kind of masochism here,” is stating the obvious. The monastics are not inflicting pain on themselves for sexual gratification, although addiction to pain or the endorphin rush pain causes, is well documented in medical literature. Caning one’s thighs or other body parts could technically fall under the category of autosadism, however, it is not practised to derive sexual pleasure. The self-defeating personality disorder can be applied to a few of the monastics in Geronda’s monasteries, though it is not applicable to the act of caning oneself. The more correct definition of this act would be the non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) which is a sub-category of self-harm. Virginity is one of the three monastic virtues, so explaining the obvious with an authoritative blanket statement—i.e. in essence, celibate monks are not caning themselves to derive sexual gratification from the pain—is misleading. The footnote does not address self-harm or self-injury which is the real issue behind caning oneself.

Elder Joseph the Hesychast (d. 1959)
Elder Joseph the Hesychast (d. 1959)

It is interesting to note that self-harm is listed in the DSM-IV-TR as a symptom of borderline personality disorder. However, patients with other diagnoses may also self-harm, including those with depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, PTSD, schizophrenia, and several personality disorders. Self-harm is also apparent in high-functioning individuals who have no underlying clinical diagnosis. The motivations of self-harm vary and it may be used to fulfill a number of different functions. These functions include self-harm being used as a coping mechanism which provides temporary relief of intense feelings such as anxiety, depression, stress, emotional numbness or a sense of failure or self-loathing and other mental traits including low self-esteem or perfectionism. Self-harm is often associated with a history of trauma or abuse, including emotional and sexual abuse.

Geronda Ephraim has said that Pappou would hit his monks with his cane for disciplinary measures.
Geronda Ephraim has said that Pappou would hit his monks with his cane for disciplinary measures.

It should be mentioned that Geronda Ephraim has stated in homilies to his monastic that Elder Joseph would also hit his monks with his cane as a form of disciplinary measure (i.e. corporal punishment). Flogging as a form of punishing monks was common in the beginning years of Orthodox Monasticism and is mentioned in early texts as well as the Rule of St. Benedict. Self-flagellation which was a universal pagan practise before the advent of Christianity, is not found in any of the early orthodox texts, not even the Rule of St. Benedict. Self-flagellation as a form of ascesis is a Roman Catholic monastic tradition that appeared sometime after the Great Schism. Though one can find Orthodox Saints who tortured themselves through various ascetical hardships or one time endeavours to battle a temptation (i.e. the saints mentioned in the footnote of Monastic Wisdom), the act of self-flagellation or caning oneself to counteract sensual pleasure is not found in early Orthodox texts. The practice of self-flagellation seems to have been unknown in Christian Europe until it was adopted by the hermits in the monastic communities of Camoaldoli and Fonte Avellana early in the 11th century. Once invented, the new form of penance spread rapidly until it had become not only a normal feature of monastic life throughout Latin Christendom but the commonest of all penitential techniques—so much so in fact that the very meaning of the term disciplina was restricted to ‘scourge.’

Flagellants, from a 15th-century woodcut.
Flagellants, from a 15th-century woodcut.

In the Greek Orthodox monasteries here, this form of self harm—non-suicidal self-injury—is used as a coping mechanism to deal with logismoi, and any negative or impassioned thought or feeling. For those who’ve attended services at a monastery with a side door that the monastics use to enter and exit the Church without having to pass the lay people, one will often hear the door open and shortly afterwards the rapid sound of wood or whatever striking an object. These are the monastics beating themselves outside because their logismoi was too overwhelming to push away with the Prayer.

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Elder Joseph writes, “Here all my young monks have a cane under their pillow. As soon as a carnal thought comes, they let him have it! … So there is no other remedy than prayer, fasting, and the cane.” (p. 121). Following this tradition, all of Geronda Ephraim’s monastics have some object used to beat themselves either under their pillow or in close proximity to their bed. This is because carnal warfare is quite common at bedtime and during the personal vigil in one’s cell. Some monastics, such as Fr. Makarios (AZ), have a blessing to bring their beating stick to church. Thus, during the service, if one starts falling asleep, or having carnal thoughts or any other kind of passions arise, they can leave the church through the side door (or altar door) and go beat themselves—Geronda Ephraim does not like his monastics walking in and out of the church where people can see because they get scandalized and it’s a bad image for the pilgrims.

The side door for monastics to enter and exit the main church at St. Anthony's Monastery (AZ)
The side door for monastics to enter and exit the main church at St. Anthony’s Monastery (AZ)

Other monastics who do not bring their beating stick to Church use pinching, punching, biting and other forms of inflicting pain upon themselves when thoughts arise so they do not have to exit the Church.

Elder Arsenios the Cave-Dweller with his cane.
Elder Arsenios the Cave-Dweller with his cane.

There is also an odd phenomenon where certain monastics, in a fit of rage, will also beat themselves. In Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries, this style of “caning” is usually accompanied by a warning, and then prostrations and other penances if it persists. Hitting oneself due to outbursts of rage and anger defeats the purpose of ascetical caning, and is also unmonastic. There are also the cases of monastics self-harming themselves when rebuked by the Elder or when they’ve had a mini-break due to overwhelming external pressures and temptations. Such forms of self-harming have been the following:

  • The monastic laid face down on the floor, repeatedly banged his head on the floor, and made guttural noises.
  • Repeatedly banging their head off a dashboard and rapidly slapping the dashboard or steering wheel with both hands while making strange noises.
  • Rapidly punching a brick wall until both hands were bleeding.
  • Rapidly punching the sides of their head with both hands while making strange noises.
  • Intentionally injuring oneself in an attempt to avoid work—known in the military as a self-inflicted wound. Monastics guilty of this were severely censured in front of the other monastics and rebuked for being lazy and cowardly, etc.

Hitting/kicking inanimate objects, destroying inanimate objects, vandalizing one’s cell, etc. out of rage is a whole other chapter of Greek Orthodox monasticism in America. Though it is often a red flag indicating these monastics are ready to leave the monastery and return to the world.

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