A friend once encouraged me to read the writings of St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic and Roman Catholic Saint, as a way to gain spiritual insight. At the time, I rather callously dismissed the book and St. John’s teachings. What put me off completely was a passage in which St. John abjectly apologizes for “troubling” a clearly sadistic and abusive abbott (or whatever his title was) during John’s imprisonment at a monastery in Toledo. How can this kind of sado/masochism be an example for anyone to follow? I have often wondered whether others notice the masochism inherent in some of the “religious” practices performed by the intensely devout? When did self-flagellation enter into the teachings of Christ? Is “mortification of the flesh” really a way of imitating the suffering of Christ or a perverse outcome of repressed sexuality? This passage from a recently published draft, Bisexuality in Jewish Mysticism, by Jacob Arlow, touches on the subject. Although the paper pertains predominantly to the Jewish faith, it explains how, what Arlow refers to as “moral masochism,” is a dynamic in most religions.
In one of his pithy, all-encompassing observations, Freud noted that moral masochism represents a regression from true morality to negative Oedipus complex (1924). This statement deserves more elaboration than is possible at this point. Briefly put, moral masochism as a rule develops in the following way. At a certain stage in his development, the male child, under special conditions, adopts a loving, feminine, passive, submissive attitude towards the father. Since sexual submission, however, is unacceptable, this trend is opposed and may be replaced by a painful but nevertheless more acceptable compromise formation; instead of wishing to submit sexually in the manner of a woman, the individual substitutes the wish to be beaten physically. At this level one outcome could be the development of a masochistic perversion. However, in a further defensive maneuver, the wish to be beaten physically is replaced by a tendency to be oppressed by moral strictures. At first these strictures may be experienced as emanating from the father figure. In turn, however, they may be replaced by the laws and commandments imposed by God and experienced as a constant inner moral imperative.