With thanks to Christine Murray who posted the link to the article in the Daily Mail. The secularisation of pain (Talal Asad, not mine) is evident in this wonderful article about female Opus Dei members in the UK. For the Daily Mail, it ticks all of their boxes: a barely concealed sexual desire, pretty women with ‘unusual’ stories and evident class mobility. It is clear that the relatively secretive organisation is on a bit of a PR drive right now. They’re opening up the doors to the press a bit more and I am not sure why; I’m going to blame Dan Brown. The following quote from one of the participants is instructive:
They’ll understand if you go jogging and pounding the streets — which I think is disgusting — just because you want to be thinner, but they won’t understand this.
Eileen Cole contrasts her wearing of the cilice
with women running for exercise. She is drawing attention to the contrasting representations of pain: as a numerary of the organisation she chooses to wear the cilice for periods of the day instead of the aching joints and muscles of a regular runner. For Eileen and the other members of Opus Dei
, the wearing of the cilice is a way to be uncomfortable so as to be more mindful of God. For the journalist
, the way in which these members live is strange because the women are never served at meal times by the men, only the other way around. She asks how “an educated woman such as Sarah, who studied physics at Manchester University, can condone such inequality.” Clearly the studying of physics is contrary to the serving of meals to men in the organisation’s houses. The seeming backwardness of these arrangements is counterposed to what we believe our own lives to be like: full of women and men who share life’s labours equally, with respect and dignity. Of course, life’s labours are nothing like this. The journalist is pointing to the more obvious features of British society by referring to the practices of Opus Dei
. In Formations of the Secular
, Asad refers to a change in the grammar of the concept of pain:
The myth of punishment for original sin was translated by the [Enlightenment’s vitalist school
of physicians] into the myth of punishment for transgressions against the laws of nature. (p.47)
The two examples he gives are failing to follow the correct diet or failing to exercise. Our bodies become (and this I think is important in understanding what we mean by secular) subjects of nature, not of God. We punish our bodies by eating the wrong foods, by not getting enough exercise and so on. Gillian McKeith knows this and exploits this moral economy well. But we can clearly see the secularisation of pain in this Daily Mail article. The sexes are segregated we are told because chastity is valued amongst the members. Only the women perform the cleaning and cooking tasks. Members pass over a considerable part of their incomes to the organisation. These are transgressions of the laws of nature: women are not supposed to be servile and asexual. The wearing the cilice then is the remnant of a grammar of pain that was once prevalent Yet it remains vital to the belief of these seemingly ‘modern’ women. It’s as if we have to double take between the pictures and the text, and of course Opus Dei know this. The women claim to remain celibate and one of them refers to a break-up with a college boyfriend and how:
he was very understanding when I reached my decision that it was the end of the relationship. And it was always very clear I wasn’t interested in that experience [sex].
This experience is a rejection of what we know to be so pleasurable and yet, these women state, we deny it of ourselves. Why would anyone do this? What possible purpose do these women have in denying themselves obvious pleasure? They’re young, educated and feminine. It’s against nature to deny yourself sex and pleasure, we might state. Some of the answers to these questions are found by tracing our relationship to bodily pain and our notion of redemption. Asad states that:
the secular myth uses the element of violence to connect an optimistic project of universal empowerment with a pessimistic account of human motivation in which inertia and incorrigibility figure prominently. (p.62)
Self-redemption then becomes the aim of redemption in this world
: tend to the moral jungle in your own soul because that is the path to redemption. It articulates “different kinds of subjectivities” says Asad. At the root of a colonial drive is this drive for universal empowerment: to bring justice to those individuals who need it. At the root of bringing human rights and democracy to the Middle East is this redemptive drive: they too can be saved while I tend to the conflicts within myself. The mortification of the flesh is thus seen as archaic, belonging to a time other than secular time. The wearing of the cilice seems to us, as Daily Mail
readers, to belong to a time when the rigours of the body took a far second place to the rigours of the soul. Suffering physically in this way meant a closeness to Christ’s suffering for our sins but something changes: we become happiness machines
and not inherently sinful beings. Mortification exists of course in other religions but what we have here is the traces of that Victorian desire to reflect back upon our own civility by pointing to the recently archaic.