Several summers ago, I was asked to speak on ‘mortification’ at a large outdoor family conference. When friends and relatives heard I was speaking on this subject, many responded with laughter or incredulity.
“Mortification! Didn’t that get thrown out after Vatican II? You mean we don’t suffer enough? We have to go looking for more?” (O irony: on the day of the talk, the temperature was close to 40 degrees C, with no hint of a breeze, so the suffering was in-built for speaker and audience alike.)
One person jokingly asked if I was “mortified” to be speaking about mortification. She meant “vexed” or “humiliated”. But the question kept coming back to me: am I mortified? And I had to answer: not nearly enough.
Sure, I make the odd sacrifice, but have I truly embraced a spirit of mortification in every area of my life? On the contrary, in all too many ways I’m self-indulgent, or have otherwise let my spiritual guard down.
Am I the only one, or is this a struggle for nearly every generation that has come of age in the last 50 years?
Our forefathers heard self-abnegation preached from the pulpit; in the world, many went through the ‘School of Hard Knocks’. Generations that followed, on the other hand, have been educated at the University of ‘Me First’.
This attitude has crept into the Church where we find dozens of retreats and workshops full of exploring our feelings, inflating our self-esteem, or perhaps even justifying our sins.
From the Latin mortificatio (“a putting to death”), mortification is defined as “the practice of spiritual effort in order to overcome sin and master one’s sinful tendencies, and through penance and austerity to strengthen the will in the practice of virtue and grow in the likeness of Christ.”
No small task. I should clarify that this refers to “voluntary mortification”. It does not include the various trials and suffering that beset us (and over which we have no control) but rather to the penance and sacrifices we undertake of our own volition.
Contrary to what the name implies, voluntary mortification is not an “extra” in the life of a Christian, but a condition of discipleship.
In the Gospel of St Luke, Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to be my disciple must deny his very self, take up his cross each day, and follow in my steps.”
One sentence, three commands, and yet some of us can’t get past the first one (‘deny himself’).
We like to believe that we would die for Christ, yet on any given day, we are unable—or unwilling—to wake up 15 minutes earlier for Christ, or give up dessert for Christ, or stop watching a favourite TV show for Christ.
Mortification has fallen out of fashion. Today, many Catholics (including clergy and religious) scoff at the idea of sacrificing desserts, alcohol or entertainment for Lent, let alone any other time of the year. I have heard some say:
“That’s such a childish way to practise your faith; you ought to be doing something out in the community instead.”
Is our life’s goal sanctity and salvation or self-fulfilment and community service? Actually, it’s all of the above, but we must have our priorities in the correct order.
St Josemaria Escriva writes in The Way, “Action is worthless without prayer; prayer is worth more with sacrifice”.
Love of God and neighbour (the Two Great Commandments) cannot be achieved through self-indulgence, but rather by kenosis: emptying of self, that we might be filled with Christ.
We must seek holiness before we seek “busy-ness”. When we are in tune with God’s will, he will give us both direction and grace to carry out our good works. But first we must be able to hear his voice.
Mortification is not just a once-a-year thing at Lent, or even a weekly thing on Fridays. It is daily, ongoing, and the work of a lifetime. Sanctity begins with the smallest acts of love, obedience and sacrifice which are practised faithfully and consistently.
St Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans (12:1-2): “And now brothers, I beg you through the mercy of God to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship.
Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may judge what is God’s will, what is good, pleasing and perfect.”
If we have fallen away from the practice of voluntary mortification (or have never tried it), Lent is a good time to begin again.