Mortification in our spiritual life
By Fr. Martín HARRISON, O.P.
How we dread the word “mortification”! It suggests terrifying penances, hair-shirts, plank-beds and other extraordinary hardships practiced by some saint; mark the word “extraordinary.” Such penances are not for “ordinary” people like ourselves, but for those called by God to be out of the ordinary through the help of special graces.
Yet penance in some form or another we must do, since we are bound to mortify the flesh and its desires. What does mortification really mean? In a spiritual sense it may be defined as the act of subduing the passions and appetites of our lower nature by fasting or severities inflicted on the body, the act of subordinating all natural impulses to the influence of the Holy Spirit, in a natural sense it may denote being humiliated by circumstances, depressed by disappointments or vexations; but these are not penances in the strict sense, though they may be turned into true mortification by our method of acceptance.
Mortification essentially consists in self-denial: “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself” (Mt 16, 24). Self-denial means saying “NO” to self, which for most people is a difficult thing to do. By sin our willpower was weakened; we became prone to evil finding it easier to give in to the desires of the flesh than to resist them. Because of sin the soul lost its domination over the flesh, so that “the flesh, lusteth against the spirit” (Ga 5:17).
The chief work of mortification is to strengthen the will power and heal the wounds caused by sin. By denying self what is lawful, the will is strengthened to resist what is unlawful, and some measure of atonement is made. Therefore penance is imposed as a strict duty. Thus the Lenten and other fasts imposed by the Church consist in refraining from a certain amount of food, otherwise lawful, so denying to us the pleasure of satisfying hunger completely. Too often these grave obligations of fasting are dismissed as impracticable because of hardship or inconvenience, before any attempt has been made to find out if they are really so.
It is difficult to understand how anyone can settle in conscience so grave an obligation in so casual a manner. Certainly some are excused by the nature of the work they must do, or for other good reasons; but this does not free them entirely from all obligation of doing penance of another sort. We are bound to deny self, and that is the essence of penance. We need so much to be strengthened against temptations that only by denying lawful things to ourselves can we hope to be strong enough to deny the unlawful also.
It is difficult to understand how anyone can settle in conscience so grave an obligation in so casual a manner.
Some pride themselves on their strength of will, but too often it is shown only in denying something to others rather than to themselves. In reality such people are simply stubborn and actually weak-willed, since they are not able to say “NO” to self.
Let us test ourselves by the following questions:
1. — Do I always stick to my own opinions and insist on having my own way?
2. — Can I admit being in the wrong, or that I have made a mistake?
3. — Can I give in gracefully to the will of the majority?1
The answers to such questions as these, will soon prove whether we can say “NO” to self or if we are self-willed.
Mortification is necessary for all. The wounds of nature demand an effort to strengthen the will against its propensity to evil; the more we indulge our natural desires, the stronger and more insistent they become in demanding satisfaction, the more difficult to resist their appeal.
However, it is not necessary to undertake special hardships or penances beyond those imposed under obligation by the Church. Life itself provides a variety of opportunities for mortification that we cannot escape. The pity of it, is that we endure without much or any spiritual profit much that might be mortification, because of the wrong attitude we adopt toward these various vexations. We can make a virtue of necessity by accepting in a spirit of patience and humility the daily trials forced upon us.
[Some examples:] Take any ordinary day in life:
— Probably we must get up earlier than we would wish, we should like to stay in bed much longer. It is not easy to rise promptly; it demands self-denial. How do we react? Do we come down peevish and disagreeable, upsetting others by our grumbling and irritation? If this is out reaction, then we have lost the chance of mortifying ourselves, instead of turning the necessity to spiritual profit by accepting it with patience.
— We have to go to work, oftentimes hard and disagreeable, to work with others who get on our nerves, to take orders given in an abrupt manner, and endure many other similar vexations that can be very irritating. What is our attitude to such things? They can all become occasions of mortification if accepted in a proper spirit. Obedience to others, which is the submission of our own will to that of another, can be a very real and difficult penance. Too often we can become impatient and disgruntled, resent the orders given to us: and miss the chance of being spiritually mortified under adversity.
Life is full of such opportunities: we make silly mistakes, are humiliated by others, meet with disappointments, hear slurs east or disparaging remarks made about us; accidents make us ludicrous and cause laughter and ridicule at our expense. These things are certainly humiliating to our pride and self-conceit? but do we turn them to spiritual worth by a humble and contrite spirit in accepting them as mortifications? If they simply cause us to become disagreeable and complain, there is no penance; they are lost to us entirely when they might have been real crosses born for the love of God, real penances accepted in a spirit of self-denial, some atonement for the sins we have committed.
We are told [by Holy Mother the Church] to perform the three good works: Prayer, Fasting, and Alms-deeds. These can all form some kind of mortification for us:
— By fasting we mean here self-denial in any form, the giving up of one’s desires and inclinations. We are forced to this at times by circumstances, yet profit little because we accept grudgingly, with resentment and complaints about the hardness of our lot.
— Prayer might find a larger place in our lives and provide penance at the same time. For instance, we might give up an evening’s pleasure so that we may go to Benediction. How many give up the Sunday evening to selfish comfort rather than go out to the evening service? It may be cold and wet; it is so much pleasanter to sit reading by the fireside, or playing cards with friends. The weather is so often an excuse to avoid going to church, but it would not prevent us from going out to the cinema or to a dance. It is difficult to give up pleasure and comfort to go to church, hard to mortify our desires and say “NO” to self! To give up our comforts can be a real mortification.
— Alms-giving does not necessarily mean giving money away. The best alms is to give happiness to others – any kind of action done for the love of God and our neighbor, any small service especially if it means self-denial, is acceptable to God as a mortification. Our Lord went about doing good, never sparing Himself. We, on the contrary, find doing good to others to be too much trouble and to cause too much inconvenience to ourselves. We could make a point of doing at least one kind act a day to help another, as a mortification. We could do much more to ease the burdens of others, to bring happiness or solace, and if this entails denying self and putting ourselves to some inconvenience so much the better, it will mortify us all the more.
There is no need to undertake extraordinary penances – life provides its own opportunities of mortifying self. We do not know that Our Lady or St. Joseph ever did any special kind of penance, but they did accept the many trials and sufferings of life, grief, hardship, poverty, hard work, and such like, in a spirit of resignation to the will of God. The early disciples do not seem to have done extraordinary penances, but we may note that St, Paul writes; “I chastise the flesh to bring it into subjection… lest perhaps I become a castaway (1 Co 9, 27).” If St. Paul felt the need of “chastising the flesh,” how much more we, who do so little to atone for all the number of times we give way to our evil inclinations. We must chastise the flesh by denying to it the satisfaction it demands, even in what is lawful, that we may strengthen ourselves to refuse all that is unlawful and to thrust down the inclinations and desires of unlawful passion, by denying the pleasure of lawful desires at times. We must learn how to say “NO” to self.
To resume therefore, we cannot escape mortifications, even though we do not seek them. Life will provide many opportunities of self-denial; let us see to it that these unavoidable vexations are all turned to profit for the soul by accepting them in a spirit of penance and humiliation for our many sins and as a means of strengthening our will-power against our proneness to evil. If we would realize that hardship, sickness, poverty, disappointments, vexations, inconveniences, even the monotony of life, can all be spiritually useful and made profitable by a spirit of humble acceptance and mortification and for the love of God, we should be carrying out our obligation of doing penance lest we perish.
It is all a matter of will-power pitted against the fatal attractions of sin in which we prove so weak and easily overcome.
Only by denying self what is lawful, or accepting what we cannot escape as a means of self-denial, can we become strong in our resistance to what is unlawful, strong to resist the many temptations that beset us from the flesh, the world and the devil.
We must atone for sin by true repentance and by penance enjoined to the sufferings of Our Lord, that they may become an atonement for our many sins.
“Unless ye do penance, ye shall all likewise perish” (Lc 13, 5).
Taken from Credo, Fr. Martin Harrison O.P.
Chicago, Henry Regnery Company, 1954, pgs 141-145