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Seeking Sanctification Through the Practice of Mortification

by Msgr. Roger J. Scheckel

In Father John A. Hardon’s Basic Catholic Catechism Course, Lesson 9, Question 83, it is asked: “In order to control our desires we need, 1) the grace of God, 2) to use our will power, 3) to mortify ourselves. As all Marian Catechists know, the correct answer is, 3) to mortify ourselves.”

In the explanation of his answer, Fr. Hardon underscores the spiritual truth that “without mortification of the senses, or the cooperation of our wills with the will of God, our desires will remain unruly.” Mortification is not for a few special souls but is a requirement for anyone who seeks to advance in the life of holiness.

This article will focus on the necessity and importance of mortification.

The mortification of our external senses as well as the interior operations of our soul, e.g., imagination, memory and intellect, is necessary to live an authentic Christian life. While our modern world, characterized by a radical secularism and in many instances, paganism will judge mortification to be medieval and therefore irrelevant and even dangerous, it is Our Lord Jesus Who indicates its necessity for His followers when He states: “If any one wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow after Me” (Mk. 8:34).

Our Lord’s instruction, recorded in the Gospels, was preceded by the practice of mortification among the Chosen People as recorded in the Old Testament, cf. Gen. 37:34; 1Kg. 21:27-29; Joel 1:13-14; Is. 22:12-14. Saint Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, speaks of the mortification of the flesh in definite and specific terms:

“We are debtors, then, my brother—but not to the flesh, so that we should live according to the flesh. If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the evil deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom.8:12-13).

“Put to death whatever in your nature is rooted in earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desires, and that lust which is idolatry” (Col.3:5).

Saint Paul sets forth in the above two passages the fundamental reason why we are in need of mortification. The Christian must continually seek to crucify and put to death that dimension of our self that remains under the influence of the fallen state of the First Adam into which we are conceived and born. After our baptism, the imputed sin of our First Parents is washed from our life, however a residue or stain of the Original Sin remains with us, what is known as concupiscence. The effects of this residue or stain are experienced primarily in our will, tending in the direction of a love of self rather than a love of God. This is what is meant by a “disordered will.” This disorder can be expressed through our external senses as well as the operations of our soul, e.g., the imagination, memory and intellect. Mortification seeks to address these manifestations of the “disordered will.”

Sacred Tradition expressed through the lives of the saints provides innumerable accounts of the necessity and importance of the practice of mortification. I would direct you to the lives of the saints listed below, although there are many more that could be included as well: Ss. Jerome, Francis of Assisi, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila, John Mary Vianney, Therese of the Child Jesus, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, Jose Maria Escriva, and also Blesseds Junipero Serra, Matt Talbot and Mother Teresa.

The practice of mortification is promoted and defended in the magisterial teaching of the Church. Blessed Pope John XXIII in his encyclical Paenitentiam Agere, promulgated on July 1, 1962 wrote: “…the faithful must also be encouraged to do outward acts of penance, both to keep their bodies under the strict control of reason and faith and to make amends for their own and other people’s sins. …It is right, too, to seek example and inspiration from the great Saints of the Church. Pure as they were, they inflicted such mortifications upon themselves as to leave us almost aghast with admiration. And as we contemplate their saintly heroism, shall not we be moved by God’s grace to impose on ourselves some voluntary sufferings and deprivations, we whose consciences are perhaps weighed down by so heavy a burden of guilt?”

Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter, Salvici Doloris sets forth a profound presentation on the matter of pain and suffering. I commend it to all Marian Catechists for your spiritual reading and meditation. He states: “It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls. Suffering, more than anything else makes present in the history of humanity the powers of the Redemption.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2015 associates progress in the spiritual life with the practice of mortification: “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes.”

In paragraph 1430, the Catechism sets forth the truth that Jesus’ call to conversion does not consist first of outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” but rather “the conversion of the heart, interior conversion,” then it goes on to state: “however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance.”

The point made in this paragraph of the Catechism is significant as we consider mortification. Mortification is a good that is relative to a higher purpose or end, namely the pursuit of holiness. Pain or suffering in and of itself is a physical evil, one of the consequences of humanity’s fall from grace; however, when suffering or pain is accepted in faith it can be redemptive and a source of sanctification. This is made possible by virtue of the hypostatic union wherein the divine and eternal Logos united Himself with our fallen human nature. Jesus assumes into His divine person everything that is human (except for sin), including the penalty for sin, i.e., pain and suffering unto death. Jesus accepted suffering freely and willingly, that which was unjustly imposed upon Him through the sin of particular individuals, e.g., the Roman guards and Pontius Pilate, as well as that which was constitutive to a human nature that had fallen from grace.

Suffering that happens to us and suffering that we allow to happen, when accepted in faith and united with Christ’s redemptive suffering contributes to our own redemption and sanctification as well as that of others.

To understand mortification in more practical terms and how it might be incorporated into the spiritual life of a Marian Catechist begins with the two-fold manifestation already mentioned: suffering that happens to us, what is known as passive mortification, and suffering we allow to happen, known as active mortification.

Passive mortifications come in various forms, but they are not the sufferings we experience from having sinned, e.g., suffering a hangover after being intoxicated. Rather, they come to us unsolicited, the consequence of living in a world that has fallen from the grace of God. Passive mortifications can be grave, for example, sickness or injury, the death of a loved one, losing one’s employment. For the most part, passive mortifications come to us in smaller and less severe versions such as a difficult boss or co-worker, a spouse who from time to time is insensitive and uncaring or children who are demanding and unappreciative.

St. Jose Marie Escriva, the founder of the Opus Dei Prelature often pointed out that our daily life and work provide significant opportunities to experience passive mortifications, primarily through petty annoyances like an unexpected change in plans, instruments or tools that fail us, the discomfort caused us by the weather being to hot or cold. When these small crosses are embraced generously and courageously they help us to grow in holiness.

Pope Paul VI spoke eloquently about carrying these kinds of daily crosses in his March 24, 1967 Address: “To carry one’s cross is something great. Great….It means facing up to life courageously, without weakness or meanness. It means that we turn into moral energy those difficulties which will never be lacking in our existence; it means understanding human sorrow; and finally, it means knowing really how to love.”

To avoid the many crosses that come unsolicited to our lives each day is to avoid the possibility that God makes available to us to become saints.

Mortifications that we propose to ourselves, known as active mortifications are encouraged but include certain cautions. Prudence must always be exercised when engaging in active mortifications. Active mortifications of a severe nature, e.g., flagellation, scourging, the wearing of hair shirts (cilice), ropes and chains worn around the waist or leg and long fasts are only to be done with the guidance of a spiritual director. Under no circumstances should a scrupulous person consider carrying out active mortifications. Also, to practice bodily mortification for pleasure is a sin.

For the most part active mortifications that are not severe can be exercised repeatedly throughout the day. Examples would be: punctuality—to arise from bed immediately in the morning, to be on time for work and returning punctually after a break, to not leave a task undone because it is difficult to bring to completion. Most importantly concerning punctuality is to maintain definite times for prayer throughout the day. We must avoid praying only “when we feel like it” or “when we have time for it.” We should set times for prayer within our day and keep to them. To deny oneself sleep in order to maintain a vigil of prayer, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, is a laudatory practice of active mortification.

Other examples would be to smile and be joyful even though your day or situation has been and continues to be difficult, to remain silent and charitable when you are being criticized without a good reason, to participate in conversation with those who are boring or overbearing, overlooking those irritating details of the people with whom we live and giving up some comfort that we have come to cherish.

We should also actively mortify our imagination, our memory and our intelligence. A very good description of these mortifications is found in: In Conversation With God, by Francis Fernandez, Scepter Press, Vol. II, 3.3.

…[M]ortification of the imagination—avoiding that interior monologue in which fantasy runs wild, by trying to turn it into a dialogue with God, present in our soul in grace. We try to put a restraining check on that tendency of ours to go over and over some little happening in the course of which we have come off badly. No doubt we have felt slighted, and have made much of an injury to our self-esteem, caused to us quite unintentionally. If we don’t apply the brake in time, our conceit and pride will cause us to overbalance until we lose our peace and presence of God.

Mortification of the memory—avoiding useless recollections which make us waste time and which could lead us into more serious temptations.

Mortification of the intelligence—so as to put it squarely to the business of concentrating on our own duty at this moment and, also, on many occasions of surrendering our own judgment so as to live humility and charity with others in a better way.”

Finally, it needs to be pointed out that to realize the spiritual growth and benefit that results from active and passive mortifications does not require that we carry them out with a conscious intention of uniting each one to Christ’s redemptive suffering at the time they are done. To do so, would be continually distracting and make our daily work almost impossible. Our daily mortifications will be united to Christ’s redemptive work by virtue our having made our Morning Offering, “… I offer to you my prayers, works, joys and sufferings …”

Those mortifications that are most pleasing to God are those that involve being more charitable to our neighbor, more dedicated to the work of the Church, and those that help us to be more faithful in carrying out the obligations that are necessary to our state in life. As Marian Catechists, let us be brave and prudent in seeking sanctification through the practice of mortification.

Originally published in The Tilma, Fall 2006