What is the scariest word in the Catholic lexicon? The one topic Catholics like even less than the Annual Diocesan Appeal?
The only time mortification has received any press in recent years is when Dan Brown’s albino Opus Dei monk-assassin practices it in the opening pages of The DaVinci Code. Of course, the real mortification was trying to slog through that book without being driven to drink.
But mortification is an essential part of the Christian life, as St. Paul teaches:
For if you live according to the flesh, you shall die: but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live. – Romans 8:13
I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway. – 1 Corinthians 9:27
They that are Christ's, have crucified their flesh, with the vices and concupiscences. – Galatians 5:24
Some people consider mortification to be almost inhuman, but in fact it is an acknowledgement of our humanity. For mortification recognizes the Incarnational nature of our faith, that we are composed of both body and soul as an integral whole; one cannot be separated from the other. As St. Paul told us, if you allow the desires of your body to control your life, then the soul dies. If, on the other hand, you die to the passions of your body, then your soul is able to live.
Most of us practice mortification to some extent, perhaps without realizing it. When it is freezing cold outside, but we take our daughter to her drum circle anyway, we are mortifying our bodies, accepting the physical discomfort for the sake of our child. When we get sick, our flesh is mortified, enduring pain and suffering, sometimes even to an extreme. These are cases of involuntary mortification – they were not chosen per se, but were the result of either other choices or things beyond our control. This type of mortification becomes valuable when we offer it up to our Lord, uniting it to his sufferings on the Cross for the salvation of souls.
But Catholic tradition also places a strong emphasis on voluntary mortification – the decision to undertake certain physical pains and sufferings for spiritual benefits. Such mortifications might include cold showers, getting up early, putting a pebble in one’s shoe, or eating a smaller portion at dinner.
Why on earth would anyone choose willingly to do such things? After all, have you ever seen a commercial that tried to sell its product by saying it will make you less comfortable? Voluntary mortification goes against our natural (even if disordered) tendencies: we want comfort in all things – our showers, our sleep, our clothes, and our meals. Yet voluntary mortification is vital to the spiritual life. It teaches us to subdue the passions of the flesh, even in small things, thus strengthening us against greater temptations that might come in the future. When an athlete is training for the Olympic marathon, he doesn’t start by running 26 miles at top speed on the first day. Instead, he undergoes smaller challenges, pushing himself each day until his body is fully ready. Likewise, by choosing small mortifications, we are training our bodies to put greater, spiritual, things above our base desires.
Now that we are in the season of Lent, we have a great opportunity to increase (or start) our practice of voluntary mortification. Pick some small mortification to start (and, as painful as it is, reading Dan Brown doesn’t count). Consider your own state in life in determining what you will choose; obviously a pregnant woman will not (and should not) undertake the same mortifications of a physically fit young man. Yet each of us can make some sacrifices in our daily lives, and any sacrifice done in love will draw us, and others, closer to Christ.