Mortification: An Ancient Part of the Christian Spiritual Life

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 “Shaun, please come see me. Thanks.” An email from my boss popped up, so I went over immediately. Walking into her office she noticed my shoelace, “Oh! Your shoe is untied.” 

Without thinking, I blurted out, “Oh, that’s a mortification.” 

Pause. In the nanoseconds after I said this I realized, 1) she is going to be totally confused about that word—I need to explain; and 2) this is an opportunity to witness about my Catholic Faith. End pause. 

I tried to explain, “I leave one lace untied and the other tighter than normal in order to annoy myself so I can teach myself patience.” 

“Oh, now that is cool. What else do you do?” 

“Sometimes I put a rock in my shoe.” I went on. 

The Ancient Practice of Mortification

I wasn’t sure how she would take it all but it was another fantastic opportunity to start a conversation about faith and spirituality. Mortification is an ancient part of the Christian spiritual life, but in recent times, it’s lost its way in the lives of Catholics. I’m here to tell you that we really need to get back to the practice of regular and meaningful mortifications.    

First of all, it’s biblical. Way back in 2 Samuel, the servants of David voluntarily underwent a certain humiliation before being recognized by the new king of the Ammonites. David, perhaps to their shock, concurred with the humiliation, telling them to be observed in the city until their beards grew back (2 Sam. 1-5). Before this, even, the law of the Lord was laid down in the observance of a day of atonement where no work would be accomplished and all the people of God would “humble themselves,” usually requiring physical strains and practical displacements like pouring dirt or ask on their heads, wearing sackcloth and fasting (Lev. 16:29-31, cf. 23:27-32). Fasts and penances are clearly laid out throughout the rest of the Old Testament. 

There is a consistent message of self-denial in the New Testament.  

Mark 8:34-35And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.  

1 John 3:16: We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.  

Romans 8:13: For if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  

Colossians 3:5: Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. 

Galatians 5:24: Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.   

Galatians 6:14: But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 

1 Corinthians 9:27: But I pommel my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. 

“Loses his life.” “Crucified to me.” “[Lay] down our lives.” “Putting to death the deeds of the body.” The message in the New Testament is overwhelmingly clear: we are called to a special suffering in order to overcome sin and unite ourselves to Christ. I think Paul’s words to “Pommel [his] body” is the strongest in the whole of Sacred Scripture. The words Paul uses literally means to beat, thrash, strike one’s body.   

The Saints

The Saints were no strangers to this practice. And I don’t mean the saints of antiquity—there are saints of every generation that have practiced mortification. There are amazing stories about the ways in which saints tamed their flesh. Saint Benedict is said to have jumped into a thorn bush to quit thinking lustfully. Philip Neri wore hot, itchy shirts made of horse hair. Saint Gemma wore a thin belt of knots tightly under her clothes. And there are less severe mortifications performed by the saints, like when St. John Paul II slept on the floor.  

You’re perhaps no stranger to mortifications either. Do you fully observe Lent? If so then you give up something to annoy your flesh and appetite and you observe a fast. Those are mortifications, but we shouldn’t limit ourselves to these practices to Lent just because the Canon Law and liturgy says we must perform them at this time. Just as prayer and consideration of the passion are central to all times of the year, so mortifications of the flesh and fasting should be consistently practiced throughout the year.  

Why?

Why? What does it achieve? Isn’t it mutilation? Mortifications are absolutely saintly because self-mastery is a requirement of every Christian. Take this for example: if you were addicted to spending money, wouldn’t shredding your credit cards, limiting your ability to spend money at all, benefit your desire to get control of your finances? Yes! Likewise, if you’re addicted to porn and masturbation, wouldn’t removing electronics and vowing to not even touch yourself be an effective means of flesh-denial? Of course!  

Okay, so you have no debts and you’re not addicted to porn but there is some reason that you go to confession, right? Probably a repeat offense? Is it gossip? An appropriate mortification might be to take a limited vow of silence. Foul mouth? Twenty pushups for every cuss word. With these, you’ll have the motivation to change behavior quickly.  

I think you get the point, but some still aren’t convinced. They think it’s extremism. They think it’s mutilation. Some saints, like Gonzaga, whipped themselves until they bled (and he was known for his sense of humor!). Philip Neri said that it was the only thing that enabled his holiness and he was known to be one of the most sinless saints of all time.  

So is it mutilation? A practical definition of this is to alter, sever, or damage a body part beyond repair and function. Sound familiar? Jesus said “if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out” and “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” Now, I’m not suggesting we go to this level, but the imagery should startle us. At worst, he’s literal (which, keep in mind, he says is still better than being sent to Hell). As best, he’s still discussing physical means of altering our moral behavior. “Cut off” and “gouge out” might acceptably refer to no longer depending on these body parts and senses. So, tie your hand behind your back! Find a way to not allow your eyes to look at something that might cause you to sin! Doing this will require a level of sacrifice that, yes, at times will be very painful.  

If we really want to achieve holiness, if we really want to be saints, we must take up more fleshly crosses and mortify our flesh. There are so many ways to do it, and I discuss it all in my new book from Catholic Answers Press, Reform Yourself! How to Pray, Find Peace, and Grow in Faith with the Saints of the Counter-Reformation available at shop.catholic.com. In the pages, you’ll learn the secret to true reform from the lives of 10 powerful saints of the Counter-Reformation, including the timeless value of mortification, the key to self-mastery.  

 By Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. 

Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Filling Our Father’s House among other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and blogs at the National Catholic Register. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Vicenza, Italy.

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21 thoughts on “Mortification: An Ancient Part of the Christian Spiritual Life”

  1. Lust is what excessively attaches us to the things of the world. Physical privation does not deal with lust. Lust needs to be surrendered to God. We cast all of our care on God. His Spirit can then moderate what we consume. Depriving ourselves of what we consume, by itself, does not bring us closer to God, and does not produce true moderation. God needs to be part of the process. He is the is the one that moderates us.

  2. Mortification works well only to the degree that the practitioner understands why he or she is doing the practice and is “in charge.” I say this because if you have an anxiety disorder, which I do, then you can become obsessed and your mortification repels people. I know this because it happened to me, especially if I tried to do a hard core fast during Lent. In fact, I may have repelled my parents and sisters from Catholicism because of the exacerbation of my anxiety.
    On the other hand, one this I did learn from my practices was detachment and living in simplicity. Before long, I no longer cared about material luxuries and would much rather donate my money to the poor than buy luxuries for myself. Now that I married this has become more of a challenge because my wife is not yet detached and our income barely keeps us afloat.
    Yesterday, however, I found a new mortification practice that addresses a different kind of attachment which is attachment to the approval of other people and being well liked. While I may be detached from material goods, I am still very much attached to status. As someone with Noonan Syndrome, which has physiological and psychological consequences, I have been alone most of my life and found it very depressing because I wanted intimacy and connection. I see now that I failed to use that as a mortification practice. I can hold a job but only a part time one and a relatively simple one. All but two of my coworkers are women, and I am very sensitive to be treated condescendingly or not even acknowledged. In addition, I am hypersensitive to criticism. I have since decided that accepting this kind of environment could be its own form of mortification rather than being in one that satisfies my desire for self-importance.

  3. Lust is what excessively attaches us to the things of the world. Physical privation does not deal with lust. Lust needs to be surrendered to God. We cast all of our care on God. His Spirit can then moderate what we consume. Depriving ourselves of what we consume, by itself, does not bring us closer to God, and does not produce true moderation. God needs to be part of the process. He is the moderator.

  4. I am surprised you are getting so much negative reaction to the concept of self-mortification. In my estimation, that only speaks to how soft and self-centered we have become as a society.

  5. Thank you, Shaun, for this look at something that many modern Catholics either ignore or don’t even know exists! I would add one minor point, that undertaking mortifications such as the ones you describe is best done under the supervision of a holy confessor or spiritual director. It is far too easy to fall into traps and snares when striving for holiness, and ‘laying it all on the table,’ so to speak, with one’s confessor/director helps to keep things in perspective. As an example, I discerned one Lent to keep the more rigorous fast as practiced by the Orthodox church, but only after discussing it with my regular confessor before, during and after Lent. Just an additional point that I think is worth considering!

  6. Mortification? Not according to Pope Francis. This is from his reflection at morning Mass on the feast of St. Thomas the apostle in 2013:
    “… In the history of the Church,” the Pope said, “several mistakes have been made on the path towards God. Some have believed that the Living God, the God of Christians can be found by the path of meditation, and indeed that we can reach higher levels through meditation. That is dangerous!”
    “How many are lost on that path, never to return? Yes, perhaps they arrive at a knowledge of God, but not of Jesus Christ, Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. They do not arrive at that. It is the path of the gnostics, isn’t it? They are good, they work, but they have not found the right path. It is very complicated and does not lead to a safe harbour.”
    “Others”, the Pope continued, “have thought that to arrive at God we must mortify ourselves, through austerity and the path of penance – penance and fasting alone. These do not arrive at the Living God, Jesus Christ, either. They are the Pelagians, who believe that they can arrive by their own efforts….”
    Thus spake Francis.

    1. jackel09, interesting quotes. I’m especially interested in then about meditation being dangerous. Perhaps that’s not the full quote? Do you have a link to these I can read?

    1. Larry Bud. People tend to label “neurotic” what they don’t understand, right? Mortification is an ancient practice in the Church that derives from a voluntary embrace of the cross. It is self-renunciation. (Last I checked, Jesus told us that was necessary to enter the Kingdom.) All the saints practiced it in some form or another. Ever heard about St. Thomas More’s hair shirt? St. John Vianney’s hours in the confessional? St. Anthony’s penances in the desert? St. Therese’s voluntary fasting during sickness? The list is endless but you get the point.

    2. Peter, all you’ve done is restate the article. Do you think I didn’t read it?

      YoikesAndAway made the point much better than I did. Lay people have no reason to play around with intentional mortification. It isn’t helpful.

    3. Larry, are you suggesting an unintentional mortification is better than an intentional mortification? How so?

      Also, are you suggesting that mortification only benefits other than lay people? How so?

    4. Larry Bud. It appears you just read the first paragraph, had an emotional reaction to the shoelace issue, and stopped there. Hence my question as to whether you were aware of the history of saints. They’ve always been labeled neurotic by those who have emotional reactions to any jvoluntary embrace of the cross.

    5. Larry, thank you for your two comments above. It has long been known that the behavior of some saints was, in reality, mental illness.

    6. Laurence Charles Ringo

      Hmm…Last I heard, Jesus said,…”unless you are BORN AGAIN, you can neither see nor enter the Kingdom of God”… (Gospel of John, chapter 3, conversation with Nicodemus.)–Did’nt see mortification anywhere in the dialogue…Anyone? ?

    7. Is this a Catholic website or a Protestant one? There happen to be one or two more verses of Scripture that apply here! Mortification = Calvary. Isn’t that the point?

  7. Self denial, discipline, is all virtuous, but the need of self mortification while done in the past does not make it good by default. There is a fine line between penitent practices and self abuse. Nothing here about those who use mortification for self glorification, pride, lifting up oneself in the eyes of others? Then there are those who will always go to the extreme. God does not call us to self harm, He calls us to deny and gain control (if possible) of our weaknesses. This is one of those Catholic practices that were abandoned for good reason. If we look to Jesus, He did not self harm to please God. While He fasted, that is not self harm, he did not wear a hair shirt, or fasten upon His body items to inflict bodily damage/pain. Jesus did not crucify Himself, did not endured self scourging. Self mortification in a nut shell cuts people off from their fellow man by putting up a wall between ones self induced suffering because they cannot, or will not see and address the suffering in others. In short it is telling God, “You are not making me suffer enough in this world so I will go against Your will and cause my own suffering”. If there are people who are going through life who feel they do not suffer enough, then why do they believe that self inflicted suffering is better than the obvious, going out and easing the suffering of others.

    If one was to even look at historical self mortification, it is found mostly in religious life. Those cloistered groups, devoted to constant prayer, whose daily lives where for the most part lacked the specters that non-religious life constantly toiled against. I am not saying that religious life was cushy, but there was a different set of goals and needs thereby fostering this practice of mortification. If people want to suffer with and for Christ why are they not doing as Christ by going out to the forgotten, lost, poor, sick, lonely, etc and giving of themselves to EASE someone else’s suffering not of their own making. Self mortification could be likened to a wealthy person who decides to live cheaply, not spending their money on anything but still retaining their wealth. What are they achieving? They may be living AS a poor person but they are NOT poor. Would it not be better if this wealthy person used their wealth to help the poor, sick, lonely. Is this not what Jesus taught us to do? Sell your belongings and give to the poor and follow Him. The article speaks of patients and equates putting a pebble in their shoe to achieving that goal. How about learning patients by listening to people who no one listens too, giving your personal time when you want to do something else. Waiting on others and being at peace, going the extra mile when you are tired, bored. Patients is not enduring pain, patients is letting go of oneself and our desires. Self mortification deserves to be left in the dark ages.

    1. Writer, thank you for your comment. You address many different and lengthy items that I just don’t have the time to reply to. I’ll leave a couple select responses for you, though.

      First, I did not hint that self-mortification was good because it was in the past. I maintain here and in the book that self-mortification is a requisite of self-mastery because it’s biblical as well as practical (which I show here), but more relative to my topic of promoting what’s in my book, the saints tell us that their self-mastery came strictly from this practice. Now, you can agree with that, or you can go on. I’m sharing their words, not my innovative ideas (I don’t have any).

      I don’t completely understand your comment on religious v. secular. If it’s good for one, its good for both. At least, the way I see it, if one behavior to spiritual exercise offsets behavior or creates character, then it will do that in all people, not just religious. Gonzaga, as you see, was a layperson. Neri was a layperson for most of his life as well. Both write, as do their eye witness biographers that they mortified themselves for pain, humility, embarrassment, and exhaustion.

      Disagreement also comes with your statement about followering of Christ’s example. First off, the Bible says that we must share in his sufferings Phil. 1:29, that we are to rejoice about this (1 Pet. 4:12-19), to count it as joy (James 1:2-4). The basis of all of this can be found in Romans 5:3-5 and Hebrews 12:11. Yes, service to others is important, but I think you are missing a critical point in my message: self-mortification is not about others, it is about “self”. You share a lot of good ideas about service, but holiness is a multi-dimensional concept. It involves how we behave and think, just as much as it involves what we do and say. Individuals are called to holiness and holiness requires self-mastery and self-mastery requires that we tame our flesh. So, we mortify it.

      I’m really glad you commented because you bring up really great questions. But unfortunately, you’re missing a critical component to the spiritual life. One that is biblical, saintly, and very much in need among Catholics today. In reality, I don’t think you disagree that much, really, because the motive and means in your suggestion to “listen to people nobody listens to, going the extra mile when your tired,” etc, is just what I’m talking about. God bless.

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