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Mortification: An Ancient Part of the Christian Spiritual Life

November 24, AD2017 21 Comments

 “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.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

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