Step 10: Mortification
He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. John 12:25
External and Internal mortification or “self-denial”. It is Lenten season by the way, what better time to bask in the richness of this virtue. I think St. Jose Maria Escriba had it right when he said that the virtue lies in self denial because if we recall the second most greatest commandment: “thou shalt love your neighbor as yourself”(Mk 12:29) or “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (Jn 13:34) or even “He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Rm 13:8); there is a great deal of justification in St. Escriba’s statement.
I know many of us have heard the phrase, “give until it hurts.” But what exactly does that mean and why would we ever consider doing such a thing? Who are we giving so intensely too anyway? It kind of mirrors another common biblical phrase “There is no greater love than this, to lay down ones life for one’s friend” (John 15:13).
God asked us to do these things, not only for the sake of the other but for the fruitful gain of our soul and its union with Him. He knows that as human beings we are prone, because of original sin, to desire gain and are not so inclined to give. He uses our weak inclination and purifies it by commanding us to do that which we find most difficult in order to give us that which we seek; to receive. But he is not going to gift us that which the world can provide (temporal delights), what good would that be, Him being God and all. No, He will give us the best of the best, the divine, the fullest of all gifts; Himself.
We do have to make one thing clear though, mortification is not required or obligatory. But, for those seeking perfection, it is unquestionably necessary. In order for us to successfully grasp the two greatest commandments we have to start at ground level. Habitual practice of self-denial looks something like this; Exterior mortification “consist in doing and suffering what is opposed to the exterior senses, and in depriving oneself of what is agreeable to them” St. Alphonsus goes on to say that we should treat our body like a horse rider treats his wild horses; ” he draws the reins tight, lest he should be thrown off” (139). Would a doctor prescribe a sick man a diet that would make him happy or feel good according to his pleasurable appetite and completely ignore the diet that will aid his recovery? If such a doctor exists it would be in my greatest interest to stay far from him during my illnesses.
We do not deprive ourselves in vain, it is a virtue we practice in order to train the body to detach a little from the dependence of this world. Taking reign over the body’s inclinations, whether they be good or bad in themselves, allows us to step into the second habitual practice mentioned by St. Alphonsus. It also allows us to consider a meditation on the richness of God and the life he has prepared for us in eternity. If he calls will we be ready? or will we still have earthly bonds weighing us down, preventing our assent?
The second practice is what completes the package: Interior mortification, which consists in always seeking the will of God by “restraining our self-love and self-will”. “If the body is not mortified, it is very difficult to make it obedient to the law of God” (141). For example, lets say that for lent I decide to begin going to the earliest Mass available, everyday. The discipline I have chosen requires external and internal mortification.
- My body has to get used to rising earlier than usual
- My attitude has to consciously remain charitable toward others so early in the morning and before my coffee.
- My mind has to strive to comprehend what the Word of God is voicing during Mass; a passive involvement is not a mortification.
- My intention for being at Mass in the first place has to be purified and elevated as an expression of love for God.
- My heart has to be still and open in order to receive the graces of the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
- I have to continue my ordinary day after Mass and attempt to apply the message received during Mass and give the graces God has given me to others.
As we can see, both the body and soul have to be in unison since true denial of self requires the effort of both. Here is a good nip at the bud by St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, for why we do what we do in this exercise of mortification: “self-love is the worm that gnaws at the root and destroys not the fruit, but even the very life of the plant” (145). We are the plant, virtue is our fruit, The love of God is our root; see the full picture? So let us run the race of perfection in Jesus our Sacrifice, Savior, Redeemer, Lord; all those things we celebrate after lent in the Resurrection. Let us make this Lenten season a fruitful one, one pleasing in the eyes of God. Because in the end His eyes are the ones we desire to gaze upon for all eternity not the world’s.