It is one of the curious anomalies of present-day civilization that when man achieves greatest control over nature, he has the least control over himself. The great boast of our age is our domination of the universe: we have harnessed the waterfalls, made the wind a slave to carry us on wing of steel, and squeezed from the earth the secret of its age. Yet, despite this mastery of nature, there perhaps never was a time when man was less a master of himself. He is equipped like a veritable giant to control the forces of nature, but is as weak as a pigmy to control the forces of his passions and inclinations.
If, indeed, this life is a vale of character-making, and if it involves conflict with those forces and powers that would drag us away from our ideals, then it behooves us to realize that the truest conquest is self-conquest, that true progress may more properly consist in mastering our rampant impulses and selfish desires, than in mastering the winds and the seas. But this conquest of self cannot be attained except by a struggle that in Christian language is mortification. Mortification means dying to live for the love of God.
First of all, it means dying to live. It is a law of nature and grace that a higher life is purchased only by dying to a lower one, or that we live to the life of the spirit and the kingdom of God only by dying to this world, with its flesh and its concupiscence. Recall the tremendous emphasis that our blessed Lord placed upon this aspect of mortification — words we only rarely hear in these milk-and-water Christianities of our day:
“Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling to the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”
“Enter you in at the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate and straight is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it.”
“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.”
“If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”
“For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but he that shall lose his life for my sake shall save it.”
These warnings sound strange to us, whose lives are molded so often on the assumption that this life is the only one we can be sure of, and hence, while we have it, we should eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. They sometimes are dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders, as if such suggestions belonged to the past and should have no part in our modern life of ease and luxury.
The law of mortification, which consists in dying to live, is one of the fundamental laws of life and one that cannot be ignored by anyone who knows the meaning and purpose of life.
Glance over the various levels of creation — the chemical, the plant, the animal, and the human order — and see how well verified is the law that a higher life is purchased only by death to a lower life.
Note that if the sunshine and the rain and the chemicals of the earth are ever to enjoy communion with plant life, so much as to be one with its organism and enjoy the thrill of living, they must surrender their form of existence in the lower order. If the grass of the field is to enjoy communion with the life of the animal and be so much with it that it can see, taste, touch, and smell with the animal, it must die to its lower life; this means that as grass it must be torn up from the soil by the very roots and ground between the jaws of death. For death is the condition of birth. If the sunshine and the rain, if the plants and the flowers, if the animals and the birds, if the great expanse of living things are ever to enjoy communion with a higher life of man, so much so as to become a part of his life as a thinking and loving being, they, too, must surrender their lower lives and existences and pass through the Calvary and the Gethsemane of death.
We must die to ourselves to attain life with Christ
In like manner, if a man is ever to enter into the higher life of Christ — and man has no right to say there is no higher life than his own, any more than a rose has a right to say there is no higher life than its own — if he is ever to enjoy communion with Him, so as to have the blood of God running in his veins and the spirit of God throbbing in his soul, he must die to the lower life of the flesh. Yes, he must be born again, for unless a man is born to that life of God by a death to the lower life of nature, he cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven.
And hence the law of Calvary is the law of every Christian: unless there is the Cross, there will never be the Resurrection. Unless there is the defeat of Calvary, there will never be the victory of Easter. Unless there are the nails, there will never be the glorious wounds. Unless there is the garment of scorn, there will never be the robes blazing like the sun. Unless there is the crown of thorns, there will never be the halo of light. Unless there is the descent into the grave, there will never be the Ascension. For the law laid down at the beginning of time, which shall be effective until time shall be no more, is that no one shall be crowned unless he has struggled and overcome, and no one shall enjoy the life of God until he has died to his selfish self.
But in this surrender of the lower life, let it not be thought that mortification is a sign of weakness; rather, it is a sign of power. It is the will controlling itself, submitting itself to defeat at its own hands, in order to win its finest victory. It is the making of the dead self a stepping stone to better things and the conquest of self the condition of the victory that brings everlasting peace and joy with God.
Wrongly indeed do we think that our blessed Lord might have saved us in some less costly way than in emptying His Precious Blood from the chalice of His body. Oh, if He were only a teacher of humanitarian ethics, if He were only a moral reformer, then it might have sufficed for Him to show His inimitable tenderness, His heavenly purity, and His melting kindness. Then He might have sat like some Greek teachers before Him in some marketplace or on some porch, where the great minds of the world might have sought out His wisdom and His counsel.
But if He was to be more than a teacher, if He was to be the High Priest who would not make a new world but invigorate an old one, if He was to force the human conscience to stand face-to-face with the sternest sides of truth ere He disclosed His divine remedy, then, unless the existing conditions of human life were to be altered, He had to die to the ignominy of a Good Friday to live to the life of an eternal Easter. Since the servant is not above the Master, how can we expect to avoid the law of Christ?
Love is the root of sacrifice
But mortification means not only dying to live. Its fullest meaning embraces also its inspiration, which is love, for the difference between pain and sacrifice is love. Love is the soul of sacrifice. Everything in nature testifies to this: the deer that fights for her fawn, the bird that toils for her nestlings, the spider that would die rather than drop her bag of eggs: all these know that love is not worth calling love unless it can dare and suffer for the one it loves.
That, too, is why I believe that we always speak of arrows and darts of love — something that wounds. The day that man forgets that love is identical with sacrifice, he will ask how a God of love could demand mortification and self-denial. As a matter of fact, the most intense human sufferings and the bitterest arrows of outrageous fortune become softened and sometimes sweetened when they are borne in love for another. A mother keeps vigil by the bedside of her fever-stricken child; neighbors call it sacrifice, but she calls it love. The hero rushes into lapping tongues of fire to rescue his friend; onlookers call it sacrifice, but he calls it love. The lover gives to his beloved a ring, not of tin or straw, but of diamonds and platinum; acquaintances call it sacrifice, but he calls it love. And finally, our blessed Lord empties Himself of His heavenly glory, puts on the cloak of mortality, and goes down to the horrible red death of a crucifixion; we call it sacrifice, but He calls it love: “Greater love than this no man hath: that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Hence, whenever and wherever there is an intense and passionate love of Christ and Him crucified, sacrifice involved in crushing anything that keeps one away from Him is not felt pain but the sweetest kind of love, for what is pain but sacrifice without love? The saint does not view sacrifice as an executioner with a sword who will take away his life, but as a yoke that is sweet and a burden that is light. The devout do not hate life because life hates them or because they have drunk of its dregs and found them bitter, but because they love God more, and in loving God more, they dislike anything that would tear Him away.
Oh, could the world but realize that the love of Christ crucified so possesses thousands and tens of thousands of souls that they would rather lose all the world and the riches thereof than one second of intimacy with Him at the foot of the Cross! Could it but sense the passionless passion and wild tranquility with which such souls each morning rush to Communion to enjoy intimate union with their changeless and understanding Friend, Jesus in the Eucharist! Could it but dimly guess how these Christ-loving hearts rejoice in carrying a cross, in order that, by sharing in His death, they might also share in His Resurrection!
Sacrifice for them is not a loss, but an exchange; not a suffering, but a dedication; not a foregoing of the enjoyable, but a conversion of passing pleasures into an eternal and unchangeable joy. Sacrifice for them is not pain, but love. Their only pain, in fact, is their inability to do more for their Beloved. Like ships, which never know the full joy and the great glory for which they are made until they are unmoored from port and given over to the high seas and strong winds, so neither do souls know the full joy of their life until they, too, are unmoored from the port of all worldly attachments and, following the words of our blessed Lord: “launch out into the deep.”
Like coals, conscious of their own blackness, they cast themselves into the fire of sacrifice, there to become Christlike in flaming brilliance. Like the logs of the forest, these souls, once in the consuming fire of the love of the Cross, sing their song, for the log sings its song only in the fires that consume. Possessed with the desire to be like their Christ, none of them will come down from the Calvary of this world with hands unscarred and white. They are like other Sauls made Pauls by their intense love of the Savior, and there floats up like burning incense from their fiery hearts the words “Who, then, shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulations? Or distress? Or famine? Or nakedness? Or danger? Or persecution? Or the sword? I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor power, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The world, which begins with pleasure instead of ending with it, perhaps can never understand why such an intense love of our blessed Lord should ever make souls want to die to live, and still be happy in their death. But then, neither can the world ever understand why the only recorded time that our blessed Lord ever sang was when He went out in the black, cruel night to His death!
Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from Fulton J. Sheen’s God’s World and Our Place In It, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.