“I’m starving. But, my mother says a little hunger is good for the soul.”
I don’t know if she actually said that during her life, but those are the words of young Lucia in the recently released film Fatima.
That line really got me thinking.
If that is true — that a little hunger is good for the soul — and if we are constantly nourishing ourselves with the excesses of food and other comforts, then are we somehow neglecting our spiritual health?
We must be.
Think about the degree of convenience and luxury that the typical American enjoys: Stocked refrigerators, soft mattresses, central air conditioning, warm showers, abundant drinking water, entertainment at our fingertips, convenient transportation, and the list goes on. Even the American poor live more lavishly than the kings of centuries ago.
On one hand, that is remarkable and good. On the other, such ease and convenience has the capacity — even the likelihood — to turn men soft. And there’s no mistaking that Jesus demands an extraordinary level of toughness from His followers. In fact, He commands it:
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Ours is the religion of a suffering servant-king who battles demons, prays constantly, abstains from food and drink for weeks, sweats blood, has his body ripped apart, and carries his own instrument of death up a hill before getting nailed to it and willfully accepting a fate of suffocation and exsanguination (bleeding to death).
At the heart of Christianity is a man who subjects Himself to excruciating torment, and we are called to participate in this aspect of His life:
“Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
But how can we participate in the Cross of Christ if we’re consumed with pleasure?
Item #2 on our to-do list of how men can start to take back the culture one small step at a time: Mortification.
Life is a fight, and men are the principle fighters. Fathers, therefore, have a sacred duty to be soldiers for Christ and lead their families into battle in the way our Lord instructed: By denying ourselves, satisfying our own interests after those of others, picking up our crosses, being obedient to God’s will, praying, fasting, instructing others, and making converts. This is the sacred commission of the Church Militant which is to be led by Catholic men. And it cannot be successful without the Catholic discipline of mortification. It would be like asking men to fight in a war without combat or endurance training. You can step onto the battlefield, but you will quickly die.
Mortification is an indispensable means of holiness and salvation that is outlined in Scripture, taught by the masters of the spiritual life, and practiced by the saints. It is what trains a Christian for combat with this demon-infested world.
Saint Louis de Montfort defines it this way: “Mortification is the deliberate restraint that one places on natural impulses in order to make them increasingly subject to sanctification.”
Catholic Encyclopedia puts it this way: “Mortification is one of the methods which Christian asceticism (self-discipline) employs in training the soul to virtuous and holy living.”
The Catechism quotes St. Gregory of Nysa on this topic: “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle.”
The practice is a recipe against man’s sinful nature and attachment to sin by suppressing his lower passions to make room for a life focused on God.
You may think of it like this: The end of the Christian life is love; love of God and neighbor. Love is a giving of oneself to God and man, but we cannot give what we do not have. In order to give yourself to others, you must possess yourself first. This means you must be in control of your passions. But how can you be in control of your passions if you go about your day instantly satisfying every desire you have? Mortification is the practice of denying yourself and thus mastering yourself so that you can possess and direct your life to the worship of God and the service of others.
Mortification, simply put, allows us to love.
It is what you see Jesus doing to prepare Himself for His ministry of love: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry.”
With Christ as our model, mortification has been a mark of the saints throughout the centuries.
- Pope Saint John Paul II slept on the floor.
- St. John Vianney ate cold potatoes.
- Saint Jose Maria Escriva wore sharp prongs around his upper thigh.
- Saint Agnes used a stone for a pillow.
- Mother Teresa and her sisters voluntarily lived in extreme poverty.
- St. Catherine of Siena scourged herself three times a day in imitation of St. Dominic.
- St. Ignatius of Loyola wore a heavy chain under his clothes.
- St. Francis was disturbed at the sight of lepers so he ministered to them. He also mixed his food with ashes to blunt the taste.
- St. Clare slept on a bed of vine-branches.
- (Feel like a wuss yet?)
- St. Paul, he tells us in Scripture, pummeled and subdued his body.
- St. Patrick stood in cold ocean water saying his prayers with his arms outstretched.
- St. Thomas More, St. Jerome, St. Athanasius, and St. John Damascene all wore a hair shirt.
St. Louis de Montfort also rocked the hair shirt and offered this warning:
“Be careful not to admit into your society those delicate and sensitive people who are afraid of the slightest pin-prick, who cry out and complain at the least pain, who know nothing of the hair-shirt, the discipline or other instruments of penance, and who mingle, with their fashionable devotions, a most refined tediousness and a most studied lack of mortification.”
Bench-pressing four hundred pounds means you are strong. Voluntarily wearing itchy goat hair while sleeping on vines in order to increase your love for God — that’s tough.
Catholic men need to gain motivation from these examples of the saints and develop their own consistent habits of mortification. Certainly, we must perform the most basic and universal command of the Church to abstain from meat on Fridays, but we need to mature into practicing more rigorous and fruitful forms of mortification. Mortification is not a choice for Catholics. It is necessary for spiritual growth and it is commanded by Christ and His Church for that very reason. It is the key to breaking the chains of leisure that can lead to spiritual sloth and sinful habits. It is always sin that is at the heart of a wayward and decaying culture.
We also need to start developing these habits in our children.
Picture a young child routinely sitting on a beanbag in his air-conditioned bedroom playing video games with a steady dose of Doritos and Mountain Dew. That is the image of not just a future heart attack, but also spiritual death. Does anyone believe that kid could get through the introductory prayers of the Rosary without having a panic attack and playing with his cell phone? Does anyone believe that kid is prepared to sacrifice his life for God and neighbor?
It is unlikely that your young children are ready to sleep on the floor with a rock pillow, but you can start to teach them about self-mastery by saying “No” to constant snacking, enforcing spiritual reading, pushing them in sports, giving them daily chores, performing works of charity with them, asking them to donate their money to a good cause, or telling them to kneel at Mass.
Instill toughness in the form of reasonable physical or mental exertion from your children. Or the next time they start whining about a scraped knee, politely show them your crucifix and ask them, “Does it hurt more than that?”
There’s nothing wrong with asking your children to place pain into its proper perspective, or to suffer for the sake of preparing themselves for a life dedicated to God and others.
The coddled, beanbag-lounging kids of yesterday (Millennials), who were taught that the slightest form of discomfort was to be avoided, are today’s adults who have fallen-away from the Church. Worse, many actively undermine its teachings out of a false sense of compassion. We shouldn’t be surprised that mortification seems odd to people who were peppered with participation trophies and self-esteem lectures their entire lives. We actually now find many employers surrendering to the bubble-wrapped Millennial, which is why you see beanbags, foosball, and free food in offices today. Comfort is always to be obtained. Discomfort is always to be avoided. The Catholic Church, however, cannot be so accommodating. We must, as St. Paul instructs, preach Christ and Him crucified.
Introduce your children to small doses of discomfort. Familiarize them with straining their bodies and minds to accomplish daily feats. Encourage endurance and perseverance. Reward victory and learn from defeat. Soon, they will begin to make the connection between pain and growth. This will slowly illumine the meaning of the Cross, and understanding the Cross is necessary to understanding Christ.
In Because of Our Fathers: Twenty-Three Catholics Tell How Their Fathers Led Them to Christ, it is striking how many contributors recount small acts of mortification practiced by their fathers. One father knelt during the family Rosary while the other members sat on the couch; others woke up early for daily morning Mass; another lived humbly so he could pay for poor children’s education; and another woke up early each day to perform spiritual reading. Each writer had an impression of their fathers as tough, sacrificial men who put God and others first.
Saint Alphonsus De Ligouri put it this way: “The crucifixion of the flesh is the test by which the true lovers of Jesus Christ may be known. As the indulgence of the body by sensual pleasures is the sole and constant study of worldlings, so the continual mortification of the flesh is to the saints.”
Saint Jean Marie Vianney warns us, “Oh, how bitterly shall we regret at the hour of death the time we have given to pleasures, to useless conversations, to repose, instead of having employed it in mortification, in prayer, in good works, in thinking of our poor misery, in weeping over our poor sins; then we shall see that we have done nothing for Heaven. Oh, my children, how sad it is! Three-quarters of those who are Christians labor for nothing but to satisfy this body, which will soon be buried and corrupted, while they do not give a thought to their poor soul, which must be happy or miserable for all eternity.”
It should be noted that this is an enormous spiritual topic. There is much more to say about mortification and I merely intend to say that Catholic men need to take it seriously.
Every man can start growing in holiness today by implementing the discipline of mortification in their lives.
Remember, we can’t let the big problems of our world distract us from taking practical action to build a solid foundation for our own personal lives. God wants to raise up the army of men who will take back our culture, so we need to each get ourselves to boot camp and prepare for battle.
To recap, our to-do list for taking back the culture looks like this so far:
- 1) Sunday: take your family to Mass, enjoy a special meal, have fun.
- 2) Mortification: implement this discipline for you and your children.