The Meaning of Mortification
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus, The month of March is dedicated to devotion to St. Joseph. Let us ask St. Joseph to defend and help us on our path toward Heaven and to grant us a love for Jesus and Mary like he has in his heart! This Sunday we celebrate the 3rd Sunday of Lent. I share with you a reflection on the Mortification. I encourage you to reflect over this message a few times this week: “The Meaning of Mortification - Truly following Christ implies practicing a life of mortification and being close to the Cross: If each of Christ‟s actions in His earthly life have redemptive value, the salvation of humanity culminates in the Cross. It is to this climactic that all of Christ‟s life on earth is directed. I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!(Luke 12:50) So He said to His disciples on the road to Jerusalem. He revealed to them His overwhelming desire to give His life for us, and He gave us an example of His love for the Will of the Father by dying on the Cross. It is on the Cross that the soul finds its full identification with Christ. This is the deepest meaning of acts of mortification and penance. To be a disciple of Our Lord one needs to follow His measured words of advice: If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me. (Matt 16:24) It is not possible to follow Our Lord without the Cross. Jesus‟ words are relevant in all ages, since they are directed to each and every man, for he who does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. (Luke 14:27) To take up the cross - the acceptance of sorrow and of the contradictions God permits for our purification, the costly fulfillment of our duties, Christian mortification voluntarily accepted - is the indispensable condition for following the Master. What would become of a Gospel, of a Christianity, without the Cross, without pain, without the sacrifice of pain? asked Paul VI. It would be a Gospel, a Christianity, without Redemption, with no Salvation; a Redemption and Salvation of which - and we ought to recognize it here with unmitigated sincerity - we stand in absolute need. The Lord has saved us with the Cross; with His death. He has given us hope again, the right to life… (St. Paul VI, Address, 24 March 1967) It would be a valueless Christianity which would not be of use in our reaching Heaven, for the world cannot be saved except with the Cross of Christ.(St. Leo the Great, Sermon 51) United to the Lord, voluntary mortification and passive mortification acquire their deepest meaning. They are not directed primarily to one‟s own perfection, nor are they a way of patiently bearing the contradictions of this life. They are a participation in the mystery of the Redemption. Mortification can appear to some to be a sign of madness or of stupidity, some kind of relic left over from earlier epochs which no longer fits in with or is inappropriate to the progress and cultural development of our twentieth century day. It could also be a sign of contradiction or of scandal for those who have forgotten about God. But none of this should cause us surprise. St. Paul had already written that it is a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles. (1 Cor 1:23) And in the very measure in which Christians lose sight of the supernatural meaning to their lives, they fail to understand that we can only follow Christ through a life of sacrifice, juxta crucem, beside the Cross. If you don’t deny yourself, you never will be a soul of prayer. (St. Jose Escriva, The Way, 172) And St. Teresa adds: To suppose that He would admit to His close friendship pleasure-loving people who want to be free from all trials is ridiculous. (St. Teresa, The Way of Perfection, 18, 2) Although the very Apostles themselves, who followed Christ when He was acclaimed by the multitudes, love Him deeply and are ready to give up their lives for Him, they do not follow Him to Calvary - for, not having as yet received the Holy Spirit, they are weak. There is a big difference between following Christ when this does not require a great deal from us, and identifying ourselves totally with Him through the tribulations, great and small, of a life of sacrifice. The Christian who journeys through life systematically opting out of sacrifice, who rebels in the face of pain, distances himself from holiness and happiness, which are found beside the Cross, very close to Christ the Redeemer. On losing the fear of sacrifice: The Lord asks each Christian to follow Him closely; and for this, one has to accompany Him to Calvary. We can never forget His words: he who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. (Matt 10:38) Long before He had to suffer on the Cross Jesus had told His followers that they would have to carry it. In mortification there is a paradox, a mystery, which can only be understood when love is present. Behind the apparent death is life, and he who egoistically tries to save his life for himself loses it: Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whosoever loses his life for My sake will find it. (Matt 16:24) To bear fruit, loving God and helping others in an effective way, sacrifice is necessary. There can be no harvest without a sowing season: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24-25) To be supernaturally effective one has to die to oneself through continuous mortification, forgetting completely one‟s comfort and eschewing egoism. If a grain of wheat does not die, it remains unfruitful. Don’t you want to be a grain of wheat, to die through mortification, and to yield a rich harvest? May Jesus bless your wheatfield! (St Jose Escriva, The Way, 199)
We should lose our fear of sacrifice, of voluntary mortification, for it is a loving Father, who knows what is best for us, who wishes the Cross for us. He always wants the best for us. Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from me; I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30) Close to Christ, tribulations and difficulties are not oppressive, they are not burdensome; on the contrary, they dispose the soul to prayer, to see God in the events of daily life.
Through mortification we raise ourselves up to the Lord; without it we remain at ground level. With voluntary sacrifice, with sorrow offered and borne patiently and with love, we unite ourselves firmly to the Lord. It is as though He were to say: All you going about tormented, afflicted, and weighed down by your cares and appetites, think nothing of them. Come to Me and I will refresh you; and you will find a rest for your souls that your preoccupation with your troubles takes away from you. (St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, I, 7, 4)
Other reasons for mortification: To be convinced that we should practice generosity in mortification, it is important to understand clearly the reasons that give it meaning. Some may find it very difficult to be mortified, precisely because they have not discovered this meaning. Many are the reasons which lead a Christian towards mortification. We have already considered the first one: to identify oneself with the Lord and to follow Him in His desire to redeem on the Cross, offering Himself in sacrifice to the Father. Our mortification thus has the same aims as the Passion of Christ and of the Holy Mass, and is daily converted into a deeper confirmation of our will to the Will of the Father. But mortification is also a means to make progress, to advance in virtue. The priest, in the dialogue which precedes the Preface of the Holy Mass, raises his hands to Heaven while he says; Lift up your hearts. And one hears the faithful respond: We lift them up to the Lord. Our hearts ought to be permanently turned towards God. The heart of a Christian ought to be full of love, with a hope always placed in his Lord. To be able to do this he cannot allow himself to be trapped by and a prisoner of earthly things; he has to be constantly moving towards a greater purification. And this is not possible without penance, without continuous mortification, which is the means to progress. (St. Jose Escriva, The Way, 232) Without it the soul remains subject to the thousand and one things which make their demands on and tend to disperse and dissipate the senses: attachment, impurity, tepidity, desires for an immoderate comfort… mortification frees us from many entangling ties and gives us the capacity to love. Mortification is the indispensable means for doing apostolate, for extending the Kingdom of Christ: Action is worth nothing without prayer: prayer grows in value with sacrifice. (St. Jose Escriva, The Way, 81) We should be far off the track if we wished to attract others to God without supporting this action on a foundation of intense prayer, and if this prayer were not reinforced with mortification joyously offered up. And so it has been said, in many different ways, that interior life, shown especially in prayer and mortification, is the soul of the apostolate. (J. B. Chautard, Soul of the Apostolate) Lastly, we do not forget that mortification also serves as reparation for our past failures, whether they have been great or small. Thus in many prayers do we ask Lord to help us make up the lapses of our past life: ‘emendationem vitae, spatium verae poennitentiae… tribuat nobis omnipotens et misericors Dominus’- that the almighty and merciful God may grant us a change for the better in our lives and a time of true penance. (Roman Missal, Formula for Holy Mass Intentions) Thus through mortification, even our past faults are turned into a source of new life. In the deep pit opened by your humility, let penance bury your negligences, offenses and sins, just as the gardener buries rotten fruit, dried twigs and fallen leaves at the foot of the very tree which produced them. And so what was useless, what was even harmful, can make real contribution to a new fruitfulness. From your falls learn to draw strength: from death, life. (St. Jose Escriva, The Way, 211) We ask the Lord that we may learn to use our life, from now on, in the best possible way. When you look back on our life, which seems to have been marked by no great efforts or achievements, think how much time you have wasted, and how you can recover it with penance and greater self-giving. (St. Jose Escriva, Furrow, 996) And when something costs us an effort, some of those thoughts which urge and encourage us to mortification will come to mind. Reasons for penance? - atonement, reparation, petition, thanksgiving: means to progress - for you, for me, for others, for your family, for your country, for the Church… And a thousand reasons more. (St. Jose Escriva, The Way, 232)” (From: In Conversation with God by Francis Fernandez) Through the intercession of Mary, Mother and Queen of all hearts, St. Joseph and St. Columbkill may we all have the grace to practice mortification and prayer in our daily life! In Christ through Mary, Fr. Kasel