Mortification: a Forgotten Virtue?

by | Jul 31, 2023 | Formation


“Convince yourself that you will not enter into savour and sweetness of spirit unless you give yourself to the mortification of everything you desire,” said the mystic St John of the Cross. The savour and sweetness of spirit, therefore, will never be enjoyed without mortifying oneself. But, in the words of Karl Rahner, this is ‘a forgotten virtue today’.

For decades now, we have been under the dictatorship and slavery of consumerism and the mentality it has spread to all dimensions of life. Today there is a ‘throwaway’ mentality; rightly denounced in his time by John Paul II. Indeed, he felt that his home nation of Poland, like the rest of the nations emerging from the slavery of communism, were fast moving to another slavery: consumerism. In fact, John Paul II warned: do not pass from the slavery of communism to the slavery of consumerism. Consumerism has won where no ideology, faith or creed could prevail. This mentality is eradicating the virtue of mortification by making it unnecessary and putting it on the margins of our lives. Today we want everything and we want it now, nobody likes to wait, to make a little sacrifice and mortification to wait for something. Yet, “God does not save from suffering, but in suffering; he does not protect from death, but in death. He does not deliver from the cross, but in the cross” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said. Willing or unwilling, in life we will always and in any case have to face suffering, death and the cross, precisely mortification. So, in Christian ascetical language, mortification means the struggle the Christian must endure to observe the divine law and achieve perfection. It can be distinguished into mortification of the will, of the intelligence, of the senses, etc.

Some biblical references to the virtue of mortification:

The Bible often speaks of the virtue of mortification as the renunciation of vices and insists on the cultivation of virtues. All this requires a struggle to be waged against temptations, instincts to be controlled and, in Paul’s language, putting on the new man and avoiding the old one. All this requires moving from darkness to light, from night to the day of grace.

If the Paschal mystery, that is, the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus is the source and summit of all virtues, the Easter Triduum is under the sign of sacrifice and mortification. Mortification then, is for the supremacy of grace, it is to make the new man live in us; it is to live in the lordship of the spirit over the flesh: for the flesh has desires contrary to the Spirit and the Spirit has desires contrary to the flesh; these things are opposed to each other (Gal. 5:17). The Gospel asks us to “deny ourselves and follow Jesus by carrying our cross” (Mk 8:34); Paul asks us to abandon the old man who corrupts himself by following deceitful lusts and put on the new man (Eph 4:23-24); St Peter, taking up the idea from the prophet Isaiah 53 invites us to suffer joyfully for Christ: Christ suffered for you (1 Pet 2:21). “He bore our sins in his body on the wood of the cross, so that, no longer living for sin, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you were healed” (V.24). This mortification and sacrifice ultimately makes us blessed: blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you (Mt 5:11).

What does St Vincent teach about this virtue?

As a whole, SV is a child of his time: he uses the mind-set and language of his time. Like Jesus, SV also speaks of mortification as the renunciation of something, someone and even oneself: if anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Lk 14:26). The hatred of which Jesus speaks is not to be understood literally. In fact, Jesus admonishes his disciples to give a proper hierarchy of their affections; nothing and no one is to be put above or equal to Him, Jesus and His Kingdom. Those who have left everything and everyone to follow Jesus know well the price of this renunciation; it is a renunciation that makes you shed tears and requires many sacrifices and mortifications. St Vincent knows something of this. SV then reminds us very often in his lectures to have the courage to renounce even our loved ones, not for the sake of renunciation but to be free in our lives and in our ministry to serve His Kingdom, His poor and least brothers and sisters. Thus, Christian renunciation is indeed a detachment, but to access something greater, love and service of God and neighbour.

Explaining in detail this virtue and its necessity for our community and apostolic life, St. Vincent insists on the renunciation of the inner and outer senses and the holy indifference that leads us to seek and do only the ‘will of God’. Mortification requires the renunciation of carnal passions in order to live the motions of the Holy Spirit.

St Vincent encourages us to look to Jesus, and to walk in His footsteps. SV, like the author of the first letter of Peter say that sufferings are inevitable so let us make good use of them, that is, let us suffer worthily and nobly: “it is better to suffer by doing good than by doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17). In saying this, SV was trying to show us the benefits of the virtue of mortification. For without mortification we cannot pray as we should because mortification helps us control our human senses, reparates sins, guards our vocation, and above all, advances our spiritual life. Mortification was accepted by the Son of God, why should we not also accept it, asks SV. It can be contrary to human logic and expectations and this makes its practice somewhat difficult. Some practical and indispensable advice from SV to acquire and practise this virtue:

  • Mortification, like the other virtues, is acquired by repeating it without tiring with gentleness and patience. Let us remember that for SV, ‘it is a means and not an end’;
  • It requires prudence and control but decisively and devotedly rejects all forms of spiritual and bodily worldliness, personal comforts in order to strip oneself completely of the old man and clothe oneself with the new man, the Lord Jesus and the Kingdom;
  • This virtue, according to SV, helps us to act with judgement, judgement, and wisdom, under the Lordship of the Holy Spirit;
  • Finally, let us remember that SV never encouraged great bodily mortifications and austerities, flagellations and ostentatious renunciations; for him, ‘faithfulness and perseverance in one’s vocation, doing one’s mission (preaching) well, one’s duty, in a noble and dignified manner is already mortification’.

What meaning do we give today to the virtue of mortification?

a) STATE OF SIN: sin is not just yesterday’s. Our humanity too is wounded, fragile, weak and bears the scars of sin. We too feel the burden of the old man and his mentality. “The old man in us was crucified with him, that this body of sin might be made ineffective, and that we might no longer be slaves of sin” (Rom 6:6) St Paul tells us. We are not completely free from the influence and seduction of the old man, from ‘Adam’ fallen from his royal throne. For centuries, mortification was interpreted as a literal death to the body, considered the source of sins. The body was seen as the seat of the passions, the lower part of man and in constant opposition to the upper part, the soul. Hence the need to reduce the body and its desires through penance, sacrifice and mortification. What is the ultimate purpose of mortification? To bring order and discipline to the body and above all to make it accept the lordship of Christ Jesus in the Spirit! Indeed, on Easter night before renewing our baptismal promises we declare: I renounce Satan, his works, and his seductions.

b) MENTIFICATION! The term “mortification” has its origin in the biblical text of the Epistle to the Colossians 3:5. Paul joins “mortify,” which literally means “to give death or cause to die”. In this way the term mortification means death to sin, to the old man (Rom 6:1-11). With baptism, one puts on the new man, Christ Jesus.

c) CURRENTNESS: For us Christians, continual mortification is not only topical but necessary. The death of the old man in us is indispensable and always topical. For the new man, Jesus, to live, the old man must necessarily die. In baptism, we are granted the seed of new life. This must be actualised and concretised in the attitudes and actions of daily life. In order to have a disciplined and regulated life, even in terms of diets, one does a lot of physical exercise even fasting. All this requires much sweat, sacrifice, penance and mortification. To give absolute lordship to Jesus in our lives, how will we not have to endure so many sacrifices and make so many mortifications?

d) IT IS IMPORTANT TO BE DISCIPLINED: Just as athletes undergo demanding physical training programmes to be competitive, in the spiritual life too there is a need for spiritual training. The letter to the Hebrews advises us: “Let us run with perseverance in the race that is set before us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the one who gives birth to faith and brings it to fulfilment” (Hebrews 12: 1-2). We who have believed, hoped and suffered for Jesus (Heb 12:1), are asked to turn our eyes fixed on Jesus, running towards him, dropping everything that hinders us in the race. In this race, the mind must turn with applications to Jesus and his choices because we have a dignity and freedom lost to sin. In order to regain this lost dignity and freedom, in addition to the grace given to us from on high, to cooperate with the grace received requires not inconsiderable discipline, renunciations and carrying one’s cross in a praiseworthy manner. All this has a name: mortification, sacrifice, the cross. Just like athletes, we too must run in full compliance with the rules of the spiritual life, avoiding all spiritual corruption: “do not conform to this world” (Rom 12:2). And this we cannot achieve cheaply, without a spiritually disciplined life, without mortifying something of ourselves, in some way without renunciation or the shedding of sweat and blood. Mortification is a virtue that is necessarily expressed in endurance, in holding out, in not letting difficulties get us down. The Christian life is not easy, nor is it spontaneous, it is a struggle, an obstacle race. It is true that the Spirit in us gives us new senses and can make the gift of self joyful, but this does not take away the suffering it entails, nor the experience of barrenness. Often it is not big things that keep us from running but small pebbles stuck to our feet. It only takes a thread of silk to stop a bird from flying high! Sometimes it is the past that weighs us down: opportunities lost or that have caused us to lose, personal mistakes … sometimes we run, but our gaze has lost the goal for which we run, Christ Jesus.

I conclude by saying:

  • Today we emphasise spontaneity, life according to feeling: go where your heart takes you! By this road we do not go far in Christian life and consecrated life. Instead, let us run with perseverance, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ.
  • Mortification, in a broad sense, is a deadly fight against everything that hinders the attainment of an ideal, the goal of life’s journey. That is why mortification understood as a positive value of personal spiritual discipline is also educational.
  • Finally, let us remember that for St Vincent, the virtue of mortification is necessary for our living together. SV asked himself, ‘if we are not animated by the spirit of mortification, how will we live together? We will not be able to live, I repeat, we will not be able to live alongside one another, if our internal and external senses are not mortified, and not only is it necessary among ourselves, but also in the midst of the people, where there is so much to suffer,’ SV told us. Having placed this virtue well, for him mortification is “doing one’s mission well in a dignified and praiseworthy manner” and nothing else. The purpose of penance and mortification is nothing other than this: to do our mission well! I believe that our founder’s teaching is a vision that can still be shared and easily applied today.

Fr. Zeracristos Yosief, C.M.