Brookline Carmel Bulletin
March 5, 1961
If any man says he is determined to become a saint and doesn’t practice mortification, that man is deceiving himself. After the Sacrament of Penance, it is the most effective means of rooting out sin. In one sense, however, mortification is more effective. Don’t we say, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? Whereas Sacramental confession is a curative, mortification is a preventative remedy. The former aims primarily at removing the guilt of sin; its secondary aim is the same as the primary aim of the latter: to destroy the roots of sin. Mortification inures the individual to hardship and curbs his appetite for pleasure. It overcomes the divisive influence of inordinate affections and paves the way for the subsequent integration and coordination of the powers of body and soul that is brought about by the practice of virtue. They say that a tornado begins as a tiny whirlwind exactly like those we see within the angle of a corner on a windy day. At that stage it is actually possible to ‘stamp’ it out of existence. We can just as effectively stamp out sin by getting such perfect control over our tendencies to sin that they never get past the first movements.
Only those first movements of the sense appetites are tendencies to sin, which, because of undue affection, are all out of proportion to reason, and refuse to submit to the control of the will. Other than that, they are good and necessary, fulfilling an essential purpose. In order to understand why mortification is necessary, let us consider how the first movements operate. Whenever our senses perceive some object that is either good and desirable or evil and undesirable, it triggers a series of biological reactions in the body, priming one physically and psychologically for pursuit, fight, or flight (in varying intensity, obviously). The sugar content of the blood rises, the rate of heartbeat and breathing increases, the senses are sharpened, etc. By practicing mortification we can gain considerable control over these automatic mechanisms, either arresting them completely or greatly diminishing them. Then we allow reason and faith to dictate how we are to react to our surroundings. For it sometimes happens that what is repulsive to sense is good for the soul, and what is appealing to sense jeopardizes the life of grace. So really, through mortification we learn to react in a manner contrary to our purely natural instincts. Think of how a young lady acts in the presence of a young man on whom she has a ‘crush’. By her looks, words and gestures you would judge that she nourished the greatest disdain for him (after all, who finds desirable what he comes by easily?). In like manner a mortified man can turn from the sight of a delightful and appealing object as easily as if it were a loathsome thing. He can turn a deaf ear to the discussion of some juicy scandal as easily as to the carping of a nagging woman. This doesn’t mean that his capacity for enjoyment is in any way diminished. It is, rather, increased (food tastes best to a hungry man). In fact, a man who embarks upon a life of rigorous mortification soon finds his senses so purified that they become more delicately attuned and sensitive to pleasure. Then he falls into the danger of turning back and giving himself up to a life of self-indulgence. This is what Our Lord meant when He said, “…When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he roams through dry places in search of rest, and finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house which I left’; and when he has come to it, he finds the place unoccupied, swept and adorned. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.” (Matt. 11: 43,44). But if he perseveres, he discovers that necessary and legitimate pleasures are far more enjoyable than before, and he begins to experience a subtle and delicate spiritual pleasure. Besides, only a thoroughly mortified man is properly disposed to taste the fruits of contemplation.
We may speak of both voluntary and necessary mortifications. The former consists in denying oneself legitimate pleasures or inflicting unnecessary discomfort. The latter consists of the privations, hardships and repugnances endured in the faithful discharge of one’s duties, and in resisting temptation. It is clear that to undertake a plethora of voluntary mortifications to the neglect of the necessary ones is utter stupidity. But at the same time, voluntary mortifications are more effective in putting sinful tendencies to death than the other kind, and we cannot learn to avoid sin with sweetness and ease unless well accustomed to giving up lawful pleasures.
We may distinguish between mortification of the higher and the lower nature. By mortifying the latter we gain control over our five senses. By mortifying the former we calm the natural passions of joy, hope, fear and grief, bringing peace into our lives.
To be effective, mortification must possess certain properties. It must be total – we need to mortify all our senses and affections; generous – in ways that cost, not in ways that are minor, easy; well-ordered – proportionate to the threat posed by each sense and affection, according to a predetermined plan: discreet – without injury to health or interference with the fulfillment of one’s obligations, with due permission of one’s confessor; prompt – at the predetermined time; energetic – firmly, decisively, whole-heartedly.
A man with a profound desire for union with God and a firm determination to achieve it (with the help of God’s grace) becomes very ingenious in discovering the mortifications that are best suited to his particular state of soul.
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