Thursday, December 26, 2013

More on Mortification & Penance

In my last post, "The Greatest Schism", (see here), I posited the theory that one reason we have so much bad theology today is because theological studies in the West are divorced from any sort of regimented ascetic discipline. This means the faith is something that is solely academic, robbed of its living power. St. Paul said that his preaching was so efficacious because it was "not in the persuasiveness of the words of philosophy, but in the demonstration of the Spirit and power (1. Cor. 2:4), meaning that his preaching did not flow simply from learning, but from a life lived. Mortification is necessary for the Christian life.

To be sure, proper intellectual formation is important, but unless theology is coupled with a life lived as a pleasing sacrifice to God, it is always missing something, lacking in a certain dimension. The theory of my last post was that this lack is particularly profound in the modern world, and that this lack means our teaching is more likely to go astray, because it is this ascetic spirituality that develops the spiritual "intuition" which recognizes the voice of Christ and helps keep one away from false teachings. This is what St. John the Apostle meant when he said:

"And as for you, let the anointing, which you have received from him, abide in you. And you have no need that any man teach you; but as his anointing teaches you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie. And as it hath taught you, abide in him." (1 John 2:27).

It seems, unfortunately, that several people misunderstood my argument here. The biggest misunderstanding was from the folks who made comments such as, "But you don't need to do severe penance to be holy", offering St. Therese's "little way" as an alternative; others questioned the whole need to do penance ("Can someone tell me why we need to flay ourselves alive every day to procure grace?"), suggesting that the simple sufferings of a broken home or a struggling marriage are sufficient mortifications.

A few clarifications:

First, we need to make a distinction between "mortification" and "severe penance", or "flaying ourselves alive." Mortification simply consists in self-denial. This can take a variety of forms and need not be severe; in fact, as many of you pointed out in the combox, most mortifications ought not be severe. To mortify simply means to "put to death." What we put to death is our flesh, and we do this through self-denial. Every single Christian, without exception, is called to practice mortification. This is why St. Paul says of himself, "chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway" (1 Cor. 9:27); and he encourages this on every believer when he says, "For if you live according to the flesh, you shall die: but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live" (Rom. 8:13) and "Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, lust, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is the service of idols" (Col. 3:5). Mortification is obligatory on every Christian.

How this mortification looks will vary depending on our station in life and degree of spiritual maturity, and there are as many ways to practice self-denial as there are circumstances in life. So please understand that mortification ≠ severe penance in most cases. You are right if you say we need not all do severe penance, but you err if you infer thereby that mortification is not necessary.

Second, let us recall that in the context of my original article, I was speaking of the particular obligation for theologians to live lives of mortification, since there is a profound connection between what is understood in the intellect and what is experienced in the spiritual life. The two reinforce each other, and without a sound grounding in each, the other tends to lose its moorings and can drift; spirituality devoid of intellectual formation becomes sentimentalism, emotionalism and ultimately pantheism, while a merely intellectual faith without any spiritual growth becomes sterile and eventually open to novelty. Humility of thought and mortification in life keep everything in proper balance and result in a theology that is sound, balanced, and vivified by grace, such as the works of Aquinas, Augustine, Bernard and the other great saints. To the degree our theology has gone wrong, I am convinced this is a very real reason.

As for the question of whether simply enduring suffering is itself a mortification, the answer is yes and no. All the saints agree that patiently enduring tribulation and offering it to God is the most pleasing form of mortification and results in an abundant growth in spiritual strength. However, it is not mere suffering, but suffering endured patiently and offered to God. There is no merit is suffering for the sake of suffering; it is a tool, and it depends upon what one does with it. Furthermore, we might add with St. Paul that Christian Tradition presumes this suffering is only meritorious if it is unmerited. Our first Pope phrases it this way:

"For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God...But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a railer, or a coveter of other men's things." (1 Pet. 2:19-20, 4:15)

Simply growing up in a broken home, or living in poverty, or enduring a tragedy or some kind of abuse does not mean the suffering has been meritorious. It can be if it is handled rightly, but the mere fact of suffering is not meritorious. And even if these things have been suffered, the call to mortification is constant; we can never say, "I have denied myself enough in the past, I need not do it anymore." It would be just as silly to say "I have exercised enough last year; I do not need to do it this year." Ascesis, after all, means "training" in Greek.

Let all Christians practice mortification in whatever manner is appropriate to their state in life and level of spiritual maturity, subject to the approval of their confessor. Let Catholic theologians bind their academic life to a spiritual discipline of prayer, fasting and penance that their doctrine may be pure and their teaching pleasing to our God and Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us conclude with the words of the great Dutch mystic and spiritual master, Thomas a Kempis:

"What is the reason, why some of the Saints were so perfect and contemplative? Because they labored to mortify themselves wholly to all earthly desires; and therefore they could with their whole heart fix themselves upon God, and be free for holy retirement. We are too much led by our passions, and too solicitous for transitory things. We also seldom overcome any one vice perfectly, and are not inflamed with a fervent desire to grow better every day; and therefore we remain cold and lukewarm." (Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Chapter 11)


Jack said...

I didn't even bring the subject of merit up, I merely asked why I have to inflict yet more suffering upon myself when I already find it hard to deal with the crap I have to contend with already. You wanna know what suffering is, try living a life where you know that you're not wanted, where love is absent. Your highrider kids with their oh so pious parents will never know what that's like, and will most likely be fought over by congregations that will want their oh so perfect souls, I wanted to give myself entirely to God, but unfortunately there seems to be no room for Quasimodo in today's "traditional" congregations

K said...

Thomas a Kempis, English? It's late where I live, perhaps I am missing something.

Anyway, there is no use arguing, Boniface. At least I think not. You will prick the conscience of many by even mentioning the existence of such a foreign thing as "mortification". They will kick like a horse no matter what you say. And mentioning that it is not meritorious to suffer for our own faults? That's really putting your neck to the sword. We don't have any faults, you see. Tally.

BONIFACE said...

Sorry. I know. He's Ducth. I'll change it.

Rick said...

I believe we can be practical about mortification in some cases. For example, I like to eat less and exercise regularly. I offer this "suffering" albeit small in quantity to God. It keeps me from growing out of shape as I get older. I can then physically help others more readily. There is an analogy with the spiritual life too. You have to study the faith to relate it to others efficaciously.

Saul said...


what's the reason we shouldn't kill abortion providers? Is it only because we don't have the authority to meet out justice as individuals? That's the only Catholic answer I've been able to find. I don't mean to be alarming, but as the new year has begun, I find it less and less bearable.