Mortification

God wishes us to seek the happiness He can give if we will let Him. A mother who has a wayward daughter desires nothing more than to penetrate into her mind to inspire her will – her greatest sorrow is her inability to do this. The happiness of both is conditioned upon the daughter’s allowing the mother’s love to operate, for no parent can ever guide a child who wars against the parent’s will. Neither can God guide us if we allow the animal in us to direct our will, demanding the satisfaction of each of its rebellious claims. As the whole order of the universe rests on the surrender of the chemicals to the plants, of the plants to the animals, of the animals to man, so the peace of man comes only in the surrender of self to God. Psychologists teaching that our animal needs are more important than the ideals of the superego, that a discipline of sex ends in a tension and neurosis that can be released only by carnal abandonment are all individuals who have increased the world’s selfishness, egotism, and cruelty.

The principal cause of all unhappiness is unregulated desire – wanting more than is needed or wanting what is harmful to the spirit. The modern world is geared to increase our desires and our wants by its advertising, but it can never satisfy them. Our desires are infinite – the supply of any good on earth is finite. Hence our unhappiness and anxieties, our disappointments and our sadness. The only exit from this state is by control of the senses through mortification. This is what Our Lord meant when He said ‘And if your hand, or your foot scandalize you, cut it off, and cast it from you. And if your eye scandalizes you, pluck it out, and cast it from you’ (Matt 18:8). Because, in our modern civilization, the biological is divorced from the spiritual, because freedom is isolated from dependence on God like a pendulum cut off from a clock, because liberty is interpreted only as freedom from something and not as freedom for something, it is especially necessary to revive the Christian practice of self-discipline.

Christian self-discipline is really self-expression – expression of all that is highest and best in self – the farmer plows under the weeds for the complete expression of the corn’s desire to grow. Self-control, through mortification or asceticism, is not the rejection of our instincts, passions, and emotions, nor is it thrusting these God-given impulses into unconsciousness, as the materialists accuse the Christians of doing. Our passions, instincts, and emotions are good,  not evil – self-control means only curbing their inordinate excesses. To take a little wine for the sake of one’s stomach, as St. Paul told Timothy, is to obey an instinct – but to take so much of it as to forget that one has either a head or a stomach is to abuse wine as a creature of God.

Once the instincts and passions are subject to the will, they can be controlled and guided. The Church does not repress passions when it restrains their unlawful expression. It does not deny emotions, any more than it denies hunger – the Church only asks that, when a person sits at table, he shall not eat like a pig. Our Lord did not repress the intense emotional zeal of Paul – He merely redirected it from hate to love. ‘Our Lord did not repress the biological vitalities of a Magdalene – He merely turned her passion from love of vice to love of virtue. Such a conversion of energies explains why the greatest sinners – like Augustine – sometimes make the greatest saints – it is not because they have been sinners that they love God with their special intensity, but because they have strong urges, violent passions, flowing emotions which, turned to holy purposes, now do as much good as they once did harm‘ (Fulton J. Sheen).

Strong passions are the precious raw material of sanctity. Individuals who have carried their sinning to extremes should not despair or say ‘I am too great a sinner to change’, or ‘God would not want me’. God will take anyone who is willing to love, not with an occasional gesture, but with a ‘passionless passion’, a ‘wild tranquility’. A sinner, unrepentant, cannot love God, any more than someone on dry land can swim – but as soon as a person takes his errant energies to God and asks for their redirection, he will become happy, as he was never happy before. It is not the wrong things one has already done that keep one from God – it is present persistence in that wrong.

Mortification is good, but only when it is done out of love of God. Mortifications of the right sort perfect our human nature – the gardener cuts the green shoots from the root of the bush, not to kill the rose, but to make it bloom more beautifully. As the perfection of the rose and not the destruction of the bush is the purpose of pruning, so union with God is the purpose of self-discipline. Good deeds that are done for human ends, such as to perpetuate one’s name, or enjoy praise and popularity, receive nothing but a human reward – only deeds of mortification, done out of Divine Love, perfect the soul. But they must be done from the right motive, and they must sacrifice the very things to which we wish to cling.

10 Responses to “Mortification”


  1. 1 Trevis March 5, 2010 at 12:41

    Great post for Lent!
    A close analogy is the athletic saying, “No pain, no gain.” In order to get your body in shape, you must be willing to endure some hardship, and the same is true of your soul (or your personality if you don’t believe in souls).
    Self-mortification teaches humility by making us recognize that there are things more important than our own pleasure. It teaches compassion by giving us a window into the sufferings of others—who don’t have a choice in whether they’re suffering. And it strengthens self-control.
    As well as (here’s the big one I’ve saved for last) encouraging us to follow the example of Our Lord, who made the central act of the Christian religion one of self-denial and (in his case) literal mortification to bring salvation to all mankind.🙂 Chow to all🙂 and forget about the juicy succulent tasty yummy delicious mouthwatering steak today!

  2. 2 Judy March 5, 2010 at 12:52

    Gabriella,

    Thank you! This was perfect Lenten reading to begin my day today!
    A FRIDAY…a day of PENANCE🙂
    I love what you wrote about our “wrong-doing being not what keeps us from God but our PRESENT PERSISTENCE in it”.
    My children are not awake yet this morning, but I will use this as a topic of discussion in our Religion classes today!
    The analogies you drew throughout this wonderful post should be made present to ALL young people (AND adults) who are studying the purpose of self-denial and sacrifice.

    God bless you my friend, for helping us all grow closer to Him in the desert!

  3. 3 anne bender March 6, 2010 at 00:25

    Superb! This post is full of hope for the sinner and those who struggle to maintain their Lenten fast (like me!).

    Thanks so much!

  4. 4 Cinzia March 6, 2010 at 05:16

    This magnificent post is, I believe, not just about lent. It’s about always.

    ” …. but to take so much as to forget that one has either a head or a stomach ……”

    brilliant! just brilliant!

    Gabriella, with your permission I will introduce your posts to several priests in my neighbourhood, and suggest they could use them as “next Sunday’s sermon” material.

    Your posts would be one million times more useful, educational, intelligent, Catholic, informative, interesting and to the point than any sermon I have heard for a very very long time.

    I can see the Holy Spirit quietly at work in this blog. There’s no other explanation to perfection every time.

    • 5 churchmouse March 14, 2010 at 00:24

      I agree, Cinzia. Gabriella’s work is truly inspired.

      This post has eternal truths for us all. Thank you, Gabriella, and may God continue to bless you in your fine work!

  5. 6 Mac Coinnich March 6, 2010 at 10:30

    Cinzia, I’ve already been going to all my priests telling them to connect to this blog –
    Gabriella, you owe me for all this publicity🙂
    I believe Pope JPII used to go about some self-mortification like wearing haircloth..
    http://www.catholicregister.org/content/view/3833/849/

  6. 8 Mary Nicewarner March 7, 2010 at 03:14

    Amen! This post is right on target! I loved the entire thing-from the mortification to how the Lord transforms sinners into great saints. Loving God with all my heart, nothing held back, is my hope and dream🙂

  7. 9 andrea March 7, 2010 at 23:04

    Mortificazione,Rinuncia a se stessi=ammaestramento dell’io (l’io nella giusta misura in rapporto a tutto ciò che lo circonda) Da qui nasce la forza,l’impegno,la lotta,senso della realtà…

    Vizio,Appagamento oltremisura=alimentazione smisurata dell’io (l’io che straripa oltre se stesso,che va al di là della sua misura per poi perdersi,esplodere,disgregarsi nel suo non poter essere ciò che non può essere). Da qui nasce la debolezza,la stanchezza,il sonno esistenziale,la perdita di senso.

    La mortificazione,il giusto equilibrio rende forti non solo nella fede,ma anche nell’animo e nel corpo stesso.

  8. 10 Emily C. Hurt August 11, 2012 at 00:37

    This quote is from Fulton Sheen–please attribute it to him; otherwise this is plagiarism. At least the part: “Our Lord did not repress the biological vitalities of a Magdalene – He merely turned her passion from love of vice to love of virtue. Such a conversion of energies explains why the greatest sinners – like Augustine – sometimes make the greatest saints – it is not because they have been sinners that they love God with their special intensity, but because they have strong urges, violent passions, flowing emotions which, turned to holy purposes, now do as much good as they once did harm.


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