omnibus omnia

The Meaning of Christian Mortification

In Bible, Born Again, Catholicism, Christianity, Church, Conservative, Conversion, Ethics, Faith, God, Grace, Jesus, Liturgy, Prayer, Religion, Sacraments, Saints, Salvation, Spirituality, Theology, Thomism, Tradition, Values on April 21, 2011 at 00:27

Our devotion begins not in some distant mission country but where we are right now, in our families and communities, amidst persons who bear the image and likeness of God Himself (read more…)

(Re-published, with modifications, from our earlier post “Reminders for Lent: Mortification” dated February 23, 2009. Continued from Prayer)

Q1. What is mortification?

The New Catholic Encyclopaedia defines mortification as “the deliberate restraint that one places on natural impulses in order to make them increasingly subject to sanctification through obedience to reason illumined by faith”. To explain further: Mortification is a ‘deliberate restraint’ because it’s something we freely choose or accept for the sake of God. It involves ‘natural impulses’ because mortification is something we do in addition to avoiding sin1; that is, through mortification we purify our desires even before they turn us to sin.

Q2. Why should we practice mortification?

This means that we should practice mortification for the following reasons:

1) It makes us better prepared to obey God. The presence of God in our souls is conditioned on our obedience to His commandments (St. John 15:10)–that is, our continued obedience (I St. John 2:24)–, “because the design of that mystery which was ordained for our restoration before the eternal ages, was not to be carried out without human weakness and without Divine power”2. Hence, just as soldiers are drilled at peacetime that they may be ready to fight on the battlefield, so must we train our appetites to readily obey God what commands even in the midst of trial. “An ounce of self-denial will work miracles in a sluggard, cowardly soul.”3

2) It prepares us to resist temptation. Because of our first parents’ Fall, our appetites have a weakened capacity to do what God tells us is right. Therefore we must make our desires more ready to obey reason elevated by faith4; and the Scriptures tell us:

“Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth” (Colossians 3:5)

Otherwise, if we do not train our desires to self-denial, they may drag us to sin, even to sins that leads to spiritual death (1 John 5:16-17), which the Church therefore calls mortal sins. St. Paul the Apostle himself practiced self-discipline for this purpose, for he knew that, with his God-given freedom, he could sinfully reject his God-given salvation by grace:

“I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (I Corinthians 9:27).

3) It is a fit offering to God in union with Christ. Our Lord Jesus Christ is Himself the perfect and complete sacrifice to God. By baptism we become members of His Body (I Corinthians 12:13), the Church that completes His being (Ephesians 3:22-23); and thus we enter into His life (see Galatians 3:27), His death (Romans 6:3), and His resurrection5. Therefore He declares,

“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

Thus it is fitting that we make ourselves “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God” (Romans 12:1). This is rooted in God’s free choice to join human freedom, which He gave to man and moves by His grace, to the completion of His sovereign purpose. Human beings in all their weakness are, by grace, necessary co-participants in Christ’s saving work, because in Him the Word was made flesh (St. John 1:14), our flesh. As explained by Karl Adam:

“There is but one God, the Triune God, and every created thing lives in awe of His mystery. But this one God is a God of life and of love. So great, so superabundant is this love, that it… by the precious gift of sanctifying grace, summons [man] from his state of isolation to an unparalleled participation in the Divine Nature and in Its blessings, to a sort of active co-operation in the work of God, to effective initiative in the establishment of the Kingdom of God.” (Spirit of Catholicism, chapter vii)

4) It contributes to our final salvation and to the saving purpose of the whole Church. Through mortification, we obey part of the Scriptures’ command to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you” (Philippians 2:12-13 KJV). We also contribute to the welfare and salvation of the whole Church:

“For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us…” (Romans 12:3-6 KJV)

Therefore the holiness of any one of  us benefits all, and the sin of any member harms all (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:25-26), for we are joined to one another, as we are all joined to Christ; and every merit of every Christian, obtained in Christ and by His grace, benefits the whole Church (see I Corinthians 12:13, 26), in communion with the merits of Christ. Thus the Apostle Paul tells us:

“I fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Thus do we make ourselves and our brethren ready to join Christ’s offering of the Church to the Father (see I Corinthians 15:24):

“For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13 KJV).

5) It is an act of repentance and a penance for sin. In the Scriptures, mortification such as fasting (see I Samuel 12:6) and the wearing of sackcloth (see Jonah 3:5) was the outward expression and sign of inner repentance. Thus Christ our Lord declares,

“Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (St. Matthew 11:21).

Therefore the one true Church affirms that “[b]y divine law all the faithful are required to do penance”6.

Q3. How should we practice mortification?

In light of the foregoing, we may remember the following considerations when we practice, as we ought to practice, mortification:

1) The practice of mortification must be accompanied by inner conversion and obedience to the other commandments of God, especially those on justice and charity, which must ever coincide with piety. Thus Our Lord told the Pharisees:

“[T]hese ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (St. Matthew 23:23).

2) We should begin our mortification not with the austerities that we ourselves have chosen, but rather, with the joyful fulfillment of our duties to God and neighbor, and by patiently making the sacrifices required by our daily lives. For our devotion begins not in some distant mission country but where we are right now, in our families and communities, amidst persons who bear the image and likeness of God Himself, but whose familiarity may perhaps lead us to take them for granted.

“Therefore the Church… insists first of all that the virtue of penitence be exercised in persevering faithfulness to the duties of one’s state in life, in the acceptance of the difficulties arising from one’s work and from human coexistence, in a patient bearing of the trials of earthly life and of the utter insecurity which pervades it… The Church, however, invites all Christians without distinction to respond to the divine precept of penitence by some voluntary act, apart from the renunciation imposed by the burdens of everyday life.”7

3) When we choose the austerities we add to our everyday mortifications, we must choose those that are appropriate to our circumstances and capacities8. (Note that, with God-given wisdom, the Church does not ordain a uniform discipline beyond the minimum of fasting and abstinence, but rather commands that we mortify ourselves “each in his or her own way.”9)

I submit that one fruitful way to determine the appropriate mortification is this: that we find out which is our strongest desire that is not either sinful (which we should avoid anyway) or a duty (which we may not avoid, such as being with our family, a source of joy that is also an obligation before God), and then to restrain that desire. For example, if we take great pleasure in the company of friends, then we may meet them less frequently during Lent. In my own case, because my delight in books brought me close to neglecting my duties, I was advised (and correctly, I think) to restrain my reading during a penitential period.

4) When choosing our discipline, it would be best–indeed, it would be indispensable–to seek the guidance of our spiritual director or superior if we have one, or any priest, religious, or lay leader whom we trust. This is the best means to be guided away from harmful austerities that would make us less able to do our lawful duties, as would happen if they are more severe than we require or can sustain, or otherwise do not fit our condition in life. As explained by St. Thomas Aquinas:

“The mortification of one’s own body, for instance by vigils and fasting, is not acceptable to God except in so far as it is an act of virtue; and this depends on its being done with due discretion, namely, that concupiscence be curbed without overburdening nature… Since, however, man is easily mistaken in judging of matters concerning himself, such vows as these are more fittingly kept or disregarded according to the judgment of a superior”10

Needless to say, we must obey the guidance that our spiritual director or senior in Christian life gives to us, even if it seems ill-fitted to our desires. As with prayer, mortification requires the dispositions of love and humility; and there is no greater danger in mortification than pride, which may even lead us to think ourselves better than others because of our austerities (as the Flagellants did in the 14th century11). The best antidote to such pride is continued obedience, both in the will and the understanding, to God and to His representatives in the Church (see Luke 10:16), including our spiritual director or superior; for let us remember, beyond all austerities of mind and body, it is the submission of our proud wills that constitutes the truest mortification12.

5) I submit that mortification is best done in conjunction with the liturgy, especially in the sacrament of confession and in the Divine Liturgy of the Mass. The liturgy is the communal prayer of the Church, which desires that “all may be joined together in a certain common practice of penance”13; and mortification in harmony with the liturgy manifests the communal reality of the Church–that is, that grace and salvation are not bestowed upon isolated individuals but on persons united with Christ as one Church. For we are the communion of saints, a consecrated people joined to the Church, the fullness of Christ, by baptism, the Eucharist (see St. John 6:53-56) and all her other sacramental actions, as well as her teaching (see 1 St. Timothy 3:15), guidance, and prayer.

“Since the Church is closely linked to Christ, the penitence of the individual Christian also has an intimate relationship of its own with the whole ecclesial community. In fact, not only does he receive in the bosom of the Church through baptism the fundamental gift of ‘metanoia,’ but this gift is restored and reinvigorated, through the sacrament of penance, in those members of the Body of Christ who have fallen into sin… And in the Church, finally, the little acts of penitence imposed each time in the sacrament become a form of participation in a special way in the infinite expiation of Christ to join to the sacramental satisfaction itself every other action he performs, his every suffering and sorrow.”14

If there is error in the foregoing, I beg the reader to correct me; and in any case, I submit without reservation to the teaching office of the Church. May God bless us all.

Continued in Fasting and Abstinence.



1 St. Augustine, Reply to Faustus, xxx, 6.

2 Pope St. Leo I, Sermo LIV.

3 John H. Stapleton, Explanation of Catholic Morals (New York: Benzinger, 1904), chap. lxxx

4 Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical “Exeunte Iam Anno”, no. 11, December 25, 1888.

5 Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution “Paenitemini”, February 17, 1966, chap. i

6 Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution “Paenitemini”, February 17, 1966. See also the Code of Canon Law, canon 1249.

7 Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution “Paenitemini”, February 17, 1966, chap. iii.

8 See St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, trans. John K. Ryan (Garden City, NY: Image, 1966), p. 43-44.

9 Code of Canon Law, canon 1249.

10 S. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2a 2ae, q. 88, art. 2, ad 3.

11 See Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York, Oxford U.P., 1970), p. 137

12 St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, trans. John K. Ryan (Garden City, NY: Image, 1966), p. 45-46.

13 Code of Canon Law, canon 1249

14 Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution “Paenitemini”, February 17, 1966, chap. i.


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