Mortification for Moderns
by Jeanette Amestoy Flood
When you really care about something or someone, you don’t think in terms of merely doing the minimum. Those truly striving to follow Christ already know this. You’re probably already doing much more than the minimum. But every one of us must remind ourselves once in a while that we’ve got to keep climbing to the next level. The spiritual life is like going up a down-escalator: you don’t have to turn around and start walking down to backslide; all you have to do is stop climbing. A little complacency is all we need, which is so easy to fall into, especially if we compare ourselves to others in our self-centered culture.
Our approach to doing penance often reflects this. First of all, it’s extremely easy for a Catholic to do penitence these days, because holy Mother Church has brought her requirements to a minimum to accommodate us. For instance, fasting requirements during penitential seasons or before receiving Communion have been relaxed in our time. In the Middle Ages, a confessor might give you a penance of three days of fasting on bread and water, while sitting on the cold floor of a church, without a coat or blanket. Nowadays, we’re often told simply to pray three Hail Marys. I don’t think this is because we’re less sinful than our forebears.
This should not suggest, however, that the Church has ceased to appreciate the need for penance. The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out: “every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin” (no. 1472).
Real penance is pertinent to going beyond the minimum because doing penance makes our wills stronger and is a means of grace, so it helps us to go beyond the minimum in other areas of the spiritual life. The best motivation for doing penance is precisely to show God our love, our sorrow for sin, our concern for His other children in other words, at the heart of doing penance is the desire to go beyond the minimum to express our love.
Pope John Paul II, in his 1984 apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, explained that the penance (or “satisfaction” as it is sometimes called) a priest gives in the sacrament of confession “is not a price that one pays for the sin absolved and for the forgiveness obtained: No human price can match what is obtained, which is the fruit of Christ’s precious blood”. Rather such acts of penance “are the sign of the personal commitment that the Christian has made to God in the sacrament to begin a new life.... They include the idea that the pardoned sinner is able to join his own physical and spiritual mortification which has been sought after or at least accepted to the passion of Jesus, who has obtained the forgiveness for him. They remind us that even after absolution there remains in the Christian a dark area due to the wound of sin, to the imperfection of love in repentance, to the weakening of the spiritual faculties. It is an area in which there still operates an infectious source of sin which must always be fought with mortification and penance”. (RP §31, III)
So Mother Church reminds us of the need for acts of penance and encourages us to do them, and even gives suggestions. But she also has left a lot of leeway to the individual. She wants us not merely to do the minimum to get out of trouble, but show our true remorse and desire “to begin a new life” by taking our own initiative in the matter.
Sometimes, though, we’re not sure how to go about it. We might read about the self-floggings of medieval monks or the sometimes extreme penances of saints in past ages. The Church doesn’t encourage these practices today, but rather emphasizes three forms: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
That doesn’t mean, however, that she forbids any form of mortification, far from it. Nor do we need to fall back on extreme practices of the past. It’s not hard to find simple but effective penitential opportunities; they’re all around us, every day.
This, essentially, was what Saint Thérèse of Lisieux meant by her “Little Way”. As a child, she had been trained to look for chances each day to do something for Jesus ten chances, specifically, even being given a little string of ten beads with which to count her sacrifices. As a young woman, reading about and being daunted by the impressive acts of mortification of the saints who lived before her, she decided to continue her practice, but instead of striving merely for ten, she would make it her way of life. She would use every opportunity whether it be a crack in her pitcher or a sister who consistently splashed her during the washing each day to turn something unwanted, unpleasant, into a gift to God.
Though many modern Catholics are familiar with Saint Thérèse’s Little Way, she wasn’t really the first to discover it. Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth-century French monk, and Jean-Pierre de Caussade, an eighteenth-century Jesuit and spiritual director to nuns, both wrote about the powerful efficacy of doing one’s duty and accepting whatever crosses might come along out of love for God. In Practicing the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence advocates this method as a means to encounter the Lord throughout the day. Father Caussade describes essentially the same method as a means of spiritual growth that leads to what his work is sometimes titled, The Joy of Full Surrender (also known as Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence).
Healthy Mortification Suited to Our Times
Saint Paul warned us not to be conformed to our age (Rom 12:2). Every era, every society, has its blind spots. Peter Kreeft compared our own time with that of our ancestors thus: “We are less courageous, less honest with ourselves, less self-disciplined, and obviously less chaste than they were. But they were more cruel, intolerant, snobbish, and inhumane than we are. They were better at the hard virtues; we are better at the soft virtues” (Back to Virtue - San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992, p. 25).
Seeking penitential opportunities can give us that boost of motivation to help us do what we should do anyway. If we looked at exercise, for instance, as a duty and an opportunity for penance, what a difference it could make! We know we should do it especially in a technological age whose advances have nearly eliminated all the ordinary opportunities that were for so long a part of everyday life. But we claim we don’t have time. (Really, given that exercise improves the immune system, gives one more energy, and helps one sleep better, we don’t have time not to exercise.)
Nor do we see neglecting this duty as a sin, because it seems like so many people exercise for reasons of vanity. But see it as a penance, and see penance as a good, and you have a helpful inspiration to fulfill that duty. Again, turning it into a sacrifice for the love of God, in reparation for one’s sin, and/or for the sake of a loved one in need can make all the difference.
When running, for instance, when one feels like stopping, one can instead pray, “Okay, I’ll keep going to the next telephone pole, as a sacrifice for so-and-so.” Then, before getting there, the Lord might well remind one of someone else for whom to go a bit further. One could transform an entire workout into a prayer time, in which every stretch of road or every set of reps was a sacrifice offered for someone.
Intercession can also be a key to overcoming bad habits, when just the knowledge that one should change and sheer will power are often not enough. But if one can turn it into a prayer, into a sacrifice, that makes all the difference. This is especially true if you have a particular person in your life who really needs God’s help. (Don’t we all?)
Recall that Jesus Himself said that sometimes prayer alone is not enough; some situations require both prayer and fasting (Mk 9:29). I asked a priest about this once, and he confirmed it. Yes, usually when we think of fasting or any type of sacrifice, we think of it as giving up a legitimate good. But we can also offer up the difficulty and effort in giving up something we should give up anyway. There’s still effort and self-denial involved, and if we’re doing it for the right reasons sorrow for sin, interceding for another, the love of God then it still counts!
When you have a penitential outlook, you will see sacrificial opportunities all around you. Every little unpleasant duty, every difficulty, every disappointment, every chance to help someone holds this potential. When you stub your toe, spill your drink, lose an unsaved document on your computer, break a dish, etc., you have an opportunity to “offer it up”. You can wait for the light to change instead of jay-walking, you can slow down and let another driver merge into your lane, you can open the door for a stranger at a store, you can smile at someone when you’re preoccupied or grumpy.
A priest at a conference once said that it helped him in these situations to see them as times to meet the Lord, like Simon the Cyrene or Veronica along the Via Dolorosa, and to share or relieve His suffering. At each such occurrence, he would try to say, “Welcome Jesus”.
Another priest once called family life a “gymnasium” of charity one that held countless opportunities to exercise that virtue. Back during my home-schooling days, when I had four or five little children at home with me all day, I found that not only were tasks constantly being interrupted, but interruptions were interrupted, which in turn might be interrupted. After dealing with the latest incident or two, I couldn’t recall what I’d been doing in the first place. Children, unfortunately, don’t time their needs and crises according to our convenience. And given that we are all sinners and have faults, living with anyone can be wearing. Yet all of these are really occasions for us to prove our love to our family members and for our Lord.
We can also recall the justice of such little sufferings. It can be aggravating to pick up the same items for the same children over and over. Or to do for them a chore they forgot again and that can’t wait for their return. But simply remembering one’s own childhood and the probably countless times one has inconvenienced others by one’s own thoughtlessness can transform one’s attitude toward these vexations. Don’t I deserve this? Haven’t I ever in my life behaved the same way? Probably. If not, I’ve bothered or hurt people in other ways. This occurrence is not unfair, but a chance for me to make reparation for my own faults and sins.
On the other hand, a word of warning must be said with regard to voluntary penances. Sometimes the devil can get in there in an unexpected way. After you begin seeking and making use of these chances to give something up or do something extra for the Lord or His kingdom, the devil can try to discourage you by overwhelming you with suggestions. “You could give up that snack too. You don’t have to eat it. If you really loved the Lord, you’d give that up too”, so on and so on, throughout the day. It can be very upsetting. You feel overwhelmed yet guilty.
If this happens, one needs to learn to discern the voice of heaven from that of hell. The former invites, the latter nags and condemns. The former’s suggestions might be challenging, but are accompanied by peace. The latter’s suggestions usually make one feel frazzled or negative. It’s usually not so much that the suggestion itself is off (though that can happen too), it’s the way it comes to mind. Keep calm and look at the idea, but don’t feel you have to do it. Ask the Lord to protect and guide you.
A Life of Adventure
G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “an inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered”. How life-changing a motto this could be! What is it about an adventure that is so much more appealing than a duty or an inconvenience? Surely it is the idea of being heroic, courageous, meeting a challenge bravely, for noble reasons, in defense of others, etc. Yet all of these things reside potentially in every difficulty we meet each day even though it doesn’t feel like it. No dragons are visible.
But responding to every difficulty we encounter with Christlike charity and patience requires heroism, the courage to die to oneself, and can be done for noble reasons such as the love of God (nothing nobler!) and in the defense of others, if we turn it into a sacrifice that we offer up on another’s behalf. (And if no dragons are visible, that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Don’t doubt that you’ll have to fight the world, the flesh, and the devil, at the very least in your thoughts, in order to rise to this challenge.)
What better time to adopt this penitential perspective than now? The month of November is a time in which the Church particularly remembers the souls in purgatory, who depend on our prayers and sacrifices. As the season of fall recalls death, so does the end of the liturgical season remind us of our own mortality. Remembering the souls in purgatory can also remind us that we too must pay the temporal punishment we owe for ours sins, either here in this life, or afterward, in purgatory. And we are entering Advent, a time of preparation for the Coming of our Lord, traditionally through penance.
So let us pray that the Lord will change our mindset, and give us a heart that appreciates the gift of penance whether it’s one we choose or one that chooses us. May He help us to recognize in each one the chance to make reparation for our sins, the chance to show Him how sorry we are that we have hurt or disappointed or offended Him, the chance to show Him that we love Him, and the chance to help build His kingdom by participating in His redemptive sacrifice on the Cross. Penance is not something to avoid, but a gift to be embraced!
Jeanette Amestoy Flood is a writer and literature/drama teacher; she and her husband have six children. She has more than 20 years’ experience in book production, and freelancing for such publishers as Ignatius Press, Coming Home Resources, and Pauline Books. See her new blog: where-the-rubber-hits-the-road. blogspot.com.
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