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Mortification: A Condition of Life


The development of the supernatural virtues in us is attended by a process which has a twofold aspect.

"Always bearing about in our body the mortification of Jesus that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies." — II Cor. iv. 10.


# 1.  Disorder is in our soul from Adam's sin:  mortification aims at restoring order.

From one point of view this process is one of decay and death, from another it is one of expansion and life.  The explanation lies in the fact that a great disorder has been brought about in our human nature by the fall, and this disorder even though it has been repaired in its effects by the redeeming grace of Our Savior, has not been entirely healed the disarrangement in the powers of our nature has not been undone except potentially.  In other words, Our Divine Lord has placed in our hands the means to repair the disorder but has not destroyed it in its source.  One of the consequences of Adam's sin was the development in him of a vital activity hostile to the supernatural life.  This vital activity — which should be more accurately characterized as devitalising activity — is the activity of concupiscence.  Everything that ministers energy to this baneful activity, injures and tends to lower the vital energy of the divine life of grace.  In the language of St. Paul, the evil and corrupting vitality is the life of the flesh:  that which it undermines and destroys is the life of the spirit.  Adam in revolting against God was punished by experiencing a general revolt throughout his whole being.  Every faculty in his dual nature, that is, of sense and reason, asserting its independence, sought to develop its own vitality regardless of the general interest of the whole person, and made its own satisfaction the sole end of its activity.  Self-gratification in its various forms became the object of life for man as swayed by the concupiscences — the sad heritage of original sin.  The gratification sought after was not that which is proper to the personal, ordered activity of man, but that of each individual faculty capable of reaching after gratification.  In the person of fallen man there reigned general anarchy.

Before the Fall, Adam's soul opened like a flower to the sun of Divine Influence.  This Influence poured on his receptive spirit, flooded his intellect and will; it passed from the former faculty, that is, the intellect, into the imagination which held no image except such as had reference to God; from the other rational faculty, namely, the will, the divine influence passed into the senses which exercised themselves solely in obedience to the Divine Will faithfully transmitted to them by the human will which reflected the divine as a mirror.  By the act of rebellion the stream from heaven was dried up at its source and the spiritual link which bound all the faculties was snapped.  The result was that each faculty was, so to speak, left to its own devices with the consequence that was to be expected.  Before the disaster there was only one term to the total activity of man and that was God — after the Fall there were as many ends to pursue as there were faculties to exercise themselves.  Each blindly, obstinately pursued its own good.  The will was dragged after every form of satisfaction.  Owing to the greater vivacity of the apprehensive power of the senses and the weak appeal of the reason the satisfactions sought after were, for the most part, of a sensual kind.  The reason which should and could preserve the whole man in order, had lost its certainty of vision after the initial error of breaking with God.  Its dictates became uncertain and consequently its hold on the will became more feeble.  The good it presented held out less attractions than that promised by the senses — hence the whole man tended to be dragged down the path of sensual self- gratification.  Life became an effort to derive pleasure from every activity into which vital energy was poured.  Error — giving as it does scope for self-indulgence — was forced on the will by the intelligence.  Truth would exercise too much restraint over men's passions, hence it became an object of aversion for the appetitive rational faculty.  Fallen man has a pronounced leaning towards what is false.  The intellect following the way of the senses allowed itself to be carried away by precipitation and prejudice and swayed by an imagination that flattered; it now sought as the term of its exercise not what was true, but what could please and especially what could justify the course of sensuality on which man had embarked.  There is a marked tendency in fallen man to discover a philosophy which will justify his excesses and his aberrations.  To justify his evil courses, he embraces error.  "He would not understand that he might do well."[1]  He shrinks from truth for it counsels restraint and right conduct.  The triple concupiscence reigned supreme — the concupiscence of the flesh, that is, the thirst after sensible gratification in every form, the concupiscence of the eyes, that is, the pursuit of the pleasures that we have the power to conjure up for ourselves in imagination, and the pride of life, or the inordinate appetite for independence, for unchecked freedom of the will, and exaltation over one's fellows.

All the unregulated tendencies of men can be traced back to those three fountains.  In whomsoever there is given free rein to those tendencies, "the charity of the Father is not in him."[2]  He lives the life of the world, the life that Christ reprobated, the life which checks his prayer at its source.  The life according to the concupiscences is an existence which means spiritual death, and which tends even to its own decay, for the power of satisfying oneself decays with its own indulgence.  The life of the concupiscences is a life which is a veritable dying, leading to a death that does not open to any life beyond.  It is the spiritual form of that physical death which was inflicted on Adam for his sin; for by it man as such tends to dwindle, in the darkening of his reason, in his growing subjection to perishable things, and in his abandonment of what is eternal and everlasting.  The life according to the senses is death not only in the order of grace, but even in the order of nature.  "For all that is in the world," says St. John, "is the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life, which is not of the Father, but is of the world."[3]  The man governed by his triple concupiscence is the old man of which St. Paul speaks, whose works are death, in contradistinction to the new man, that is, our nature as restored by Christ, with everything in that nature subject to God and filled with His life.

Mortification aims at the rectification of this disorder in our fallen nature, so that it may be replaced by that order in which sense is subject to reason and reason to God.  By His Grace, Jesus Christ gave us power to recover, in a certain measure, this rectitude of our nature.[4]  The function of mortification is to enable us to "strip ourselves of the old man with his deeds, and to put on the new, who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the image of him who created him."[5]  Mortification aims at replacing disorder by order, revolt against God and reason by subjection to Christ and His faith, disordered nature by vivifying grace, and self-indulgence by purity and justice.  The ultimate effect is to reduce our senses to the control of our reason, our imagination to our will, and our will to God.  It may be defined then as a deliberate renouncement of the life of disorderly satisfaction of our concupiscences, and a curbing of every inordinate exercise of our external and internal faculties.  According to the signification of the word, it means a process of destruction, a dealing of death to that activity in us which seeks pleasure for the sake of pleasure; its purpose is that this activity being deadened, the life received in baptism may have free scope for its development.  It aims at death in order to secure life.  If we are to realize our vocation as Christians this voluntary death is imposed on us; it is the condition of our sanctification.  "Know ye not that all we who are baptized in Christ Jesus, are baptized in His death, for we are buried together with Him by Baptism unto death:  that as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life."[6]  Even as Christ "for the joy that was set before Him, endured the Cross,"[7]  so we, by His Grace, endure the cross of mortification for the joy that gleams beyond the pathway of death, for the light towards which we stretch in the darkness, for the fullness of life in God towards which we are called and towards which by His Grace, we press forward.  Mortification is an essential law of Christianity, a consequence of our incorporation with Christ. There is no possibility of receiving His life in our members, unless the activity of corrupt nature in those members is paralyzed by self-inflicted privation.  For mortification in its exercise involves the privation not only of unlawful satisfactions but even of those which in themselves are reasonable and legitimate.

# 2.  The right use of Pleasure:  contentment of the mortified man.

It may seem a very rigorous law, that which imposes on us the necessity of denying ourselves even innocent gratifications.  It seems scarcely possible to live without gratification of some kind or other.  God, in fashioning our nature, has indeed united a sense of satisfaction with the normal and healthy exercise of each one of our faculties.  Any activity that is exercised with facility and on some object which is not beyond the capacity of our powers is accompanied by a feeling of keen delight.  This IS true for the exercise of reason as well as for the play of the senses.  The intelligent and keen-witted find great happiness in grappling with problems which, whilst testing their powers to the utmost, still hold out a possibility of solution.  The painter and the sculptor experience great joy in the sense of power they have in using the materials of their arts to express the beautiful concepts of their minds.  The musician finds a charm in calling forth and grouping harmonious sounds:  the nature lover feels a deep contentment when the eye rests upon a scene all the beauty of which it is able to appreciate.  The intellectual find pleasure in the exercise of the mind, and the strong limbed in testing the powers of the body.  Finding this pleasure that accompanies the normal play of our faculties appetizing, we have a tendency to seek that form of activity to which we feel our powers proportionate, and to shun all that seems to present great difficulty or to be beyond our capacity.  We are tempted to pursue not what we ought, but what holds out promise of pleasure.  Disorder begins when seeking only mere gratification we renounce everything which does not promise it, and make everything we do minister it to us.  We are meant by God to make use of delectation, to make it serve our purposes, to find in it an aid to surmounting the tediousness of life; we misuse it when we make it an end, not a means.  All immortification may be reduced to this — the pursuit of satisfaction of mind or body as an end.  Our Lord's life was the very antithesis of this.  As St. Paul says:  "Christ did not please Himself."[8]  He did not seek His own satisfaction in what He did.  He acted not under the stimulus of pleasure but of Divine charity.

Were our nature not so corrupted by sin, it would be sufficient for us to practice temperance and use pleasure in moderation.  But so strong is the attraction which pleasure exercises over us, so powerful is its appeal, such a response does it find in us to its allurements, that the taste of it is dangerous for us.  It is difficult to yield to its influence without running the risk of exceeding in the measure of it we accord to ourselves.  To school ourselves to the right use of delectation, we must begin by starving our craving for it:  we must be more than temperate in its regard, we must be mortified — insensible, as it were, and dead to its call.[9]  In the restraint we have to exercise over the senses, over the imagination and over the will, Religion demands more of us than reason.  It is not sufficient to prescribe the limits of reason to the bodily appetites, we must, in order to make the body obedient to reason and faith, chastise it and reduce it to subjection[10]  by depriving it of many gratifications legitimate enough in themselves and in the abstract.  The more that is conceded to the body the less it is satisfied and the greater are its demands.  The body will not be a good servant until it has been consistently deprived of what it has strictly a right to.  Our Lord has set us the example for this rigorous treatment of ourselves.  We shall not have order and peace in our powers, contentment in our mind, and docility to the inspiration of grace in our soul, unless we reduce to practice the lesson given us by Him.  This involves the patient, constant and unremitting mortification of all our tendencies — resolutely denying ourselves in many things — "always," as St. Paul advises us, " bearing about in our body the mortification of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies."[11]

This is to face, apparently, a very somber and dreary existence — one which seems but a dull and gray vista of years stretching as far as the tomb and unrelieved by any ray of color or brightness.  This is not so.  Far from making for sadness, self-abnegation brings us a joy which self-indulgence never can.  Self-indulgence promises happiness, but provides nothing but restlessness and discontent and disillusionment.  On the other hand, self- denial even as inspired by religion holds out no prospect of gratification and yet it begets the greatest joy that this life can discover — the contentment which comes from the tranquillity of order in ourselves.  It brings the untroubled conscience and the cessation of all restless and gnawing cravings; it ministers that "peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding." But to secure this effect, our mortification must be thorough; it must affect our interior as well as our exterior, our minds as well as our senses.  To confine ourselves to bodily penance and to neglect the curbing of our interior powers is to perform a useless task; whilst on the other hand to neglect corporal mortifications in the pretense of devoting oneself to interior ones as being of much more importance, is to engage ourselves in a futile endeavor.  To combat the triple concupiscence which nurtures the life of "the old man" in us, and stifles the life of the new, we must mortify our senses, our imagination and our reason, and we must encourage ourselves to do so by the thought that it is utterly impossible to lead a truly interior and spiritual life without the continual mortification of ourselves under this triple aspect.  With the gift of Faith, every Christian receives the light to understand, at least to a certain extent, that mortification must form an integral part of his life as a follower of Christ. It costs, of course, to keep free from mortal sin, and to resist the temptations that incline us to it.  There is penance in this, but each one has the conviction that the life of mortification, which aims at nothing higher than the curbing of the satisfactions that involve mortal sin, will fail of its purpose; the christian sense warns a man that unless his rebellious nature receives harsher treatment than is involved in the checking of its sinful inclinations, he will in the end yield to the seduction of evil.  The Christian feels instinctively that he must mortify himself.  It is a hard necessity, an unpleasant occupation, but it obtrudes itself insistently on the christian conscience.  Its demands cannot be evaded.  But corrupt nature even when yielding to necessity will seek compensation for what it surrenders.  It happens frequently that we mortify ourselves readily on some one point or other and so satisfy our conscience that we are conforming ourselves to the law of Christianity.  Having given a salve to our conscience by exercising restraint in one direction we give a free rein to self-indulgence in another:  we curb our desire to speak, for instance, and give free play to curiosity, by putting no check to our desires of seeing:  we may be exact in our observance of the law of fasting, and very lax in the observation of the law of charity:  and it is possible to find Christians who chastise themselves with the discipline and chastise others with their tongues.  Holy Scripture speaks very ironically of this partial exercise of penance.  "Behold in the day of your fast your own will is found, and you exact of all your debtors.  Is this such a fast as I have chosen for a man to afflict his soul for a day?  Is this it, to wind his head about like a circle, and to spread sackcloth and ashes, wilt thou call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord?  Is not this rather the fast I have chosen?  Loose the bonds of wickedness, undo the bundles that oppress, let them that are broken go free, and break asunder every burden.  Deal thy bread to the hungry, and bring the needy and harborless into thy house:  then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy health shall speedily arise, and thy justice shall go before thy face, and the glory of the Lord shall gather thee up."[12]

# 3.  The Practice of Mortification.

In the work of gaining control of our disorderly appetites by mortification, the beginner must keep well in mind the facility in prayer, the happiness and the intimacy with God which will be the consequence of a life of generous and persevering mortification.  He should begin with limited but fixed points on which mortification will be practiced.  By degrees things will become easier and his mortification will be extended without extraordinary difficulty.  In the account we propose to give of the practice of mortification, we set before the reader a picture of the perfectly mortified man.  We show the goal to be aimed at rather than the first practice to be put before the beginner.

Mortification should begin with the senses, and when these are taught restraint, not much difficulty will be experienced in controlling the interior.  For by the denial of their gratifications to the external faculties, the imagination itself is starved of all that can excite in it pleasant, agreeable and sensual images.  The intellect depends for its exercise to a large extent on the imagination, and the will in its turn is attracted only by what the intellect presents to it as good and as worthy of being sought; hence when that faculty, namely the imagination, which stores the impressions conveyed by the senses, is rectified in its activity, the operation of the higher or spiritual faculties will in their turn be in order.  This is generally true but, still, the rule may admit of exceptions.  There are persons who are faultless as far as this life of the senses is concerned, and yet offend God mortally by an intolerable pride.  The malice of sin of this kind, the deliberate pursuit of the satisfaction arising from the sense of one's own excellence, is diabolic in character and more grievous in the sight of God than any disorder of the flesh.  The work of mortification consists in frustrating the work of sin everywhere, arresting its development, and stamping out the seeds of it that are found in the soul even when it has been regenerated in baptism.  Mortification deals its assaults on a dual objective.  It exercises itself on the outward and on the inward man, and accordingly is either interior or exterior.  To mortify oneself merely under one to the exclusion of the other of those two aspects is practically to lose one's time.  Without the double mortification, what St. Paul called the "Flesh" is not sufficiently subdued.

Our sensitive faculties first must be submitted to a regular treatment, consisting in a consistent thwarting of their desires.  It is not a question of depriving ourselves of the use of our senses but of securing that use of them which shall be in accord with the demands of our rational as well as of our supernatural being — the demands of reason and faith.  To secure this we must regularly, at least in the beginning, refuse them what might legitimately be accorded them.  We ought to submit them not only to restraint and privation, but to positive suffering in order to be sure to secure order in their activities.  The following paragraphs describe the rule of conduct to be followed in order to bring the senses perfectly under control.  The advises there given are in the abstract clear enough, and a knowledge of them is essential, but in their application to each soul imprudences are possible.  Hence in this question of the mortification of the senses, it is well for us to submit our course of action to a prudent spiritual guide.  We shall thus be protected from the natural error of being too lenient on ourselves and so effecting nothing; what is more important we shall be saved from that excess in this matter which is the pitfall of so many beginners.  The soul on the threshold of the spiritual life all impatient to eradicate from itself defects only too apparent, is prone, unless guided by a skilled director, to adopt a course of action impossible because it is beyond its actual forces at the moment or beyond the movements of grace.  Only too soon it will abandon its attempt as hopeless, and in all likelihood will cease altogether from practices of mortification to its great spiritual detriment.

We should mortify our eyes not lending them to the gratification of an idle curiosity.  Not only should we not rest them on objects the sight of which in themselves constitutes sin, but we should withhold them from regarding any creature the contemplation of which might excite undue disturbances in our imagination.  We should not look merely to derive satisfaction from our regards without any ultimate justification.  That is the negative side of the obligation.  Taking the matter positively what we allow ourselves to see should give us either the reasonable recreation that our body needs, or serve to provide for the elevation of our mind.  As we grow in the spiritual life we should use our faculty of vision to contemplate the divine beauty in creatures and thereby to raise our souls to God.

We should mortify our sense of hearing by training ourselves to shut our ears to what merely pleases or flatters us.  We should curb our desire to hear, when we expect that what we are to listen to will provide food for our vanity or our self-love.  We should not be anxious to hear what is favorable to ourselves, nor should we be ready to give ear to what is unfavorable to others.  Under pain of sin we must not allow ourselves to listen to bad or uncharitable conversations:  under risk of having the purity of our conscience tarnished we must be rigorous in curbing our curiosity to hear things, the knowledge of which we had better be without.  To seek for news is merely to open a wide gate to a multitude o f distractions.  Those who cultivate an interior life should desire to hear only what might furnish food for noble thought or increase their knowledge of God.  They should be eager to be told not of the things of this world but of the things of the next.  Not that we should at all times have our minds tense:  good sense and understanding will dictate that at times it is useful and may be obligatory to take part in conversations that have as their object to refresh, to amuse and to recreate.  Furthermore, we can practice a good deal of mortification by being good listeners, especially when the speaker happens to be a dull or tedious or uninteresting talker.  Charity will order us at times of recreation not to seek conversations that are agreeable, and not to fly from those that are otherwise.  Interior souls should deliberately refuse themselves the gratification of conversations that bring with them the spirit of the world — and should not allow themselves when they are obliged to entertain, to be dragged in to talk which would make subsequent contact with God difficult.  They should lift up others, rather than be pulled down themselves.  Musicians should exercise a check on their desire to hear music, should deliberately shut their ears to all that is merely sensuous, and should refuse themselves the pleasure of hearing again in their imagination the good music that appeals to them.

We must mortify our sense of taste.  Fasting should hold a place in our lives, and we should be far from seeking reasons to escape its obligations.  It promotes the well-being of the body as well as that of the soul; and with the mitigations that have been introduced into it, there is little fear of its doing any injury to the health.[13]  Fasting is to be done at certain times, but abstinence should be the ordinary condition of our lives.  Besides the ordinary weekly abstinence which we should accept as a mortification imposed by the Church for our benefit, it is good to season each meal with some little penance or other.  The mortified Christian is sparing in the use of condiments, and takes what is good for him rather than that which merely pleases the palate.  It is useful occasionally to forgo the use of condiments altogether — though this must not be done often.  As a general rule, St. Francis de Sales observes it is better to take what is going or what comes our way rather than to choose what is worst and he is but explaining the words of Christ:  "Eat what is set before you." Eating outside of mealtimes is best avoided; and to take food simply because we happen to feel hungry, or to drink simply because we happen to feel thirsty, is a sign of great immortification.  It is not too much to ask a follower of Christ to endure the pangs of hunger and thirst until the time for refection comes around.

The sense of touch is the most dangerous of all the senses and demands an exercise of the most rigorous mortification.  This sense furnishes the sharpest temptations and provides at the same time the most numerous occasions for chastising the body.  Christian modesty and decorum demand a great reserve in the use of the hands.  We should forbid ourselves any touch that has no other end but to yield a sensible gratification — even though that gratification may not be sinful.  To secure a mastery over our bodies it is necessary to discipline them carefully in this matter; we should aim at eliminating all undue seeking of comfortable or easy positions, and an attitude indicative of indolence or surrender to self-indulgence should be carefully avoided.  In sitting, standing or walking, great care should be taken to hold the body well:  the cultivation of a proper 'tenue' carries with it a great deal of corporal penance which has the double advantage of procuring a mastery over the body, and imparting that dignity which becomes a Christian whose body is the Tabernacle of the Holy Ghost. In our occupations, in our recreations and at our prayers, constant efforts must be made to hold the body well.  We may take a restful position but never a nonchalant one.  The sense of touch may also be mortified excellently by submitting uncomplainingly to the inclemencies of the weather, and by the patient and reasonable endurance of the discomforts of both heat and cold.  This regular discipline of ourselves will ensure that we be able to accomplish that most difficult of all things, namely, to bear sickness well and to make it profitable to our souls; and at the same time it will enable us to banish from our minds an excessive concern for our health.[14]  Even religious persons are found who make a fetish of it:  "They seem," says St. Teresa, "to have entered religion for no other purpose than to secure that the date of their death be postponed to the utmost limit possible." In a word, we must not aim at weakening our body, but at making it a useful servant to our souls.  We should not deprive it of what it needs, but we should refuse it what is superfluous.

Our next efforts should be directed against the imagination.  Once the senses are mortified, this task of mortification of the imagination has much of the difficulty removed.  On the contrary supposition it is impossible.  The imagination can procure us great delectation by picturing vividly to us the pleasures to come, and by conjuring up visions of those that have been enjoyed already.  We must not seek to taste what is in anticipation nor savor what is past. It is a defect to use our imagination for calling up pleasant sights or scenes or associations especially those that flatter self-love or sensuality:  its employ should be solely for the purpose of subserving useful or good processes of thought.  To lend it to reverie or day-dreaming is to embark on a course which will eventually end in temptation and very likely in sin.

If we exclude from our imagination images that merely procure pleasure and preserve only those that can serve our intellectual and our spiritual life, the control of the reason will be easy.  It too requires its own discipline.  Work and pursuit of true knowledge with a view to knowing God and His world better and so serving Him in a more enlightened manner, provides the exercise which will maintain the intellect in order.  The pursuit of knowledge is arduous and carries with it a severe penance.  All are tempted to intellectual indolence, and it is more criminal to yield to it than to bodily sloth for it carries with it more serious consequences.  We should use our minds to do our work efficiently in the service of God, not for the satisfaction that we may find in intellectual exercise.  For the intellect as it develops power finds an intense satisfaction in a study which in its beginning was irksome.  There is danger here that we shall be tempted to give our time to that form of mental work in which we find satisfaction to the neglect of that which is distasteful, even when duty imposes the latter.  Method in our work, a limited time given to the studies that satisfy, and a sufficient time given to those that are necessary or useful will finally give us a keen, disciplined, controlled and mortified intelligence.

Being exercised in what is right, our intellect will have nothing but objects that have the form of truth or beauty or utility to present to the will and the movement of the latter will always be in the direction of what is right and reasonable.  The will submitted to grace and reason is the will that is submitted to God.  This submission of the will to the divine impulse and the renouncement of the following of its own caprices, constitutes its mortification.[15]  Thus there is created order in the whole man and the efforts of the triple concupiscence are destroyed:  the senses and the imagination are brought under the government of the reason, the reason is controlled by the will, and the latter faculty moves obediently to the order of the Divine Will.  Thus is perfect charity acquired, the way prepared for the closest and most intimate union and the whole person thoroughly mortified without appearing, even to that person's most intimate acquaintances, in the least out of the ordinary.  The mortification described is perfect and effective and yet preserves him who practices it from the danger of the pride that follows indulgence in penances that are singular or extraordinary.  It often causes surprise to souls filled with generosity and goodwill to discover a discrepancy between the directions they receive from their spiritual advisers and the injunctions laid down in spiritual books.  The latter insist on the necessity of the practice of bodily mortifications, whereas the spiritual guides habitually manifest a reluctance to give any concessions on this point when permission is sought for the use of corporal austerities.  The difference between theory and practice is but apparent.  There is a real danger that the unskilled in the ways of the soul may make use of mortifications to evade mortification.  When nature is chastised in one direction, its tendency is to seek an outlet in another.  Particular bodily mortifications may easily give the soul the persuasion that it is mortified, and lull it into a sense of security as regards the rest of its conduct and actions.  Mortified on one point the soul may allow itself to be unmortified on many others.  This is a real danger against which the spiritual guide must be on his guard.  A general and universal curb on this tendency to self-gratification for gratification's sake, is better than acts of penance confined to one particular matter.  Still, this danger of the misuse of corporal austerities should not discourage their use.  Even though beginners make mistakes in the exercise of bodily penances these mistakes are corrected by time and goodwill with prudent directions.  The awkward movements of the child must precede the assured and firm step of the adult.  Corporal mortifications are to be commended in spite of the risks that attend their use.

Well-ordered, thorough and persevering discipline of the higher and lower powers of the soul, coupled with wisely directed bodily austerities fulfills the injunction of always bearing about in our body the mortification of Christ. By reason of it the whole man gradually comes into order, the disarrangement wrought by sin diminishes, and God's action proceeds apace in the soul — "the life of Jesus is made manifest in our bodies." The removal of the obstacles to grace is then the aim of mortification as it is also the aim of prayer.  But it is attained by neither of them alone; both work hand in hand.  Prayer soon ceases, if unaided by mortification; mortification can spring only from pride and end only in dissatisfaction when it is not originated and sustained by a prayerful spirit.  The labor, pain and anguish experienced by the soul that enters on the hard way of prayer and mortification seem very uninviting, and so they are, but the sweet peace and unspeakable contentment, well known to those who have persevered, so far outweigh initial suffering as to make it appear negligible.  This must needs be, for of what importance is any temporal distress when viewed in conjunction with the attainment of that end for which we w ere created, the all-sufficing possession of God reigning within the soul as in His temple and sharing with it His own happiness.


  1. "Noluit intelligere ut bene ageret." Ps. xxxv. 4.
  2. I St. John ii. 15.
  3. I St. John ii 16.
  4. The condition of restored human nature differs from the condition of nature in the state of original justice in this:  In the state of original justice the subordination of sense to reason and reason to God could be maintained without any internal conflict.  The maintenance of this right order in redeemed man even when his efforts are aided by grace involves a severe struggle.  The internal conflict remains even after original sin has been taken away.  It is because of this that mortification is rigidly necessary.  Without it then this internal conflict cannot issue in success for reason and faith.
  5. Coloss.  iii. 9, 10.
  6. Rom.  vi. 3, 4.
  7. Heb.  xii. 2.
  8. Rom.  xv. 3.
  9. cf. "Exercises of St. Ignatius," Additions x.
  10. I Cor. ix. 27.
  11. 2 Cor. iv. 10.
  12. Isaiah lviii. 3-8.
  13. However, even in the case of fasting, it is well to consult our confessor or director especially if there be question of a fast not imposed by the Church or by rule and we should humbly accept his decision.
  14. This usually expresses itself in a tendency to complain of little ailments.  Of these St. Teresa says, "if you can endure them say nothing about them" and she adds, "if you cause self-love to die, you will experience mortification in all the attention and care bestowed on you, you will only accept the same from necessity." Nevertheless our endurance of heat or cold must not be pushed too far, it must not be such as would in a short time cause serious injury to health.  Here again the advice of a director will ensure that the limits of prudence are not transgressed.
  15. This mortification of the will is nothing else than the mortification of our desires.  St. John of the Cross in the "Ascent of Mount Carmel," points out the supreme importance of this mortification:  he shows how desires torment and darken and pollute the soul and he declares that by mortification of our desires we would make greater progress in a month than we could make in many years by imprudent methods of devotion.  And he adds:  "neither can the darkness and ignorance of our souls be removed if desires are not quenched.  (Bk.  1 ch.  8.)


Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP. "Mortification: A Condition of Life." chapter 16 from Progress Through Mental Prayer (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937) 233-253.

Progress Through Mental Prayer is in the public domain.


The Author

Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP. was born in Ireland in 1885 and entered the Holy Ghost Fathers being ordained in 1914. He was president of Blackrock College in Ireland from 1925 to 1931 and then became professor of philosophy at Kimmage Manor, Dublin. During this time he gave many retreats and conferences, especially to religious communities and he became widely known as a master of spiritual matters. His conference and lecture notes became the basis for his many books on prayer and the spiritual life. He visited the United States once in 1939. He died in 1944 in Dublin. He is the author of Progress Through Mental Prayer, The Holy Spirit, Why the Cross?, In the Likeness of Christ, The Voice of a Priest, and In the Likeness of Christ.

Copyright © Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP.
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