Monday, July 28, 2008

Catholicism and Mortification

I was almost tempted to add this to my "What I Love About Catholicism" category. But when I thought about the topic, I admit it isn't something I "love." It is something I admire. It is also a very hard topic to embrace spiritually. St. Paul says in Romans:
And if Christ be in you, the body indeed is dead, because of sin: but the spirit liveth, because of justification. And if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you; he that raised up Jesus Christ from the dead shall quicken also your mortal bodies, because of his Spirit that dwelleth in you. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh to live according to the flesh. 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. 8:10-13, Douay Version)

I caught a portion of the radio program, "Life on the Rock." The host was speaking to some of the youth who had made a pilgrimage to Australia for World Youth Day. I was touched when a young girl shared how some of her fellow pilgrims deliberately chose to sleep on the floor in order to deepen their spiritual experience. I was stunned. What a stark contrast to the commonly self-absorbed younger generation!

Once again, I could not help comparing this attitude toward that of other youths in non-Catholic churches. Mortification is a foreign word to most of them. Although there were plenty of Bible studies and groups activities for the youth, not many were presented with the concept of mortification.

Mortification is also applied to the season of Lent, when Catholics ponder what they can sacrifice in order to identify with the sufferings of Christ. Identifying with Christ is what compels a Catholic teenager to willingly sleep on a cold, hard floor or fast for a certain period of time. Mortification is saying "no" to the fleshly desires and understanding there are more important things to pursue, such as spiritual maturity.

When I was in the non-denominational church, I would occasionally remember "The Catholic Way." This would include practices such as mortification, sacrifice, praying to the saints, and confession among other things. I would disdain most of it but the mortification part always intrigued me. There was something about it that rang true; especially in light of a culture focused on its own pleasure. And the culture was seeping into the church.

How the flesh fights against mortification! It would much rather have the soft permissiveness of one's own desire than the hard surrender of sacrifice. This permissiveness can often be cloaked in "Christian-ese." Sometimes I would hear how someone didn't feel "led by the Lord" to do something, laying the blame on God instead of admitting their flesh simply didn't want to be bothered.

What is the result of a life that does not embrace mortification?

Licentiousness. Rationalizing. Justification of satisfying fleshly desires to the point of sin. Not pretty. We are called to a life of holiness but this life does not happen automatically after praying "The Sinner's Prayer." It is an arduous journey, filled with opportunities to overcome the transient in order to obtain the eternal. Our lives on earth are a drop in the bucket compared to eternal life with God. Mortification is for me, not a way to "earn" salvation (Jesus Christ was the only One who could pay that price); but a way to chisel away the flesh that constantly opposes the things of the spirit.

I liken it to trying to listen to a gorgeous symphony in the middle of a crowded mall. There are so many distractions that would prevent me from fully appreciating all the nuances of the music. But remove the distractions - the preoccupation with consumerism, the loud babble of trivial conversation - and suddenly the rich tapestry of sound can be enjoyed.

I have fasted before for spiritual reasons. What always amazed me was how everything became sharper and clearer after giving my body a rest from eating. Suddenly I could see and hear more clearly. My times of prayer were distilled moments of truth without the constant yammering of my own will. My spiritual heart was more attuned to the voice of God and humility usually followed.

This type of mortification isn't alien to non-Catholics but there usually wasn't a climate for it. Catholicism trains believers to not only expect opportunities for mortification but heartily pursue them. We are being "conformed into the image of His Son" (Rom. 8:29) and this shaping includes mortification.

I thank God for those young people who looked at hardship with a different perspective instead of complaining. What a wonderful example of pursuing a holy life!


Adrienne said...

Hand in hand with that is guilt. We are told constantly that guilt is bad.

I love guilt (Catholic or otherwise). It tells me I've done something wrong.

No guilt = no reason for mortification.

Elisabeth said...

Ouch. Yes.