There are those who object to active mortifications because they say that “life has more than enough suffering of its own; why actively seek out more?” We should ask them how well, how gladly and cheerfully they deal with the sufferings that come their way. By practicing active mortifications, we are more prepared to accept the daily pinpricks and trials that are part of our daily lives. We are better prepared to continue being cheerful when things do not go according to our plans. As the famous spiritual author, Scott Hahn wrote in Signs of Life, “In due course, we will lose the good things of the earth anyway, one by one. But how much better for us if we give them up voluntarily, for love? If our self-denial is habitual, then perhaps we won’t grow so bitter when age takes away our delights, as it certainly will, without asking our permission.”
Obviously, mortification has nothing to do with masochism, the desire for pain for its own sake. An excessive emphasis on mortification can reflect a warped view of the Christian life. Although mortification does not exhaust Christian spirituality (in his goodness, God created pleasures for us to enjoy them), it does have a place in it, and an important place at that. Mortification recreates our appetite for God, by disciplining our appetites for the world. As David Fagerberg wrote in “On Liturgical Asceticism”: “Asceticism pries our allegiance away from the fading goods of the flesh, to the eternal goods of the spirit. Not because temporal things are not good, but because they are only temporal things: they are meant to be pointers, stepping stones to God.” A healthy dose of mortification in our lives will help us avoid the great evil of consumerism, i.e., identifying earthly happiness with the consumption and accumulation of more and more material goods.
Generally, we should choose mortifications that do not bother or mortify others, but rather pass unnoticed and/or make their lives better. An obvious example of the wrong kind of mortification is the decision to deny oneself the pleasure of a daily shower in a tropical climate. The unpleasant odor that one would exude will be a source of mortification to others. An acid test for whether or not you are living a healthy Christian spirit of mortification is whether or not you are cheerful and whether or not you are making the lives of others more pleasant. At times, a smile may be your best mortification and even your best penance. As we have repeatedly stressed, ultimately mortifications are ordered to charity. We take suffering and turn them into something holy, into prayer, into our extensions of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. When we offer them for others, we help them as well. But even when they are not explicitly offered for others, we help the Body of Christ. We become truly co-redeemers of souls. Let us not waste the opportunities during this pandemic to grow in love for God and for our neighbors through both active and passive mortifications.
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