Friday, September 26, 2014

Mortification and Self-Denial - Still good for you

"St. Francis of Assisi," Church of San Francesco, Brescia 1235 AD
St. Francis was a big believer in mortification and self-denial

The Redemptorists, the religious order founded by St. Alphonsus Liguori, compiled selections from the great saint's ascetical writings into a single volume with 12 chapters called "The School of Christian Perfection," which you can buy here.   Each chapter is organized around a particular virtue or salutary spiritual practice, and there are 12 chapters so that a reader can focus on a different one every month of the year.  This is what the Redemptorists themselves do (or, perhaps, used to do).

If you'd started "The School of Christian Perfection" at the beginning of the year and concentrated on a different chapter each month by now you'd be up to Chapter 9, which is entitled "Mortification."  Although we don't hear mortification discussed much nowadays, according to St. Alphonsus, "[i]n as far as it is necessary to avoid sin, every Christian is bound to  practice mortification."  St. Alphonsus compares mortification to a somewhat bitter and distasteful but necessary medicine, and notes that "[o]ur Lord once said to St. Francis of Assisi: 'If you desire me, take the bitter things of life as sweet and the sweet as bitter.'"

What's the point of mortification?  St. Alphonsus says it "elevates the soul," citing St. Francis de Sales, who wrote: "[t]he soul can never ascend to God unless the body is brought into subjection by penance."  Mortification also helps us master our self will, which is the destroyer of all virtues.  As St. Bernard of Clairvaux said: "he who ... follows the suggestions of self-will subjects himself to a veritable fool."

Mortification and self-denial may be out of fashion, but you may be surprised to learn that the Church continues to recommend these practices.  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (published 1992 AD), “[t]he way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes” (n. 2015)

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