As Lent begins, Catholics around the world prepare to enter into a period of self-reflection, self-sacrifice, and spiritual growth. At the heart of this season is the call to take up our cross and follow Christ, to join Him in His journey towards the ultimate sacrifice of love on the cross.
One of the ways that Catholics seek to answer this call is through the practices of mortification and asceticism. During Lent, many Catholics take on additional penances, such as fasting or abstaining from meat, as a means to draw closer to God and to participate in Christ's sufferings.
While these practices may seem daunting or even unpleasant, they can have profound benefits for our spiritual lives. By denying ourselves and offering up our sacrifices for the sake of others, we can grow in humility, self-discipline, and charity.
In this post, we will explore the reasons and benefits of mortification and asceticism in Catholic spirituality, with a particular focus on how these practices can be incorporated into our Lenten journey. We will look at how they can help us grow in virtue, deepen our prayer life, and draw closer to God. We will also address some common misconceptions about these practices and how they can be carried out in a healthy and balanced way, so that we may journey toward Easter with renewed faith and spiritual strength.
Why mortification and ascetisicism?
Mortification and asceticism are two practices that have been an essential part of Catholic spirituality for centuries. These practices involve self-discipline, self-denial, and self-sacrifice as a means to draw closer to God. While some may view these practices as extreme or unnecessary, the Catholic Church has always recognized their importance in the spiritual life. Entering into the suffering of Christ is purifying and salvific (more on salvific suffering here).
Mortification is the practice of denying oneself something for the sake of the spiritual life. It can involve fasting, abstaining from certain pleasures, or even physical penances.
Mortification is not meant to be an end in itself but is rather a means to draw closer to God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes mortification as "an ascetical practice which has as its aim the taming of the passions and the triumph of the spirit" (CCC 2015). It is a way of disciplining the body and the mind so that we can be more receptive to God's grace and grow in holiness.
Reasons for Mortification
To overcome sin and temptation
One of the primary reasons for mortification is to overcome sin and temptation. By denying ourselves of certain pleasures and comforts, we can strengthen our willpower and resist the temptation to sin.
As Saint Francis de Sales once said, "Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength." Mortification helps us to develop the strength we need to resist the temptations that lead us away from God.
To cultivate virtue
Mortification also helps us to cultivate the virtues that are necessary for the spiritual life. By denying ourselves of certain pleasures and comforts, we can develop the virtues of self-control, humility, and detachment.
As Saint Augustine once said, "He who restrains himself is the more free." Mortification helps us to become more free from the passions that hold us back from God.
To share in Christ's suffering
Another reason for mortification is to share in Christ's suffering. As Christians, we are called to take up our cross and follow Christ. Mortification is a way of participating in Christ's sufferings and uniting our sufferings to His.
As Saint Paul wrote, "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Colossians 1:24). Through mortification, we can unite our sufferings to Christ and offer them for the good of the Church.
Benefits of Mortification
One of the primary benefits of mortification is increased self-discipline. By denying ourselves of certain pleasures and comforts, we can develop the self-control necessary for the spiritual life. This self-discipline can then be applied to other areas of our lives, such as prayer and service to others.
As Saint John Chrysostom once said, "Fasting is the sword of the spirit; with it we can overcome every temptation." By practicing mortification, we can develop the spiritual discipline we need to overcome the temptations that lead us away from God.
Greater detachment from worldly pleasures
Another benefit of mortification is greater detachment from worldly pleasures. By denying ourselves of certain pleasures and comforts, we can become less attached to the things of this world and more focused on God.
As Saint Ignatius of Loyola once said, "Detachment is not that you should own nothing, but that nothing should own you." Mortification helps us to become less attached to the things of this world and more focused on the things of God.
The Desert Fathers and their practice of Asceticism.
Asceticism, the practice of self-discipline and self-denial, has a rich history in Catholic spirituality. From the early days of the Church, ascetics have sought to imitate Christ's self-emptying and to grow in holiness through practices such as fasting, prayer, and detachment from worldly goods.
One of the most influential groups of ascetics in the Catholic tradition is the Desert Fathers. These men and women, who lived in the deserts of Egypt and Syria in the fourth and fifth centuries, sought to live a life of radical simplicity and prayer. They believed that by removing themselves from the distractions and comforts of society, they could draw closer to God and grow in virtue.
The teachings of the Desert Fathers have had a lasting impact on Catholic spirituality, shaping the practice of asceticism for centuries to come. Here are a few examples of their teachings on this topic:
The Desert Fathers believed that true spiritual growth required a willingness to deny oneself and to take up one's cross daily. As Abba Macarius the Great once said, "If you want to find rest here below, and hereafter, in all circumstances say: 'Who am I?' and do not judge anyone."
The Desert Fathers saw humility as a key virtue in the spiritual life. They believed that by recognizing our own weaknesses and limitations, we could open ourselves up to the transformative power of God's grace. As Abba Poemen once said, "The beginning of pride is the end of humility, and the beginning of humility is the end of pride."
The Desert Fathers saw detachment from worldly goods as essential to the spiritual life. They believed that by renouncing material possessions and pleasures, we could free ourselves from the distractions of the world and focus on what truly mattered - our relationship with God. As Abba Antony once said, "I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, 'What can get through from such snares?' Then I heard a voice saying to me, 'Humility.'"
The Desert Fathers placed a strong emphasis on prayer as a means to draw closer to God. They believed that by cultivating a life of prayer and contemplation, we could experience the presence of God in a profound way. As Abba Isaac the Syrian once said, "Prayer is the flower of gentleness and of freedom from anger."
Today, the Catholic Church continues to support the practice of asceticism as a means to grow in holiness and draw closer to God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle" (CCC 2015). By embracing practices of self-discipline and self-denial, Catholics can participate in Christ's sufferings and become more fully the people they are called to be.
By embracing practices of self-discipline and self-denial, Catholics can participate in Christ's sufferings and become more fully the people they are called to be. The Church recognizes that these practices are not ends in themselves, but rather means to an end - the end being greater union with God and the attainment of holiness. In the words of Pope St. John Paul II, "The way of perfection passes through the Cross. And it is there that we discover our true worth, our authentic identity, and our ultimate destiny" (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 26).
Let's walk with Christ this Lenten season and renew our spiritual births.
In today's world, where pleasure and comfort are often pursued as ultimate goals, the practices of mortification and asceticism can seem outdated and out of touch. However, as we have seen, these practices have deep roots in Catholic spirituality and can have significant benefits for our spiritual lives.
Mortification and asceticism challenge us to look beyond ourselves and our immediate desires and to focus on what truly matters - our relationship with God and our growth in holiness. These practices are not meant to be an end in themselves, but rather a means to draw closer to God and to become the people we are called to be.
In a culture that values self-gratification and instant gratification, mortification and asceticism remind us that true fulfillment comes from living a life of self-sacrifice and service to others. They remind us that we are not meant to live for ourselves alone but to live for the glory of God and the good of others.
While mortification and asceticism may not be easy, they are worth pursuing. As we journey through life, let us remember the words of Saint Paul, who wrote, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20).
May we all strive to live lives of self-discipline, self-denial, and self-sacrifice, so that we may grow in love for God and for others and become the saints we are called to be.
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