Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Self-denial, mortification, penance, suffering, and stuff like that.

I'm not there.
I love that title of the Dylan song and the film by the same name. It impressed me the other day while at Target, looking for a film to buy. People say, "Why buy films, just rent them." Yeah, but I have to return them if I rent them - and I'm not good about returning things - I forget and lose them - which explains why I do not have a library card. BTW - I bought Marley and Me, because a friend said it was good - hated it - schmaltz-o-rama! Jennifer Anniston cannot act, I stopped watching midway through the film. I also bought the new and revised Brideshead - I haven't watched it yet. I know I will say, 'I liked the old one better.' But I digress - I mention all this just to explain how I got to use the title of Bob Dylan's song and how it seemed to fit me in some ways... too private to discuss.
Do what you feel... Feel until the end...
Anyway. This post is about mortification, denying one's very self... a mandate for following Christ - in other words, to be a Christian. That sense is lost on modern men, especially in our day. Sometimes a person must indeed deny his very self to be saved. People don't believe that however - one must actualize oneself - fulfill oneself to find happiness.
Years ago when I returned to the sacraments, a friend of mine told me, "You think you have to give things up for Christ, that you have to suffer..." I didn't really know how to answer her, suffering or penance was never my focus - Jesus was my focus, and I gladly renounced what was contrary to the Gospel to know Him... "considering everything as loss", as St. Paul affirmed. Ironically, my friend has never yet returned to the Church, and though she lives well, and is financially successful, she suffers a great deal emotionally as well as morally. She denies herself all sorts of things in order to remain thin and chic. As a child she was sexually abused, the effects of which she never resolved. Subsequently she has difficulty trusting men and maintaining a relationship, although she is involved sexually with a man who happens to be married, the sex is always degrading and never loving, and there are months between each encounter where she anguishes over his lack of interest in her. That is suffering.
We all suffer.
"Mortification may be defined a the struggle against our evil inclinations in order to subject them to the will and to the will of God. It is not so much a virtue as an ensemble of virtues - the first degree of all the virtues - which consists in overcoming the obstacles that stand in the way so as to restore our faculties their lost balance and reestablish among them their right order. Thus it is easily seen that mortification is not an end in itself but a means to an end... the end of mortification is union with God.
There is a kind of mortification which is necessary for salvation in this sense, that if we fail to practice it, we run the risk of falling into mortal sin.
The threefold concupiscence that remains with us, spurred on by the world and the devil, often inclines us to evil and endangers our salvation, unless we take heed to mortify it." - Tanquerey, Spiritual Life: Part II, Chapter III, 754 - 755
"These are not simply pious thoughts, indeed, "If we desire true happiness on earth there is no better way than to cultivate piety (godliness) which as St. Paul says, 'is profitable to all things, having promise of life that now is and of that which is to come.' ( Tim. IV: 8) Peace of soul, the joy of a good conscience, the happiness of union with God, of growing in his love, of effecting a closer intimacy with Christ, such are a few of the rewards which, along with the comforting hope of life eternal, God dispenses even now to his faithful servants in the midst of their trials." - Spiritual Life: Part I, Chapter IV, 364


  1. Anonymous2:22 PM

    I'm struggling with something along these lines...

    Chastity is very hard for me. It's hard to keep the custody over the senses, as they say, and my thoughts too. I've cut down most of my relationships that are not chaste (I am not married, though I've had some sexual encounters), but still, it is a great temptation.

    I don't know if I'm called to marriage. I really think I may be called to be celibate as a priest.

    But what do I do, as so often, the sexual urges seem very strong, such that it's hard to focus on other things?

    I suppose I'm trying to understand how mortification ties in with this. What should I be denying myself?

  2. Will you post about the new Brideshead after you have viewed it? I can almost guarantee you will prefer the older version, but I am curious to hear what else you think about it.

  3. Sarah, I will post about it after I watch it.

  4. Anonymous, Chastity is difficult, especially when we are younger or remain in the single state.

    Mortification should always accord with our state in life, which the faithful performance of the duties our state requires, is in fact the best form of penance.

    Just so, our mortification and self-denial required to avoid sin derives from that. For instance, when we see an attractive jogger while driving, or a provocative ad on television, in a magazine, and so on, depending upon how fierce the temptation, we can either turn our attention to something else, make a silent prayer, and/or engage in an internal struggle. Just keep praying. Resisting the temptation is in fact a penance, a mortification.

    If we fall, we get up. If we fall seriously through mortal sin we repent and confess our sin and do the penance. If we fall again and again, we get up again and again. We can also offer to God the sacrifice of our weakness as well as the sacrfice of being displeasing to ourselves. Gently humbling ourself after each fall gains much more than wringing our hands over failure, or living in fear of falling at the next assault.

    Find what type of ascesis suits your temperament and state with the help of a good confessor - or several confessors.

    Prayer is a wonderful mortification - most people do not think of it that way of course, but it takes sacrifice sometimes to pray an entire rosary, or spend sometime outside of Mass before the Blessed Sacrament, our prayer is a sacrifice of praise and very efficascious in the midst of temptation. And of course you will have trouble concentrating if the temptations are fierce.

    (Physical exercise or manual labor is good to overcome our concupiscience as well - that is one reason monks include it in their horarium.)

    Outside of the fasting and abstinence the Church asks of us, little voluntary mortifications are good training for the will; skipping a legitimate treat or an addition to a meal for instance. Acts of charity towards people we don't like, giving in to another person's legitimate demands, losing an argument, suffering a correction patiently, or not defending oneself when accused or suspected if no danger of scandal is present.

    The important thing for temptations against the flesh, especially chastity, is not to get too upset or panic. Try to let them go or pass through your mind in peace, it takes practice. They are just images or thoughts despite the fact out body and emotions may react - but no one sins unless they consent to them or act on them. I used to have the extremely vivid temptations - just recalling the fact freaks me out. I would repeat as a mantra a short prayer to Our Lady while the most disgusting images flooded my mind, and while my body burned and my chest pounded, I prayed as best I could, Mother of God save me! Sometimes the temptations were so intense as to cause me to wonder if I wasn't possessed or even if I had not sinned by them. That was a very great suffering, and I would never have come through that period without the help of grace.

    Now that I am older, things aren't quite as intense - but temptations never go away until after we are dead.

    Find a really good confessor to help you, even if you have to go to him every day, and never give up trying - persistence wins a crown, I promise you. An older priest is always good - they are usually never scandalized. The sacrament of penance forms our penance.

  5. Intense sexual temptations of the sort Anonymous and Terry describe can affect single women as well. For me it started with sexual abuse in grade school at the tender age of seven, about the same time I was learning about Jesus in the Eucharist.

    Most people are not aware that Catholic priests can be public school janitors. (In case you mis-read me, I meant that with the bitterest possible, most acid sarcasm.) It kicked off a struggle that has lasted more than forty years and could potentially last another forty. Truly by a miracle of God's mercy I am still physically a virgin--the Lord protected me in several (many, many) situations that could easily have gone the other way, especially since I offered no resistance. But a curious, corrupt, polluted mind and soul?

    Let's just say I've have occasionally been disgusted but never shocked by anything. I am one of the cold company of whores, queers, thieves, pagans, thugs, addicts, drunks, and murderers.

    The struggle for chastity can give you a great empathy for other sinners. "Love the sinner, hate the sin" isn't a platitude for me--I have to live it every day. I care that others suffer in lives of sin, many with much heavier burdens than mine. I despise the sins that hold them in lives of suffering now and threaten to destroy them forever.

    Temptations never go away entirely. I am intensely grateful that they have merely lessened. Success in meeting them comes to me in the same way Terry describes, through the Sacraments, through the One Who heals us, through the intercession of Mary and the saints.

    Stay with Jesus in His Church, Anonymous. He won't give you up. He can fix anything, make even the filthiest heart clean again. Use the Sacraments and get Mary and every saint you can think of interceding for you. Some of our brothers and sisters in Christ are very familiar with our struggle, because it is theirs as well. For example, Terry regularly gives excellent and very practical advice on the subject in this blog.

    I am already praying for you, Anonymous. I may never know you until we are in Heaven, but God knows exactly where you are and what is happening to you. I would be grateful, when you next face the suffering of temptation, if you would offer it up as a prayer for me.

  6. There's an Irish saying that temptations continue for thirty minutes after we die.

    Mortification worked well for me in one area of sin that thankfully, by the grace of God, has been vanquished. Mostly. Satan still nudges - I need to start quoting St Teresa of Avila when that happens..."Oh, it's just you."

    Thoughtful post, Terry. And thanks for the review of Marley & Me. Saved me from wasting a couple hours of my life.

  7. Anonymous8:47 PM

    Terry, I recommend a movie we saw the other night (my bro in law got it from Netflex, you'd like that, just put the movie in the mail to return, no going out) called "Taking Chance"---with Kevin Bacon. Here's a link with the story line:

  8. Ronnie - I know you. ;)

    Thanks for that.

  9. Excellent post. I've linked to this on my new blog.

  10. A new Blog! I am linking. And thanks for the post.

  11. a) Indeed, Mary is the great virginizer of mankind, as Abp. Sheen referred to her, but also this: never underestimate the power and involvement of your Assigned Guardian angel -- sexual stumbling is the enemy's first line of offense, and despite the fact that we aren't anywhere near a church in these times, our Guardian angel is beholding the face of God always. Implore that help immediately-- shouting is allowed; and

    b) Roll in the snow as St. Francis did; and last but never least

    c) Whether you can only ask your angel to bring you to it, or if you can get there yourself, put before your inner eyes the "Ecce homo" moment.

    I'll be praying for you, too, Ronnie. Some people feel that (violated) way about their cancer, and even about their mental illness. It is surely even worse to know that someone deliberately and premeditatedly intended one a grievous harm. Something precious has indeed been stolen, but even with penetration, it is never THE most precious something. That is still golden. No one can touch that. (I sincerely apologize if this seems an "easy for you to say" thing. It both is and isn't. Most of us are sullied one way or another. It's usually not a priest, nor teacher or scout leader, but a family member.)


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