On Self-Mortification

Count me singularly unimpressed on hearing the report that Pope John Paul II practiced self-mortification.

There’s quite a long discussion at dotCommonweal about it. From CNS:

Msgr. Slawomir Oder, postulator of the late pope’s (sainthood) cause, said Pope John Paul used self-mortification “both to affirm the primacy of God and as an instrument for perfecting himself.”

Self-mortification is probably the easiest form of humility. Why? No matter how … vigorous it is, it is done in private. Real humility is experienced with other human beings. Let me offer a small example from the annals of parenthood.

The young miss, for some reason, has decided she wants to set up her own aquarium. She’s begun researching fish and has a plan in place. The plan includes using the old tank that, until about 8AM this morning, resided in the backyard shed. Hints have been dropped, so after I dropped her off at school and got back in the driveway, I thought maybe I should brave the virgin show (and ice) in the yard and add my tracks to those of crows, rabbits, and the neighbor’s dog. There were the matters of breaking through the crust to have snow pour in my sneakers, finding the doors frozen shut, going back to get the sharp shovel to crack at the ice.

Then I noticed the two holes in the snow, one almost covered by me, leading to the rabbit burrows. Uncover the hole, I thought, and let’s be careful about the wildlife. I can only imagine if one of the neighbors saw me running through my backyard with a shovel and an empty aquarium in my hands. My wife was still in slumber, thus missing my wet socks and cold toes.

Here’s another little bit of humility: I tested the tank in the bathtub to check for leaks, but then the emptied water didn’t drain right away. So much for my morning shower.

I don’t relate this tale to paint a picture of a perfect dad. I’ll confess I thought of just telling Brit that the shed was frozen shut and why don’t we wait till Spring?

My point is that if the pope or any other saint wants to find a more fruitful mortification than a little private whipping, get married or join a religious community and take the thing 100% seriously 100% of the time. Or as close as you can get to it. Unmarried and unvowed? Take several hours a week to visit the sick or the elderly.

These interpersonal mortifications are far more fruitful than a little self-inflicted discomfort. Life throws enough discomfort at us. What good does it do to embrace it in one theater and avoid it in the other? One commentator thought that the best act of self-mortification John Paul II could have done would be to resign when he knew he was no longer physically able to carry out his ministry. I can’t say that would be entirely true. I really don’t know. But if it were a tickle from God, I would have paid attention.

One of the better confessors I’ve known, after hearing my confession about some transgressions against my family, gave me an act of satisfaction that I’ve tried to maintain to this day. He said that in the next few days, I would feel a nudge from God. My penance was to act on that nudge immediately, without resentment, justification, or delay. In the next twenty-four hours, I felt four nudges. Small things, really. But significant enough to deter my agenda of the moment and give me the opportunity to serve my wife, my daughter, or my pets.

I don’t know if John Paul II is a saint. I’m glad I’m not on that committee. I don’t know if self-mortification helped him. If he is a saint, I suspect it was in spite of the extreme asceticism and not because of it.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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12 Responses to On Self-Mortification

  1. While I do think that there can be and have been extremes in asceticism, and that we are saved by participating in the gift of salvation, Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, I do believe that there should be a place for it in our spirituality all within the context of moderation. Our spiritual life needs exercises both physical and spiritual, just as our body needs exercises, physical and intellectually. One without the other produces some flab and can lead to death.

    No one ever complains to me that when I go exercise each morning at 5:45 AM and push my 56 year old body as hard as I can, and finish looking like a wet noodle, that I’m abusing myself–they congratulate me and say, that’ll help you to live to be 100. But if I touch my back with the slight caress of a whip to remember what Jesus experienced in His passion–I’m a nut?

    Go figure!

  2. Annika says:

    Todd,
    Wonderful reflection on the constant opportunities for spiritual humility through parenthood! Something I can certainly understand and relate to :-)

  3. Liam says:

    Fr Allan

    I think modern people may be more aware of how common it is for people to experience an erotic element in physical self-discipline. Not saying it’s true for all practitioners, but I have to say it’s one of the very first things I hear out of people’s mouths when the subject of mortification of the flesh is discussed (especially because of studies correlating erotic fetishes with conservative religious belief in the US); they automatically are skeptical that it’s not being done to fulfill either id-levels desires at some level or what might have been called vainglory in olden times.

    Then there’s the rather odd kind of thing like where enthusiasts of the founder of Opus Dei talk about the walls of his room being splattered in blood because of his self-mortification; that to me just screams that something is not right with this.

    Christ was not only whipped in the scourging, he was mocked. I’ve always felt that the fact that there is a separate mystery for the mocking of Christ speaks to the temptation of existential despair: that none of us is ever fully understood or accepted or even loved for ourselves as ourselves, that we are all used (and use others in turn) in some ways, that we are all unloveable and abandonable, et cet.

    So, rather than beat oneself, how about suffering some mocking for a feature of one’s character or being where one cannot intellectually self-comfort with a feeling of righteousness (that is, not being mocked for beliefs where you feel a Beatitude drawing on)?

    • all aspects of our being on this side of life are open to corruption, too much food, too much sex, philias associated with sex, to much intellectualization and too much religion. This does not mean that eating is wrong, sex is wrong (in the proper context) or the pursuit of intellectual interests is wrong.In fact all of these can reveal God. Neither is healthy exercise, diet and being a religious person wrong.

      Pope John Paul II who endured many humiliations and mocking during his papacy and life knows better than anyone what it means to give his life to his bride the Church and her children born of water and the Holy Spirit. He also knew how to give his life in prayer, service and self-mortification, none that I can tell, to the extreme. I think he also liked to hike, swim and ski. Now that I think of it, he was a balanced human being and so, I hope, to officially be proclaimed a saint “ex cathedra!”

  4. Liam says:

    Bishops and pastors might try mortification in the form of adviser (clerical and lay) who are empowered to challenge them often and deeply, and not just for form’s sake; perhaps by giving up control of the choice of some advisers by leaving it to lot rather than active choice, too.

  5. GNW_Paul says:

    “Self-mortification is probably the easiest form of humility.”

    Self-mortification includes what you describe from your own experience, and mortification is essential to Christian discipleship. I think what you may have meant to say is physical mortification?

    Anyway, you then reduce mortification to a caricature by equating it with humility. They do overlap, but are not the same.

    At the same time you manage a backhanded put down on John Paul II because you imply that because he engaged in this private “humiliation” that he wasn’t as authentically humble in public! And you imply that John Paul II was taking the easy way out!

    I will agree with you, that for most of us mortification through accepting the bothersome, mundane and unpleasant tasks of our daily life is the heart of our mortification. And serious mortification in the form of flagellation, or extensive fasting is not advisable without spiritual direction and supervision. As for the fetishism comment above, that also is a matter for discernment with a spiritual director.

    Private self-imposed penances have a long history in the Church. Do you remember “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

    Private mortification – but not physical – is a requirement of the Christian life. Christ commanded us to fast, which is mortification. The Church requires us to perform some mortification on Fridays – every Friday, not just during Lent.

    Thanks for the post. I just think you overreached quite a bit in your opening and it sounds like you want to knock John Paul II down a few pegs for something it appears you just don’t understand.

    God Bless

  6. Neil says:

    Dear Todd (and others),

    May I suggest that the distinction between “private” and “interpersonal” mortification isn’t helpful? It strikes me that the point of mortification is a “death” to self that opens up space for God and our neighbor. Let me provide two examples:

    1. Celibacy, which might seem to be private, can actually be quite “interpersonal.” Thus, Kathleen Norris has written about a monk who sees his celibacy as “an expression of the essential human loneliness, a perspective that helps him as a hospital chaplain when he is called upon to minster to the dying.”

    She’s also written about certain possibilities at a monastery that really could only occur because the monks had given up the sexual pursuit of women:

    “I once met a woman in a monastery guesthouse who had come there because she was pulling herself together after being raped, and said she needed to feel safe around men again. I’ve seen young monks astonish an obese and homely college student by listening to her with as much interest and respect as to her conventionally pretty roommate. On my 40th birthday, as I happily blew out four candles on a cup-cake (‘one for each decade,’ a monk in his 20s cheerfully proclaimed), I realized that I could enjoy growing old with these guys. They were helping me to blow away my fears of middle age.”

    2. Likewise, fasting might seem to be private. But fasting has nearly always been linked with almsgiving and solidarity with the poor. And fasting has always been supposed to make us more humble, because we become aware of our dependence on God for all things. If we see our “possessions” as gifts from the Father, we will be less likely to withhold them from others.

    I’m sure that examples could be multiplied.

    Best,
    Neil

  7. Bajka says:

    It seems to me that most of the people commenting on the recent news of JP II’s mortifications have very limited knowledge of the mistical aspect of our faith and our relationship with Jesus Christ. The grace of living in such close relationship with Christ is given to only a few and not everyone is given the grace to do certain things. That is why the Lord said that many are called but only a few are chosen. Those who are chosen are the ones who, by the grace of God, have been called into a special relationship with the Lord, one that requires sacrifice on our part and one that calls us to a deeper union with the Lord and a strong desire for reparition. It is this very union with the Lord that lifts us up above that which is of the world and allows us, through a special grace, to participate in the life of Christ. Being a good, devout Christian is an honorable thing and it is something that is possible only through the graces we receive, being a Christian who is in a union with the Lord is an extraordinary grace for some who empty themselves so completely that they allow the Lord to work through them.

    It amazes me how many Catholics have no clue as to the mistical life with Christ even though they so eagerly blog about our faith and give us the impression that they know our faith so thoroughly.

    To all of those who are “weirded out” as someone put it, I suggest dwelving into the writings of the Saints. I especially recommend the diary of St. Faustina, who so very simpy, with all humilty wrote about her experiences with the Lord.

    • GNW_Paul says:

      Thank you. Very well said. The lives of the mystics, and also those of the rare victim souls are very worth delving into. The sacrifices they are asked to make and willing accede to are disturbing to me on the surface because of my own lack of love for God. But I have found it very enriching to know that a few are able to love God so clearly and freely and love me as a sinner enough to generously suffer for all of Christ’s Church.

  8. crystal says:

    Interesting post, Todd. I guess I think self-mortification has little to do with being a good person or Christian. Jesus didn’t seem to dwell on that kind of thing during his lef and the fascination some have with his suffering before death baffles me. I don’t know a lot about religious life, but in the secular world, self-mortification is usually self-serving, whether it’s people exercising hard to be healthy or teens cutting themselves to gain some aspect of control over their lives.

  9. Bajka says:

    Thank you Paul for mentioning the Victim Souls. Those who will understand the special calling to be a Victim Soul and the role these Victim Souls play in the life of the Church will also understand about mortification. But, then again, there will be plenty of those who will be “weired out” by the mere concept of Victim Souls.

  10. Pingback: Further Thoughts On Self-Mortification

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