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