Yesterday, walking through Congressional Cemetery, there were some splendid views of DC’s autumn laves; a bright light show of reds and golds prefacing their inevitable fall. As we come to the end of the growing year, and another liturgical year, the Church turns her attention toward the passing of all things. Indeed, the month of November is dedicated solely to prayer for the dead. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them!
For me, thoughts of the “last things (death, judgment, heaven, hell and purgatory), bring some concern, but I’ve reached a point in my spiritual life where concern rapidly shifts to practical considerations: Am I being honest with myself about my spiritual life? How does my training for heaven look? What can I do to keep moving forward… not get stuck on the road to a positive judgment before the Lord? Far from a tortured process of guilt (as many portray it), the Christian life is a beautiful series of opportunities. As autumn leaves fall this year, they’re reminding me of some important spiritual tools that can help me get closer to heaven, and maybe help bring some others along for the ride.
Mortification is a classical concept in the Christian life, but one that gets short shrift in preaching these days. Nonetheless, it’s been the key to happiness for every saint ever canonized. “Blessed the people whose God is the Lord.” (Ps. 144:15) The Psalms remind us that living out the First Commandment is the key to happiness. But so much gets in the way, gums up the works… “Sin speaks to the sinner in his heart. He so flatters himself that he knows not his guilt. In his mouth are all mischief and deceit. All wisdom is gone.” (Ps. 36). Life happens, it makes it hard for us to see clearly good vs. evil. Eventually, without ever purposely intending it, God is no longer first in our lives. Our own yearnings, interpretations and decisions become the “gods of our idolatry.”
The saints, realizing this tidal drift away from the worship of the Lord in and through all things, bravely take up the process of mortification in order to restore true happiness and life! A superb example of this process if St. Philip Neri. Everyone knows that Philip was a saint marked first and foremost by JOY. His smile, his humor and his love are widely remembered even today, 500 years after his earthly ministry. What many casual observers don’t know is that Philip’s joy was grounded on a firm foundation of mortification.
Mortification means to deny oneself. Classically, it’s broken down into three categories, mortification of the senses, understanding and will.
[For more on this, consider reading, Spiritual Combat by Fr. Lorenzo Scupoli a renaissance spiritual master. The book is avaihalbe in print and in digital format. Also, Fr. Francesco Agnelli’s Excellences of the Oratory]
Mortification of the senses denies unnecessary appetites focusing us on what is truly good for us. The easiest example is: I see and smell chocolate cake, but I know that at the end of the day, what would really be better for me is a green salad. I deny my urge for the chocolate cake and start mixing vegetables. This can be applied to any of the senses. Mortifying sight to avoid pornography, mortifying hearing to listen only to edifying music… etc. etc. Eventually, the cleansing process of mortifying our senses purifies the lens of the heart enabling us to see the world as it truly is… as God himself sees it. And this we call “chastity/purity.”
Mortification of the understanding is an active acceptance of the reality that we really don’t know all of God’s plan, or why things have been allowed to happen. Put another, perhaps more positive way, to mortify our understanding is to actively trust that however impossible it may seem, God can and will pull new life from every situation. “Lord I don’t know why my friend got cancer, but I trust that somehow you will bring resurrection life from this experience of darkness.” Mortification of the understanding admits and begins to love our own inner poverty by trusting the Lord.
Mortification of the will is where the rubber really hits the road, because this is where all our inner thoughts about appetites and understanding get translated into action, “Lord I submit my decision to a will other than mine.” We may subject ourselves to God’s revealed truth/commands… We may subject ourselves to the will of another person, a spouse for example, or a poor neighbor. In this we live out obedience.
Note how each of these forms of self-death (mortification) participates in one of the evangelical virtues: chastity, poverty, obedience. They’re called “evangelical” precisely because living them demonstrates the power of the Gospel in our own hearts, where our God is now the Lord… and when other’s see this… and see us finding true happiness, these virtues become a mysteriously attractive quality drawing others to live the Christian life as well.
As autumn leaves fall, we may feel a little glum, but Jesus is a master at turning death into life. Don’t flee the experience; embrace it! You may be surprised at the freedom and new life you find on the other side, and consequently a greater happiness on earth in preparation for heaven. Preferisco Paradiso!