The Bright Side of Mortification: More than DC Spin

Life in downtown DC is often marked by spin… as in putting a positive spin on everything, no matter what.  It’s become a tired tool of politicians, a nuisance to the average citizen. Looking at spin through eyes of faith though… one can draw some redeeming qualities from the concept.  In my last post, “When autumn leaves fall,” I mused on a classical concept of the spiritual life: mortification.  Yesterday, in the readings for mass, St. Paul advises the Romans (8:13), “if you mortify the ways of the flesh through the power of the Spirit, you will have life.”  In a seemingly curious pairing, the Gospel then has Jesus admonishing the synagogue leaders that it is indeed acceptable to heal on the sabbath (Lk 13:10-17).  Understanding the pairing of these two readings can help us find a healthy positive spin on mortification.  

The Jewish authorities we encounter in the Gospel had become cynical, jaded, and afraid.  I don’t think any of them woke up each day and decided to be that way.  Actually, if you think of it, there were lots of very natural, understandable reasons for it.  They had been, for centuries, a subjugated people.  First the Babylonians, then the Persians, the Greeks, then finally the Romans. While they had their own local “king” (Herod), he was a turncoat and Roman puppet.  As if being a conquered people wasn’t enough, their province was one of the poorest, most backwater regions of the Roman Empire.  Had God abandoned them?  Even in the leadership classes, daily existence must’ve been marked by fear, anxiety, cynicism and a host of other negative emotions.  And isn’t that precisely what Paul is referring to as, “the ways of the flesh” (opera corporis).  Typically, readers see that phrase and think of sexual morality, but it’s really broader than that.  The Knox translation of Romans actually phrases it, “the ways of nature,” which helps us gain a broader understanding.   

For human beings, bound to this earth, mortal… fear, anxiety, the “fight or flight” mentality is indeed the way of nature/the flesh… and this is the limit, the chain, from which Jesus came to set us free!   If that’s what was motivating the synagogue officials, then despite all their observances of the law, they weren’t really practicing mortification.  During Lent, one of the authors in the Office of Readings reminds us that the true goal of fasting must always be heaven itself; and likewise all forms of mortification.  Put another way: consider today’s Psalm 37 in the Office of Readings, “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not envy those who do evil: for they wither quickly like grass and fade like the green of the fields… If you find your delight in the Lord, he will grant your heart’s desire.”  Saint Paul continues the lesson in today’s mass reading (Rm 8:18), “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory revealed for us.”

In my own life, I find that certain fears and anxieties can be paralyzing, even tortuous.  They must be defeated if I’m going to move forward on the pilgrimage to heaven.  Most recently this came up with regard to a report I had to send downtown about our parish budget.  It was an honest statement about the cost of deferred maintenance on our grounds, and the current state of finances.  Worrying about it wasn’t doing me any good, wasn’t changing the situation… If anything it was hurting me: each time I tried to game out the possible outcomes it was like a lash on my back.  So I forced myself not only to send the report but to go over it with the whole parish council.  It was so liberating.  I don’t know what the outcome will be… probably much more bland than any of my fears would’ve suggested… but whatever happens, the monkey is off my back and I’m free to pray, and rejoice now, no matter what may come tomorrow.  I’ve got some other things rolling around in my prayers, long term stuff that’s been a weight on my shoulders for a couple of years actually.  I’ve always assumed these issues were crosses, but if Jesus carries the cross for us, then maybe the weight I’m feeling isn’t so much the cross as the fears and anxieties I’ve been holding on to.  Maybe mortification looks like, “letting go, and letting the dice fall where they may” (another phrase that’s been coming to me in prayer lately).  As with so much of the spiritual life, the answer is… “we’ll see.”

Is all of this DC Spin from a DC priest?  I don’t think so… I think it’s the Lord leading me to look at a classical Christian practice with renewed eyes of faith.  I hope you find it helpful.