Yesterday, I mentioned in a post the importance of being “counter-cultural”. I can’t think of a greater way to be counter-cultural in our pleasure-first, narcissistic world than to practice corporal mortification, something which apparently Pope John Paul II did. This revelation about JPII (which really shouldn’t be very surprising) has raised the typical bewildered reactions from most people. Why in the world would someone voluntarily choose to sleep on the floor and even to whip himself?
Although the practice of corporal mortification has a long history in the Church, it is practically unheard of today. But it is simply one (albeit severe) type of self-mortification, which every Christian should practice in one form or another. Self-mortification is denying yourself some legitimate good in order to offer it in union with Christ’s suffering on the Cross. When your mom or dad said to you growing up, “offer it up!” that was self-mortification. We have been called to take up our own crosses, so denial of pleasure is part and parcel of the Christian life.
Mortification was central to the life of the early Christian. St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 gives a litany of hardships he has endured to preach the Gospel, and being a Christian for the first 300 years after Christ’s death meant living a mortified life leading possibly to a martyred death. But all of this mortification was not usually actively chosen, but simply a result of being a Christian.
After the legalization of Christianity, many Christians wanted to find ways to imitate Christ’s and Paul’s sufferings in their own lives. So many Christians – starting with St. Antony of the Desert – chose to engage in practices to mortify the flesh. By doing so, they desired to both be intimately united to Christ’s sufferings, and also to master their fleshly desires. This is the beginning of self-mortification among Christians: mortification freely chosen for spiritual benefits.
Today there are many ways to practice self-mortification which don’t involve anything like whipping oneself or other severe practices. One of the best ways to do so is at the dinner table. Turning down seconds, not putting butter on your bread, and drinking water instead of soda are all small mortifications which can be offered in union with Christ’s Passion for others. Another way of mortifying oneself is to allow others to get their way in small things. You are beat tired but your kid wants you to read to him when you get home from work? Denying yourself your desire for legitimate rest in this instance is another type of mortification. Other examples include fasting, taking cold showers, getting up early each day or even putting a pebble in your shoe.
But of course corporal mortification gets the most press, as it is the most severe type of self-mortification. Examples of corporal mortification include the “discipline” (i.e. whipping oneself), wearing a cilice, or wearing a hairshirt. These are all traditional – and legitimate – forms of self-mortification which saints have engaged in for centuries. But one important word of caution: NEVER UNDERTAKE CORPORAL MORTIFICATION EXCEPT UNDER THE DIRECTION OF A SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR! I can’t emphasize this enough; not doing so could lead to health problems as well as spiritual pride and an unhealthy masochism.
But we all should engage in some type of regular self-mortification. Discovering the mortifications that JPII underwent is a great incentive to us to take up our own small crosses in our lives and unite them to the Great Cross of Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls.