Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me – Luke 9:23
Here Jesus is defining the criteria in order for us to be His disciples. I really love this line. It is simple but very powerful. One could easily meditate on this passage for many hours because of the depth of what Jesus mentions here. The focus on this post is specifically around the phrase “he must deny himself” and the parallel I see with this phrase and the very important topic of mortification of the flesh. Mortification is often very misunderstood, is at times very complex to understand, perhaps even feared, but it is one of the ways we can strengthen our interior life and our relationship with Christ. Let start with the definition of mortification of the flesh first:
…the deliberate restraint that one places on natural impulses in order to make them increasingly subject to sanctification through obedience to reason illumined by faith… – New Catholic Encyclopedia
I am being very specific here in defining this type of mortification vs. another type that is defined by St. John of the Cross as mortification of the spirit, which is not the intent of this post. We would never get through this topic!
From what we read above, by grace, mortification is an attempt by our part to deny a natural, inordinate desire, in order to be united further to Christ and to be strengthened against sin and temptations. What is an inordinate desire? Perhaps we like a certain type of food too much or perhaps we watch TV excessively. It could even be something subtle such as gossiping, indulging in excessive comfort, sleeping in or desiring excess luxury!
I think a lot of people get stumped on the WHY. Why do we need to do this? Why can’t I enjoy the good things in life? Did God not make good things to be enjoyed? Did God want me to live a miserable existence of no entertainment and bland food? Let us be clear, God did create good things to be enjoyed and this is not the intent of mortification. The intent is to purify and put in order the things in our life that we love MORE than God. This is the intent of mortification. I love the way St. John of the Cross describes this:
To reach satisfaction in all, desire satisfaction in nothing. To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing – The Ascent of Mount Carmel by St. John of the Cross
This sums up the reason for mortification and is perhaps one of the best cures for all of modern mans problems, Catholic or not. There is nothing wrong with enjoying good things, or even being wealthy. St. King Louis IX and King David were very wealthy individuals so there is no issue in these things in and of themselves. If we look at their lives, though they were wealthy materially, they were poor in spirit and naturally harbored a spirit of poverty. In their lives, none of the material things they had came in the way of their desire to be united to God. St. King Louis IX employed very challenging mortifications throughout his life. Let us bring up another verse in scripture that expands on this a bit further:
“No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon – Matthew 6:24
When it comes to our relationship with God, it is impossible to love God and some inordinate desire. Jesus is very clear, you will either hate one or love the other. You cannot have both. In this case your options are to love God and hate the appetites OR to hate God and love the appetites. As you can imagine, most of us chose the latter. In fact, if we have in our lives any small, inordinate desire, we will always chose that instead of God and this inordinate desire will always way us down. Here is another quote that speaks to this:
It makes little difference whether a bird is tied by a thin thread or by a cord. Even if it is tied by thread, the bird will be held bound just as surely as if it were tied by cord; that is, it will be impeded from flying as long as it does not break the thread – Ascent of Mount Carmel by St. John of the Cross
Mortification is really a message to God that can be summed up as follows: Lord, I wish to love You above all things. In order to show my love for You and You alone, I deny all the earthly pleasures that I have grown to love more than You for I realize that so as long as I love any earthly pleasure, I do not love you as you ought to be loved. I deny myself these things to show my true love for You and You alone. I do this only by Your grace and with my cooperation to Your divine will. This is confirmed by St. John of the Cross as well:
It is a matter for deep sorrow that, while God has bestowed on them the power to break other stronger cords of attachment to sins and vanities, they fail to attain so much good because they do not become detached from some childish thing that God has asked them to conquer out of love for him and that amounts to no more than a thread or hair. What is worse, not only do they fail to advance, but they turn back because of their small attachment, losing what they gained on their journey at the cost of so much time and effort. Everyone knows that not to go forward on this road is to turn back, and not to gain ground is to lose – Ascent of Mount Carmel by St. John of the Cross
Once we have advanced into the purgative stage of the interior life, mortification and the fight over our inordinate desires is the next hurdle we need to overcome in order to come in the next phase of our union with God, defined as the illumative phase. The great doctor St. John of the Cross lays this out very clearly in his work and we would be wise to heed his advice. He has journeyed down that path himself and what he is writing to us is relevant now as it was then.
That is enough theory and discussion, this could go on for many pages. Let us talk about some practical approaches to this, which I hope will be fruitful for you:
- Mortification for most of us is very, very challenging. “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Of the three types of work, physical, mental and spiritual, the spiritual effort is by far the hardest. Therefore, if we take on too heavy of a mortification too quickly, we may do more damage than good. Treat this endeavor like working out in a gym, start small and go at the pace grace enables you. If you take too heavy of a weight, you can seriously harm yourself.
- I would suggest the following: dedicate one day to mortifying something small that you enjoy. If you enjoy TV, no TV for that day. If you really enjoy salty / sweet food, give that up for one day. If cutting off either one of these is still to daunting, limit your consumption first. Perhaps just 1 hour of TV vs 3 hours. Commit to just one day in the week and offer that up to God.
- If you are able to and as you becoming stronger, I would recommend going a step further and dedicating multiple days in the week to some form of mortification. One thing I try to do each week is fast on one day, no TV on some days and no music on another. Each of us have different appetites that we need to work on so prepare a schedule that works for you.
- For those of you that are married, do this as an activity together. Keep each other accountable and be honest if you haven’t kept to your mortification. Again, it is not a grave sin so we must not beat ourselves down but we must try to encourage one another on the path to Christ and being accountable to someone can help us to stay encouraged. It is of utmost importance here to practice humility. Be humble when receiving criticism, if you are not, you will not benefit whatsoever. The constructive criticism does not come from the individual – it comes from God!
- Do not beat yourself up if you fail in the above challenges but you must persevere consistently. I think more importantly the Lord loves to see us make firm attempts at coming to Him and to always get back up when we fail to meet our resolution. Trust me, I still keep stumbling but you must keep going.
- If you have a spiritual director, discuss this with them. They may or may not recommend mortification depending on the state of your life. It is wise to rely on someone experienced in this matter if possible.
- I also recommend you keep a journal. Write these things down in a journal, the challenge, if you met it, etc. It will help you to track your progress and will let you see your improvements over time!
United Body requires men and women who are constantly striving for union with God. Mortification will aid us on this journey to Christ. It is not the work that saves us but our cooperation with God’s grace and as we read in the first passage quotes, God requires us to deny ourselves in order to be a disciple of Christ!
All Carmelite saints, pray for us!