As our Creator, God knows everything about us. He knows our strengths and weaknesses. He knows where and when we need help. He knows which trials are most useful in helping us to grow in sanctity. As it turns out, we all need to practice interior mortification, and God sends us lots of opportunities for them.
What is Mortification?
Since early Christianity, the Church has encouraged a penitential life, as a way to mortify the flesh and its sinful desires. This included things like fasting and abstinence, and other more physical penances such flagellation and as use of devices like the cilice.
St Jerome refers to Fasting and Abstinence (used as a catch-all term for penitential practices) as a “… help; a disposition; a means though a fitting one, for the attainment of true perfection. ” Source.
Mortification is a good and holy thing.
What is Interior Mortification?
Interior mortification involves invisible penances that others can’t see. They occur internally. For example: When someone says something to you that makes your pride flare up and you want to respond in kind, but choose not to, you are practicing interior penance or mortification
Interior Mortification is More Meritorious Than External Mortification
When trials, tribulations and mortifications come, we should accept them.
“While exterior penances can be an important compliment to one’s spiritual progress, they are nonetheless of a secondary rank to interior mortifications, whereby we deny our will; our attachments, our preferences, our appetites, our ego, our desires for comfort, etc. These interior mortifications are considered by the saints to be the most meritorious, since they directly cut at the root of self-will and self-love”Source
We tend to pretend to not notice the opportunities that God sends us for interior mortification.
Often, in our pursuit for sanctity, we seek our own exterior mortifications, especially around Lent.
We focus on exterior mortifications such as fasting, saying extra prayers, giving up coffee and social media, etc, etc.
These mortifications are well and good, but, how about interior mortifications?
Think about that neighbor who gets on your nerve or that online FB “friend” who pushes every button. Are you seeing these as opportunities to practice interior mortification?
Opportunities for Interior Mortification Abound
We do not have to go looking for mortifications. God gives us opportunities to practice interior or internal mortification, such as resisting pride and self-love.
St Alphonsus de Liguori, in The True Spouse of Jesus Christ, describes some opportunities for interior mortification (those that involve self-love and pride):
“There are some religious who perform a great many exercises of devotion, who practise frequent communion, long prayers, fasting, and other corporal austerities, but make no effort to overcome certain little passions—for example, certain resentments, aversions, curiosity, and certain dangerous affections.
They will not submit to any contradiction; they will not give up attachment to certain persons, nor subject their will to the commands of their superiors, or to the holy will of God.
What progress can they make in perfection?
Unhappy souls! they shall be always imperfect: always out of the way of sanctity. “They,” says St. Augustine, “run well, but out of the way.” They imagine they run well, because they practise the works of piety which their own self will suggests; but they shall be for ever out of the way of perfection, which consists in conquering self.”The True Spouse of Jesus Christ by Saint Alphonsus Liguori
If you have been devising a mortification plan for yourself that only consists of exterior mortification, you might want to first accept the mortifications that God sends you. Then, look for others.
In Addition to Accepting Interior Mortifications, Accept the Exterior Mortifications God Sends
Even before picking up that flagellum, God gives us plenty of physical mortifications that God already sends us, as Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, O.C.D, says in Divine Intimacy.
“The true spirit of mortification embraces, in the first place, all the occasions for physical or moral suffering permitted by divine Providence. The sufferings attendant on illness or fatigue; the efforts required by the performance of our duties or by a life of intense labor; the privations imposed by the state of poverty – all are excellent physical penances.
If we sincerely desire to be guided by divine Providence in everything, we will not try to avoid them, or even to lighten them, but will accept wholeheartedly whatever God offers us. It would be absurd to refuse a single one of these providential opportunities for suffering and to look for voluntary mortifications of our own choice. Likewise, it would be foolish for those in religious life to omit the least exercise imposed by the Rule in order to do a penance of their own choosing.”
After accepting the interior and exterior mortifications that God sends us, then if you decide to pick up a flagellum (or not!), we won’t object.
Be sure to check with your spiritual director first, of course.
Join in the conversation. Do you find exterior or interior mortifications harder?
- Agandonment to Divine Providence
- Divine Intimacy
- Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis Marie de Montfort
- The True Spouse of Jesus Christ by St Alphonsus Liguori