LENT IS a time of penance, fasting and mortification. I want to talk about all three but today let me concentrate on mortification because it is a subject which is often misunderstood.
When we speak of mortification two things come to the minds of most people.
The first is the phrase “I was mortified …” usually in the context of having told a joke about a one-legged man only to discover later (and too late to apologise) that the person we were telling it to had only one leg; the second brings to mind the idea of self-flagellation and other extreme (and extremely painful) practices engaged in by extremely religious individuals.
Certainly the practice of engaging in acts of what we might call ‘active’ mortification has a long and (mostly) honourable history. Thomas More, for example, was known to wear a hair shirt.
For all its unreliability in some matters, Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the subject!
Most of us are not called to mortify ourselves to the extent to which some of the saints went, nor do we have their courage, but as Francis Fernandez says in In Conversation with God,
The Christian who goes through life systematically avoiding sacrifice will not find God … we must look for other little mortifications so as to keep alive the spirit of penance that God asks us for.
These mortifications, intentionally sought out through love of God, will be of great value in helping us overcome laziness, to counter that selfishness which seems ready to burst out at every moment, to beware of pride etc.
The Catechism tells us that
Jesus’ call to conversion and penance … does not aim first at outward works, ‘sackcloth and ashes’, fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance
But we aren’t talking about major changes to our lives or being asked to do anything too much out of the ordinary.
Being punctilious (critics might say pernickety) about how we do our job and how we treat colleagues, neighbours, family. Smile when it’s easier not to; go one step beyond what is demanded of us in all aspects of living. In short, really acting like a Christian.
“Other mortifications,” Fernandez tells us, “can be directed towards overcoming our desire for comfort, at keeping a guard over our internal and external senses, at overcoming our curiosity …”
Ah! Curiosity! The urge to be forever wanting to know what someone else is doing. And the only begetter of gossip.
As much as anything the act of mortification consists of being aware of our failings and making a conscious effort to correct them. Fernandez even suggests writing them down so that at appropriate times, like Examination of Conscience before Evening Prayer, we can consider how we are doing and ask God for His help to do better.