Mortification According to the Gospel

To see the true spirit of Christian mortification, we must consider what our Lord says about it in the Gospel and how the saints understood it and lived it.

The Savior did not come upon earth to carry out a human work of philanthropy, but a divine work of charity. He accomplished it by speaking more to men of their duties than of their rights, by telling them the necessity of dying completely to sin in order to receive an abundant new life, and He willed to show His love for them even to the point of dying on the cross to redeem them. The two aspects of death to sin and of higher life are always spoken of together, with a dominant note which is that of the love of God…

What does our Lord tell us about mortification? In St. Luke’s Gospel we read: “He said to all: If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whosoever will save his life,[1] shall lose it; for he that shall lose his life for My sake, shall save it.[2] For what is a man advantaged if he gain the whole world and lose himself and cast away himself?” (Lk. 9:23-25)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus points out the necessity of mortification, that is, of the death to sin and its consequences, by insisting on the elevation of our supernatural end: “Unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20). “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Why? Because Christ brings us grace, which is a participation in the inner life of God, superior to the natural life of the angels, that He may lead us to union with God, since we are called to see God as He sees Himself and to love Him as He loves Himself. This is the meaning of the words: “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.” But this precept requires the mortification of all that is inordinate in us, of the inordinate movements of concupiscence, anger, hatred, pride, hypocrisy, and so on. These movements represent what is inordinate in the different passions. Our Lord is explicit on this point in the same Sermon on the Mount. Nowhere can we find a better statement of the interior and exterior mortification that the Christian must practice and also of the spirit of this mortification. To show this, it will suffice to recall some of the Savior’s words.

The true Christian ought as far as possible to exclude from his heart all resentment, all animosity: “If therefore thou offer thy gift at the altar, and there thou remember that thy brother hath anything against thee; leave there thy offering before the altar, and go first to be reconciled to thy brother; and then coming thou shalt offer thy gift” (Mt. 5:23). “Go first to be reconciled to thy brother”; we must see in him not only an adversary, but a brother, a son of God. Blessed are the meek. One day a young Israelite, who knew the Our Father, received the inspiration to pardon his greatest enemy; he did so, and immediately received the grace to believe in the entire Gospel and the Church.

Christ preaches also the mortification of concupiscence, of the evil gaze, of evil desire, by which one would already commit adultery in his heart: “If thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee . . . ; if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off . . . ; for it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body go into hell” (Mt. 5:29). Our Lord could not express Himself in a more energetic manner. This explains why, for the conquering of certain temptations, the saints advise recourse to fasts, vigils, and other bodily austerities, which, when practiced with discretion, obedience, and generosity, keep the body in subjection and assure liberty of spirit.[3]

The Sermon on the Mount also speaks of the mortification of every inordinate desire of vengeance: “You have heard that it hath been said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you not to resist evil” (Mt. 5:38). Do not reply to an insult with acrimony in order to avenge yourself. Unquestionably you must resist even to death him who would lead you to evil; but bear offenses patiently, without hatred or irritation. “If one strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him also the other. And if a man will contend with thee in judgment and take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him” (Mt. 5:39): that is to say, be ready to bear injustice with longanimity. This is the patience that breaks the anger of an adversary and sometimes converts him, as can be seen in the three centuries of persecution which the early Church had to endure. The Christian ought to be less preoccupied with jealously defending his temporal rights than with winning over to God the soul of his irritated brother. Here we see the height of Christian justice, which ought always to be united to charity. The perfect are here admonished that it is not fitting for them to enter into litigation, unless for the sake of higher interests of which they have charge.[4]

In the same chapter, the Savior asks us to mortify egoism, self-love, which inclines us to flee from him who wishes to ask us for a service (Mt. 5:41), to mortify rash judgment (Mt. 7:1), spiritual pride, and hypocrisy, which incline men to perform good works or to pray before men “to be seen by them” (Mt. 6:1-19).

Finally, Christ points out to us what the spirit of mortification ought to be: death to sin and its consequences out of love for God. Our Lord’s manner of stating His doctrine is most amiable, as opposed to the proud austerity of the Jansenists. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, He tells us: “When you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee” (Mt. 6:16-18). As the fathers have understood this text, Christ would have us perfume our heads with the oil of charity, mercy, and spiritual joy: wash our faces, that is, purify our souls of all spirit of ostentation. When we accomplish these acts of piety, it is not forbidden us to be seen, but to wish to be seen, for we would thus lose purity of intention, which ought to be directed immediately to the Father present in the secret of our souls.

Such is the spirit of Christian mortification or austerity, which the Jansenists did not understand; it is the spirit of love of God and love of neighbor. It is the spirit of love that radiates on souls to save them; therefore it is the spirit of gentleness, for how can we be meek, even with those who are ill-tempered, without learning to conquer ourselves, to possess our souls? It is a spirit which leads us to offer to God all painful occurrences, so that even these things may help us to advance toward Him and to save souls, and that all, even the obstacles that we encounter, may cooperate unto good, as Jesus made His cross the great means of salvation.

With this idea in mind, we see that, by this spirit of love of God, Christian mortification rises like a summit above the effeminacy of practical naturalism and above harsh and proud austerity. This is the mortification we find in the saints who are stamped with the image of Jesus crucified, whether saints of the early Church, like the first martyrs, or those of the Middle Ages, like St. Bernard, St. Dominic, St. Francis of Assisi, or those of more recent times, like. St. Benedict Joseph Labre, the Cure of Ars, or those more recently canonized, such as St. John Bosco and St. Joseph Cotolengo. Mirabilis Deus in sanctis suis.


From Three Ages of the Interior Life. 

Original French edition © The Dominican Province, France.

English translation © Baronius Press Ltd

[1] By wishing, first of all, to enjoy this world, by fleeing purifying suffering and duty, which at times are painful.

[2] “For he that shall lose his life,” by sacrificing it in the accomplishment of duty out of love for Me, “shall save it.”

[3] St. Thomas, II-II q147.

[4] Cf. St. Thomas, In Matth., 5:40.

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