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Mortification According to the Blessed Apostle

The doctrine of the Gospel on the necessity of mortification is explained at considerable length by St. Paul in his epistles. Frequent quotation is made of his words: “I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway” (I Cor. 9:27). Likewise he says to the Galatians: “They that are Christ’s have crucified their flesh, with the vices and concupiscences. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:24).

Not only does St. Paul affirm the necessity of mortification, but he gives reasons for it which may be reduced to four; they are precisely those which are disregarded by practical naturalism. The mortification of all that is inordinate in us is necessary:(1) because of the consequences of original sin;(2) because of the results of our personal sins;(3) because of the infinite elevation of our supernatural end;(4) because we must imitate our crucified Lord.

Considering these different motives, we shall see what interior and exterior mortification is for St. Paul. It is attached to many of the virtues, since each one excludes the contrary vices, and particularly to the virtue of penance, which ought to be inspired by love of God, and which has for its end the destruction in us of the consequences of sin as an offense against God.[1]

The Consequences of Original Sin

First of all, St. Paul draws a parallel between Christ the Author of our salvation and Adam the author of our ruin, and notes the consequences of original sin. To the Romans he says: “By one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death” (Rom. 5:12). And again: “By the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners. . . . Where sin abounded, grace did more abound . . . through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Ibid. 19-21). With infirmities and maladies, death is one of the results of original sin, but there is also concupiscence, of which St. Paul speaks when he says: “Walk in the spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the spirit” (Gal. 5:16).

According to the Apostle, this is the condition of the “old man,” that is, of man such as he is born of Adam, with a fallen and wounded nature. We read in the Epistle to the Ephesians: “You have heard Him, and have been taught in Him . . . to put off, according to former conversation, the old man, who is corrupted according to the desire of error. And be renewed in the spirit of your mind: and put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth” (Eph. 4:21-24). St. Paul writes in the same vein to the Colossians: “Lie not one to another: stripping yourselves of the old man with his deeds, and putting on the new, him who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the image of Him that created him” (Col. 3:9).

Again, he writes to the Romans: “For I am delighted with the law of God, according to the inward man: but I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind and captivating me in the law of sin that is in my members. Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:22-24).[2]

The old man, such as he is born of Adam, has a certain lack of balance in his wounded nature. This will be evident if we recall the nature of original justice. In it there was perfect harmony between God and the soul, made to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him; and also between the soul and the body. In fact, as long as the soul was subject to God, the passions or sensible emotions were obedient to right reason enlightened by faith, and to the will vivified by charity. The body itself shared this harmony by privilege, in the sense that it was not subject to sickness or death.

Original sin destroyed this harmony. The first man, by his sin, as the Council of Trent says, “lost for himself and for us sanctity and original justice,” and transmitted to us a fallen nature, deprived of grace and wounded.[3] Without falling into the exaggerations of the Jansenists, we must admit, with St. Thomas, that we are born with our will turned away from God, inclined to evil, weak in regard to the good,[4] with our reason prone to error,[5] our sensitive appetites strongly disposed to inordinate pleasure and to anger, source of every type of injustice.[6] Whence come pride, forgetfulness of God, egoism under all its forms, often a gross almost unconscious egoism, which wishes at any cost to find happiness on earth without aspiring any higher. In this sense, we can truly say with the author of The Imitation: “Nature proposes self as her end, but grace does all things purely out of love for God.”[7] St. Thomas speaks in the same way: “Inordinate love of self is the cause of every sin.”[8]

The fathers, in particular Venerable Bede, state in their explanation of the parable of the Good Samaritan that fallen man is not only stripped of grace and of the privileges of the state of original justice, but is even wounded in his nature. “By the sin of the first parent, man was despoiled of grace and wounded in nature.” This is explained especially by the fact that we are born with our will turned away from God, directly averted from our supernatural last end, and indirectly from our natural last end; for every sin against the supernatural law is indirectly contrary to the natural law which obliges us to obey whatever God may command.[9]

This disorder and weakness of the will in fallen man are shown by the fact that we cannot, without healing grace, love God, the Author of our nature, efficaciously and more than ourselves.[10] There is also the disorder of concupiscence, which is visible enough for St. Thomas to see in it “a quite probable sign of original sin,” a sign which adds its confirmation to what revelation says about the sin of the first man.[11] In place of the original triple harmony (between God and the soul, between the soul and the body, between the body and exterior things), appears the triple disorder which St. John speaks of when he writes: “For all that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh and the concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life, which is not of the Father, but is of the world” (I Jn. 2:16).

Undoubtedly baptism cleanses us from original sin by applying Christ’s merits to us, by giving us sanctifying grace and the infused virtues. Thus, by the virtue of faith our reason is supernaturally enlightened, and by the virtues of hope and charity our will is turned to God. We also receive the infused virtues which rectify the sensible appetites. However, there remains in the baptized who continue in the state of grace an original weakness, wounds in the process of healing, which sometimes cause us to suffer, and which are left to us, says St. Thomas, as an occasion for struggle and merit.[12]

This is what St. Paul says to the Romans: “Our old man is crucified with Him, that the body of sin may be destroyed, to the end that we may serve sin no longer. . . . Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, so as to obey the lusts thereof” (Rom. 6:6). Not only must this “old man” be moderated, regulated; he must be mortified or made to die. Otherwise we shall never succeed in obtaining the mastery over our passions and we shall remain more or less their slaves. This will mean opposition, perpetual struggle between nature and grace. If unmortified souls do not perceive this struggle, it is because grace is scarcely alive in them; egoistic nature has free play, with some virtues of temperament, natural happy inclinations that are judged to be true virtues.

Mortification is, therefore, imposed upon us because of the consequences of original sin, which remain even in the baptized as an occasion of struggle, and of struggle indispensable in order not to fall into actual and personal sin. We do not repent of original sin, which is a “sin of nature,” which was voluntary only in the first man; but we must labor to rid ourselves of the withering effects of original sin, in particular concupiscence, which inclines us to sin. By so doing, the wounds of which we spoke above are healed more and more with the increase of the grace which heals and which, at the same time, raises us up to a new life (gratia sanans et elevans). Far from destroying nature by the practice of mortification, grace restores it, heals it, and renders it increasingly pliable or docile in the hands of God.


From Three Ages of the Interior Life. 

Original French edition © The Dominican Province, France.

English translation © Baronius Press Ltd

[1] St. Thomas, in IlIa, q. 85, a. 2 f., says that penance is a special virtue which labors to efface sin and its consequences, inasmuch as sin is an offense against God. Wherefore penance is a part of justice, and, inspired by charity, it commands other subordinate virtues, in particular temperance, as exemplified in fasting, abstinence, vigils. A distinction may be made between mortification, properly so called, which depends on the virtue of penance, and mortification in the broad sense, which depends on each virtue, inasmuch as each one rejects the vices that are contrary to it. Correctly speaking, we cannot repent of original sin, but we should labor to diminish those of its results which incline us to personal sin.

[2] The meaning is: who will deliver me from the law of sin which is in my members, and consequently from spiritual or eternal death. As has often been pointed out, the idea of deliverance by physical death is foreign to the context.

[3] Council of Trent (Denzinger, no. 789): “Adam acceptam a Deo sanctatem et jusam non sibi soli sed eam nobis perdidit.”

[4] St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q.83, a.3: “Two things must be considered in the infection of original sin. First, its inherence to its subject; and in this respect it regards first the essence of the soul. . . . In the second place, we must consider its inclination to act; and in this way it regards the powers of the soul. It must therefore regard first of all that power in which is seated the first inclination to commit a sin, and this is the will.” Ia IIae, q.85, a.3: “In so far as the will is deprived of its order to the good, there is the wound of malice.” Ibid., ad 2um: “Malice is not to be taken here as a sin, but as a certain proneness of the will to evil, according to Gen. 8:21: ‘Man’s senses are prone to evil from his youth.’” (Vulg.: The imaginaon and thought of man’s heart are prone to evil from his youth.)

[5] Ibid.: “Hence, in so far as the reason is deprived of its order to the true, there is the wound of ignorance.”

[6] Ibid.: “In so far as the irascible (appetite) is deprived of its order to the arduous, there is the wound of weakness; and in so far as the concupiscible (appeitte) is deprived of its order to the delectable, moderated by reason, here is the wound of concupiscence. Accordingly, these are the four wounds inflicted on the whole of human nature as a result of our first parent’s sin.”

[7] The Imitaon, Bk. III, chap. 54.

[8] See Ia IIae, q.77, a.4: “Inordinate love of self is the cause of every sin.” We explained elsewhere at greater length the Thomisc doctrine of the consequences of original sin in relation to the spiritual life. Cf. L’amour de Dieu et la croix de Jesus, I, 292 ff.

[9] If man had been created in a purely natural state (or of pure nature), he would be born with a will not turned away from God, but capable of turning freely toward Him (Author of our nature and of the natural moral law) or of turning away from Him. There is, therefore, a notable difference between this state and that in which man is actually born. As a result of original sin, our powers to observe the natural moral law are less than they would have been in a state of pure nature. This is why, without the aid of healing grace, we cannot succeed in efficaciously loving God, the Author of our nature, more than ourselves.

[10] St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q.109, a. 3: “In the state of corrupt nature man falls short of this (of the efficacious love of God, the Author of nature) in the appetite of his rational will, which, unless it is cured by God’s grace, follows its private good, on account of the corruption of nature.” See also, De malo, q.4, a.2; q.5, a.2; De veritate, q.24, a.I2 ad 2um.

[11] St. Thomas, Contra Gentes, Bk. IV, chap. 42, no. 3: “Considering divine providence and the dignity of the superior part of human nature, it can with sufficient probability be proved that defects of this kind are penalties; and thus it can be concluded that the human race is somewhat infected by original sin.”

[12] Cf. IIIa, q.69, a.3 ad 3um: “Original sin spread in this way, that at first the person infected the nature, and afterward the nature infected the person. Whereas Christ in reverse order at first repairs what regards the person, and afterward will simultaneously repair what pertains to the nature in all men. Consequently, by baptism He takes away from man forthwith the guilt of original sin and the punishment of being deprived of the heavenly vision. But the penalties of the present life, such as death, hunger, thirst, and the like, pertain to the nature, from the principles of which they arise, inasmuch as it is deprived of original justice. Therefore these defects will not be taken away until the ultimate restoration of nature through the glorious resurrection.” Ibid., in corp. a. 3: “Wherefore a Chrisan receives grace in baptism, as to his soul; but he retains a passible body, so that he may suffer for Christ therein (Rom. 7: II, 17). . . . Secondly, this is suitable for our spiritual training: namely, in order that, by fighting against concupiscence and other defects to which he is subject, man may receive the crown of victory” (Rom. 6:6)The Council of Trent (Denzinger, no. 792) says that baptism remits original sin perfectly by giving us habitual grace and the infused virtues, but that in the bapzed the “coal of concupiscence” remains, which is left ad agonem (for the struggle) and which cannot harm those who do not consent to it and who struggle manfully by the grace of Christ.


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