Mortification–the Catholic Lenten treat.
Every year, on Ash Wednesday, Catholics gear up for the annual torture fest…Lent!
What will you give up this year? Chocolate…again? Coffee? Ooh, that’s gonna hurt!
Why do we enter into this pain every year? Do Catholics just love to suffer? Or, is it really true that the Church doesn’t want us to have too much fun? (Hint: that’s not the answer!)
Well, there is an aspect of sorrow and reparation for sin that is expressed in giving up the stuff you enjoy, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a science to spiritual growth and Lenten mortification can serve as a springboard for renewal.
What is mortification anyway?
Mortification is one of those great Catholic words that people “in the know” throw around.
Mortifications are penances that involve some form of self-denial. Fasting is one of the primary forms. In Latin, mortis means death. Mortification “puts to death” sinful tendencies and desires that are sometimes hard to control.
Saying no to destructive desires can be a very good thing.
Matthew Kelly on Lenten fasting
In Rediscovering Catholicism, Matthew Kelly says,
“The Lenten experience is a perfect example of the Church’s intimate understanding of the nature of the human person. The forty days of Lent are an ideal period for renewal. Lent is the perfect span of time to form new life-giving habits and abandon old self-destructive habits. But most of us just give up chocolate and when Easter arrives we are not much further advanced spiritually than we were at the beginning of Lent” (p. 259).
The springboard for spiritual growth
It takes about 30 days to form a habit. So, like Matthew Kelly suggests, why not put the 40 days of Lent to good use?
What is your biggest vice? Figure that out and start doing things to defeat it! Make a concentrated effort during Lent and you can slack off later but it will be easier to continue.
- Get angry easily? Give up arguing back. Stay silent when someone is mean to you (and you thought giving up chocolate was hard?).
- Insanely jealous of that coworker? Go out of your way to congratulate them or wish them well.
- Do you spend too much on stuff you don’t need? Give up shopping for whatever you buy too much of…clothes, shoes, electronic gadgets, etc.
- Never make time to pray? Set up a schedule of daily prayer and make it a priority.
- Have a problem with lust? Fast from looking at beautiful women the wrong way or from viewing porn.
Choose only one. That’s not so hard right? Besides, that’s all you’ll have energy for.
In Catholic spirituality, this is called working against your predominant fault. You have one vice that’s worse than any other. If you work on that one, the others will follow. That’s because good habits are all connected.
Self-denial is important in the spiritual life.
Since the Fall, we don’t have complete control over our emotions. Passions like love, anger, hatred and pride can lead us to do stupid things. Our desires for food, sex, wealth and success enslave us. They can become overwhelming and lead to unhealthy attitudes.
Mortifications work to “put to death” these often unruly passions and desires. Once you kill them, you can control them. Control of your actions leads to freedom. So, ironically, mortification brings fullness of life–not death.