"If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mt 16:24). These are Jesus’ own words. Today we are going to focus on two things: denying ourselves (aka mortification) and carrying our crosses (aka suffering well).
Mortification is the process by which we deny ourselves material, physical, mental or emotional things in order to defeat sin and weakness. When we speak of universal mortification, we mean not JUST denying ourselves physical things, but deny ourselves in all areas. The catechism of the Church states: "The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the... mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes:" CCC 2015
Mortification is the deliberate restraint that one places on natural impulses in order to make them increasingly subject to sanctification through obedience to reason illumined by faith." (The New Catholic Encyclopedia).
When we deny ourselves something, like for instance, fasting from meat on Fridays, we are voluntarily choosing to suffer, right? Many times, though, we don’t deliberately choose to suffer. Suffering happens to us. We are diagnosed with cancer. A loved one has broken our trust. That type of suffering is not specifically mortification but it CAN still be “crosses” for us to carry. Suffering can still bring us closer to the Lord, whether it’s deliberately chosen by us or it happens TO us.
For Louis de Montfort, Christ is, above all, the one who suffered and died for us on the Cross. The mystery of Christ is the mystery of the Cross. "Never the Cross without Jesus, or Jesus without the cross" (LEW 172). The mystery of the Cross is the mystery of God’s love. The Cross is the soundest proof of divine love. "Among all the motives impelling us to love Jesus Christ, the strongest, in my opinion, is the suffering he chose to endure to prove his love for us" (LEW 154).
For our part, we respond to God’s love by carrying our own crosses. "The cross was the proof God gave of his love for us; and it is also the proof which God requires to show our love for him" (LEW 176).So, what does this look like? “Jesus, I may not understand WHY I am going through what I am experiencing, but I choose to unite it to you. I choose to GIVE it to you.” OR we can say, “Jesus, I love you more than food, so I will deny myself meat on Fridays as a way to show you how much I love you and to remember your suffering that you took on for my sake.”
A relationship with Christ is impossible without denying ourselves and carrying our crosses.
Many sincerely good people living in this world simply do not know the value of the Cross, because they are too fond of sensual pleasures and seek only their own comforts. That is the reason the Cross, or suffering, is not welcomed, why it is even rejected.
But there are many Christians, like myself for instance, who know the value of the Cross in theory because so much is written and spoken about it. But in reality, we lose courage, complain, excuse ourselves, and run away as soon as the possibility of suffering arises. Who can relate?!
St. Louis de Montfort teaches a lot about universal mortification and he is my biggest source for this topic. He teaches that Its highest point is the giving up of our worldly possessions—expressive of interior poverty—which is the quickest, the best, and the surest means to possess Jesus. Think of the Gospel story of the young man who approaches Jesus and asks what must he do to inherit eternal life. He follows the 10 commandments and is wondering if there is anything else he can do. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor (Luke 18:18-23). Montfort recognizes that this may not be easy for all or even within the vocation of all. If you have a family, you need to own worldly possessions like a house, car, furniture, etc. So he recommends detachment of the heart from material things, possessing them but not being ATTACHED TO THEM. He also suggests not being slave to following the trends of the world and to not allow yourself to spend too much time with worldly people.
Speaking of bodily mortifications, he says that accepting our life as it is and living it patiently everyday by enduring our bodily ailments, the inconveniences of the weather, and the difficulties arising from other people’s actions is mortification enough. We can also follow the fasts the Church requires of us.
It is also important to note that for Montfort, mortification is not synonymous with a gloomy spirit. Rather, it is a source of joy, for it brings with it the knowledge of obeying the command of the Lord and of imitating him.
Something else that Montfort taught was that the little ways of denying ourselves are often better that grand, extravagant ways. When we do something major for the sake of the Lord, we are more inclined to be prideful or vain in doing so, right? Small interior acts of mortification made for God, for example, giving up cussing or watching your impure glances, or choosing to not give into an emotion like anger or impatience, etc., could turn out to be great victories. He encourages us to think about how some of our behaviors and habits may annoy others and to cut those out of our lives.
Another point that I would like to make is that there are three purposes, really, for practicing mortification. The first would be out of love for Christ and your desire to unite yourself and to remember HIS suffering. This is really why we fast during Lent and Good Friday. The second reason could be to overcome a certain sin or weakness in your life. And by overcoming a sin or weakness, we become more like Christ and Mary, who are without sin. The third reason, I would say is for “redemptive suffering” - where you are OFFERING your suffering for the sake of a specific intention, whether your own intention or for the sake of someone else.
But the work of mortification, the WORK of denying ourselves so as to overcome our passions and inclinations, is only successful when we also lean on Christ for strength and grace. The same is true when we are seeking to “carry the crosses” and suffering which has been dealt to us. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).
Lastly, I would like to point out this idea of the “Theology of the Body” that St. John Paul II really brought to the forefront. It is the teaching about our sexuality. But at the core of it all is the truth that our bodies and souls are intimately connected. We CANNOT disconnect the two. When we are UN-disciplined in physical manners, our soul is in chaos, and vice versa.
Personally, I have always struggled with practicing self-control in the area of over-eating. My journey with food is a long story. I am an emotional eater. In college, it really got out of control and I did gain a lot of weight. After graduation, I was preparing for marriage and a wedding, and I still could not get my eating habits under control. My self-esteem and self-worth were shot and honestly, I did not like the way I looked even for my own wedding. After I got married, I knew in my heart that I needed to work on getting things under control. It was such an interior battle for me. I knew the work of losing weight was going to be difficult and I was very scared of failing, so I never really tried. There have been so many nights where I would binge-eat and think to myself, “I just don’t care right now.” I kept ignoring all the voices in my heart crying out, and I wanted to drown them out with food. And my reasons for ever wanting to lose weight were pretty vain, too. I wanted to look a certain way and fit into a certain size.
It wasn’t until I attended a Women of the Word session where the sin of gluttony was discussed. Never before had I ever once thought that my eating habits were sinful. For some reason, I had really been blinded by the fact that my struggle with food was a spiritual battle above all else. That was about two years ago. I did begin to take the sin into the confessional now, but the knowledge of my eating habits being sinful probably caused me to ignore the problem even more. And, adding a second pregnancy to it all, too, I had many excuses to not watch my self-control.
I ended up having quite a healthy pregnancy and not a lot of weight gain. But again, I was faced with the reality that this was going to be such a difficult interior battle of my will. I love food so much! And I was really quite ashamed sometimes that I chose food over Jesus, over facing my own weaknesses, over my health, and over my family, really. My husband and two children need me to be healthy, spiritually and emotionally.
I finally got the motivation this past spring to embark on the journey toward self-control and facing the sin of gluttony head on. Lent was beautiful. I had decided to only wear skirts and dresses during Lent, and this impacted my heart tremendously. I learned a lot about femininity, and I think something un-seen happened in my heart. Christ transformed my self-esteem. I really began to know in the depth of my soul that my worth as a woman had nothing to do with my physical appearance but everything to do with my heart and my ability to be vulnerable before the Lord.
I started a “program” the day after Easter. It was focused on self-control and eating good, “clean”, healthy food. So I followed the regimen. There were so many nights (because that’s when I tend to eat the most) where there was a huge battle going on in my soul. I wanted pasta! I wanted cookies! Instead, I would choose to practice self-control. I would pray mentally to the Lord. I would unite myself to His grace as I really understood the battle I was in in mortifying my flesh and earthly desires. I really attribute my success to His grace that is available during the Easter season. He wanted me to have life and not be a slave to food anymore. I just so happened to say “yes” to grace at the right moment and allowed Christ to walk with me as I learned self-control.
So, here I am, 25 lbs lighter. I am healthy and feel great. But it really has nothing to do with how I look. I can honestly say that I really am no longer a slave to gluttony. I know this will be a life-long battle, but the victory is Christ’s! He has set me free. But I had to put in the work of mortifying myself first. I had to allow Him to help me carry this cross, I had to undergo the ugly battle of becoming so weak and so dependent on Him. It was not, and still is not, “easy”. But it is possible through Christ!