How Small Mortifications Can Help Our Spiritual Lives
Jesus never pretended that being a Christian would be easy. In fact, just the opposite: he told the disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). This wasn’t just a recommendation or a practice only some Christians would need to follow. It was a prerequisite for becoming a disciple.
Most of the time, occasions of suffering will find us without our needing to go look for them. But some Christians voluntarily take on other forms of suffering in the ascetic practice known as mortification.
Mortifications are never performed for their own sake or to prove something about ourselves. The aim of any mortification is always to unite us closer to Jesus. When you are at the appropriate place in your spiritual life, small mortifications can have powerful spiritual benefits. Not only can you unite your sufferings with Jesus on the cross, but you can also start to sever unhealthy or distorted attachments that are the result of original sin. For example, you can begin the practice of fasting to replace the vice of gluttony with the virtue of temperance, or even to break any control that food might have over your life. What you are aiming for is to be the servant of Jesus, not of any earthly thing.
There are many ways of performing mortifications besides fasting. For example, you might refrain from listening to music during the quiet parts of the day or forego dessert after dinner. Things like music and dessert are not bad in themselves—but when you freely and voluntarily give them up, you are working toward making a gift of yourself to Jesus. Some of the saints throughout history have practiced especially harsh mortifications, such as wearing hair shirts or walking around with pebbles in their shoes.
As you journey along your spiritual path, it is always best to begin new practices with the help and guidance of a spiritual director or trusted priest. Mortifications run the risk of becoming the end rather than a means to an end, and this can especially be a problem for those who struggle with scrupulosity. Remember, you are not on the journey alone: talk to someone about your spiritual practices.
Whether you voluntarily take on practices of mortification or you face those trials that find you, unite your suffering to Jesus’ suffering. In everything, he walks with you.