Lenten Mortification: a Reflection on the Season of Lent
During the holy season of Lent, Holy Mother Church encourages us to spend forty days growing in knowledge of ourselves, so that, by our penance, we may better understand the exalted value of the soul over the body. By means of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the desires of the body are placed in subjection to the higher faculties of the intellect and will: By prayer we elevate our minds to God, by fasting we lessen our desire for pleasure, and by almsgiving we curb our love of money.
By fasting forty days in the desert, Our Lord, too, showed that there are benefits of denying the senses and appetites what is morally permitted them. Furthermore, the saints have testified that the detachment from creation (possessions, people, enjoyments) is absolutely necessary to arrive at perfection, for it is typical that God completes the purification of the soul only after it has expended great time and effort doing so by ordinary means. Thus, it is our obligation to mortify our senses and passions so that the soul’s capacity for her Creator is not otherwise occupied with His creation.
It should be noted that “to mortify” does not mean that we annihilate our senses, appetites, or passions; rather, we practice self-denial or privation in order to orient all desires and appetites towards God and make Him the sole desire (object) of our heart, mind, body, and soul.
Besides the senses and appetites of the body, the higher faculties of the intellect and will must also be purified. The intellect apprehends the true and presents it to the will as a good thing to pursue out of love. Thus, the action of the will is to love what the intellect says is good. But since the fall of Adam, the intellect has been darkened and the will has been weakened to the point where the will is inclined to selfishness and seeks to love that which the intellect can erroneously perceive as a good.
The superiority of the soul over the body means that the mortification of the will—the rational appetite—is even more important than the mortification of the body.
Contrarily, when the will embraces that which it should not, this turning away from God and towards creation is called sin. As sin resides in the will, it is the home of our faults and needs to be purified in order to regain strength to love purely the One Who is All-good, God.
When the free will is not properly ordered, the person lives for himself, seeking his own gratification in this world. Excessive self-centeredness subdues the soul so that sufferings and hardships are not willingly endured; fraternal correction and advice are not heeded; and pride, disobedience, and impatience develop deep roots in the soul. This inordinate self-love causes the person to abhor mortification. To express it in scientific terms, the person thinks that the world is not geocentric or heliocentric, but rather egocentric.
Hence, it is extremely important to mortify the will to combat pride and to lessen excessive love of self. Ultimately, the more the intellect understands the baseness of anything temporal (for example, the body) compared with the importance of the eternal (our soul, God), the greater the will turns to God in love. For it is only in her humility that the soul recognizes that without God, she is nothing.
As Lent is upon us, the resolution to maintain a stricter guard over our appetites ensures that the intellect and will are properly maintained as the sovereign faculties. In closely examining the giving up of some food, we recognize that there will be a corresponding suffering in the body. The growth in sanctification from this mortification is not so much in the pain itself; rather, it is in the intention of the will to embrace the suffering out of love for God. And such is the power of love (charity): it takes a finite act and produces an infinite value. Hence, in all that we do in daily life, if borne out of love for God or in union with Christ Crucified, the action produces a hundred-fold merit, based upon the charity God sees in our intention. This is why the
widow who gave two mites gave more than all others: it is because she gave out of charity.
But great pain can reside in the will, more so than pain in the body. If a person were to hit us, the physical pain may subside in a few minutes, but deep down inside, the will can hold onto the emotional or intellectual pain. At times, the mind can take this memory and actually increase the suffering so that by recalling the incident, the person increases his pain. If that pain continues to grow in one’s mind or heart, and the will decides to remain offended instead of forgiving, then the mental, emotional, or spiritual health of that person is at risk.
We witness this phenomenon in the Western world: The notion of “I do what I want” is so prevalent that when we have to do something or endure something which we do not want to do, we feel violated or helpless. Such feelings, if not dealt with properly, remove joy from a soul, replace it with anger, bitterness, and even hatred towards other people—or even God. Ultimately, a society which overly emphasizes doing one’s will produces a culture which abhors authority, whether parental, governmental, or ecclesiastical.
For how dare another tell me what I should do? “I have my own will.” This rebellion to get our own way is readily seen in most children in their first years of life. When a child does not get his way, he throws a tantrum. Thus, it is incumbent upon parents to admonish, teach, and lead by example that there are many times in life when we have to do things which we prefer not to do. By such instruction, children will grow up to better respect proper authority, such as their parents and the Church, and thereby to use their will properly to choose good and avoid evil.
Because we live in a world where temptations abound, we are further required continually to monitor our will, chastise it when disordered, and re-direct it to the good when it fails. As this requires mortification, we annually employ the Lenten days of penance to maintain the will within its proper boundaries.
Furthermore, a pure motive for our penitential practices is also necessary for perfect union with God. Penance can be performed for less noble purposes, such as to lose weight or to seek the praise of others, or out of some Stoic attitude that emotions are beneath us. Yet, penance is more meritorious if done for the greater glory of God, or to conform our will to His Divine Will, or to strengthen the will over the senses, appetites, and passions of the body. The renewal of our pure motive will most likely have to be done throughout Lent in order to persevere in our good intention.
Lent is a time of not seeking or wishing anything other than to follow Christ Crucified and to give honor and glory to His Name, for the salvation of souls. So let us follow the advice of St. John of the Cross: “In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything, desire to have pleasure in nothing.”
February 2, 2010