28. Mortification in Body and Spirit
Those who love their life, destroy it, while those who hate their life in this world, preserve it to live eternally. If anyone would serve me, let that one follow me; and where I am, my servant will also be. The Father will honor anyone who serves me.
The Congregation, furthermore, tries to express its spirit in five virtues drawn from its own special way of looking at Christ, namely, simplicity, humility, gentleness, mortification, and zeal for souls. Speaking of these five virtues, Saint Vincent said: ‘The Congregation should pay special attention to developing and living up to these five virtues so that they may be, as it were, the faculties of the soul of the whole Congregation, and that everything each one of us does may always be inspired by them’. (Common Rules, ii, 14)
Saint Vincent did not impose difficult or burdensome mortifications and austerities. Rather, he invited us to have great esteem for external and internal mortification and to practice both kinds in a spirit of penance1. He preferred internal mortifications, that is, control of our will and judgment, of our senses and those inclinations that rob us of our freedom to follow Jesus and to work for the establishment of his Kingdom2.
1. Mortification: a Condition for Following Jesus
Our Lord counsels those who desire to follow him to offer themselves to him. ‘You wish to come after me? It is well. You wish to conform your life to mine? Still better. You must be aware, however, that you must begin by renouncing yourself and carrying your cross’. Now this gift is only given to a few, not to all. Of the thousands who followed Jesus to hear his words, the majority abandoned him and deserted him, not being found worthy to be his disciples. This happened because they did not have the dispositions which our Lord said were necessary. They chose not to overcome themselves, not to deny themselves, not to bear their cross. ‘I desire’, Jesus said, ‘that you follow me.’ But there are two things necessary: first, deny yourselves, that is, leave the old Adam; second, carry your cross, and do that daily. Based on these principles see if you are able to follow me and remain in my school3.
2. With Pruning Tools at Hand
For Saint Vincent, mortification was always necessary in life; even with one foot in heaven already, it is still a necessity. He explained this to us using the parable of the vine-dresser:
May it please God to grant us the grace of becoming like the good vine-dresser, who always carries his knife in his pocket to cut away whatever he sees as injurious to his vine. Because it buds more than he wishes or keeps putting forth useless off-shoots, his knife is always ready, and often in hand, to cut away these extra growths as soon as he sees them. Thus all the strength of the sap is able to rise to the branches that are to bear fruit. So we too, with the knife of mortification, should unceasingly cut away the evil branches in ourselves that our fallen nature constantly tries to put forth. Jesus Christ compares himself to the vine, and he likens us to the branches—these evil branches in us prevent him from making us bear fruit more abundantly through the practice of the holy virtues. A good vine-dresser labors long in the vineyard. We, too, will be good disciples of Jesus Christ, if we constantly mortify our senses, if we labor to repress our passions, if we work to submit our judgment and regulate our will4.
3. Courage! Pleasure Follows Pain
With enthusiasm Saint Vincent encouraged his missionaries to mortify themselves:
Courage! Pleasure follows pain, and the more obstacles the faithful have to surmount, the more joy they feel in having mortified themselves: their reward is as great as their labor. Let us labor, my brothers, so that no day may pass in which we have not performed at least three or four acts of mortification and then we can truly say that we follow our Lord. We shall be worthy to be called his disciples. We shall walk in the narrow way which leads to life and Jesus Christ will reign with us in this mortal life, and we with him in eternal life5.
- Today, not only the word mortification, but the idea of mortification seems to be out of style. No one sees the spiritual value of pain or voluntary suffering. What do I think about internal and external mortification?
- Do I really practice mortification? How?
My Lord, what were you doing during your whole life but fighting continually against the world, the flesh and the devil? Did you ever do your own will? Did you ever give priority to your own judgment? Did you ever listen to sensuality? No, never. There were in you only constant mortification and absolute renunciation of all things. Grant us, Lord, the strength to carry the cross of mortification, to follow you closely and to live your life now and in eternity. We pray in your name Lord Jesus, who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen6.