Friday, January 29, 2010

I'm Not Mortified

One Catholic controversy this week has been the news that Pope John Paul the Great practiced physical mortification in the form of flagellation, striking himself with leather thongs or a belt. Many Catholics as well as members of the general public have reacted with shock that such practices might be allowed or encouraged for Catholics. I am not shocked or surprised.

During his last years, beginning in the Jubilee year 2000 as I watched Pope John Paul II carry out the burdens of his office I was often struck by his fortitude and his joy. I was often stunned, especially when children were around, at the joy that shone through his face, and as Parkinson's took over, just his eyes. And as he entered St. Peter's to open the millennial door in 2000 and he tripped on entering and had to be helped up, and steadied through much of the liturgy, I 'knew' he was joyfully accepting his infirmities, and his burdens and that he was offering them to Jesus for the good of the whole Church.

Maybe I'm fortunate that I had acquired at least a basic introduction to serious practices of mortification through reading about the great mystics particularly St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. When you read about the lives of these two Saints and others like them, and particularly when you read their own writings, beneath the harshness of their lives is a joyful heart. The lives they lived, the work they did, and the mortification of various types could not have been endured had they not been deeply rooted in the joy of Christ.

Some of my Failures in Mortification
Personally, I only have a few little experiences with mortification any more serious than the occasional fast. About 14 years ago, in my first couple of years of marriage, I was working on a college campus. I was constantly surrounded by attractive women of all ages, and often the standards of dress were not modest. I constantly found myself failing in keeping custody of my eyes and my thoughts. I would continually find my head swiveling and my eyes lingering and my thoughts followed. Too often I didn't summon much resolve to resist these temptations. As Lent rolled around I read about medieval Lenten practices and that sometimes people would put pebbles in their shoes. Since I was already wearing a scapular and a miraculous medal and carrying a rosary in my pocket and putting holy cards in all kinds of places to remind myself to pray, I decided to try pebbles in my shoes for Lent.

So the first day of lent on my way into work I picked up a nice smooth pebble and put it in my shoe. Whenever the pebble bothered me I intended to pray and surrender my thoughts and will to Jesus. Within hours I was comfortable with a pebble in my shoe, so at lunch I put one in the other shoe. It wasn't enough to break my sinful habits, and I soon was able to ignore the discomfort. So the next day I added more pebbles. Still not enough discomfort.

So, I experimented. I started looking for sharp and pointy pebbles, and found that fairly small was more painful than larger, but too small and I could work them to the side, or down to the toe. By the end of the first week I had 7 pointy rocks in each shoe and I was still regularly falling into my habit of sin. Also, I began to actually challenge myself as to how much discomfort I could endure. At times, it was very uncomfortable, but I'd force myself to walk with a normal stride. And I'd force myself to walk as much as I normally would and even a little more. Although each day it would be painful for a couple of hours (I was on my feet most of the morning) I began to build tolerance for the pain, even though I'd have dents in my soles for an hour or so every night.

I have to say my experiment failed. I didn't break my habit of sinning against chastity, and I didn't make much or any spiritual progress. I did learn a few things. I learned why physical mortification should be done under spiritual direction and not independently; because it is too easy to be driven by self-will and pride and not grace. I learned that pain is not much of a mortification for me.

During another Lent I tried taking lukewarm showers - I really really love HOT showers. Again, I found I soon was able to adapt, and soon began to derive prideful pleasure from forcing myself to endure colder and colder showers. And again it was spiritually unproductive.

I could genuinely see flagellating myself and it doesn't disturb me, and I know I could handle the discomfort. I would prefer flagellating to being attentive to the smaller and more mundane duties of my life - like dusting, or doing paperwork. So for me mortification must take some other form.

Another problem with my efforts at mortification has been insufficient love and devotion to God. In some way there has always been an element of "me doing something for God. Even in trying to surrender my sinful habits, I too often try because I need to succeed in surrendering this Sin for God. And as a reward God will give me peace.

Sorry Charlie - it doesn't work that way.

The Gospel and Sanctification
John Paul II and Saint Paul and all the Saints show us the right way. Paraphrasing Saint Paul our Joy comes from our salvation in the free gift of our redemption through Christ Jesus crucified and resurrected. If by Faith we live in that Hope we will have Joy. We will die to self and be filled with the spirit. In the spirit we may find the grace to accept life's natural sufferings as joyful mortification and offer our small sufferings to God. And we will have the grace to fast and mortify our natural drives and desires. And that is how some of the Saints are asked by God to accept more suffering for the good of the whole Church.

Sanctity, both ordinary for me and extraordinary for the Saints isn't in what or how much we accomplish. John Paul II's saintliness does not rest on the success of his Papacy in the view of history. It rests solely on his heroic virtue in accepting and bearing the burdens of the Papacy fully submitting himself to God's Grace and sustained entirely by God's grace serving the Church Joyfully and humbly in the midst of great troubles and worries. Just as the sanctity of Pius XII does not hinge on whether he made the best possible decisions regarding the Nazis and the death camps during WWII. It is sufficient that in good conscience he made the best decision he could, and that he did not cooperate in perpetrating evil.

Sister Antonia - A Saint I know
I am fortunate to know one elderly nun, Sister Antonia who is a Saint, although her cause will never be promoted. I met Sister Antonia when I was right out of college. I went on a silent retreat led by a Father O'Malley S.J. and he later introduced me to Sister Antonia at a coffee and doughnut social after Mass at St. Aloysius. At that time Sister Antonia was 74 - she was born the same year as John Paul II. After retiring from teaching and nursing she was running a home / treatment center for developmentally disabled adults with addictions! She took me into her world and thank God she did.

I've learned quite a lot about what it really means to be a Saint from Sister Antonia. She is human. She is wonderfully, and sometimes frustratingly human. But she is also full of joy at all times. When the University that owned the house she ran her home in saw fit to 'help' her get out of such a taxing ministry she moved into a tiny apartment and worked as a minister to the home bound for the parish - nearly all of her clients were younger than she was at 77. She would walk 5 or 6 miles a day in the winter snow and ice doing her rounds. She fell several times due to improper foot wear, after that a few of her patrons made sure she got new boots every year.

It has always been very difficult to give anything to Sister Antonia for two reasons. The first is that she gives you something every time she sees you and if you give her a gift, she will give you even more. The second problem is that she is always giving so much stuff away, that she most often will give away what ever you give her to the next person that comes along.

I was excited the first time Sister Antonia invited me to the house for dinner. Then I tasted the food. Boiled pot roast and boiled cabbage. I still don't really understand how one can make pot roast taste that bad. Now she has been in a nursing home for about 2 years with a bad back and having had several heart attacks. She wrote a letter to the Bishop and got permission to minister to the people in the home, so everyday she makes her rounds in her wheel chair taking gifts to each patient and praying with them. One of my recent visits I came at lunch time and she gave me her sandwich and kept her chicken noodle soup. She made a show of 'bragging' how she'd gained weight since someone had given her this box of cereal that she started pouring into her soup. ALL BRAN! Yes, I realized later, she was deliberately making her food unpalatable by adding All Bran to chicken noodle soup, and she was covering by saying this is how she was gaining weight. She's traditional orthodox Catholic and she doesn't have much patience for nuns without habits etc. and she really comes close to letting loose on the sedevacantists who are prominent in that area. But every time she starts to get worked up, you can see her draw herself short, and then if you notice, she'll probably do some small penance immediately.

When you visit this 90 year old woman who has been stuck in a nursing home for 2 years, is in pain, and has had at least 3 heart attacks; I promise the first thing you will notice is her JOYFULNESS. Her will and her soul are conformed to Christ Jesus and in that alone she finds peace. Then she will give you a holy card, or an article clipped from a newspaper, or a collection of straws, or if someone else visited today, you'll get some of what ever they brought.

I don't know if she ever practiced any sort of flagellation or self-inflicted pain as mortification.  She might have, or I would guess not.  She does, however, through grace and humility out of love for Jesus mortify her own desires and passions and joyfully accepts little crosses for the glory of God.  And that is what we should focus on with all the Saints, John Paul II included.


  1. Well said! Thanks for sharing with us Paul.

    God bless.

  2. I kept thinking of St Therese's Little Way all through your post; "little things done with great love."
    Thanks for sharing the story of Sr. Antonia.

  3. What a solid, corrective and inspiring post.

    I was reading something in the past few months, by St. Therese of Lisieux I think, about how mortification can be (even should be) in the form of very ordinary daily things, hurts, offences, disappointments and surrender them to God, enduring them with grace for the sake of others.

  4. Great article. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences.

    As you point out, mortification has more to do with humility than method. 'Different strokes for different folks' fits here. I can easily believe that Pope JPII received spiritual benefit from his particular method. That type of mortification is not undertaken without the guidance of a spiritual director.

    One thing that makes me cringe is how easily we find 'alternatives' for regular practices like abstinence and fasting. I suspect that our motivation is guided more by 'pride' than by love, when we say..."its more productive to help at a soup kitchen than to fast ourselves"...