Meditations for Layfolks - Mortifications

The self-denial of Christ has been made a law for His children. We cannot call ourselves His followers unless we make up our minds to follow, and to follow means quite definitely to take up our Cross. Hence penance becomes a necessity of the Christian life. The whole New Testament rings with this idea. The Gospels show it in action from the Incarnation to the Passion and Death; and the epistles of Saint Paul formulate that example in words that are still striking and arresting. There the Cross is exalted with a vehemence of language that is astonishing in its freshness, and the Crucified Figure is, as indeed he asserts, the central thesis of all his exhortations. In the acts of the early martyrs, and in the liturgy of the Church, it is not at all infrequent to find the term athlete applied to those who fought so strenuously for an incorruptible crown. Perhaps the idea of employing such a word came from the persistent metaphor of the same Saint Paul; he is always turning to the great public games for his comparisons of the New Dispensation. Time after time he speaks of the training necessary for the fight, of the splendid lure which the prize gives to everyone entering the lists, of the stern necessity for all who so enter not to play with their rivals in half-hearted fashion as though idly beating against the non-resisting air, of the steadfastness and courage required, and of the ultimate reward, itself exceeding great. Through the Middle Ages the same metaphor lingered at least as a literary habit. Nor is the notion at all fantastic; for we can quite readily suppose that the whole of life can be divided between the training and the race, the long days of preparation interspersed with intermittent struggle.

Now it is just under the idea of training that the true concept of mortification is to be found. It is not the end of life, but the means of achieving the end of life. It is not sought for in itself, but because it is necessary in order to attain that faith and hope and love which it is the purpose of our creation to secure. Hence to those who are at all perplexed over the limits which prudence should set to austerity it is simpler to make answer that it is essential in itself, but that the particular form it takes must depend entirely on our personal circumstances. Necessary to the Christian in some way, mortification or austerity may exist in varying forms and degrees, which must be gauged to be prudent or not according to the extent they help us or hinder the fulfilment of the Christian ideal. Its whole justification is that it comes as a preparation, leading up to greater things. It is, in fact, merely the training for the athletic arena of the New Law; and just as it is possible by choosing a foolish system, or by exaggerating the limits laid down, or by not paying them sufficient attention, to unfit the body and mind for a contest in the games, so also because I mortify myself unwisely, too much or too little, the whole effect of my labours may be to unfit me altogether for an exact following of Christ. Now it may not unfairly be said that the limits of training begin where the needs of life end, and the needs of life end when training begins. Training, therefore, is busied with what is above the margin of decent livelihood. Supervision is to be exercised only over the luxuries, not the essentials.

Hence I can at once find a ready rule by which to measure my mortifications. I can mortify myself in things of the flesh and things of the spirit only just so far as the things I curtail are not necessary. Directly I come upon what is needful to my life (not to life in general, but to my life), then I have reached the extreme boundary of penance, and further I need not go. It is, then, very largely a personal matter dependent on my health and work; consequently it is extremely variable, and I must be prepared to speed up and slack off according as my needs determine me. Consequently no one is so fit to judge these for me as I am for myself; indeed, others can only judge according to the information and evidence I myself provide. Hence when I put my case to others I have probably already prejudged it for myself, and they can hardly do more than ratify my own opinion: thus I do not gain any real confirmation by referring the matter to them because I suppose myself to be biassed. I cannot help describing my state as I judge it to be. But in the whole trouble of it I must remember that beneath it all must be love. The life of Christ above all, His death can find no rational solution except in love; for in suffering as such, God can take no pleasure. But love that denies itself for love, is love such as we know it to be, and such as our hearts have found to be a law of their own movements. The self-denial, then, that is commanded us is incomplete without that final call, "Follow me." It is that perfect form that beckons and gives heart and life to all creation's toil. The putting away of my own will profiteth me nothing without charity, and charity suffereth all things.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.