It has occurred to me recently that our times call for some serious reflection on mortification. St. Francis of Assisi used to refer to his body as "Brother Ass." This was common knowledge and practice among the Franciscans. At the moment St. Anthony of Padua (a Franciscan priest) died, he appeared to a beloved brother , Abbot Gallo, and told him, "I have come to say goodbye, for I have left the ass at Arcella, and am now hastening to my fatherland." Not thinking anything had happened out of the ordinary, Abbot Gallo looked for Anthony to talk with him, not even realizing that St. Anthony had died.
Brother Ass has no mind, only a comfort zone which he hates to leave. What is sweet to the taste, to the touch, to the smell, to the hearing, and to the sight is his only focus. To let Brother Ass have his way is to feed the body at the expense of the soul and spirit. If we give Brother Ass his way in all things, he will do nothing hard, will have his way with us, (like an unruly and hard to control beast), will be spoiled and greedy, and will always take the easy way out.
Without Brother Ass, we cannot function as human beings. We do not have a body. We are a body. Our growth and perfection as good Christians depends on a balance between the flesh and the spirit, with the spirit always having the upper hand.
Therefore, Brother Ass needs some serious training. Insofar as we deny Brother Ass, we strengthen our moral strength, our will. And it is our will that God wants. A strong will that seeks perfect union with His Will. Giving in to Brother Ass will prolong our struggle to reach perfection, deter us, and may completely stop us in our tracks.
Decades ago, as I attended a Catholic school, I had the good fortune to be taught these things about the spiritual life, and we were encouraged to practice mortification. Mortification is taken from two root words: mors -- death, and facio -- to make. So mortification means literally to make to die, or to kill. What are we expected to kill? The inordinate love of all things material--everything that pleases Brother Ass.
As you read the lives of the saints you see that they practiced mortification on a heroic level, living sometimes on bread and water for days at a time, or little more; staying awake for hours to pray at night; wearing a hair-shirt--which itched Brother Ass to death! They lowered their eyes so as not to give Brother Ass the pleasure of unrestricted vision and distractions; they retreated into lonely places, restricting even pleasant socializing with friends and other people; they kept silent, mortifying the hearing.
It is not likely that we are called to such extreme practices, but it is advisable to do small things to train Brother Ass. I lived as a young teenager, seriously preparing for the religious life, in a boarding school with the School Sisters of Notre Dame. We kept silence after our evening prayer, listened to holy readings during breakfast, and did not talk (unless it was necessary) till after breakfast. I was inspired by the saints to undertake a rigorous campaign against Brother Ass. For breakfast, I would sometimes eat dry toast without butter or jam in order to discipline Brother Ass. At mass, I knelt in church on hard wooder kneelers (we had no padding--just the bare wood!) and made myself kneel upright without leaning on the pew in front of me. These are just examples. There are millions of ways, some easier, some harder, that one can undertake to strengthen the will for God and toughen up the softness of Brother Ass.
As we grow stronger in the Lord, practicing small acts of mortification, we will find ourselves able to accomplish harder and harder things for God. As a teacher, I used to try to show our teenagers that if they could not resist chewing gum for one hour in class, how could they resist the great temptations, to have sex, and so on.
Failure to deny the flesh has grave consequences. Our personal health crises are often the ultimate result of failure to control Brother Ass, letting him have all the sweet, fatty pleasant tasting foods he wants, instead of making him eat what is good for him! Our marriages often break up because neither husband or wife is willing to give in or concede to the other foolish things for the sake of the union. We give in to our children and spoil them for themselves and for society. Our lack of mortification has resulted in a polluted or weakened society, planet, and a weakened Church. Brother Ass is all about the flesh, what the body wants, convenience, ease, and pleasure.
Today, resolve to begin a life of mortification. Don't wait for Lent or Advent. The small fasts asked by the Church are merely a reminder to practice mortification in our lives. They do not limit how far we are willing to go. If we are faithful in little things, God will grace our efforts and empower our spirits to do much greater things for Him.
Mortification will help prepare us for times of temptation and trials. We will be stronger, will have the spiritual stamina to endure for Christ. Yes, we are called to this--all of us--not just the saints on the holy pictures. We are the body of Christ; we are the saints!
If this is all new to you, let me make some suggestions to help you get started. You can give up something, or do something. Pray about it, and ask Christ and Mary for strength to do this for God and to discipline your body, Brother Ass.
Give up a favorite TV show.
Spend the time, instead, reading a spiritual book.
Deny yourself a favorite dessert.
Eat a good salad, even if you don't particularly like salad.
Give up gum.
Give up smoking; or give it up for a day or three days.
Give up cold drinks.
Drink your coffee unsweetened if you like sugar.
Do a kind thing for someone even if inconvenient.
Take a long, healthy walk.
Walk the stairs at work (if you have them), or just one flight, each day, increasing gradually. Or park your car farther away from the store or from your job so as to have to walk a little farther.
Limit your time with television, or ipod, or the computer, at least for a day.
Resolve to get to daily Mass one day a week, if you can work out your schedule (and you may have to sacrifice to do it!)
IF YOU FALL, get back up, tell the Lord you're sorry, and start once more.
This year I resolved to give up refined sugar except on Sundays and possibly on days I may eat out, and to stop work on the computer after 10:00 in order to spend more time with the Lord.
I have discovered a great link for CATHOLIC SPIRITUAL DIRECTION on this and on other topics: http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog/
"The appropriate word you left unsaid; the joke you didn't tell; the
cheerful smile for those who bother you; that silence when you're unjustly
accused; your kind conversation with people you find boring and tactless; the
daily effort to overlook one irritating detail or another in those who live with
you . . . this, with perseverance, is indeed solid interior mortification." The Way, #173
If there is one quote that I would put one a Post-it and put on the dashboard of my car so I could remember it would be this one. Through a little mortification we learn to sacrifice and endure a little suffering. I am always one to preach joy and happiness but through a little sacrifice and suffering we can share in the sufferings of Christ and become more Christ-like. Mortification does not require us to wear camel hair undergarments or scale the Scala Santa on our knees. We can follow St Therese of Lisieux and just do those little things that help us get closer to Christ.
See also my JOURNAL 2010, Jan. 26, PURITY OF HEART.