What is Mortification? – Archaic Masochism or Indispensable Spiritual Discipline
The word mortification is a terrifying one. It literally comes from the Latin mortificare that means “to put to death”, specifically, in traditional understanding, “the desires of the flesh”. It was considered essential for salvation back in the day and it conjures images of self-flagellation, monks in hair shirts holding skulls, and all manner of other creepy and unpleasant things. The thought of it has almost single handedly fueled the rampant hatred of traditional Religion. To 99% of the population it seems to suggest that mankind is bad, God’s gifts should be rejected, and that the world and this life are evil. Such a view of mortification fuels a vision of God who is cruel and bloodthirsty rather than a gentle and loving good shepherd. We all know the vision of an egotistical and masochistic God couldn’t be farther from the truth, therefore, it “stands to reason” that we should also reject everything that supports this vision – hence the word has become all but taboo, and anyone who dares contemplate it is automatically considered crazy, even by themselves.
But what if mortification is more than this? What if we’ve rotundly rejected an essential spiritual practice because of misunderstanding, and rediscovering it might be the forgotten secret to the spiritual vibrancy we can only dream about.
I know, even suggesting that mortification might not be as bad as we thought is pushing you past your comfort zone. I imagine many readers likely clicked away in a huff at the very audacity of my doing a post exploring the idea of mortification in a positive light.
Yes, the truth is I will likely lose readers because of this post (that’s how strong the human repulsion is toward the idea of mortification) and yet, I don’t have a choice.
Mortification is not just an idea that got misunderstood over time, it is a CALLING.
It is something you are necessarily drawn to as your Relationship with God grows. It is literally impossible to avoid, like physical exertion in daily life. Understanding it and living it correctly is maybe even THE most powerful and essential spiritual practice you can do in order to grow closer to God – BUT, it has to be understood correctly.
This isn’t about me asking you to wear a hair shirt.
What is mortification?
I love the analogy of physical exertion.
Everything in the physical life is a reflection of spiritual realities. There is so much to be learned from tangible examples, after all, isn’t that why Jesus spoke in parables?
Therefore, let’s look at mortification like a spiritual workout:
When a person is in shape, when they are healthy and strong, daily physical exertion is natural for them. They hardly notice it. Things like housecleaning and yardwork, climbing up and squatting down, carrying groceries and children, moving furniture, all of these things are far less complicated. You only start to notice “exertion” mentally when you get breathless just by going up the stairs, or when your parking spot is too far away from the door. Ordinary tasks become difficult for example when we injure our back because of our lack of core muscles, we feel shame because we can’t button our pants or play with our kids. Lack of exercise, even for people who have “naturally good metabolism” starts to present itself in all kinds of undesirable ways: sallow cheeks, lifeless eyes, acne, body odor, and a general listlessness of spirit, not to mention, less and less natural motivation to work out.
But the human body was made for motion, and for exertion. This is why exercise produces an endorphin rush, it is why we feel pride of accomplishment when we achieve something we didn’t know we could do. It is why growth is invigorating and attractive and why exertion is one of the top ways to prevent and often even cure what has come to be classified as depression.
But physical exertion is both physically and mentally challenging.
Being consistent and committed with a routine flies in the face of our “do whatever you feel like” culture. Sometimes we just have to get started no matter how you feel about it.
Don’t think about how you feel at the start, think about how you’ll feel when you are done! THAT’s how you get addicted to exercise! – Chalene Johnson.
The feelings will follow – (Quote from Last Week’s post – 4 Pillars of Self Care)
If everybody just did what they felt like, we would have utter chaos. Self-control is one of the only bulwarks of a civilized society.
It makes sense that our spiritual health mirrors our physical life because, this life isn’t about how you feel – its about how much you love!
And love, my friend, doesn’t always feel cozy.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. – John 15:13
Love, my darling, looks like death.
Parents love their children by losing sleep, by holding back cutting remarks, by learning the difficult and painful art of disciplining well, by sacrificing their time, their health, their incomes, their social lives, their freedom, etc to give that child the best possible future.
Often the quantity of love we feel is in proportion to the sacrifice it cost to love us. I feel more loved when my husband gets off his phone to take a kid potty or open a jar for me, or when he sits in the kitchen just to be near me while I work instead of passing out on the couch, then I do with a thousand fancy dinners. I feel more loved when he wakes up in the middle of the night to help with a crying child than I ever could with physical intimacy.
Love is the most obvious when it doesn’t benefit the giver in any way, because then there could be no other motivation for the action BESIDES love.
This is why a crucifix shows love.
This is why “mortification” is a sign of love.
Mortification – the root word is “death”.
It’s not death in a creepy, morbid sense or a masochistic sense. It’s simply choosing love over comfort when the opportunity presents itself.
Trust me, sometimes it feels like death.
Sometimes I have to admit to myself that I would literally rather DIE than get up and do one more thing for one more person. Sometimes, I’d rather undergo physical torture than listen to my kids never stop talking, or do one more art project, or clean up one more mess, or sing one more nursery rhyme (Also, PS. This doesn’t make me a bad mom – It took me a long time to learn that).
But, this is where the rubber meets the road. This is where it matters most to love. This is where you find out what you are made of. This is where your kids find out if you love them or not (or if you only put up with them when they are tolerable to you). This is where your spouse finds out of you love them or not (or of you only care about yourself). This is NOT the time to run away, to refuge in self-care, to “survive” when life makes you feel like you’d rather die.
NO, THIS is where you choose love,
you tap into grace, you take that deep breath, close your eyes, and dive under that wave that threatens to engulf you. You are in this for the long haul. This is who you are. You were MADE for this.
This is where you lavishly break the alabaster jar of nard over Our Lords feet (Sheen) to the horror of all around you, heedless of the whisperings and the judgement, and He raises you up.
This is where a little part of you “dies” only to rise stronger, more capable, more in love than before. It’s the same in working out. You have to tax the muscles to their breaking point. You have to LITERALLY fail in order to succeed.
If you feel like you are going to fall out of the position, then you are doing it right – Chalene Johnson (PIYO)
I need you to FAIL! – Shaun T (Max 30)
If this isn’t hard, you are wasting your time – Shaun T (Transform 20)
I’m sore ‘cuz I worked out! Did you?! – Chalene Johnson (PIYO)
Mortification, therefore, is simply our spiritual workout.
It is practicing those little daily choices of love over comfort so that you will have the strength to die when the big ones arrive.
This is how our love of God survives the test of time. This is how martyrs are born.
Incidentally, this is also how great marriages survive. Every couple faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles and life threatening pain, but it’s the ones who were “in shape” who are able to overcome them and endure.
If you are faithful in small matters, you will also be faithful in great – Luke 16:10
Sidenote: If someone isn’t willing to make sacrifices in a so-called loving relationship this should give the parties involved GREAT pause before continuing, and even more especially before committing their lives to each other. This life is HARD, and pain and difficulty are literally unavoidable. Choose someone who is willing to die with you.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. – John 15:13
Now you have more skin in the game. With each sacrifice we make for any relationship we are more committed than before, more invested, more intensely, intimately, and deeply connected.
Everything is more precious when we have suffered to earn it.
The higher the cost, the greater the proof of our commitment. (PS. This is also why companies, universities, and individuals have to charge so much for classes, events and etc, because, typically, what one is willing to pay is indicative of their level of commitment. Thus, higher pricing, ideally, helps keep the caliber of the classes high with only students who are going to be highly committed, active participants.)
So, in the end, it all comes down to one question.
How bad do you want it?
- Practical Application – How to live mortification in everyday life?
- Contains – Mindset swap templates to help us practice mortification – Plus, practical tips on how to use mortification to show love for others, vs. using mortification to show love for God, vs. using mortification to grow in spiritual strength