|St. Rose of Lima|
"But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway." (1 Cor 9:27)
In the first year of my journey home to the Catholic Church, the lives of the saints were something I regularly feasted on. I couldn't get enough - from listening daily to The Saintcast on SQPN, to reading books on the saints, to developing devotions; it was a grand affair. And then I came across the life of St. Rose of Lima.
Our modern world, it seems, has great difficulty understanding why almost every saint who ever lived practiced some kind of penitential practice. I know I was horrified when I first read the life of St. Rose of Lima, and others like her. I had no idea what to make of their extreme mortifications and austerities, and I almost turned right back around and ran from the Catholic Church over it. It turned my stomach. But over the years, I have gradually come to understand a little of what was going on, and here, I wanted to impart my thoughts on the matter. If you will allow me the grace, I would like to give my humble aid to anyone who has come across the mortifications of the saints and could not understand them, or was frightened by them.
Truly, it is a hard thing to write about - I only state my observations and reflections on the matter, in the hopes that I can explain it a little to others, and perhaps even to myself. All final judgment on the matter is for the Holy Church to decide upon - these are simply my thoughts on it all. With that in mind, I begin:
|St. Mary Ann de Paredes|
|St. Simeon Stylites|
And in case anyone might think that these were just unfortunate masochistic phenomena of the past, many modern saints practiced mortification as well. Recently, the world found out that Bl. Pope John Paul II often took the discipline in secret. St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Faustina also did likewise - one need only read their lives and writings to know it to be true. Ven. Matt Talbot, an Irish ascetic known for his charity and kindness throughout his life, was found wearing iron chains under his clothing after his death.
|Ven. Matt Talbot|
In searching for the answer, I came across a passage in Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange's excellent work, The Three Conversions of the Spiritual Life. In it, he writes that "The perfect know themselves no longer merely in themselves, but in God, their source and their end; they examine themselves, pondering what is written of their existence in the book of life, and they never cease to see the infinite distance that separates them from their Creator. Hence their humility"3. I found such an example in the life of St John of God, where "At Granada a sermon by the celebrated John of Avila shook his soul to its depths, and his expressions of self-abhorrence were so extraordinary that he was taken to the asylum as one mad"4.
Innocent of Alaska says something very much the same as Garrigou-Lagrange - that "when the Holy Spirit enters the heart of man, he shows him all his inner poverty and weakness, the corruption of his soul and heart, and his remoteness from God. The Holy Spirit shows a man all the sins that coexist with his virtues and righteousness: his laziness and lack of zeal for salvation and for the good of others, the selfishness that informs what appear to be his most unselfish virtues, the crude self-love that lurks where he never suspected it. In brief, the Holy Spirit shows everything in its true aspect. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, a man begins to experience true humility, distrusting his own powers and virtues and regarding himself as the worst of mankind"5.
I think here, "distance" might not mean what at first the word implies, but rather the infinite difference between God, Who is perfect, and man, who is not. The paradox seems explained in the words of St. John of the Cross, who writes that "This is an unspeakable marvel and worthy of the abundance and sweetness God has hidden for them that fear Him: to cause them to enjoy so much the more savor and sweetness the more pain and torment they experience"6.
|St. Catherine of Siena|
This is also seen in the writings of Meister Eckhart (of whom Bl. Henry Suso was a disciple of), wherein he says that "The best penitence, however, and the supremely profitable penance, is to turn away, root and branch, from all that is not God and not divine, whether it be in one's self or in other creatures"9.
So, some important things to keep in mind:
- There is an incredible difference, say, between the public penances as still seen in the Philippines, and the mortifications practiced by the saints. We must remember that the Flagellants, an extreme group of penitents in the middle ages, were condemned as heretical by the Church. The difference between public displays as that and the lives of the saints is often enormous. Rather than public displays, the saints often practiced mortifications in secret, behind closed doors, disguising their sufferings in some manner so that they would be known to God alone - a prime example of this would be the discovery of Bl. Pope John Paul II's practices of mortification in secret, unknown until after his death.
- I have often found a very simplistic element in the lives of the saints when it came to mortifications, and it was that they seemed to do them out of a burning love for the Passion of Christ. In order to imitate Him, they took on also His sufferings in their lives, out of a desire to unite themselves intensely with His Passion. It is something I keep in mind when reading about the saints.
- The saints were human beings, flaws, sins, and all. Do not be surprised if and when they made mistakes and fell into errors.
Obviously, I do not wish to necessarily advocate such varieties of mortification. When any kind of physical penance is done, it is always with the intense spiritual guidance of one's confessor. What I wish to simply do here is raise awareness on the subject, as it is an unavoidable part of Christian history, and hopefully help those along the way who may have been startled by such things to gain a foothold in understanding it.
1 - Butler's Lives of the Saints, "St. Rose of Lima", 1894 ed.
2 - Fr. Joseph Boero S.J., The Life of the Blessed Mary Ann of Jesus,105
3 - V:3
4 - Butler's Lives of the Saints, "St. John of God", 1894 ed.
5 - qtd. in The Art of Prayer, VI:2
6 - The Living Flame of Love, II:13
7 - Ch. 9
8 - ibid., ch. 11
9 - The Talks of Instruction, 16
10 - Saints: The Art, the History, the Inspiration, 140