Sunday, October 7, 2012

Understanding the Mortifications of the Saints

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
In the West, St. Rose of Lima is the most readily obvious example - her life was one of self-crucifixion.  "Her cell was a garden hut, her couch a box of broken tiles.  Under her habit Rose wore a hair shirt studded with iron nails, while, concealed by her veil, a silver crown armed with ninety points encircled her head"1.  Dwarfing her was another South American saint, St. Mary Ann de Paredes, whose penances were so extreme that one biographer writes that "we could not excuse her of indiscretion and the height of excess"2.  In the life of Bl. Henry Suso, one of the greatest Catholic mystics, we find his mortifications so bizarre and torturous that in his autobiography, The Life of the Servant, God Himself tells him to cease with his extreme practices.

St. Simeon Stylites
In the East too, we find the extreme fasting and austere lives of St. Simeon Stylites, St. Anthony of the Desert, and Basil the Fool, who wore chains about his body.  St. Theodosius of Kiev wore iron chains about his waste.  Seraphim of Sarov prayed on his knees on a rock for unheard of lengths of time. 

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
So what do we do with all of this?  How can we approach the lives of these holy men and women and possibly understand, as people of the 21st century, why they treated themselves in such a manner? 

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
In the Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, God speaks to her on the issue: "...interior virtues...are the holy gracious works I ask of my servants.  They go far beyond external actions or bodily penances.  These may be instruments of virtue, but they are not virtuous in themselves, and without the interior virtue I have described they would hardly be pleasing to Me.  If a soul were to do penance without would be a hindrance to her perfection"7.  And further, God states, "This is what the glorious Paul taught when he said in his letter that you should mortify your body and put to death your selfish will.  In other words, learn to keep your body in check by disciplining your flesh when it would war with the spirit...Then she must love her neighbors with such affection that she would bear any pain or torment to win them the life of grace, ready to die a thousand deaths, if that were possible, for their salvation...Such is the work of the light of discernment born of charity"8.

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.
I hope the above has helped in some small manner to put the sufferings of the saints in context.  Though shocking to read sometimes, I feel that if we take the time to understand why it was they did these things in the first place, we will no longer find them abhorrent but look at them in their individual and spiritual context.  As Michael McMahon writes, "the saints who were toughest on themselves are invariably the most gentle to others.  St. Frances [of Rome] worked tirelessly for the destitute of Rome, and was loved for her kindness by all she met.  St. Gerard, too, was known for his generosity to the poor, and his disarming humility.  St. Thomas More wore the fine clothes of a Lord Chancellor - but underneath, he wore a hair shirt.  He is one of the many saints that scourged themselves during private prayer.  These secret penances did not diminish his sweetness of temperament; they sustained it"10.

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


  1. Thank you so much for this post. It is inspiring to be reminded of these mortifications, in that we are helped to consider our own sacrifices of small pleasures, and our daily sufferings, to be for a similar purpose.

  2. I so appreciate your writings. Thank you. And I sweet and small follower of my Lord Jesus Christ am happy to choose one sugar instead of two in my coffee. Does my Lord accept it just as beautifully because I am so miserably small and weak? YES! I know His love. Oh dear sweet Virgin Mary and your spouse the Holy Spirit, make me more aware of my sin, show me my sinfulnes...Amen. Thanks agan for writing! diane

  3. I wonder if there is not another, and possibly more important aspect of these mortifications, which is to participate for others in the redemptive suffering of Christ. For example, Paul states that he makes up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. In other words, is he not saying that Christ's redemptive suffering is continued for the salvation of man in the sufferings of souls throughout time? Since Christ's resurrected and glorified body is no longer capable of suffering, does he not suffer in and through us in our daily lives? This point might become more clear if we look at saints who were chosen as victim souls, such as Padre Pio. In their cases, Jesus himself chose to use them as vessels to repeat His Passion presumably for the salvation of other souls moreso, I suspect, than for their personal salvation or sanctification. At a minimum, the passion of someone like Padre Pio was a reparation for the sins of mankind. I believe the same could be said for those who are called to practice self mortification according to God's Will. So, while mortification/penance may begin mainly from an awareness of one's own sinfulness, over time with the Saints it likely evolved into something done in reparation for the sins of mankind or in some other way to benefit mankind or glorfiy God.

  4. "The man in search of honors is unworthy of Christ's love, for on the cross Jesus hung between two thieves."
    Bl. Jacopone Da Todi

    Beautiful and so true.Perhaps in our modern day, most especially in the Western culture we live in, we have lost (or at the very least grossly distorted) what it is to follow Jesus Christ. New Age and pop psychology thought have infiltrated our Gospel interpretations. To be stripped of all the glamour, comforts, accalades in our discipleship (remember they hated Christ and He opened not His mouth), would imply the straight and narrow road continually implied throughout the Old and New Testament. Moreover, the Saints spoken of were given a profound understanding of the wickedness of pride and self-love- which is often masked in other ways that appear virtuous.

    "Know Thyself." -Socrates

    The pride of our diseased egos rooted in original sin require deep uprooting, that can come about by mortification in various forms. And sometimes, the Lord in His infinite wisdom, will deal with souls in a particular way in order to bring about the fires of purification- advancing the effort of DYING to this world.
    That is why Jesus emphasized that we must never judge-ever.
    The Lord may be sending suffering or allowing hardship to a soul in order to detach and embrace complete dependence on God. Whatever the case, the rewards can be great (and eternal) if we respond in the way of obedience, humility and love.
    I am convinced we are all called to be Saints. The difference in those showcased in this article and others is that theses Saints 'truly understood why we are here'; and they knew their mortifications would open the door to a profoundly intimate relationship with Jesus. Priceless!
    This authentic union with the Word made Flesh exceeeded any pleasure this world had to offer.
    The Saints have taught us by example, and the Holy Spirit has imparted on many holy souls to never trust themselves entirely, for the soul is called to overcome the flesh and pleasures of this world until our dying day. Suffering enables clearer receptivity to graces of insight into the life of Christ-especially His Passion. When we contemplate Jesus hanging on the Cross for over 3 hours in incomprehensible pain, consuming all of mankind's sins, only then can we embrace the full reality that He overcame death/sin. And Christ is living on in Heaven as well as in every consecrated Host we consume, every Monstrance in Adoration Chapels as well as every Tabernacle of every Catholic Church on planet earth.
    But the mission continues...Eucharistic Jesus suffers today because most baptized Catholics don't attend Mass- (roughly 75% do not), and those that do, many do not truly believe Jesus is there. So He suffers...Jesus is alone in the Tabernacle in silence with heavenly angels giving Him the just praise and adoration He deserves. The Passover was created for that- the bread of life (John 6)who is Jesus Christ. Therefore, holy souls offer God their very selves- all of them totally and completely. And through Mary's Heart! Totus Tuus Maria! The call is for each of us to throw ourselves into the furnace of Love that is the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The fire of His love is quenched when we attempt to imitate Him knowing that even in this desire it is the Holy Spirit who does the work. We simply give our fiat and respond to whatever promptings of self-denial the Holy Spirit asks of us.
    May we NOT be seduced by the entrapments of this life, oftentimes concealed under religious service when it is pride that wants recognition. Fear not hidden agendas, for all matters including thoughts are recorded in the book of life. Deny one's self like the holy souls, for they knew of their wretchedness; yet in the Blood of Jesus understood how very loved they were by the Redeemer-because of His Goodness!
    Praise be the Crucified Risen Savior forever and ever. Amen.

  5. Thanks for writing on this subject. I am grateful you included quotes of God's messages to St. Catherine of Siena, "...interior virtues...are the holy gracious works I ask of my servants. They go far beyond external actions or bodily penances." I have been thinking that the motive for any penance must be love. Without love of God and neighbor, any penance is wrong and will only do harm. I realize more and more how very little I love.

    1. Anonymous,
      Me too. I am always hit with that hard realization of how little I love, daily.


  6. Yes, as you say, mortification is part of the church's history, but so was the burning of St. Joan of Arc at the stake. Doesn't make it right. Remember the fifth commandment-thou shalt not kill. We were taught in Catholic schools that the body is a temple for Christ. Why treat a temple that way?

    1. Anonymous,
      That's the question I asked myself - hence the article, wherein you'll find the answer. Also, note the scriptural passage at the beginning, wherein St. Paul speaks of engaging in it as well.


  7. Today we recognize these symptoms as 'masochism' and properly categorize it as a form of mental disorder/sexual deviancy. To dress it up as spiritual accomplishment is insulting to both religion and medicine

    1. Anonymous,

      That's a fair enough position to take. Certainly these things are rather shocking, even still. Hence why I tried to approach it from the standpoint of mysticism rather than psychology.


  8. "Today we recognize these symptoms as 'masochism' and properly categorize it as a form of mental disorder/sexual deviancy. To dress it up as spiritual accomplishment is insulting to both religion and medicine"

    This can be true, but certainly not always. Mortification is no more necessarily masochistic than spanking a rebellious child is sadistic. I have, at times, undertaken minor acts of mortification. I assure you I am masochist. Typically, I do anything possible to avoid pain or disease. But, for instance, praying in a cold room with your knees on hard linoleum makes it rather hard to fall asleep when you're undertaking a nighttime vigil.

    Anyone familiar with ascetic literature knows that there exists an awareness that mortification can be taken in unhealthy (and even vainglorious) directions.


  9. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange's work "The Three Ages of the Interior Life" and also St. John Vianney's works have a lot of insight into the reason for mortifications. My understanding of it is - we must tame our "beast" - our physical nature. There's also, as someone else mentioned, redemptive suffering, and of course, the imitation of Christ, who, by His example, shows us how through suffering, we obtain humility, and thereby, God's graces and love. And of course, since we have to pay for our sins (divine justice), one way or another, here on earth, or in purgatory (so we're told), it's better to do it here where it merits some good.

  10. Ohh one other point I forgot to mention: Satan gets to us through our physicality, so there is another reason to mortify our passions, sensuality, selfishness, etc. If physical hardships no longer hold sway over us, Satan has less to use against us :)

    It also occurs to me, don't things seem so much easier and more pleasant, AFTER being subjected to hardship? Like exercise, I certainly feel better after doing it, even though the pain of exercise isn't enjoyable to me. Or, after having spent several periods of my life in complete privation, I certainly appreciate and enjoy many things I took for granted (like, having hot water on tap, or enjoyable food, etc.)

    A little prayer I wrote up for myself not too long ago: "I thank you, eternal Father, for every moment of peace, relief or joy you deign to grant me, and I thank you also for every moment of trail and pain you give me to strengthen and heal me."

  11. Something that may also be useful, that goes into some about penances, and how even small acts of immolation have great merit:

    HOW TO AVOID PURGATORY By Fr. Paul O'Sullivan


    God does not ask us, as a rule, to do what is heroic. When He does, He gives us all the strength necessary, as in the case of the Saints. He asks each one to do a little. If we are afraid of doing much, and it is only natural that some should be, let us do at least a little. No one but a coward is afraid to do a little, especially if he gets much in exchange.

    The easy road to Heaven of Saint Therese, the Little Flower, is to do many little things. God was infinitely pleased with the widow's mite; He will be equally pleased with our little penances.

    As a result of little mortifications, we can deliver ourselves from the awful fires of Purgatory and amass rich merits for Heaven. To go into the matter further, there is not much difficulty about mortification or penance, notwithstanding the absurd fear that people have of it.

    Penance is not only easy, it is useful and necessary, and it will bring us very great happiness. Not to do penance is the greatest penance of all. As a matter of fact, every man of the world naturally, spontaneously mortifies himself. The first principle, for instance, of politeness and good breeding is to sacrifice our whims and tastes for the sake of others. The selfish man is a boor; the generous man is the idol of all.

    Again, the only way of securing good health is to eschew the most appetizing viands when they do us harm and to make use of plain foods when they do us good. Overeating is the cause of the vast majority of sickness and premature deaths.

    To take another example: The secret of success is strenuous, methodical, regular work. Now generosity, self-denial, method, regularity are other forms of very genuine but practical mortification. Yet no man can get on without them. To insist on our own likes and dislikes, to do only as we please, is to lead a life bristling with difficulties, in which every duty is a burden, every good act an effort and a labor.

    Boy scouts and girl scouts are bound to do a kind act every day, even though it costs them a big effort. Christians should surely do more. Daily acts of self-restraint, of patience with others, of kindness to others, the exact fulfillment of duty are splendid penances and a great aid to happiness.