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What is mortification?

Caitlin Bootsma - published on 02/18/13

Christ's passion is the perfect example of mortification

By engaging in practices of mortification, we may offer our sacrifices as a prayer to God, demonstrating our love for him over any earthly gratification.

In Luke's Gospel, Christ tells us, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (9:23). Mortification is a penitential act in which we choose to deny ourselves some earthly pleasure as an offering and a prayer. Some examples of mortification could be anything from forgoing desserts after meals to deciding not to drink alcohol for a period of time or even to wearing a scapular, which, while a sign of devotion, is also somewhat uncomfortable to wear.

The Catholic encyclopedia defines mortification as “one of the methods which Christian asceticism employs in training the soul to virtuous and holy living.” Virtue is a habit, and habits can only be obtained by repeated actions. By regularly engaging in mortifications, we can develop a greater sense of discipline.

Mortifications have the earthly effect of helping us achieve a detachment from earthly pleasures and to quell our sometimes rebellious appetites, which can lead us into sin. Making these sacrifices gives us the resolve and the perseverance to avoid temptations in the future. If, for example, one regularly foregoes chocolate as a form of mortification, the next time he is faced with a temptation to over indulge in food, alcohol, or uncharitable thoughts, he may have more strength to resist as a result of having built up a habit of moderation.

Mortifications not only enable us to resist sin, but also to unite more closely with the Lord. St. Paul says, “For those who live according to the flesh are concerned with the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit with the things of the spirit” (Romans 8:5). The Apostle reminds us that Christ died so that we would not be enslaved to bodily sins, thereby granting us the freedom to someday live with God in Heaven.

Christ himself is the perfect model of the purpose of mortification – he suffered and died willingly so that we could have eternal life. By uniting with him in our small acts of mortification and sacrifice, we reiterate with our actions our desire to pursue lives of virtue and holiness.

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