Mortification

Yesterday, speaking with a friend, I shared some thoughts on “mortification” that occurred to me on a run a few days back. The word seems to come up often in Opus Dei circles, or quotes from Jose Maria Escriva, which is probably why it was on my mind, but I think the concept itself is pretty common place among Catholic, Christian, etc. rhetoric. Decidedly, I dislike this word. The concept is something I am okay with, but the word connotes a sense of loss, of death. This confuses the focus- the death involved is only the means, it is not the end.

While on the run, specifically, I became enthralled by the concept of our entire life being in a perpetual state of dying. At any moment, we are inevitably spending a limited span. This reflection lead to a very simple thought- “What am I dying for?”.

Now, if this thought is applied to mortification, it strikes me as creating a perspective like that of a kid at a carnival. Suppose two things- this kid has some money for rides and attractions, but is very young, perhaps too little, to understand math. Now, I suggest two main ways for this kid to act at the carnival:
1) He becomes enamored by this booth, and that booth, and the candy necklace, and the game to win a per goldfish, and slowly he jumps around chasing the next thing to catch his eye until eventually he comes to the best, the biggest, the brightest, most awesome new ride ever since the beginning of the world, and finds himself a dollar-short. Imagine this kid is still eating the gooey-chocolatey-sugary treat from the last booth, and how unbearably sweet it becomes as he begins to despise it when he realizes how because of this, he no longer has enough to ride. What does his feeling remind you of? A wasted Saturday binge watching some show and finding you missed the sunny part of the day and no longer have time to hike in the sun? Waited too long and have to rush through cooking the meal you were waiting for all week, and are unable to cook it with the care it deserves? When you fought with your sibling over a simple preference, and ended up fighting instead of enjoying the time with them? Waking up next to some stranger, feeling lonelier than when you went out the night before?

2) The kid saw an ad, or has been there before, or heard from his brother, and runs straight to the main attraction, the whole reason he woke up today, and runs straight to “the best, the biggest, the brightest, most awesome new ride ever since the beginning of the world”. He rides it. He loves it. He goes again. He’s going to be talking about it for weeks, his show and tell is going to be his ride ticket. He is exploding with joy from the ride and can’t wait to tell people. He doesn’t have a single thought or care for the delicious chocolatey sugary goo-ey treat, his day was all about the ride.

Mortification is not about the “not spending”, the “avoidance”, the whatever- mortification is about the ride. It is the practice and development of discipline necessary to have the proper devotion to the ‘fuller’ things of life worth our time, our effort, our death.

Being the second week of Lent, it seems obligatory that this reflection should extend to the practice of fasting or giving something up for lent as well. In this case, just as mortification connotes a missed focus, I have some qualm that the discussion of Lent is too often focused on “what are you giving up?”. This misses the point! The idea of lent is to refocus on the things we actually want. The point is not missing the things that were given up, it is the new life that can grow when they are pruned away. Even in the  most whimsical disciplines, the ‘new muscle’ to deny yourself or force yourself to consistently adhering to the discipline can be rejoiced.

The focus on “mortification” with its connotation of death- or the giving up of the Lenten discipline- stops at the physical sign of an active prayer, failing to recognize the joyous longing for the resurrection meant to finish the prayer.

Lord, I am always dying. Help me refuse to die for the trivial delights of this world, that the death you have allotted to me- the inevitable spending of the life with which you have blessed me- may be more fully used on those pursuits which offer the fullest value, drawing myself and the world around me more fully into your will. Amen.

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