Bodily or exterior mortification is the theme of the twenty-third chapter of the third part of the spiritual classic Introduction to the Devout Life by the Doctor of the Charity, St. Francis de Sales [here]. A book worth reading some two hundred or more times before death, the Introduction is particularly notable for its proper balance in all things while stirring the soul with a true zeal to serve God with the whole heart, mind, and strength.
As we enter the season of Lent – a time particularly dedicated to bodily mortification and fasting – we do well to consider the wisdom and advice of the saintly Bishop of Geneva who will show the true way of devotion for those of us living in the world (rather than in the cloister of a monastery or convent).
St. Francis de Sales gives an important indication regarding the intention of exterior mortification by means of a spiritual commentary on the history of Balaam’s ass, given in Number 22:21-35 [here].
Exterior mortification in the world
The monks and nuns who are supported by the common life of the monastery or convent, and who are further guided both by the rule of their Order and the wisdom of their superior, must practice exterior mortification in a manner quite diverse from that given to those persons whose vocation is lived out in the world.
Following the Rule of St. Benedict, the cloistered religious can fast on one meal a day through the whole of Lent, and abstain from all meat (not only during Lent, but throughout the year). Many traditional communities add further austerities (including the discipline-whip or hair shirts). All these practices are good and well suited to monastic life, but they are hardly feasible for those who live in the world.
How is a married man, who has not only the duties of his occupation (which may involve physical labor) but also the chores of home-life, to be sustained on a one-meal-a-day meatless diet? Can the homeschooling mother profitably practice the discipline-whip in the midst of the school day?
Following St. Francis de Sales, I submit that (for the laity) the diligent and cheerful fulfillment of one’s daily duties is worth more than fasting and mortifications. Indeed, a man’s work may profit him far more than any fast. The task of potty-training a toddler is often a greater mortification for a mother of five children than any hair shirt could be.
However, St. Francis and I would not advocate setting aside all forms of fasting and mortification – no, not at all! Rather, we only recommend that the practice of bodily mortification be adapted to suit the vocation of the penitent.
Hear the words of the Gentle Doctor, regarding fasting and abstinence:
“If you can stand fasting, you will do well to fast on certain days in addition to those prescribed by the Church. […] Although we may not fast very much, yet the enemy has greater fear of us when he sees that we can fast. Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays are the days on which the early Christians chiefly observed abstinence, and you should therefore choose some of them to fast as far as your devotion and your director’s judgment advise you.”
Throughout the year, you may profit well from making some small sacrifice on all Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays – in addition to abstaining from meat on all Fridays through the year, according to the ancient custom. During Lent, it may be well to increase the intensity of this bodily mortification by abstaining from meat on each of these three days.
Rather than depriving the body of sleep, St. Francis de Sales recommends a more prudent discipline:
“We must use the night for sleep, each one according to his disposition so as to get what is needed to spend the day usefully. Many Scriptural passages, the example of the saints, and natural reason all strongly recommend to us the morning as the best and most profitable part of the day. […] Hence I think that it is prudent for us to go to rest early in the evening so we can awaken and get up early in the morning.”
It would be especially good to focus on retiring a bit earlier during Lent (and would this not be a great mortification for many of us?!), so as to rise earlier in the day for an extra half hour of prayer.
Let us now turn to the example which the ass of the pagan prophet Balaam gives us regarding the reason of bodily mortification.
The history of Balaam’s talking ass
You will recall the story of Balaam’s ass, which is given in Numbers 22. The pagan prophet Balaam had been summoned by the pagan king Balak to curse the Israelites. Eventually, Balaam rises and goes to fulfill the request of the king and, because his heart was evil, the Angel of the Lord stood in the path with sword drawn to strike him dead. However, Balaam could not see the Angel, but only his donkey which turned away and would by no means go forward.
At this point, Balaam beat his ass three times (with great severity) – and we note that the donkey caused a wound to Balaam’s foot in the process. However, the ass would not go forward, for she feared the Angel more than the prophet.
Then, by miraculous power, the mouth of the ass was opened and she spoke to Balaam and the Angel of the Lord was revealed to him. Balaam fell to the ground and realized that the poor ass had done no wrong, but that he was at fault – she did not deserve the beating, but he deserved to be struck dead by the Angel. Upon his repentance, the Angel did allow Balaam to continue on his journey.
The spiritual commentary of St. Francis de Sales
We read in the Introduction:
“You see, Philothea, although Balaam is the cause of the evil yet he strikes and beats a poor beast that could not prevent it.
“It is often the same with us. A woman sees her husband or child lying ill and suddenly takes up fasting, a hair shirt, and discipline [whip] as David do on a similar occasion. Unfortunately, my friend, you too beat the poor beast, you punish the body, but it cannot remedy the evil, nor is it the reason God’s sword is drawn against you. Correct your heart, which idolizes your husband, tolerates many faults in the child, and prepares it for pride, vanity, and ambition.
“Again, a man sees that he often falls deep into the sin of purity. Inward remorse assails his conscience like a sharp sword to pierce him with a holy fear and when his heart has got control of itself, he says, ‘Ah, wicked flesh, ah, treacherous body, you have betrayed me!’ Immediately by immoderate fasting, excessive use of the discipline [whip], and unbearable hair shirts, he inflicts great blows on his body.
“O poor soul, if your flesh could speak like Balaam’s ass, it would say to you, ‘Wretched man, why do you strike me? It is against you, my soul, that God arms his vengeance. It is you who are the criminal. Why do you use my eyes, my hands, and my lips in wantonness? Why do you trouble me with impure imaginations? Cherish good thoughts and I shall have no evil movements. Shun immodest company and I will not be aroused to lust. It is you, alas! Who hurl me into the flames and then do not want me to burn. You cast smoke into my eyes, but you do not want them to be inflamed.’
“Beyond doubt in such cases God says to you: Beat, break, rend, and crush your heart to pieces, for it is chiefly against it that my anger is aroused (cf. Joel 2:13). To cure the itch there is need not so much to wash and bathe as to cleanse the blood and purge the liver. So also, to be cured of our vices it is good indeed to mortify the flesh but it is still more necessary to cleanse our affections and purge our hearts.
“But above all else and in every place, we must never undertake bodily austerities without the advice of our spiritual director.”
Additional points on bodily mortification
We will here give a few additional points from another spiritual master, St. Josemaria Escriva. What is particularly notable about the founder of Opus Dei is that his advice is suited especially to those lay persons who live in the world – in this respect, the Spanish priest is a true prophet of the Second Vatican Council.
The following quotations are all taken from The Way:
“Unless you mortify yourself you’ll never be a prayerful soul.” (172)
“The appropriate word you left unsaid: the joke you didn’t tell; the cheerful smile for those who bother you; that silence when you’re unjustly accused; your kind conversation with people you find boring and tactless; the daily effort to overlook one irritating detail or another in those who live with you … this, with perseverance, is indeed solid interior mortification.” (173)
“Don’t say, ‘That person bothers me.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.’” (174)
“How many times you resolve to serve God in something and then have to content yourself – you are so weak – with offering him that frustrated feeling, the feeling of having failed to keep that easy resolution!” (176)
“Choose mortifications that don’t mortify others.” (179)
“Where there is no mortification, there is no virtue.” (180)
“Interior mortification. I don’t believe in your interior mortification if I see that you despise mortification of the senses – that you don’t practice it.” (181)
“The world admires only the spectacular sacrifice, because it does not realize the value of the sacrifice that is hidden and silent.” (184)
“We must give ourselves in everything, we must deny ourselves in everything. Our sacrifice must be a holocaust.” (185)
“Everything that doesn’t lead you to God is an obstacle. Tear it out and cast it far from you.” (189)
“Conquer yourself each day from the very first moment, getting up on the dot, at a set time, without granting a single minute to laziness. If, with the help of God, you conquer yourself in that moment, you’ll have accomplished a great deal for the rest of the day. It’s so discouraging to find yourself beaten in the first skirmish!” (191)
“Don’t be ‘namby pamby’! That’s not the way I want you. It’s time you get rid of that peculiar pity that you feel for yourself.” (193)
“It is true, whoever said it, that the soul and the body are two enemies that cannot be separated, and two friends that cannot get along.” (195)
“If they have witnessed your weaknesses and faults, does it matter if they witness your penances?” (197)
“These are the savory fruits of the mortified soul: tolerance and understanding toward the defects of others; intolerance toward his own.” (198)
“You don’t conquer yourself, you aren’t mortified, because you are proud. You lead a life of penance? Remember: pride can exist with penance. Furthermore: Your sorrow, after your falls, after your failures in generosity, is it really sorrow or is it the frustration of seeing yourself so small and weak? How far you are from Jesus if you are not humble … even if new roses blossom every day from your disciplines!” (200)
“You’re going to punish yourself voluntarily for your weakness and your lack of generosity? Good. But let it be a reasonable penance imposed, as it were, on an enemy who is at the same time your brother.” (202)
“Many who would let themselves be nailed to a cross before the astonished gaze of thousands of spectators, won’t bear the pinpricks of each day with a Christian spirit! But think, which is the more heroic?” (204)
“The heroic minute. It’s time to get up, on the dot! Without hesitation, a supernatural thought and … up! The heroic minute; here you have a mortification that strengthens your will and does not weaken your body.” (206)
Notice especially the mortification recommended in The Way 191 and 206 – To rise on the dot, the heroic minute, may be a good mortification for all to adopt this Lent!
Repent, and believe in the Gospel.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.