Mortification is the key to happiness

July 3, 2010

I’ve always had trouble understanding mortification. In becoming Catholic, there were subjects that I sidelined, preferring to focus on the meat and potatoes of Catholic life, instead of the weird fringe. For instance, I always steered clear of the saints section of the bookstore, especially the book entitled The Incorruptibles. That’s the kind of stuff that gives me goosebumps. Then there’s mortification. What sane person would subject themselves to pointless misery? But when you look at those who have practiced mortification according to the faith, like Pope John Paul II or Mother Teresa, they weren’t miserable. They were gloriously, happily, unshakably at peace. Maybe those crazy Catholics (ha! us crazy Catholics) are on to something.

Let’s consider the nature of mortification for a minute. It is technically, “the subjection and denial of bodily passions and appetites by abstinence or self-inflicted pain or discomfort”. It’s not just self-inflicted pain or discomfort. It is pain in a very specific context, with the goal of subjugating our desires. Why should our desires be subjugated? We could just chase our every whim, letting our desires rule us. But then we’d look a heck of a lot like Chris Jr. (He’s 2 now! And good at it.) when he’s protesting the denial of his third DanAnimals drink for the day, no matter what it might do to his digestive system. If we decide we must have the light-up bouncy ball, when it is taken away from us, we suffer great emotional angst. Of course, this is nothing more than our own ridiculous desires turned against us. If we could wield our self-control such that our very desire for the light-up bouncy ball doesn’t sway our emotions, we could be happy no matter what come along. If.

So then, mortification is a forced detachment from the things that matter more to us than they should. I’m sure that Pope John Paul II liked a comfortable bed, but when he slept on the floor, he made himself rely on the bed less and rely on Christ more. He detached himself from the bed, so that he didn’t need it to be happy. When we’ve achieved that detachment, we can be happy in whatever circumstances we are in. Then like the men of the New Testament who suffered great persecution, we can rejoice in the great things that God has done for us even when the world seems to be ending.

Unfortunately, we are creatures made of flesh. Our desires are difficult to ignore just by concentrated effort. They can only be subjugated by making a habit out of mastering them. It is with practice that we can hone our desires and attitudes and emotionally suffer less though our physical sufferings remain. That is the goal of mortification – our happiness based firmly on the foundation of what really matters instead of on something as changeable as the weather. Truly, what matters most is our relationship with God, to remain in Him and He in us. If we have that, nothing else should bother us. It’s not that our sufferings aren’t real. We really feel the physical pain, and pain is a real evil that we sometimes must endure. It’s just that our happiness lies in God alone, not in our creature comforts.

Where am I with all this? I’m taking baby steps to mortify my creaturely desires. Right now, I’m having a difficult time controlling the urge to buy. Specifically the urge to buy yarn. That’s right. Yarn. It’s something that non-knitters/crocheters might have a hard time understanding, but it’s a well known addictive side effect of knitting. I see a skein of 40% alpaca, 35% merino wool, 25% silk, in a pearl gray hand dyed colorway and I start to drool. I imagine the lovely things that could be done with such a yarn. My world would be a better place, I’d be a happier person, a more patient mother, if I only had this yarn. But I am making an effort to control this seemingly ridiculous urge. I’m waiting to buy. I’m saving up spending money. I’m resisting the desire to load up the credit cards and hide the mail from Chris.

It’s maybe only half a baby step that I’m working on here, and I’m not doing all that well. I think the reason I fall so short so often is that I spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to do things, the right thing to do, and I try very hard to work it all out. In the end, it’s me trying to work it all out. All too often, I’ve sidelined Christ as my guide instead of my strength. I’ve tried to get to know the person of Christ, to serve Him, to emulate Him. But it’s just me trying, and I’m not letting Him do the work. I confess I don’t spend nearly as much time as I should just with Christ. I haven’t made Him the light of my life, I’ve made Him the book light. I turn Him on when I want to look something up and figure something out.

Mortification teaches me that practice at denying my lesser desires will allow Christ to blossom as the center of my life. So then – small steps, little habits, repeated attempts. All on my to do list.

These lyrics are from Paul Inwood’s Center of my Life, and seem applicable:

“O Lord, you are the center of my life: I will always praise you, I will always serve you, I will always keep you in my sight. Keep me safe, O God, I will take refuge in you. I say to the Lord, “You are my God. My happiness lies in you alone; my happiness lies in you alone.”


Lent and the Impending Rites

February 20, 2010

I know most bloggers did their Ash Wednesday/Lent posts on Ash Wednesday. Or the day after. I’m a couple days late, but that’s par for the course around here.

Because of Lent, I’ve been thinking about the nature of fasting. In RCIA, they said the main purpose of fasting is to break our attachment to created things so we can put our focus back where it should be, on the Creator. So for me, a very appropriate fast is food. I’m going to stop eating snacks during the day. I’m still allowing myself to snack at night. It may sound kind of lame to people who don’t know me, but I usually eat at least six times a day. For me, eating only four times a day is a difficult fast! I even stocked up on veggie and fruit juices to keep my calorie count (and my stamina) up. Chris has told me since I’m still technically nursing, I’m not required to fast. But I’m hardly nursing now, and I think this is a really good way to keep the purpose of my fast at the forefront of my mind all day long. If I can do it.

After all, I already screwed up fasting on Ash Wednesday. It was kinda funny, and a little embarrassing, when I was looking down at my plate of fish and rice at dinner time and realized I ate meat for lunch. I was all focused on how much I was eating, and didn’t even realize that my “just a light sandwich” (a gyro) had gyro… meat… in it. I did this last year, too, although I wasn’t the one fasting. I was trying so hard to make Chris a nice meal, and fixed up meatloaf, cornbread, and mashed potatoes. On a Lenten Friday. He refused to eat and I refused to speak to him, just for a little while until I had a chance to get over my mistake.

It’s strange that after a year of “inquiry” into the Catholic Church, there is still so much I’m not used to and haven’t experienced. Even the Ash Wednesday mass had me confused and hunting through the missal. I imagine I might feel that way a lot this Lent and Easter. There is a lot of new, uncomfortable experiences coming up. Easter is approaching. The Rite of Election is this Sunday. My first confession is soon. That definitely looming on my horizon. I think I’m more afraid of getting all the technicalities right than the confession part. I lived a long time with certain sins that are no secret to anyone, and telling a priest comes with the benefit of absolution. The hard part will be my nervousness. I want to write down my list (and bring a lighter to burn it afterward), so I don’t forget anything. I know different priests do different things, and some expect you to say the act of contrition there while others don’t. Getting all that right frightens me, but I’ll probably stumble through it like I do with everything else.

Overall, I’m eager to have the strangeness and newness behind me, when I’ll be “one of you”. I generally avoid leaving my comfort zone, and this is one big leap outside it. All done for the sake of the truth, and in effort to obey God’s will. If there’s any good reason, that’s it.