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.”

Would You Murder Hitler?

August 2, 2009

This is a surprisingly difficult question, and one that I used to answer with an unwavering “yes”. Now, my answer is absolutely not. With my new found Catholic perspective, the entire world and our place in it has changed. This paradigm shift surprisingly reaches into all the nooks and crannies of human experience which I doubt I’ve finished exploring. My hypothetical (oh, I love those!) question of murdering Hitler has been brought on by my recent reading of The Goodness Gene and watching the movie Defiance.

The Goodness Gene is a novel circling around themes of the existence of a soul and evil done in the name of “the greater good”. I picked it up because it was similar in many ways to a novel I have been writing (rather, thinking about writing and occasionally putting something down on paper) for the last year or two. We’ve all seen the trends in popular thought and the majority holding liberal public opinion that focus on poverty as the greatest evil and wealth and quality of life as the ultimate goals, but of course only for the majority. These things are attained at the cost of human life and liberty, namely that of the poor, the unborn, the elderly and the powerless. The health care system proposed by President Obama in which the elderly must seek hospice instead of treatment is only one aspect of prioritizing the desires of many over the needs of one. This book is set in a world where people have taken the idea of the “greater good” to the extreme by justifying things like euthanizing those of lower intelligence or those with deformities.

Spoiler alert! In the end of The Goodness Gene, the son of a tyrant sacrifices himself in a kamikaze mission to murder his father and free people in society. I can’t help but think this is an incredibly ironic ending. The son has murdered his father, to achieve the good end of freeing everyone from murderous and tyrannical rule. He has done evil in the name of the greater good, but this time a good he decides instead of what his father imagines. He has succumbed to the idea that the end justifies the means, a moral evil I thought the book was trying to convey.

The movie Defiance is about four Jewish brothers in World War II banding together with others to survive German persecution. Faced with issues of survival and revenge, they do some terrible things but also struggle not to give in and become like animals or heartless like those who hunt them. These men seem much more aware that murder and abandoning their fellow Jews would make them as inhuman as the Nazis who hunted them. In the end, death was a better option and they remained mostly righteous, but not without the occasional hiccup along the way.

The same issues face people today, but in different forms. Do we legislate free and open abortions? If so, we prioritize the right of a woman to “decide what happens to her own body” over the right of an unborn child to live. That is the good of the strong, the good of the many, prioritized over the rights of one. Essentially, moral standards and righteousness are thrown out the window to achieve whatever end is most desired by the majority. Society is saying that might makes right and the end justifies the means. What a dangerous path that is.

And now, I come back to the issue of murdering Hitler. First, let me be clear what I mean by murder. There is a difference between killing, which is not a sin, and murder, which is. Killing is done in self defense or during wartime, especially by soldiers under orders. I would even say that military assassins under orders from their superiors are not murderers. But a man working on his own in search of destroying a life – that is murder. Except for a stubborn minority, Hitler is well acknowledged as one of the most evil men of history. He committed heinous crimes and treated millions like animals to attain the “greater good” of his superior Arian race and an all powerful and dominant Germany. Would you murder such a man, knowing how many people he would kill and that the world would probably be a better place without him? Could you do evil for the sake of good? Or would that make you just like him?

The Catholic answer to the question of doing evil to achieve a good end is a resounding “no”. Here is a quote from Cardinal Newman:

The Church goes forth on the one errand, as I have said, of healing the diseases of the soul. Look, I say, into any book of moral theology you will; there is much there which may startle you: you will find principles hard to digest; explanations which seem to you subtle; details which distress you; you will find abundance of what will make excellent matter of attack at Exeter Hall; but you will find from first to last this one idea—(nay, you will find that very matter of attack upon her is occasioned by her keeping it in view; she would be saved the odium, she would not have thus bared her side to the sword, but for her fidelity to it)—the one idea, I say, that sin is the enemy of the soul; and that sin especially consists, not in overt acts, but in the thoughts of the heart.

This, then, is the point I insist upon, in answer to the objection which you have today urged against me. The Church aims, not at making a show, but at doing a work. She regards this world, and all that is in it, as a mere shadow, as dust and ashes, compared with the value of one single soul. She holds that, unless she can, in her own way, do good to souls, it is no use her doing anything; she holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, though it harmed no one, or steal one poor farthing without excuse. She considers the action of this world and the action of the soul simply incommensurate, viewed in their respective spheres; she would rather save the soul of one single wild bandit of Calabria, or whining beggar of Palermo, than draw a hundred lines of railroad through the length and breadth of Italy, or carry out a sanitary reform, in its fullest details, in every city of Sicily, except so far as these great national works tended to some spiritual good beyond them.

Many people respond to Cardinal Newman’s quote above, and the Catholic principle in general that sin is the enemy of the soul, by saying that it is a hard thing to accept. Especially when the Church has said a nine year old sexually abused little girl who is pregnant with twins should not get an abortion. It repels them because physical evils confront us violently and immediately and demand our attention. We would rather let the unseen evils slide away from our focus and ease the screaming pain that’s up in our faces. But then we become a hideous despairing mess. We forfeit our souls, our purpose, and our standing with the Creator of the Universe for immediate gratification. Our souls die and are torn from unity with Our Lord by every sin. Every. Single. One. This is not to say that in loving our neighbor we don’t care for their physical needs, because we should! Yet spiritual needs always take priority, and we cannot sacrifice spiritual integrity for physical benefit.

I think the Catholic answer differs from the Protestant because Catholics know that what we do matters. It matters with respect to whether we become like Christ or further from Him, and ultimately whether our souls and others are saved. It matters for the example that we give to others, the light of Christ and His Goodness and Grace shining through us, through our actions, into the world. As a Protestant, with your salvation assured, to commit a sin seems a small inconsequential thing compared to the good that may come of it, especially something like saving millions of lives from Hitler. At least, that’s how I used to see it.

Our goals are not of this world, because our hope is of the life to come. We all die, we all meet our end one way or another, save the few who will witness the return of Our Lord. What really matters is not always that we live but how we live. We must do what is right, no matter what the cost. This is why the ends never justify the means. The means, our actions throughout this life, are what shape our soul and make us children of God. Although our actions should be in hope of good outcomes, if we are frustrated in attaining those ends ourselves, we shouldn’t despair. In comparison with how we get there, the ends don’t matter.