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.”


Rosary Reflections – The Sorrowful Mysteries

April 2, 2010

The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary:

First Decade: The Agony of Our Lord in the Garden (Matthew 26:36-56)
Second Decade: Our Lord is Scourged at the Pillar (Matthew 27:26)
Third Decade: Our Lord is Crowned with Thorns (Matthew 27:27-31)
Fourth Decade: Our Lord Carries the Cross to Calvary (Matthew 27:32)
Fifth Decade: The Crucifixion of Our Lord (Matthew 27:33-56)

My favorite mysteries of the Rosary are the joyful mysteries. I’ve always liked happy stories. Chris’s favorite mysteries are the sorrowful mysteries. When he first told me this, I didn’t quite understand. They are hard for me to pray and think about. It’s uncomfortable to dwell on this deepest of all tragedies. Then a couple things happened to change my perspective and draw me into the depths of the sorrowful mysteries.

Chris sent me a link to a blog post written by Fr. Dwight Longenecker about the difference between Protestant and Catholic understanding of the life of Christ. In essence, he describes the liberal Protestant approach as focusing on Jesus as a good person and nearly ignoring his death. The conservative evangelicals, he says, focus on the redeeming sacrifice of Christ’s death and nearly ignore his ministry beforehand. All this rang true to me, consistent with my experience. Then Fr. Longenecker says:

“The Catholic approach to the Life of Christ begins with the Paschal Mystery–the Cross and Resurrection, then looks back to the life of Christ and sees every aspect of the human life of Jesus as mystery that reveals the Son of God… In other words, every aspect of Christ’s life from the Annunciation through the Ascension was redemptive and charged with the grandeur and mystery of God’s work of salvation.”

This view of the life of Christ was strange to me. I was used to looking on His ministry as “proof” that He is the Son of God. His death paid for my sins, and that was that. I was grateful, but didn’t like to think of it much. It’s such a gruesome and sad story after all. There was little more to it than that for me, but when you think about it that doesn’t much make sense. Christ didn’t just die for our sins. The sorrowful mysteries refuse to let you retain that perspective. Christ was humiliated and suffered the worst physical abuse before He died. Thinking about that apparently senseless tragedy was just plain depressing. It only left me with a “people are so mean” impression.

Another thing that happened to aid my understanding of Christ’s suffering is that I saw Chris willingly humiliate himself, suck his pride up in one of the hardest ways, in order to have the charity he thinks God wants of him, and only by saying “If Christ can suffer the humiliation of the cross, I can do this.”

Christ did suffer the humiliation of the cross, and I had never paid any attention to it. If every event in Christ’s life meant something, then certainly this humiliation and suffering means something. I prayed the sorrowful mysteries looking for how these seemingly senseless events reveal Christ to me.

In the agony of Our Lord in the garden, Christ surrenders His will to that of God the Father, saying “Yet not as I will, but as you will.” He doesn’t just align his will with the Father’s, he surrenders his will. He does not want to suffer the horrible death that he knows is coming, but He humbly and obediently does so out of love for the Father and for us all. The depth of this action is properly understood when Christ says, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” He doesn’t have to go through this. Most of us are powerless pawns, and although we may not accept the things that happen to us, we cannot stop them. Christ can stop His own suffering, and still accepts it. “A death He freely accepted.”

The second sorrowful mystery is Our Lord scourged at the pillar. This is the only event in Christ’s death that I ever heard commented on by Protestants, and that was to say “by His stripes we are healed.” This, to those I heard comment, meant not a spiritual healing, but a physical one. This, to them, meant that if we have enough faith to claim this healing, we should never suffer sickness or injury. That idea stands in stark contrast to the Catholic view of all suffering being a part of our unity with Christ. Though I find it hard to understand, this mystery tells me that in imitation of Christ, we too must take our lashes. It is not us that lives, but Christ that lives in us. His suffering has redeemed the world, and His life in us does the same when we suffer.

Then Our Lord is crowned with thorns. He is the king of kings, and he is mocked. The mockers do not see the truth, they do not give Him the respect, awe, praise, and glory that He deserves. Instead, they throw it back in His face. Christ doesn’t loose His bonds and heal His wounds, revealing His glory. He doesn’t argue with them, telling them how wrong they are and that they’ll be sorry when He shows them. He takes the humiliation. The one man on Earth who most ought to have been listened to was not. The one man on Earth who didn’t have to take it, and he did. Makes it seem a little insignificant when we are mocked and ignored.

Our Lord Jesus Christ goes on to carry the cross to Calvary. It’s the long trek in which Christ not only accepts His own death, but makes it happen. He carries it out His own death sentence, a terrible humiliation for a man even deserving of that fate, but this is God Himself. It is only in the gospel of John where Christ is portrayed as carrying the cross Himself, I’ve heard John wrote this to convey Christ’s absolute control over the event. In the other three gospels, Simon of Cyrene shares in Christ’s journey. Earlier, before all these events, Christ has told us “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24) His listeners didn’t know that He would die on a cross. They didn’t know that it is the cross of Christ’s death that we must bear, like Simon. Christ has told us it is necessary to suffer humiliation and pain, to give up our own desires and stop demanding that everyone else treat us like royalty. Instead, He shows us Himself how we are supposed to live by dying, by obeying the Father’s Will, by giving Himself for others, and not just accepting but bringing about this fate himself.

In the final act, Christ is crucified on a cross. Many Christians focus on our sins redeemed by Christ’s death, but forget about the cross itself. It’s not a noble death, fit for a king. It was reserved for the worst of criminals. Yet God Himself was held high for the world to see in a slow, painful, humiliating death. Christ redeemed us, and not only paid for our sins, but gave us the way of reconciliation in Him. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor 5:21)

Through these mysteries, Jesus is revealed as loving, humble, obedient, and a completely self-giving servant of all to the point of humiliation, suffering, and death. We are supposed to be like Christ, and the sorrowful mysteries tell us this means being loving, humble, obedient, and a completely self-giving servant of all to the point of humiliation, suffering, and death. Though that seems like a grim prospect at times, there is an up side. “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom 6:3,4) His death is our death, His life is our life, and “[we] have been crucified with Christ and [we] no longer live, but Christ lives in [us].” (Gal 2:20) Because we are made one with Christ in His death, we are given His life. We share His suffering so that we can share in His glory, and that glory is worth all the suffering and humiliation along the way. (Rom 8:17, 18) In fact, this suffering and death teaches us the point of life in Christ. It is imperative that we love others and live for them, selflessly as a servant. Otherwise, as C.S. Lewis demonstrates so eloquently in The Great Divorce, we will get what we want, and it will all be about us to the effect that we are utterly and hellishly alone with our desires.

Fr. Longenecker says about this unity with Christ:

“We enter into [mystery of Christ who is God revealed through his humanity] not through theological speculation alone, but through a sacramental fusion with the mystery. It enters into us and we enter into it. Christ in me and me in Christ…. The result of this sacramental transaction is ‘theosis’ the transformation of ourselves, our souls and our bodies into living icons of Christ.”

It is absolutely beautiful that our God has lovingly led us by the hand and shown us the way, has become the way, for our reconciliation with Him. Our God was not exempt from these sorrows, but instead was held to the cross by His love for us. I was familiar with the idea of “imitation of Christ”, but generally thought this meant be good and nice to people. Catholicism has taught me that the Christian way is one of suffering and submission, sacrificing our pride in humility. It’s an awesome mystery that I hope to someday not only understand better but live out in my daily death to self. I’ve already had a taste of the grace in the sacraments through Reconciliation. Tomorrow I’ll be confirmed and receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord, entering deeper in to this sacramental fusion and, I pray, becoming more like Christ.


God Answers

March 9, 2010

Chris and I have lately been enjoying the show Joan of Arcadia. It’s about a sixteen year old girl who is sent on missions from God when He appears to her in the form of different people. I love Joan’s childlike petulance and lack of understanding and her sincere desire to help. Although I’d want to be holy and respectful if God Himself came down from heaven to talk to me, I know I’d be more like Joan–without a clue and just pestering Him with questions like “Why??” Most of the time, He just ignores Joan’s questions, because she just doesn’t get it.

If I had God in front of me, I would ask Him why all this suffering. Is it really necessary? A boy in our parish has leukemia. Is that necessary? I’m desperately trying to understand how any of this redeems the world, but I can’t. I’m trying to be the kind of person who doesn’t let life grind her down, but I’m not. So why disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes? Why evil in the world like genocide, abortion, murder, rape, torture, and neglect? Why daily frustrations that I can’t even handle?

There was a time when God was asked this question and He answered. Not a very satisfying answer of course, but as always, the best answer. Christ was asked about the suffering of those whose blood was mingled with sacrifices. Jesus answered that the greatest suffering is not dealt out to the greatest sinner. Then He says, if we don’t repent of our sins, we too will perish through terrible suffering. (Luke 13:1-9) He redirects the issue, because our physical sufferings are nothing compared to our eternal end. And there’s the key. We keep from being overwhelmed by this painful life by having an eternal perspective. Easier said than done.

More and more I see myself as a child of God – a petulant child of God. I see my children screech and holler for “their way” without restraint or thought. They want cookies without regard for the stomach ache they’ll get when they haven’t had a meal yet. They want to run into the street without caring that a car is coming and could crash into them. They want to roll around in the mud without caring that messes have to be cleaned up. They want to push each other out of the way and grab the coveted green lightsaber without realizing their push could hurt the other person. I’ve heard the phrase “I want” so often I’ve banned it. And what I want from my children is goodness. I want them to care about each other, to share, to love, to help, to be good and so be happy. Because all the “I wants” they get will not make them happy. Their happiness depends on their disposition and ability to let these things go.

And here I am. God’s child. I don’t want to worry about a budget or not having a second car. I want to eat chocolate cake every night and not gain weight. I want a maid to get the mold out of the corner of my showers. I want people to listen when I think I’m saying something important. I want to be able to control my children’s outbursts and bad behavior. I want, but God knows that all the “I wants” I get will not make me happy. He wants me to be good. Not a goody-two-shoes kind of good. He wants me to be really truly good, loving Him and others and just letting go of everything else.

I’m so very not there yet. I’m probably further from where God wants me to be than my three year old is from where I want her to be. I can no easier be good than Isabel can drive a car and budget for groceries. I guess I have to start with God where I would have Isabel start with me. Stop fighting Him. Listen to Him. Trust that He knows better than I do. And maybe, hopefully, God will be glad that He gave me just one more year to bear fruit.


Change of Focus

February 11, 2010

New converts to anything are notorious for zealously spreading whatever they’ve recently converted to. I, like all the rest, have done my fair share of trying to convince people that Catholicism is the most reasonable choice available to mankind that ever existed. But a recent conversation with my wonderful RCIA director struck me. We noticed, people don’t convert because they’re argued into it. Although some convert because they married a Catholic and they just want to unify the family or raise the kids a certain way, other people convert because they witness someone’s faith and they recognize something authentic about it. I’m not even an exception, despite all the arguments Chris and I have had about religion. It was his faith, learning the truth about the Church, and experiencing it for myself that converted me.

On top of this revelation, I also find that I’ve reached a place where I’m tired of wasting my breath and debating with people who stubbornly insist on seeing things through their own myopic lenses, despite all evidence given to contradict their baseless attacks on the Church. I’m happy to answer questions and feel a duty to correct outright lies when I come across them, but overall I feel rather done with persistent debates. At least, that’s how I feel today 😉

What I’d rather do is figure out how to live my life as a Catholic. Right now, the biggest mystery for me is this whole suffering thing. Catholics are like no one else when it comes to suffering. They’re not masochists, no matter what anyone thinks about mortification. They don’t believe the flesh is evil like Puritans, instead they believe that everything is inherently good. Catholics see suffering as redemptive, because Christ redeemed death at the cross and with His resurrection, and redeemed suffering with His passion and successive glory. He even redeemed boring manual labor through His many anonymous years as a carpenter.

Exactly how is suffering redemptive? Well, I can easily see a few things. If our own God Incarnate is not above suffering, then neither are we. He gave a perfect example of submitting to suffering in humility through the events leading up to His crucifixion. We should imitate Christ in all things, and His suffering is not an exception. We share in His suffering so that we may also share in His glory (Rom 8:17).

Also relatively easy to grasp is that our resistance to suffering comes from the same source as our sins — our pride. Acceptance of suffering goes an awfully long way toward uprooting our selfishness, our pride, and the “right” we think we have for a “good life”. When we forget about ourselves, we don’t care about our own suffering. Christ defined love as giving our lives for each other (John 15:13), and this perfect love comes with perfect trust and no fear (1 John 4:18), and no harm can touch us (Luke 10:19). It’s not that we won’t encounter problems and pain. It’s just that when we reach this point of perfectly selflessly loving God and others, none of this temporary hardship matters. If we have no pride, suffering can’t harm us.

There’s a third, more mysterious aspect to the redemptive nature of our suffering as Catholics see it. This one is hard for me to accept, because it’s one of those hard to define issues that make Protestants gasp and accuse us of trying to earn our way to heaven and not giving Christ his proper glory. In our sufferings, offered up to the Lord, we share in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross in a very real way. We die with Him in His death (Romans 6:4), paying for and redeeming the sins of the world. I try to tell myself that it’s our mission as Christians to unite ourselves with Christ, it’s only natural. All good things we do are by God’s grace (1 Cor 15:10). All of our merit is through Christ’s merit. It is Christ who now lives in us (Gal 2:20), and we are a pencil in God’s hand. It makes sense… but I can’t see it.

I especially have a hard time seeing it when our entire household is sick for over two weeks straight. The flu, colds, ear infections — moaning and groaning ensues, not any thoughts of the redeeming the sins of the world. It all seems like a pointless hardship with no outward profit that we just have to survive. But I can see Christ in others who suffer graciously. It’s noble and good and makes us all admire them, because it’s praiseworthy. It’s good because God is in it. And that’s all that I can grasp.

If it is Christ living in me, how should I respond to suffering? He wouldn’t be whining about how hard His life is. He never thought about Himself enough to whine, merely to ask that His cup of suffering be taken from Him if possible, but surrendered to it anyway as the will of the Father. If it is Christ living in me, then nothing I go through is worthless, because Christ is God incarnate. Nothing that Christ does is worthless, even if I don’t quite understand how that applies to the mundane in my life. I do know that if everyone everywhere took this attitude, it would be beautiful.

So I think all I can do right now is just change my attitude. I may not understand it, but I can see that it is good. I can see that it is better to accept our sufferings and give them to God as a work done for Him, since all we do is done in service to Him (Col 3:17, 23-24). No less, then, is our suffering to be done for God. That would be funny, wouldn’t it? If we did everything for God, but nursed our suffering as some private endeavor, an injustice of the universe or Satan pitted against us alone? In which we think, what? That God is helpless or unwilling to rescue us?

Look at Saint Paul, as Rob has recently brought to my attention:

For I am even now ready to be sacrificed: and the time of my dissolution is at hand… At my first answer no man stood with me, but all forsook me: may it not be laid to their charge. But the Lord stood by me, and strengthened me, that by me the preaching may be accomplished, and that all the Gentiles may hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. The Lord hath delivered me from every evil work: and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom, to whom be glory for ever and ever. (2 Tim 4:6,16-18)

Paul had hardships and physical evils. He was about to be sacrificed and everyone had deserted him, but he still said “The Lord hath delivered me from every evil work.” How can he have said that? Because he was Catholic is all I can figure. We all may suffer much in this world. The only way it cannot harm us is if we are in Christ, and He in us. Then, no physical evils can touch us. Mysterious. I’ll first work on doing it, then maybe I’ll understand it better.


Thy Will Be Done

January 26, 2010

Because of the generous gift from “cyurkanin” to his readers, I have a copy of He Leadeth Me and am in the middle of reading it. Already, I can recommend the book for those who struggle to find God in suffering. It is written by an American priest Fr. Walter Ciszek who spent 23 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps, with (at least at this point in the book) very little outward profit to show for his sufferings. It was only by being broken in these experiences that he learned to totally rely on God.

When I was young, my parents would talk about people having to “hit rock bottom” before they would turn their lives over to God. They were right. And this is one reason why suffering is such an integral part of our redemption. It seems that all too often, we have to be lying in pieces and completely unable to control our lives before we finally give up trying and let God work. Our pride must be crushed, and our insufficiency revealed before we let go. Ah, if it only wasn’t so. But my new theory is that all saints goes to purgatory. It’s just that sometimes it’s here on Earth where we are scorched by purifying flames.

Fr. Ciszek says in his book, “We are afraid to abandon ourselves totally into God’s hands for fear he will not catch us as we fall.” This describes me perfectly. I’m a control freak, although less so now than I have been. In the past, I had a “plan” and an idea of how things should go, what the good life was, and what things were of value in this world that I would spend my time chasing after. It was remarkably similar to the plot of a romantic comedy. This wasn’t anywhere near an attitude of total abandonment to the will of God.

I chased and I grasped at an illusion and made a big mess for myself. Horrendous story short, I ended up in pieces, heartbroken. I was destroyed by my utter failure to find love and happiness and my inability to control or even trust others in my life. I was in the place that Fr. Ciszek describes:

For my part, I was brought to make this perfect act of faith, this act of complete self-abandonment to his will, of total trust in his love and concern for me and his desire to sustain and protect me, by the experience of a complete despair of my own powers and abilities and abilities that had preceded it. I knew I could no longer trust myself, and it seemed only sensible then to trust totally in God.

I had certainly made stupid decisions that led to my downfall. It was my fault, and through it I knew I could no longer trust myself. I had nowhere else to turn, but to God, and so I did. It’s not that I was perfectly surrendered to Him, or even that I could recognize His will for me at that point. I had so far to go. But I will forever remember my utter despair in my own abilities and my simple, earnest, even urgent prayer. Show me what you want God. Your will, your truth. I don’t want anything else, because everything else falls apart.

It was a beginning for me, in which I asked God to take over and lead me forcibly in His will. I actually asked for that, because I knew I’d kick and scream against it, but didn’t want to be allowed the power to resist. It was less than two months later I met Chris. I was nowhere near spiritually strong or even stable, but there was something about marrying Chris. I knew I should do it. It was natural, peaceful, a decision made without effort or anxiety. It was God’s will. Once the decision was made, I began the kicking and screaming process. I fought God’s truth in the Catholic Church. I fought motherhood and giving up a career. I fought the obscurity and tedium of staying at home. Despite all the fight I put up, God has answered my prayer perfectly because it was my only perfect prayer. A heartfelt “Thy will be done.”

Now it’s so easy to lose sight of. I was talking to Chris last night about how we don’t make many big decisions anymore. We’re in a place where we’re just living out our path, day after day. I don’t tend to seek God’s will so much now that I just climb onto the hamster wheel every morning, because there doesn’t seem much will to be sought. Yet, Fr. Ciszek says, “God’s will was not hidden somewhere “out there” in the situations in which I found myself; the situations themselves were his will for me.”

God’s will comes to me now in the form of petty spats over the toy triceratops that roars, my 3 year old is screaming on the step, cleaning the mud off our spastic dog when she comes inside now that the snow’s melted, my 1 year old tackling my 3 year old to the floor like a linebacker, a constant barrage of “mom, mom, mom, I’m hungry, could you get me some crayons please? mom…” It’s frustrations and demands on my patience, done in obscurity. It’s the perfect opportunity to relinquish my own idea of how the day should go and eradicate the “self”, learning to see myself “in proper perspective before God and other men” as Christ himself showed me how on the cross. Hopefully, God will continue to answer my prayer and teach me humility, because “humility is truth, the full truth, the truth that encompasses our relation to God the creator and through him to the world he has created and to our fellowmen.” This is what all our struggles on this Earth, though they come in wide range and different forms, are leading us to. The ability to humiliate ourselves and pray, “Thy will be done.”