Interior Mortification and Comformity to the Will of God |
Ember Week is the ideal time to rein in our passions, to uproot vice before it becomes too much to remove, so deeply imbedded are the roots of self-will
Father Dominic Radecki, CMRI
Editor's Note: Through the gracious permission of the Editor and Publisher of the publication Reign of Mary, we are bringing you Fr. Radecki's essay on Mortification, first published in the Spring issue last year. Fr. Dominic, with his twin brother Fr. Francisco Radecki, are the authors of a dynamic new book that is a compendium on Holy Mother Church from Peter to present day. It is called Tumultuous Times.
"Unfortunately, there are many devout persons who, like the eagle, would soar heavenward were they not fettered to the earth by attachment to sin. The saints teach that even the least thread of attachment prevents the soul from rising to God. Unless we control our predominant passion, all other forms of mortification will be of little avail to our sanctification. Strengthened with God's grace and a firm determination, we must fight against and subdue the passion that has the greatest dominion over us."
Several years ago I had two pups, Heather and Heidi. They were intended to serve as watchdogs and canine companions. Unfortunately, Heidi was afraid of her own shadow and Heather neither barked nor growled (except at babies). In addition, these wayward dogs had minds of their own. Not content with a large fenced area and a doghouse, they constantly attempted to escape, and generally succeeded. Heather and Heidi began their jailbreaks by leaping our tall fence or by digging under it. When an electric current attached to an extended fence, they simply dug deeper and got away.
Surprisingly, at the completion of their hunting and exploration, the dogs would always come home. Since their problem could not be corrected, Heather and Heidi were taken to the pound to await their fate. Sadly, due to their intractable natures, these pets never fulfilled the purpose for which they were obtained.
St. John Chrysostom teaches that the perfect love of man for God consists in comformity with the divine will. It therefore follows that self-will is the archenemy of the spiritual life.
"As the wickedness of the creature lies in his opposition to his Creator, so his perfection consists in conformity with His will. He who tries to conform to the will of God is a man according to the Heart of God, as He Himself says: 'I have found a man according to My Own Heart, who does all My will.' He says the same of a soul who abandons herself to His will: ...'My soul melted when my beloved spoke' (Canticles 5: 6). Why does she say melted? Because melted things no longer retain their former shape. They take the form of the vessel into which they have been poured. [So devout souls bridle their rebellious wills in order to resign themselves to whatever God wills.]
"...An instrument is good only when it serves the workman. Of what other use is it? If, for example, the brush would resist the hand of the artist, of what good would it be to him? Would he not cast it away?"
In like manner, if we do not bridle our self-will through the practice of interior mortification and conformity to God's will, we cannot advance in spiritual life. Because of our self-will, we will be destroying with one hand the spiritual edifice which we are trying to construct with the other.
St. Francis de Sales has stated, "The more one mortifies his natural inclinations, the more he renders himself capable of receiving divine inspirations and of progressing in virtue" (The Spiritual Diary, p. 63).
According to St. Teresa of Avila, "One's virtuous exterior behavior depends on how much he has mortified his interior inclinations; and the more he mortifies his interior, the more perfect, amiable, and serene will be his comportment" (Ibid, p. 61).
This is illustrated in the following story:
"In the lives of the Fathers we read that an elderly monk was told of the high degree of virtue a young monk had reached. The elderly monk, desirous of testing the younger one's virtue, went to visit the latter, and upon entering his orderly and well-cared-for-garden, began to swing his staff, knocking off the head and leaves of all the plants. Afterwards, according to the custom of the monks, he began to recite the psalms with the younger monk. At the end of the prayers, the younger monk graciously and modestly asked if his guest would care to remain and accept a repast of the few greens still intact in the garden. Astonished, the elderly monk embraced him, crying, 'Now, indeed, my son, am I convinced that you are dead to all inclinations as I had been told'" (Ibid, p. 63).
True sanctity, then, does not consist in merely a multiplicity of spiritual exercises. Sadly, many souls receive the sacraments frequently, recite lengthy prayers and perform works of penance, yet they neglect to conquer certain little passions, like rising anger, aversion, sinful curiosity, etc. They exercise little self-control, are slaves to their own whims and are touchy under the slightest difficulty. They cannot endure any kind of contradiction, nor peacefully submit to the manifest will of God. What progress in the spiritual life can such souls make? In always seeking their self-satisfaction, even in small things, they eventually wander from the right path because they are blinded by their self-centeredness.
According to Father Lasance,
"Every species of self-love hinders perfection union with God; therefore, we must be firmly resolved to combat our evil inclinations that they may not gain the victory over us. Exterior as well as interior mortification is necessary for perfection, though with this difference, that while the former is to be practiced with moderation, the latter requires no limitation.
"Of what advantage in the spiritual life is the mortification of the body if unattended by that of the interior passions? 'What profit' says St. Jerome, 'to castigate the body by severe fasts, if one is puffed up with pride - unable to brook an insult or a refusal?' Of what use is it to abstain from wine, and yet be intoxicated with anger against those that trouble or contradict us? With good reason does St. Bernard bemoan those...who are humble exteriorly, but who interiorly nourish their passions. They do not eradicate the vices; they only cover them up under the outward signs of penance.
"If, on the contrary, we zealously practice mortification of self-love, we shall become saints in a short time without endangering health, without hazarding humility, because God alone is the witness of our interior acts...
"In many ways we can daily practice interior mortification... [A person] receives a letter, for instance. The desire to read it instantly arises in the mind. Let him mortify that desire, that cry of nature, and postpone the gratification for a short time. A happy little jest rises to the tongue, a beautiful flower tempts the hand to pluck it, the eyes are attracted by some curious sight - be silent, refrain, turn away! A thousand such acts may easily be made each day.
"Let us consider now a little more in detail how interior mortification may be practiced. The first step is to examine what passion reigns in the heart and frequently leads to a fall, that we may exert every effort to conquer it. St. Gregory says that we must employ the same artifices to conquer Satan that he uses against us. He is constantly on the watch to inflame that particular passion to which we are most inclined. In like manner should w be on the alert to combat that same passion. When the ruling passion is overcome, all the others will surrender. But let that predominant passion remain master of the heart and perfection will never be attained. 'Of waht use are his powerful wings to the eagle if his feet are bound by a cord?' says St. Ephrem."
Unfortunately, there are many devout persons who, like the eagle, would soar heavenward were they not fettered to the earth by attachment to sin. The saints teach that even the least thread of attachment prevents the soul from rising to God. Unless we control our predominant passion, all other forms of mortification will be of little avail to our sanctification. Strengthened with God's grace and a firm determination, we must fight against and subdue the passion that has the greatest dominion over us.
Another important consideration is the necessity of waging war against our passions while they are still in their infancy, as it were, for if they become strong by long indulgence it will be very hard to overcome them. It may happen on the occasion of some slight offense that we feel tempted to reply by a cutting word or contemptuous gesture. The inclination must be restrained at once; from a little wound neglected is soon formed an abscess which cannot be healed.
St. Dorotheus relates the following anecdote of a good old monk. He commanded one of his disciples to pull up a tender young cypress by the roots. The youth accomplished the task with great ease. Then the old man ordered him to pull up a larger one. But for this his most strenuous efforts were in vain. Seeing this, the monk thus addressed his young disciple: "Know that it is just so with our passions. It is easy to root them out in the beginning, but very difficult when they have, by long indulgence, sunk deep in the soil of our heart."
"Self-will destroys virtue," says St. Peter Damian, and St. Anselm remarks that "as the will of God is the source of all good, so the [disordered] will of man begets all evil... Self-love, according to the Abbot Anthony, is a wine that intoxicates, so that we recognize neither the worth of virtue nor the deformity of vice."
St. Peter Damian writes, "He casts aside a heavy burden who renounces self-will." St. Philip Neri, laying four fingers on his forehead, used to say to his penitents, "All holiness is comprised in the breadth of four fingers." The saint meant that sanctity consists in the mortification of self-will. St. Jerome states, "Thy virtue will increase in proportion as self-will declines."
Just as a soldier constantly trains so that he is prepared for battle, so too, we should daily practice acts of interior and exterior self denial so that we are strengthened for the greater spiritual battles to come.
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