What are mortifications? Are they a good thing to do?
Mortifications - well, this includes things like fasting (which is refraining from eating), praying all night long, kneeling for a long period of time, wearing a hair-shirt or some other piece of itchy uncomfortable clothing (for me, that would be dress pants), in some cases mortification means whipping yourself, sleeping on the floor, that sort of thing.
The church's official stance on mortifications is that they're good, BUT EXTREME mortifications are bad. Huh? How do we tell the difference?
And why should we do it anyway? Does God want us to be uncomfortable? Does God want us to suffer?
My personal feeling on the matter is that, no, he doesn't. But the question must be raised, as apparently it has come to light that John Paul II practiced mortifications himself prior to doing really holy things, like ordaining people and that sort of thing. For him, apparently these included "spending entire nights lying with his arms outstretched on the bare floor, fasting before ordaining priests or bishops and flagellating himself" (WCR Feb 1), and the fact that he did these things are supposed to make him MORE eligible for sainthood. So, what do we make of this?
Well, if there are good motivations for mortifications, JPII probably had them. In particular, by doing mortifications before ordaining a bunch of bishops, or anything that might lead him to developing a big head because of all the power he seems to wield, he performed mortifications on himself in order to keep his humility in check. In that sense they can be a good thing.
So, here is a list of GOOD reasons, fruitful benefits that can come from different kinds of mortifications:
1) We learn self discipline. One of the big problems with our society is that we can have whatever we want whenever we want it. We become a spoiled, consumer, adolescent society, that would rather have the third world starve than put ourselves out a little bit. We also hurt ourselves with this mentality - whenever we want a big mac, we go get one - so we get fat. Whenever we want sexual gratification, we surf porn, and thus demean the opposite sex and ourselves. Etc. Mortifications help us to learn not to be SCARED of being uncomfortable - its really not that bad. Once we can overcome that fear, we stop consuming at other people's expense.
2) It brings us back down to earth. We can start to get big heads when things are going really well, like we can do anything, like we ARE gods in our own little way. Mortifications remind us that we're weak and small and fragile - they teach us not to take ourselves too seriously - they teach us humility.
3) Training. There will come a day when life will be stressful without our asking it to be, without our being ready for it. We will be expected to behave as Christians on those days, just as much as on the good days. "I was having a bad day" is no excuse for being a jerk in the eyes of the Lord. So mortifications can teach us to be good Christians even in the midst of suffering, so that when suffering comes on its own, we'll be ready for it.
4) Solidarity. There are people all around us who suffer all the time, without asking for it. Its easy to forget how they feel when we have everything we need. Mortifications can remind us of the sufferings of others, leading us to greater compassion and charity.
5) It gets us out of our heads. Mortifications can stop us from constantly rationalizing and analyzing, and really get us into our senses again. This can lead to a type of meditative, contemplative place - once we turn off all the noise in our heads, we can be more present to the presence of God in this given moment.
6) Jesus suffered. When we experience some of the suffering that Christ did, we are more in solidarity with him, and we can more deeply appreciate the suffering he experienced for us, and be thankful to him.
Now, these reasons having been given, there are MANY BAD REASONS for mortification, that often lead to excesses and abuses in these mortification practices. St. Francic of Assisi is a good example of this - he practiced mortifications throughout his life, SEVERE mortifications, but then on his death bed, at the age of 44, he regreted it, in fact, he considered it SINFUL to have taken it so far, because he had deprived God of the opportunity to perform more work on Earth through him.
For these reasons mortifications are DISCOURAGED for a lot of people. In particular, people who suffer from physical or mental illnesses should refrain from mortifications; so should people who have excess amounts of guilt. So here are the WRONG reasons to perform mortifications, and if you are performing mortifications for any of these reasons, STOP.
1) GUILT. We are not to perform mortifications as a form of self punishment for sins. The punishment for our sins has BEEN PAID IN FULL by Christ's own cross. For us to say otherwise is to deny the power of the cross itself. Neither should they be used as acts of PENANCE - doing so displays an incorrect understanding of penance - penance is not punishment, its about teaching us to overcome our sinful natures.
As for the oft quoted Bible verse when it comes to mortifications, Colossians 1:24, "In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ" I'm pretty sure Paul wasn't talking about mortifications here - he was talking about the suffering that comes automatically with discipleship - he had rocks thrown at him, he was rejected, he was arrested, he went without food sometimes because he had no money, etc. This was written to try to explain why the suffering still happens, and it isn't intended to imply that there is something lacking in Christ's saving work - rather it helps us to realize that when we suffer, we are connected to Christ.
2) MORE GUILT. Some people go crazy on themselves, whipping and flailing themselves because they feel so guilty and unworthy. The truth is, what is going on when a person does this is that they are displacing their feelings of anxiety into their physical torture. They are actually RUNNING FROM their guilty feelings, by covering them up with physical pain. Teenagers these days are doing the exact same thing by CUTTING - slicing themselves up with razor blades - its very unhealthy.
3) EVEN MORE GUILT. Some feel that we must punish ourselves for CAUSING the death of Christ - this is a total distortion. Yes, we did cause the death of Christ for our sins, but from his cross, Jesus forgave us, and called on the Father to forgive us, so, WE'RE FORGIVEN. Truth is, besides fasting occassionally, Jesus himself did not practice mortifications at all. He was crucified mind you, but that was the cost of his mission, the price of LOVE, not a self-imposed form of suffering.
4) God will love us more. God already loves us infinitely. He isn't going to love us OR reward us for mortifying ourselves. Our salvation isn't something that we earn - it is a gift. If we practice mortifications, it should be in order to reinforce our confidence in that gift - to train us to believe, despite our temporary discomforts, that God has something greater in store for us.
So, should you practice mortifications? If you are of good health and mental well being, and only under the guidance of a good Spiritual Director, a person MIGHT consider mortifications - but remember, all forms of devotion, including mortifications, should ALWAYS be forms of love, either loving God or loving others. If they are used to somehow earn God's love for us, then they are being used incorrectly.
But I wouldn't think mortifications to be a NECESSARY form of devotion. If we are Christians, suffering will come on its own, just as it did for St. Paul, and just as it did for Christ.
The bottom line is, as Sr. Wendy Becket put it best, "God doesn't call us to punish ourselves. God calls us to love one another - which is punishment in itself."