Updated: Oct 25, 2019
If anyone affirms that one can reach perfection without practicing exterior mortification, do not believe him; and even though he confirm this assertion by working miracles, know that his contentions are nothing but illusions.
—St. John of the Cross
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Mortification is crucial to our spiritual life. If you are not yet convinced of this or need some extra motivation, read this excerpt from St. Anthony Mary Claret's autobiography.
(This might be a good place to remind you: we don't claim to be lay theologians. We leave that stuff to priests and saints. The saints have written so much on subjects like these, that our voice is hardly a needed addition. We only wish to discuss how we are implementing their teachings in today's modern world. For specific advice for you personally, always 1) read the saints, and 2) consult a good, traditional priest, especially on the topic of which mortifications you should add to your rule of life.)
Maybe you have experienced this: I'll have moments after reading or hearing a certain talk where I am fired up. I'm ready to sell the house and beg for all of my food, buy a hair shirt, eat all of my food with Tobasco sauce, or whatever wild mortification I've just read about St. So-and-so doing. Now, I'm in no way criticizing the traditional mortifications of the Church, but I have noticed when I do things like announce to my husband that I will be sleeping on a wooden bench for the rest of my life, I will still mindlessly scroll on Twitter for hours, down a tub of ice cream when I'm upset, complain about laundry, or snap when I don't get my way. And while the harsh mortifications I have boasted about undertaking usually fizzle before I even start them, the real ways I am lead around by my passions remain completely unchecked.
On top of this, there are a lot of mortifications that are not an option for most mothers. We can't fast while pregnant and nursing, and this is one of the best ways to keep those passions in line. We usually need any sleep we can get to perform the duties in our state of life. Big dietary changes are either too expensive or affect the whole family. And many of us (myself included!) aren't directly in charge of finances, so things like almsgiving aren't always in our control.
All of this being said, it can be really easy to shrug and leave the mortifications to the women cloistered behind the convent walls. And I have been very guilty of this! But, I recently read something from St. Frances de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life that a mother feeling like that might need to hear:
Fasting and work subdue the flesh and bring it under. If the work that you do be necessary for you, or if it be very useful to the glory of God, I would rather that you should suffer the labour of the work than that of the fasting.
Before we look at the rest of the quote, let's focus on this for a second. There is so much work we can do as mothers—most of which we probably already do without thinking—that we can use as mortification. But here's the thing: we have to use it!
I recently read an article of yet another mom complaining about all of the work she does, all of the mental gymnastics involved, all of the self-sacrifice she makes. She felt she didn't get near enough credit or thanks, and all of this work was just expected of her. I wanted to reach through my computer screen and (gently) shake her. This is what is expected of you—and more! And it will make you a saint...if you let it.
Here's the thing: we can absolutely waste suffering. We can waste the work we do as moms. It's not enough to suffer or work hard if we are not ordering all things to God. So, for part 1 in this mortification series, let's talk about how we can use the work and sufferings natural to our state in life to advance in the spiritual life:
Do the right work, at the right time, thoroughly, without complaining or boasting about it afterwards, and give it to God with confidence.
The Right Work
What is the right work as mothers? It is making our children saints. It is becoming saints ourselves. It is praying. It is assisting at Mass. It is keeping house. It is cooking healthy meals. It is not letting our children be raised by (or spend most of their days with) strangers, if it is at all in our power to do so. It is loving and serving our husbands. It is making a house a home. It is making our home a mini-seminary or novitiate. It is having the fortitude to discipline our children. It is having the patience to smile at them. It is enduring sufferings, humiliations, ingratitude, slander, loneliness, and everything else with silence and charity. It is having the endurance to get up way too early in the morning and do it all over again.
The Right Time
Of course, we can't do all of this all of the time. We have to have the virtue of prudence to know what to do and when to do it. But in the meantime, we have to have our priorities straight (a rule of life really helps with this!). We can't postpone things because we are lazy. We can't delay the difficult work in favor of the more enjoyable tasks. We must cultivate the virtue of industry.
We must work as unto God. It helps me greatly to think of the Blessed Virgin Mary: how did she keep house? How did she wash dishes? How did she make and clean clothes? We know she did everything perfectly, paying attention to every detail, and not skipping over even the most dull (and seemingly pointless) steps. She did nothing halfway. She kept all of the things in her domain clean and beautiful for the Child Jesus and St. Joseph, as poor as she was. So too we must always be ready to welcome visitors in our home, even as if we were welcoming Christ. The little corners of our home that are easy to gloss over, the little attitudes in our children that are easy to ignore, all of it matters, because it matters to God. And He is the One we are working for.
Without Complaining or Boasting
How many good works have I done that I have completely ruined all merit from because of what I did after the fact? How many times have I complained to my husband about how hard things are or boasted to my friends about how much work I've accomplished in a day. Even if I said nothing out loud, how many times have I allowed pride or resentment to well up in my soul? Let us reject wholeheartedly the sin of Eve, who grew tired of her position (and usurped her husband), but humbly accept all sorrows as Our Lady did. In fact, I can't think of many better remedies for enduring all things than meditating daily on Our Ladies' sorrows.
Give It to God with Confidence
After all of this, we still might fail. Even if we have done our very best, our house might not be clean, our budget might be a little busted, our child might still have that troublesome habit, or we might lose our temper. How horrible to have done everything in our power to work as unto God, but still keeping the confidence in ourselves to fix everything. This—being aghast at our own ineptitude and failings—is of course another form of pride. Once we have done all we can, we have to leave the results up to Him, and start again tomorrow.
In the second part of this post, we continue with the quote from St. Frances de Sales, and discuss a very special form of mortification that is uniquely suited to the state of life of motherhood: Check it out!