All Our Spiritual Advancement and Perfection Consists in Mortification

by admin on December 17, 2012

Self FlagellationHENCE all the saints and masters of spiritual life have come to the conclusion that all our advancement and perfection consists in mortification. “You will advance just so much as you do violence to yourself,” says St. Jerome. He says with Job (xxxviii. 13) that perfect wisdom and perfect fear of God is not found in the land of them that live pleasantly; that is, according to their own will. As of arable land, when they let it bear what it will, that is, thistles and thorns, they say that it rests; and when they force it to bear wheat or anything of that sort, they say that it labors, so when one lives according to his caprices and fancies, we say that he has a pleasant time of it. But  in such a land, says St. Jerome, there is not found true wisdom, but only in the land of them that labor hard and mor­tify themselves and deny their appetites. This is the rule and measure whereby the saints measure the virtue and spiritual advancement of each and everybody. Would you, therefore, know what progress you have made in virtue? Examine what you have done to mortify yourself, to what extent you have overcome and curbed your passions and evil inclinations, how you stand for humility and patience, whether love of the things of this world and of flesh and blood is dead in you. It is in this, and not in sweetness and consolation in prayer, that you will see whether you have profited or not. We read of our holy Father Ignatius that he made greater account of mortification than of prayer, and by that measure he formed his judgment of persons. And our Father Francis Borgia, when anyone extolled or commended another to him as a saint, “He will be so indeed,” said he, “if he be truly mortified.” Blosius com­pares a mortified servant of God to a ripe bunch of grapes, sweet and pleasing to the taste; and one that is not morti­fied to a bunch of grapes sour, bitter, and harsh to the pal­ate, according to the words of the Prophet Isaias: expected from my vine that it should yield me good grapes to make wine withal, and it has given me only wild ones (Isaias v. 4). The difference there is between the children of God and those of the world is that these follow the motions of their passions and have no idea of mortification, but those that are of Christ aim at mortifying and crucifying their affections and appetites and not being governed by them, but by the spirit and reason (Gal. v. 24).

It is true that Christian perfection does not essentially consist in mortification, but in charity and love of God; and that man will be the more perfect, the more he is united with God by love. But as a stone raised from the ground, as soon as the impediments are removed which keep it there contrary to its natural inclination, falls with a rush to the center, which is its natural place, so our soul, which is a spiritual substance and created for God, as soon as it is clear of the impediments and obstacles of its disorderly appetites and bad inclinations, at once by the aid of divine grace goes to God, as to its center and last end, and to His loving embrace. St. Augustine says very well that all things move according to the bias they have; light things moving up, as air and fire; heavy things down, as earth and water. What bias is in the elements and natural bod­ies, that is love in rational creatures; and as natural things move according to the bias that they have, so rational crea­tures move according to the love that predominates and reigns in them, for that is their bias. If love of the things here below, the craving for honor and reputation, the doing of our own will and the seeking of our own comforts, predominates in us, then our motions and desires will be sensual and earthly. But if by mortification we strip ourselves of the love of all sensual things, then the love of our Cre­ator will predominate in us and will be our bias, and our heart will go straight to God more nimbly than the stone to its center. “Thou hast made us, O Lord, for Thyself, and our heart is restless till it rests in Thee”—Fecisti nos, Domine, ad te, et inquietum est cor nostrum donee in te requiescat (St. Augustine, “Confessions,” I). That is why the saints measure our advancement and perfection by the measure of our mortification, for he who is great in mortification will be great in love of God and great in perfection. On that text of the psalm: As the hart thirsteth after the fountains of water, so doth my soul thirst after thee, my God (Psalm xli. 2), St. Augustine says: “The hart kills the serpents it encounters and, when they are dead, is very thirsty and runs with great speed and nimbleness to the water springs.” Would you know the reason why you have not much thirst and desire after perfection ? The rea­son is that you do not kill the serpents as the hart does. The serpents are our vices and disorderly passions; kill and mortify those serpents, and forthwith you will have a great thirst after virtue and perfection”—Serpentes vitia sunt; consume serpentes iniquitatis, tune amplius desidera-bis fontem veritatis.   Your soul will forthwith love and desire God as the hart the running waters.   Thus at the rate at which mortification goes, at the same rate will perfection and love of God go.   And elsewhere he says: “Is charity growing?   Then cupidity is diminishing.   Is charity perfect?  Then cupidity is nowhere”—Augmentum cari-tatis, diminutio cupiditatis: perfectio, nulla cupiditas.   As gold is more and more purified and refined, the more the alloy that it contains is wasted away and consumed, so charity and love of God are perfected and augmented, the more the inordinate love of ourselves and of all earthly things is diminished and made an end of.   And when it shall be entirely consumed and made an end of, then char­ity and love of God will be entirely perfect and pure.   Cassian tells of the Abbot John that, being on his deathbed, his disciples gathered round him, as sons are wont to do round their parents at that hour, and earnestly begged him to say something to them for their consolation  and spiritual advancement—some short instruction how to attain perfec­tion.   He heaved a deep sigh and said: “Never have I done my own will; and along with that I tell you another thing, which is also of great importance—I have never taught another anything but what I had first put in practice myself.”

Excerpt from Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues by Alphonsus Rodriguez, translated by Joseph Rickaby (Loyola University Press, 1929). Reprinted with permission.

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