We Must Join Mortification to Prayer; These Two Things Must Help One Another

by admin on November 21, 2010


IT is good to join prayer to fasting, said the angel Raphael to Toby when he made himself known unto him (Tob. xii. 8). The holy Fathers by “fasting” com­monly understand whatsoever belongs to penance and mor­tification of the flesh; and accordingly they consider mor­tification and prayer as the two principal means we have to advance in perfection, and which ought accordingly to be inseparable companions. St. Bernard upon the words of the Canticle: Who is she that ascends by the desert like a wreath of smoke composed of divers aromatic spices of myrrh and incense, diffusing its odor around? (Cant. iii. 6) says that myrrh and incense, which are the symbols of mor­tification and prayer, ought always to accompany us; it is by them we must raise ourselves to the height of perfection and render ourselves a sweet-smelling odor before the throne of God; for the one is of little or no profit to us without the other. For he who only mortifies his flesh without humbling his flesh and does not lay himself out for prayer, becomes proud and deserves to have these words of the prophet applied unto him: Shall I feed upon the flesh of bulls? Or shall I drink the blood of goats? (Psalm xlix. 13). These sacrifices of flesh and blood alone are not pleas­ing unto God. And on the other hand, he who gives him­self to prayer and forgets mortification shall hear what Christ our Redeemer says in the Gospel: Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not what I tell you? (Luke vi. 46), and also that of the Wise Man, saying: If anyone turneth his ears from hearkening to the law, his prayer shall be rejected as execrable (Prov. xxviii. 9). Your prayer will not be pleasing to God if you do not put into action His will. St. Augustine says that, as there were two altars in the Temple of Solomon, the one without, where they slew the victims they were to sacrifice, and the other within the Holy of Holies, upon which they offered incense composed of various aromatic spices; so there must also be two altars in us, the one interior in the heart to offer to Him the incense of prayer, according to those words of St. Matthew: But when thou wouldst pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret (Matt, vi. 6), the other exterior in the body, which must be by mor­tification. Thus mortification and prayer march hand in hand together; for if mortification be a necessary disposi­tion to prayer, prayer is also the means to arrive at perfect mortification.

Our Passions Blind the Intellect and Weaken the Will

As to the first point, that mortification is a necessary disposition to prayer, it is a truth that all saints and mas­ters of the spiritual life teach us. They say that, as we cannot write upon a skin of parchment if it be not well and evenly scraped and all the flesh taken off, so if the affec­tions and bad inclinations of the flesh be not rooted out of our soul, it has not the disposition it ought to have for our Lord to write and imprint upon it the characters of His grace and wisdom. To whom will God teach knowledge, says the Prophet Isaias, and to whom will he give ears and understanding to understand his secrets ? To them that are weaned from milk and put away from the breast (Isaias xxviii. 9); that is to say, to those who for His love have removed and weaned themselves from the comforts and pleasures of the world and the appetites and desires of the flesh. To enter into our heart, God looks for quiet and repose and much peace and stillness in our soul. His abode is made in peace (Psalm Ixxv. 3). Even pagan philoso­phers understood this; they all acknowledged that for our soul to become wise it must first be quiet and tranquil, which is when the passions and appetites are mortified and still, a time when there are no violent passions with their disorderly motions to trouble the peace of the soul and blind the eyes of reason, as the passions do when they are excited. It is proper to passion to blind the reason and diminish the liberty of our free will. You see it in a man in a fit of temper, how his anger deprives him of his judgment and makes him look like a lunatic and a madman. If you ask him: “How came you to say or do this?” he answers, “I was not in my right mind.” But when the passions are mortified and still, the understanding is left clear to dis­cern what is good, and the will more free to embrace it, and in this way a man comes to make himself wise and virtu­ous. Now God our Lord also requires this peace and quiet to repose in a soul and pour into it His wisdom and divine gifts; and the means to find this peace is mortification of our passions and disorderly appetites, and so Isaias calls it the fruit and effect of justice. And the work of justice shall be peace (Isaias xxxii. 17). St. Augustine explains this very well in that saying of the prophet, Justice and peace have kissed (Psalm Ixxxiv. 11). “You seek peace without doing justice; do justice and you shall find peace. These two things are so united, so closely intertwined with one another, that the one cannot go without the other. If you love not justice, peace will not love you nor come to you”—Fac iustitiam et habebis pacem, ut osculentur se iustitia et pax. Si non amaveris iustitiam, pacem non habe­bis, quia duae amicae sunt iustitia et pax, ipsae se osculan-tur: si amicam iustitiam non amaveris, non te amabit pax nee veniet ad te. Peace is obtained by war. If you have no mind to make war on yourself by mortifying, contra­dicting, and overcoming yourself, you will never acquire that peace which is so necessary for prayer. “What hin­ders and troubles thee more,” says that holy man (A Kempis) than the unmortified affection of thy heart?” These passions, these appetites and evil inclinations that you have, disturb you at prayer and will not let you make way in it; that it is that troubles you therein; that it is that disturbs you at it and makes such a din and racket in your soul as to awaken you from that sweet sleep—or, rather, never let you enter into the repose of it.

An Unmortified Heart Banishes the Presence of God

When a man has eaten to excess at supper, he cannot sleep nor be quiet at night because of the indigestions and gross vapors that arise in him, which vex him in such a way that he goes turning over from one side to another without being able to lie still.   The same happens at medi­tation.   Our heart is laden and weighed down by reason of disorderly self-love, of our craving to gratify our appetites, of our desire to be regarded and esteemed, of our great eagerness for the accomplishment of our own will—all which things so cumber the heart and raise in it such vapors, such figures and representations, as to leave no room for recollection and gathering up of the soul in God. So they explain what Christ our Lord says in the Gospel: Look to it that your hearts be not overcharged with glut­tony and drunkenness and the cares of this life (Luke xxi. 34), which is to be understood not only of the drunkenness that comes of wine, but of all other things of this world, according to the word of the Prophet Isaias: Listen, thou drunkard, drunk not with wine (Isaias li. 21).   Out of an unmortified heart there arises a thick cloud that bars and banishes the presence of God in the soul.   And this is what the Apostle St. Paul says: The animal man perceiveth not nor understandeth the things of the Spirit of God (I Cor. ii. 14), because they are too delicate, and he too gross and material.   Thus it is needful to reduce and attenuate one­self by mortification.

Prayer Becomes Difficult Without Mortification

Hence will be understood the solution of a considerable doubt: How is it that, prayer being on the one hand a thing so sweet and luscious—praying being to converse and deal with God, whose conversation hath no bitterness nor his company any tediousness, but great joy and gladness (Wis­dom viii. 16)—and being on the other hand so profitable and necessary, nevertheless it becomes to us so difficult, and we go to it with such reluctance, and so few are given to prayer? St. Bonaventure says: “There are some at prayer as it were by force, like puppies tied to a stake.” The rea­son is what we have been saying. Prayer of itself is not dif­ficult, but mortification is, and much so, and mortification is the necessary disposition for prayer; and because we have not this disposition, therefore prayer becomes to us so laborious and difficult. We see here in the natural order that the difficulty is not in introducing what Schoolmen call the form, but in disposing the subject to receive it. Otherwise, see in a green log the work that it takes for the fire to get the greenness out of it, the volume of smoke that arises, the time that is needed to dispose it; but once it is disposed, the fire enters in as into its own home without any difficulty. So in our own case, the difficulty is in getting rid of the thick smoke of our passions, in mortifying our disorderly appetites, in uprooting and detaching ourselves from the things of earth; once that is done, the mind will go to God with great facility and alacrity and enjoy dealing and conversing with Him. Every man enjoys conversing and dealing with his like; and so the mortified man, as being now spiritualized and likened to God by mortification, enjoys conversing and dealing with God, and God also is glad to converse and deal with him. My delights are to be with the children of men (Prov. viii. 31). But when a man is full of passions and disorderly appetites; when petty honor, petty affection, whim, amusement, and comfort have a hold on him, such a one feels much difficulty in convers-. ing and dealing with God because he is very unlike God in character and enjoys dealing with company like himself about earthly and low things. They have become abom­inable as the things they loved (Osee ix. 10).

Mortification Cleans the Heart

One of those holy Fathers used to say: As when water is troubled it is impossible to see your face in it, or any­thing else, so if the heart be not cleansed and purified from affections of earth which trouble and disturb it, and at rest from vain and irrelevant cares, it cannot see the face of God in prayer, that is, the profoundness of His mysteries; nor will the Lord discover Himself to such.   Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God (Matt. v. 8).   Prayer is a spiritual view of the mysteries and works of God; and as to see well with the eyes of the body they must be kept clean and bright, so to see well the works of God with the eyes of the soul it is needful to keep the heart clean and bright.    St. Augustine says: “Do you wish to see God? Think first of cleansing your heart, and whatever you see there that displeases God, take it away.”

Abbot Isaac, as Cassian relates, used to illustrate this by a comparison.   He used to say that our soul was like a very light feather, which, if not moistened or weighed down by anything else, but left pure and clean of all nastiness, at the slightest breath of air rises at once from the earth and goes fluttering here and there; but if it is wet or has any dirt adhering to it, that weight does not allow it to rise or mount on high, but keeps it down to earth and buried in the mud: so our soul, if it is pure and clean, rises at once and mounts up to God by the light, soft breeze of con­sideration and meditation; but if it is glued down and attached to the things of earth and laden with passions and disorderly appetites, these things weigh it down and keep it so oppressed as not to let it rise to the things of heaven or make a good meditation.   The holy Abbot Nilus said: “If Moses was forbidden to approach the burning bush until he had taken off his shoes, how do you expect to arrive to see God, and treat with Him and converse with Him, being full of passions and affections for dead things ?” In the Fourth Book of Kings we have an example which shows well the peace and quiet we should have in our affec­tions to enter into meditation and deal with God.   When Joram, King of Israel, and Josaphat, King of Juda, and the King of Edom were on their way to fight the King of Moab, as they were on their march through the desert, the water ran short and the whole army was perishing with thirst. Whereupon they went to consult the Prophet Eliseus; and the King of Israel, who was a bad man and an idolater, said to him: “How is this? Why has God gathered us three kings together here to deliver us over to the Moabites?” Eliseus replied: What have I to do with thee? Go to the prophets of thy father and thy mother; as the Lord of Hosts liveth, in whose presence I stand, if it were not for my reverence for the presence of Josaphat, King of Juda, I would never have attended to thee, or looked at thee: but now bring me a musician (IV Kings iii. 13-15). He rebuked him with zeal and holy anger, throwing in his teeth his sins and idolatries; but finally, out of regard for King Josa­phat, who was a good and holy man, he was ready to declare the mercies which the Lord was about to show them on that expedition, giving them at once abundance of water and afterwards victory over their enemies. But because his indignation and zeal, although holy, had somewhat dis­composed and troubled him, he bade them bring him a musi­cian, and when he came, and he had been quieted and paci­fied by the music, he began to tell the wonders that the Lord intended to work on their behalf. But if after a good and holy outburst of emotion it was necessary for a saintly man to tranquilize and quiet himself to treat with God and receive His answer, what is to be said at such an outburst when it is not only not good, but imperfect and evil?

As for the second point, that prayer is a means to attain mortification, we have spoken of it at length in the trea­tise On Prayer, and it is also the fruit which we should gather from prayer, and any prayer that has not mortifi­cation for sister and companion the saints hold in suspi­cion. And with good reason; for as to forge a piece of ironwork it is not enough to soften it with fire, but it is necessary to form it by blows of the hammer to give it the figure that we desire, so it is not enough to soften our heart by the fire of meditation and devotion, if we do not finish it off with the hammer of mortification to work our soul and clean it of the evil tendencies that it has and form it to the needful shapes of virtue.   The delight of prayer and the sweetness of the love of God should facilitate the labor and difficulty there is in mortification, and thereby animate and strengthen us to deny our will and overcome the evil of our character.   And we should not stop meditation until we attain by the grace of the Lord to this perfect mortification of our passions, of which we stand so much in need, and which the saints and all Holy Writ so much commend to us. St. Augustine on that text of Genesis: The child Isaac grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day of his weaning (Gen. xxi. 8) asks why it is that Holy Scripture relates the birth of the child Isaac, that son of promise and desire in whom all nations were to be blessed, and there was no feasting over his birth; and says that they circumcised him on the eighth day, which was what the day of solemn baptism is with us, and yet here there was no feasting; and afterwards when they weaned him and put aloes on the breasts of the mother, and the child wept because it was taken away from the milk, then his father made high festival and a grand banquet.   The saint says that we must refer it to some spiritual meaning to get the solution; and that what the Holy Ghost wishes us to understand hereby is that spiritual feasting and rejoicing should be when one grows and becomes a perfect man and is no longer one of those of whom the Apostle says: As to babes, I gave you milk and not solid food (I Cor. iii. 2).   Applying this more to ourselves, what he wishes to say to us is this, that it is not matter of gladness and rejoicing to the order nor to our superiors, who are our spiritual fathers, when you are born in religion by entering there, nor when they receive you into it at the end of your novitiate, but when they see you weaned and ceasing to be a child, and you have no longer any taste for the dainties and amusements of children, but know how to eat your bread, crumb and crust, and that they can treat you as a spiritual and mortified man.

Besides, meditation has another connection and particu­lar relationship with mortification, inasmuch as it is not only a means to gain it, but is itself a great mortification of the flesh. So says Holy Writ by the Wise Man: Virtu­ous watching will waste away the flesh (Ecclus. xxxi. 1): Frequent meditation is an affliction of the flesh (Eccles. xii. 12). This is also what Holy Scripture gives us to under­stand by the wrestling which the patriarch Jacob had all night with the angel, from whence we are told that he remained lame (Gen. xxxii. 32). And we see by experience that people who give themselves much to these mental exer­cises become weak, pale, and infirm, because such exercises are a blunt file that weakens and mortifies the flesh and wears away strength and health; and thus in every way meditation is a great aid to mortification.

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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