"As the flesh is nourished by food, so is man supported by prayers"

St Augustine

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"Does our conduct correspond with our Faith?"

The Cure D'Ars

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"God speaks to us without ceasing by his good inspirations."

The Cure D'Ars

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John Nicholas Grou, S.J. 




by John Nicholas Grou, S.J.

Thirteenth Maxim: Mortification

Never cease to struggle with the enemy that lives within the soul

WhatT is that old man that St. Paul bids us crucify, and which Christ in His own person bound to the Tree of the Cross, to teach us what it deserves and how we must treat it? It is the flesh or, in other words, it is everything within us that is opposed to the spirit of God. This is the meaning of the apostle who, under the name of the flesh, comprised those vices which have the body for their object, as well as those which originate in the mind. All the former pertain to sensuality, the latter to pride or inordinate self-esteem.

In order to understand the real nature of the war with themselves to which all Christians are bound, and of their two natures, spiritual and animal, whose inclinations are so diametrically opposed to each other and tend to their mutual destruction, we must go right back to original sin and to the two great wounds it inflicted on us. Only thus shall we obtain a true conception of Christian mortification, of its necessity, its extent and continuity.

When Adam came from the hands of the Creator, his spirit was humble and subject to God, his body obedient and subject to the spirit. Everything within was in order, and all he had to do was to remain in that state. Sin destroyed that order, when Adam rebelled against God. His revolt arose from a principle of pride, and in an absurd hope of becoming like God by eating the forbidden fruit. The rebellion of his flesh was meant to humble his pride by making him realize that anyone who, abusing his reason, aspires to equality with God, deserves as a punishment to be reduced to the level of the beast, and subject like them to the empire of the senses.

Therefore, the first thing he perceived after his sin was this rebellion of the flesh. It was the indubitable sign and witness of his degradation, and, had he not been blinded by sin, that disorder, which he was ashamed to look upon, would have taught him how much more disgraceful and odious was the rebellion of his spirit against God. God had to open his eyes and enable him to judge of the exceeding disorder of his spirit by the shame which he felt in consequence of the disorder of his flesh.

We, unhappy children of Adam, are all born with a fatal tendency to this twofold disorder. The flesh disobeys the spirit, its appetites and motions forestall the will. The will is only too ready, first to consent, then to excite the appetites and finally to become their slave. Reason has the power to regulate the necessary appetites, such as eating and drinking, and should have absolute command over the rest. But it is weak enough to give way to them, and not only gratifies them, frequently beyond necessity and contrary to the Creator's will, but degrades itself so low as to seek only the pleasure attached to the satisfaction of the senses, resting therein as in its final end, using its ingenuity and powers to procure refined voluptuousness of every kind, even to the over-stepping of the immutable bounds of nature, and yielding to excesses which nature itself abhors. It is a most humiliating state of affairs, which degrades man much lower than the beasts, and which yet he feels so little that he counts it a merit and a glory.

The disobedience of the spirit towards God goes, if possible, further still. We affect an absolute independence. We consider our liberty to consist in doing whatever we please, without exception, and we look on this unlimited liberty as a right which cannot be justly disputed. We are annoyed by the dominion God exercises over us, necessary, mild and moderate though it be, and favourable to our present well-being, and having no other end in view than our eternal happiness. Lawful, reasonable and wise as it is, we are continually trying to shake off, or at least to weaken, His yoke. Every law He lays down for us seems a blow aimed at our rights; every commandment a burden to us, every prohibition a source of irritation. It only requires for a thing to be forbidden us to make us want it all the more. This strange disposition, which every one will find in himself if he will take the trouble to look deep enough, arises from a collosal pride which recognizes no master, a mad idea of our own excellence, and an utter blindness to all that concerns our own good.

These are the disorders that the Gospel would have us recognize, and teaches us to cure. The whole of the Christian moral law is nothing else than a remedy for these two fundamental disorders, and for that purpose proposes for our use two kinds of mortification, as reasonable as they are indispensable. The aim of the first is to subjugate the body to the mind; that of the second to submit the mind to God, and so restore the original order in which man was created, and repair the evil caused by sin. These two methods are called respectively exterior and interior.

The first stage in exterior mortification, which is absolutely binding on all Christians, is to abstain from all pleasures forbidden by the divine law; to observe moderation in the use of those that are lawful, using them not as ends in themselves, but as means, as the Creator intended them to be used, and generally to observe the precepts of the Church.

The second stage goes further. It refuses all unnecessary indulgence to the senses. It allows food only to hunger, drink to thirst, sleep to fatigue, clothes and shelter to necessity, suffering nothing to gratify taste or encourage effeminacy. All excessive pampering of the body foments its rebellion against the spirit, and we know only too well from experience that it is always ready to abuse anything in the way of excess. A mortified Christian leads an ordinary life, in no way singular but simple, sober and even, and strictly according to the rules of temperance and moderation. He looks upon his body as a bad servant that grudgingly obeys, and is always endeavouring to throw off the yoke. That is why he keeps it in strict dependence, and so subjects it to the spirit that not only does it not hinder but it actually assists the spirit's operations. Such is the divine law, as reason alone tells us. The Gospel does no more than urge its observance and help us to carry it out.

The advantage of this moderate but steady mortification is that it allows no room for pride, is hardly noticed, and shields us from the excesses of an indiscreet fervour. Moreover, the flesh is already sufficiently subdued when it finds itself reduced to the bare necessities, and deprived of all that is superfluous.

However (and this is the third degree of mortification), God sometimes inspires pious souls to perform voluntary penances. These may be necessary, either for the expiation of sin, for the subduing of pride, or to help in resisting violent temptations. Nothing of this nature, however, should be undertaken without the advice of a confessor, and even the confessor should act in such cases with the utmost discretion.

Because we read in the lives of some saints that they practised extraordinary austerities, our imagination is forthwith fired, and we set out to imitate them, thinking that we cannot grow holy otherwise, and that then we shall infallibly do so. In this we are doubly mistaken, for unless God asks these austerities of us they are not necessary to our sanctity; and, indeed, unless inspired and directed by grace, may take away from instead of adding to it. We may admire the acts of the saints, humble ourselves because we have neither their courage nor their love of God, and be ashamed that we do so little in comparison with them. But to copy them in this particular respect is unwise in the extreme, unless God makes known to us (as He did to them) His will concerning it, and until that will is confirmed by the one who stands in God's place to us.

Mortification of the spirit brings the flesh into subjection much more efficaciously than any bodily austerity, for obvious reasons. The rebellion of the flesh against the spirit is, as I said before, the consequence and punishment of the rebellion of the spirit against God. Therefore, when we bring all our strength to bear on subjecting our spirit to God, we immediately attack the principle of the body's disorder. And God, seeing that the spirit is in submission to Him, causes the trouble due to its pride to cease, and Himself reduces the flesh to a state of obedience. The more humble we are, the less exposed shall we be to rebellion on the part of the flesh.

That is why interior mortification is incomparably more necessary, because it goes to the root and source of the trouble. But what are we to mortify in the soul? Everything, without exception. Sin has infected with its poison the passions, the mind, the will, even the very depth of the soul. Such is the war of man against himself, of grace against nature. And in this war, we may never lay down our arms, for so long as we live the enemy is never wholly overcome. Cast down he may be, but the slightest negligence on our part will cause him to rise up again.

Let us begin with the passions. In themselves, they are not evil: they are only a quick movement of the soul by which it tends to seek good and repel evil. Such they were in the beginning, and so God intended them to be. But since the Fall, the soul does not know its true good, nor its real evil. It no longer looks on these things from God's point of view, but from its own. It calls that good which flatters its pride and self-love, all that procures it some passing pleasure. And it calls that evil which humiliates and thwarts it, and disturbs the repose it finds, not in God but in created things. The passions, now the offspring of a blind will, and guided by a reason which no longer sees clearly, are thus mistaken in their object, which they proceed to pursue with excessive ardour. And because its falsity renders it unsatisfying, their craving increases in proportion. Always dissatisfied, they continue to seek an ever elusive happiness. Disappointed in one object, they turn blindly to another of the same kind, only to find themselves as starved as before. And so, unless it is enlightened by the light of grace, the soul continues in its error, until death puts an end to all deception.

Thus the primary duty of a Christian is to deprive the passions of all that feeds them, to check their impetuosity, quench their ardour, and prevent even their first emotions. To this end he must bring under control the senses which suggest to the passions their object. He must bridle the imagination which depicts it in seductive colours and thus kindles desire, and he must keep a curb on every inordinate inclination. It is not enough to forbid indulgence in what is manifestly sinful: those things must be cut off which are dangerous and doubtful or in any way apparently evil. The passions must even be deprived of things which are lawful and innocent in themselves, as soon as there is a danger of one's becoming too attached to them, since all inordinate attachment is liable to be harmful.

But such a war is not ended in a day. It must be waged remorselessly. There can be no question of any truce or peace, where such dangerous enemies are concerned. At times, the passions will appear to be dead, but they are only lulled. They revive as soon as our vigilance relaxes, and they rekindle in the heart a new conflagration, much more difficult to extinguish. Nor must we confine ourselves to the passions: we must attack also those affections which are purely natural; inclinations, repugnances, everything that fet- ters the heart and prevents it from being utterly free. Much more is involved than we think, once we are determined to know ourselves thoroughly, and to con- tend against every single thing within us that opposes the kingdom of grace. For grace purposes nothing less than the death of the purely natural spirit, in order that it may be reborn in the supernatural order. All men must act by reason, but the Christian must go further and be guided by a supernatural principle. St. Paul even applied this to our ordinary animal actions. Whatever you do, he says, whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God. [74] You can judge by this how far we must carry our interior mortification.

It is not enough to stop at our natural affections. We must not spare our sensitiveness, that excessive touch- iness which reduces us to tears at the slightest word or the least contradiction, at the mere appcarance, I do not say of contempt but of inattention or indifference or coolness on the part of others. There are very few Christians who have brought their sensitiveness com- pletely under control, who in the course of their ordinary day ask for nothing, take exception to nothing and are indifferent to praise or blame. Alas! people complain, and not without reason, that pious folk are actually more sensitive, more difficult to get on with, take umbrage more quickly, than others. Do not give cause for this reproach, both for your own sake and for the honour of religion. Extreme sensitiveness is an unfailing source of distress. Our peace of mind is destroyed, we become suspicious of our neighbours, we look upon everything with a jaundiced eye, charity is lessened, and we run the risk of giving a fatal form to our feeling of resentment.

And that is not all. Even in the good you have in view, moderate the vivacity of your impulses, your eagerness, your activity. Try to keep yourself always in hand, [75] rise superior to your impatience, do not stop merely at its external signs but stifle its hidden movements as soon as they arise, and the moment you perceive them prevent them from gaining the least sway over you. The complete possession of oneself, which is the work of grace, is one of the greatest blessings in life; it makes for inward peace, spiritual joy, and evenness of soul. It edifies and wins over our neighbour, dries up the source of many faults, and leaves us the free exercise of all our powers to perceive and perform successive duties as they present themselves.

So much for the passions. As regards the mind, how many things there are to be mortified! From the first dawn of reason, the mind is filled with prejudices contrary to the Gospel in all that concerns honour, riches, pleasures and the habits of the world. Who does not regard high birth as something desirable, which raises one above one's neighbours, and yet what is it in God's sight? It is nothing. What is it according to the standard of the Gospel? An obstacle to humility. Until ourmind on this point is the mind of Christ, [76] we cannot call ourselves His disciples. Again, who is not ashamed of low birth, and sensitive to the thoughts and remarks of others on the subject? Reason tells us that this is folly, but will never convince us. As against these ideas, the Gospel sets before us Our Lord's own choice. He appeared on earth in the lowliest of conditions, and though due to be born of the seed of David, the man after God's own heart, waited until the royal family had sunk so low that an artisan was counted for His father. Yet how hard we find it to conform our mind in this respect to the mind of Christ.

Some, of course, are called to fill high positions in Church and State, but power of this kind should always be feared rather than coveted. Yet many hanker after the authority that power brings, instead of dreading it as the Gospel bids. They are loath to obey but quick to command, slow to serve but eager to be served. It is the same with regard to poverty and wealth. The rich esteem themselves superior to the poor, and yet Our Lord chose poverty for Himself, and showed a special love for the poor. Indeed, we are told that He had not where to lay His head. [77] And yet how quick we are to prefer a life of ease and comfort to one of toil and suffering.

Was it thus that the early Christians lived? Did they not rather dwell together as brethren, having but one heart and one mind, holding their love feasts together, with honour, as St. Paul says, preferring one another. [78] What an immense forest of preconceptions must be hewn down before we attain to the literal practice of the Christian moral law, or can hope to see things in the same light as Our Lord views them.

But it is not enough merely to demolish these prejudices, we must strike at the root which is within ourselves. It is there that mortification must bring its fire and sword! Where will you find the man who does not esteem himself above his deserts; who does not presume on his gifts and talents, and rely on his own judgments? Who is not envious of the success of others professing the same calling, unwilling that they should be preferred to himself? Who does not dread the shadow of contempt more than death, and is not acutely sensitive to the slightest whisper against his good name?

Is this the mind of Jesus? Did He not in all His teaching and by His example preach humility, contempt and hatred of oneself? Did He not will to be despised and rejected of men, to be crushed like a worm of the earth, to suffer humiliations, scorn and infamy, even to the shameful death of the Cross? [79] He suffered the sacrifice of His reputation, and yet, according to our notions, how necessary it was for Him to preserve it, seeing that He came to be the Lawgiver, the Example, the Saviour of mankind. But it was by that sacrifice that man was saved. How then can we think highly of ourselves, believe in our own worth, strive to raise ourselves in the good opinion of others, or deceive ourselves so far as to believe that the preservation of our reputation is necessary for the glory of God? Shall we never think upon the truth that what Our Lord was He was in our stead, to teach us what we should be?

Now do you begin to perceive the full extent to which interior mortification must reach, and the series of long and painful struggles to which we are committed if we would be like our divine Master? Be not weary of learning your duties, nor terrified at their number and difficulty; grace is all-powerful and by its aid you will reach your goal.

It is against the will that the heaviest blows must be dealt. This is the dominant faculty of the soul and the most corrupt, for in it sin takes its rise and attains its growth. The understanding is often enlightened and convinced, while the will resists and refuses to surrender. Attack it then, and determine on curbing its intractability. Deal with it so that it may grow yielding and obedient to God and to man. On no account allow it the freedom of which it is so jealous, but bend it with all your strength to the dispositions of Divine Providence, and to the will of others. Allow it no choice, accustom it to be indifferent, and let its rule be cheerfully to accept all vicissitudes great or small as they arise.

The will must die to its own likes and dislikes. It must resist its inclinations and do violence to its aversions. It must study to go against itself in all things, and to repress its own desires. It must be willing to see its hopes disappointed, its schemes brought to naught, its projects laid on one side or resisted. It must allow itself no self-interest, and must consider itself in nothing. It may enjoy divine consolations, but it must not depend upon them, and must be content to see them withdrawn without regret. It must receive crosses, and all manner of crosses, at first uncomplainingly, then submissively, and finally with joy. It must go so far as to desire never to be separated from the cross, nor by so much as a single word to take any steps to be freed from it. It must rest in the hands of God, and of those who represent Him, as wax receives the figure impressed upon it, or as water, having no form of its own, assumes that of the vessel in which it is placed. Its life, its movement, its activity must exist solely for the glory and good pleasure of God.

O death of the will, how difficult and rare it is! What Christian, nay what saint, exists who seeks nothing in and for himself? That is the height of perfection, but few there are who attain it; indeed, who even profess to desire it.

The value of this death is in proportion to its difficulty and rarity. What an inestimable advantage it is to be raised above all the events and happenings of life, above health and sickness, riches and poverty, esteem and contempt, honours and humiliations, good report and evil; above natural friendship or aversion, above all attachment, all inclination, all repugnance: amid all the ups and downs of the spiritual life, in consolation or trials, to cling solely to the will of God; loving, trusting and resting in it alone, and partaking thus of its sanctity and changelessness.

I will say nothing of what I have called the mortification of the real depths of the soul. This is beyond our scope, and indeed beyond that of ordinary grace. It is the work of God alone, and is reserved solely for those whom He proposes to bring through the terrible trials that lead to this death. Such is the lot of very few, and those who are not called to it would attempt in vain to understand its nature.

Have I opened a sufficiently wide field for the Christian combat? Have I given some idea of the relentless war to be waged against self? Of the courage, patience and endurance necessary in order to enter upon it, persevere in it, and arrive at a full and final victory? Do you now realise what that old man is, on whose fall the new man is to rise? Have I with good reason shown you that he is the cause of all our miseries, of all our misfortunes, now and to come? One thing is certain: whether we undertake this spiritual combat or no, he will cost us many a tear.  

74. I Cor. x. 31
75. Cf. Ps. cxviii. 109
76. Cf. Phil. ii. 5
77. Matt. viii. 20
78. Rom. xii. 10
79. Cf. Phil. ii. 8