As a 20 year old seminarian I began studying the lives of the saints and one thing that soon stood out was the extreme measures some of them took to discipline “the flesh”.  And so we read the heroic feats of martyrs, the extreme measures of St. Francis of Assisi who would jump into cold water, the extreme penances and sacrifices…  I became very intrigued about the practice of “mortification”.  It was particularly interesting to me because at the time I was also pursuing a major in psychology and I was studying Freud’s theories on repression.  Certainly the extreme measure of the saints did not look like “spiritual masochism” at all.  There had to be something else…

It took me quite a few years to understand mortification not only from a logical point of view but from a spiritual point of view and then to apply it in my own life.  The beginnings were very awkward and immature.  I started doing some things that I thought resembled what the saints did: sleep on a wooden surface and walk with a stone on my shoe.  However, soon I realized that this was not the way.  Christ was not very present in those practices.  It was more about me and my desire to see myself spiritually advanced.  As Pope Francis has recently reminded us, “the cross without Christ’s hope is spiritual masochism”.

It would take years for me to eventually understand the value of Christ’s suffering.  We believe that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross had a redeeming value.  His love on the cross exceeded the limits of human love and opened the way for grace to enter into our lives.  As he was lifted on the cross he repeated: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”  Furthermore, he left his sacrifice open, which means that our sacrifice can be united to his.  When we do this, when we suffer difficulties and unite our sacrifice to that of Christ’s, our sacrifice acquires a redeeming value as well.  Then we can channel the fruit of that sacrifice to those we want God to bless the most.

I have done this in specific moments in my life.  The first time I was more intentional about it was when one of my sisters was struggling with some issues.  I not only prayed about it.  I also offered some of the difficulties that I was facing in my apostolate.  I went one step further.  I would take some cold showers for her.  I believed that my sacrifice could be united to that of Christ’s sacrifice.  I believed in the power of his cross.  And I did it because I loved my sister.  I believed that God would blessed her.  He is pleased with acts of love practiced in a heroic way.

These acts of mortification of the senses: not seeing what our curiosity leads us to see, not eating what we would like to taste, not pleasing our body as it would like to be pleased, when done in the sphere of faith and love, has the power to elevate love to another dimension.  Furthermore and more importantly, it provides for the possibility to bring balance to our lives as it makes us more aware of values that transcend our sensual desires.

In our next insight we will continue discussing the role of mortification and abnegation in our spiritual lives.

Questions for pondering:

  1. Do you see any value in denying yourself of any pleasure so as to obtain graces for someone?
  2. Do you really believe in the redemptive value of the cross of Christ?
  3. Do you feel that God is calling you to an extra sacrifice?  Who would you offer it up for?

Fr Lino Otero, LC:  Originally from Nicaragua, my family moved to Miami, Florida when I was a teenager. Soon afterwards I experienced the call to serve God without reservations. Since then, I have had experience in hospital ministry, working as a middle school teacher, leading a parish school, organizing soccer tournaments for kids, starting a radio station, training priests in leadership formation, organizing a parish community from maintenance to mission, and much more. I love spiritual direction and preaching. Years of philosophy, psychology and theological training have enriched my personal life and have shaped my message of hope. For more go to linootero.me