Lent is a season for intensifying our training in “prayer, fasting and almsgiving”. These Lenten tasks translate into the virtues of “piety” (or “religion”, the habit of giving due worship to God), “penance” and “mercy”. “Penance” also translates into “mortification”.
Mortification, from the Latin, mors, “death”, means dying to one’s self (and one’s selfish tendencies); a renunciation of one’s wellness, comfort, desires, etc.; an act of self-denial. A Christian’s acts of mortifications acquire value to the extent that he is motivated with uniting them to the sufferings of our Lord—in reparation for sin, in imitation of Christ, for love of God and neighbor, in compliance with the command of our Lord: “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Lk 9:23ff; cf. Mt 16:24; Lk 14:27)
Mortifications may be “active”, i.e., positively sought, as in fasting. They may also be “passive”, i.e., consisting of the cheerful acceptance of difficulties or setbacks. Mortifications may also involve the physical senses and appetites—“corporal” mortifications—or only the internal senses (memory, imagination) and spiritual faculties (intelligence and will)—“interior” mortifications. Like Christian almsgiving, our mortifications must also pass unnoticed, should be “hidden” as much as possible: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.” (Mt 6: 16)
For the lay Christian living in the middle of the world, mortification must necessarily consist, for the most part, of many little acts of self-denial in the ordinary course of the day: eating a little less than we need at meals, maintaining a cheerful disposition in a difficult or uncomfortable situation, foregoing what is the most pleasurable in our choices, fighting distractions in order to work with more intensity, etc.
The Pope teaches:
“There used to be a form of devotion—perhaps less practised today but quite widespread not long ago—that included the idea of ‘offering up’ the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating ‘jabs’, thereby giving them a meaning. Of course, there were some exaggerations and perhaps unhealthy applications of this devotion, but we need to ask ourselves whether there may not after all have been something essential and helpful contained within it. What does it mean to offer something up? Those who did so were convinced that they could insert these little annoyances into Christ's great ‘com-passion’ so that they somehow became part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race. In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love. Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, No. 40)
Our Lenten mortifications should also help to remind us, like the whole observance of Lent itself, that we are only pilgrims on earth. Like the forty years which the Israelites spent in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land (Js 5:6), the life of man on earth is in statu viatoris, a passing-through. Our end, our true home, our permanent residence, our domicile, is in heaven, with God our Father. We will not reach this final destination—heaven, eternal happiness, definitive union with God, sanctity—unless we really want it, because we are free. And we are free creatures precisely so that we could direct ourselves, intelligently and voluntarily, towards that end. Thus, we cannot afford to be too comfortable here; otherwise, we would lose the desire, the drive, to reach our final destination. A spirit of mortification helps us to grow in that willingness to renounce earthly happiness, that detachment vis-a-vis creatures, which we need in order to qualify for heaven.
St. Josemaria writes:
“The Christian vocation is one of sacrifice, penance, expiation. We must make reparation for our sins—for the many times we turned our face aside so as to avoid the gaze of God—and all the sins of mankind. We must try to imitate Christ, ‘always carrying about in our body the dying of Christ,’ his abnegation, his suffering on the cross, ‘so that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies’ [2 Cor 4:10]. Our way is one of immolation and, in this denial, we find gaudium cum pace, both joy and peace…
“Mortification is the seasoning of our life. And the best mortification is that which overcomes the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life in little things throughout the day. Ours should be mortifications that do not mortify others, and which give us more finesse, more understanding, and more openness in our dealings with everybody. You are not mortified if you are touchy; if your every thought is for yourself; if you humiliate others; if you don’t know how to give up what is unnecessary and, at times, what is necessary; if you become gloomy because things don’t turn out the way you had hoped. On the other hand, you can be sure you are mortified, if you know how to make yourself ‘all things to all men, in order to save all’ [1 Cor 9:22].” (Christ is Passing By, No. 9)