Brief history of Catholic monastic spirituality:
Monks alone in desert (going crazy), monks together in deserted places (Benedict), mendicant orders roaming world (Francis and Dominic), men and women organized for good works (Jesuits and Ursulines). Constant practice existing in all these movements: mortification—afflicting the flesh, ranging from penitential virtuosity (spiked chains under your clothing) to the everyday mortification of fasting and abstinence from meat.
Then came Vatican II, fasting and abstinence became optional, optional led to extinction.
Every Lent we hope to reverse the extinction. We look for some way besides fasting to observe the season. Let us go back to the basics.
Why practice mortification?
Old spiritual writers quoted I John 2: humans suffer from lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Lust of the eyes meant yearning for material stuff. Pride of life meant wanting to disobey authority. Tactics against those two are hard to operationalize. Lust of the flesh—ah, here you have something to get your teeth into. Fast, wear hair shirts, sleep on boards. Authors who told the stories of saints competed to describe the means their saints used to mortify the flesh—one gets the sense that there was a spirit of conspicuous consumption operating—my saint is penitentially more drastic than your saint. The saints themselves were surely less competitive, and the readers of the stories not likely to imitate the virtuosos.
In the United States fish on Friday was a badge of persecuted identity in a predominantly Protestant nation, not always a way to come closer to God.
“Come closer to God.” Here is the deeper reason for mortification. When you voluntarily frustrate your desires you become more aware of your limits—you are a creature, which makes you think about a Creator. Mortification was meant to open our eyes to God. When we abandoned mortification, we lost an effective way of experiencing God.
Recovery in our day.
People around the world have been undergoing terrible suffering, made even worse by the pandemic. Climate change has made refugees out of millions of people when the rains no longer water their farmland. Poverty breeds violence, in the form of movements like Al Qaeda and ISIS, which magnify suffering.
There are things that wealthier nations can do to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, not to mention freeing the imprisoned. But nations do not act without public support. In our country we have a leader who retains power by appealing to the worse instincts of the public. Ignorance of conditions beyond our borders is one of our worst instincts. Thus the leader can demonize immigrants and get crowds to cheer “Build that wall!”
No one who follows international news can be ignorant of the plight of people beyond our borders. Catholics who use abortion as the only reason to vote for politicians who build walls and demonize immigrants cannot be sensitive to all the conditions that strangle life. My sense is that such Catholics are blissfully ignorant. Blissful ignorance needs to be cured by mortification.
Mortification for our time is paying attention to the world beyond our life space. It is watching, reading, listening to what is happening to people around the world. Doing that is uncomfortable. The 2020 hair shirt is informing ourselves and, when God calls, embracing respectful and patient political discussion and even action.
Surely the Lord calls us to this. God did not give us democracy so we could eat, drink and be merry. What we do to the least of our sisters and brothers we do to the Lord. When we ignore the wounded person beside the road and pass on our way, we are not neighbors to that person. When we do not care whether our leaders feed hungry people, we become the ones who will hear “what you did not do to the least of my children, you did not do to me.”
Mortification was never easy. Staying informed about the plight of others is not easy. Vatican II did not abolish mortification—opening our hearts more to God. All of us need to use the means appropriate to our time.