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Catholic Penance and Mortification

by Catherine Frakas 22 Apr 2003

Life of Penance and Mortification Excerpt from the Regula Sancti Michaelis (Constitution) Order of the Legion of St. Michael
IV. Life of Penance and Mortification 18. St. Louis de Montfort wrote: If we would possess Wisdom we must mortify the body not only by enduring patiently our bodily ailments, the inconveniences of the weather and the difficulties arising from other people's actions, but also by deliberately undertaking some penances and mortification such as fasts, vigils and other austerities practiced by holy penitents. 19. Mortification in its fundamental essence is Self-sacrifice, Self-denial, and Self-discipline. It is Morte-death- death to the Self. Out of love for Christ and in recognition of our own inadequacy, we must sacrifice ourselves, give ourselves up to Christ. Acts of Mortification are thus behaviors, devotions, and activities that assist us in this offering up of ourselves sacrificially to our Lord and Savior. It is as Jesus said to his disciples, If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 20. One of the first sacrifices and crosses we take up is to be obedient to His commandments and to His Church. Submitting ourselves, taking up our cross, to His faith, morality, and way of life as taught by the Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Tradition, and as interpreted and taught by the Magisterium of the Church, is an act that is contrary to human nature. Our natures demand self-determination in all things. Christ demands submission to His determination-to His will. Our human nature does not desire the self-denial required to take up the cross. 21. After the sacrifice we make to Christ to be obedient to His commandments and to His Church, we, as Brothers and Sisters of St. Michael, next offer our sacrifice to the Rule of St. Michael through which we have made Profession in a more profound consecration of our lives to Christ. 22. In fulfilling our duties to the Rule of St. Michael, however, we must always remember that one of the most important and difficult mortifications in our lives, according to St. Montfort, is that we fulfill the duties of our state in life. This is true penance in that most of us have desires to do something other than what we are called to do according to our state in life. For the Secular member a desire may be to live more like a monk spending great amounts of time in prayer or before the Blessed Sacrament. The duties of family and work preclude such intensity. For the contemplative Hermit or Monastic a desire may be to involve themselves in more active ways in the worldly and secular community. The duties of prayer and seclusion in monastic life preclude this. Celibate brothers and sisters may have desires for marriage. The celibate life precludes this. In whatever state of life we are called, our penance is to live that life faithfully and with fidelity despite temptations to do otherwise. 23. We need to bring our wills into submission to the law of love, to Christ, by performing various acts of penance and mortification -- within the limitations of our state in life. While this includes denying and disciplining ourselves against sinful temptations and desires, and perhaps conducting penitential mortifications to subdue those fleshly desires, or to pay recompense for sin, this is not the only purpose or value of mortification. 24. Mortification is also a means of self-sacrifice and self-discipline of non-sinful aspects of our human natures so that we may attain, through the grace and mercy of Christ, ever higher degrees of spiritual maturity and holiness. The Apostle Peter reminds us of God's directive: for it is written: 'Be holy, because I am holy,' To do this we must pursue holiness. Pursue is an active verb; it cannot be done with status quo religiosity. We must go an extra mile, do more than is required or that is necessary, perform more than minimum requirements, go beyond the mere avoidance of sinfulness, if we are to gain this higher goal which brings us into the holiness God calls of us. 25. Paul said that 'Everything is permissible for me' -- but not everything is beneficial. 'Everything is permissible for me'-- but I will not be mastered by anything (1 Cor 6:12). Through self-discipline we control our desire to have, do, think, or feel something in favor of a greater and more beneficial thing, deed, thought, or emotion. Through sacrifice we give up something that we may have a right to expect, possess, or to do so as to not be mastered by it. 26.These circumstances may not have to do with sin at all, but with a higher call to holiness as taught by the Beatitudes -- to turn the other cheek, to loan without expectation of return-or it can be about the image and witness we give to others for the greater glory of God. 27. Such circumstances may involve perfectly acceptable behaviors or desires but may more prudently be sacrificed or resisted through self-discipline for the better part of valor. Paul demonstrated this in the story he tells about eating meat offered to idols. Although eating the meat was acceptable, some people may have been scandalized by it, thinking Paul was sinning himself and advocating the sin for others. Thus Paul's freedom to eat the meat was not going to master him, causing him to childishly demand is rights in a display of self-centered freedom. When in the company of people with such immature or unknowledgeable beliefs, he accepted the responsibility for his freedom and refrained from eating-the glory of God and the mission to evangelize was more important. 28. Brothers and sisters should constantly reflect upon their own behaviors and beliefs that are not a part of the essentials of the faith, not subject to the absolute and binding teachings of faith and morals declared by the Church, to see if they may be stumbling blocks to weaker brethren. We should never allow our freedom in Christ to eat meat, which has nothing to do with essentials of the faith, to get in the way of our witness and testimony to unbelievers or to weaker and less mature brothers and sisters. 29. It is through penance and mortification we are called to live a life of daily self-denial, self-discipline, and continuing conversion, not only to fulfill God's call to holiness in our own lives, but so others might turn daily to the comfort of the Spirit of Christ in their lives, too, fundamentally and essentially, but also that they might begin their pursuit of holiness. 30. According to our charism of Penance and Mortification, Brothers and Sisters of St. Michael are therefore, at a minimum, to fast according to the laws of the Church with special attention, because of our specific charism to this, to days and periods of penance and mortification set aside by the Church-such as Fridays, Ash Wednesday, and Lent. 31. Brothers and sisters are also encouraged, if they are able, as an additional spiritual exercise and mortification, to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays of each week. Further, in respect for the Presence of our Lord and for ancient traditions, members are encouraged to fast three (3) hours before receiving the Holy Eucharist as they are able and as circumstances allow. 32. Other mortifications (self-sacrifices and self-disciplines) should be made as are appropriate to an individual member's circumstances, spiritual health and maturity, and spiritual struggles. 33. In the spirit of the St. Michael Charism, all members, including those of us in the secular state, should always search for ways to mortify our fleshly desires and rebellious wills, to submit our human natures to Christ, and to offer up our freedom in Christ in sacrifice and self-discipline for the sake of others and for the greater glory of God. In doing so we shall receive spiritual strength for our souls and many graces for our lives. Through mortification, and by the grace of Christ, we shall, therefore, continually grow in submission and profound consecration to our Lord, and in the process find within ourselves the presence of the holiness of God that comes when our minds truly become one with the mind of Christ. 34. The Saints show us many examples of mortifications. We can learn much from our older brothers and sisters who have gone before us. But, in determining mortifications for oneself, St. Montfort advises that no exceptional or severe mortifications should be undertaken without the advice of a wise director of souls.

The Story about how this essay was written: When the Rule was being written, the Lord impressed upon me the great need of our world to understand the nature and purpose of the various virtues of the Evangelical Counsels. The Counsels, of course, were always meant to be an image of the coming Kingdom-that is, through the Evangelical Counsels of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience the world may get a hint at what heaven will be like. This image is one in which heaven will be a place where we are totally surrendered to God, where we are in perfect union with Him. Thus, because of such union we no longer need the attachment to things or to wealth. In the Counsel of Poverty we come to know the wealth of Jesus. In heaven, because of our union with our Lord, there will no longer be an attachment to the things of the flesh or to all the things not of God that offer us false love or at best incomplete love. In the Counsel of Chastity we come to know the purity and fidelity of our Lord's love. In heaven, because of our union with our Father, there will no longer be a need to attach ourselves to the bondage of our opinions and rebellious will. In the Counsel of Obedience we come to know the freedom that is ours in knowing the Truth and in being coheirs to His Kingdom. In Galatians 5:22-23 we find the Fruit of the Spirit. The Scripture lists nine things yet the fruit is singular. This is because the Fruit (singular) of the Spirit is love. The other eight words in the Scripture-joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control-are merely additional descriptions of the Fruit of Love to help us understand something more of what this fruit called love is. In a similar manner, although the Evangelical Counsels are three, they too may be described in greater detail so we may know more about what they mean. In the silence of prayer God revealed to me that He wanted some of the other spiritual counsels implied in these three evangelical counsels to be emphasized. By specifically identifying these other counsels we may then offer witness to them to a world sorely in need of their example. Thus, those who join our Order take vows of the Evangelical Counsels above, plus five more vows. These vows are offered according to one's state in life of course. The vows are offered as much for the witness they offer to others as they are for our own spiritual devotion. The other vows are:
Substantial Silence -- so others might know the presence of the Lord
Substantial Solitude -- so others might know the presence of the Constant Companion
Prayer -- so others might experience the divine action of Jesus' love in their lives
Penance -- so others might turn daily to a conversion to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
Mortification -- so others might be inspired to the perfection that arouses the soul to God These vows were given to me by God in the interior still small voice of prayer. But somehow I needed to explain the difference between penance and mortification and also explain what God had taught me about the fuller understanding of mortification. I searched for weeks trying to find an essay written by one of the saints that would explain what God had taught me directly. I found articles on mortification, but they usually dealt with that aspect of mortification closely aligned with penance-mortifying oneself to overcome sin or bad habit. But God had revealed to me that mortification was much more than that. Finally, I gave up trying to find an essay from one of the Saints that would talk about this particular aspect of mortification-so I was led to write my own essay based on the thoughts God had given me. The writing of the essay was nearly a mystical experience in itself. The words just came to me as I typed them. What happened next was a confirmation, a sign, that we were indeed on the right track with the Legion of St. Michael and that the Holy Spirit was certainly helping us and blessing us. What happened was that about three days after I finished this essay, I came across the book, Twelve Steps to Holiness, by St. Alphonsus Liguori. One of the Steps was on Mortification. When I read it I couldn't believe what I read. It sent chills down my spine -- you know, the type one has when something wonderful and coincidental has taken place that shows the glory of God. St. Alphonsus' essay and mine were so much alike it was like the same hand wrote both essays except the one written by St. Alphonsus was written generally and mine was written specifically for our Order. Even some of the phraseology was similar. In comparing these two essays I knew that indeed the same hand did write them both-the Holy Spirit. Such blessings were difficult for me to take, but God had His plan. Yet I keep telling God, in the way Moses did, that I am not the one for this job, I'll mess it up, but He has His plan and He chooses who He wills, of course, for He is God, and He is a wonderful God. The results of these early blesses in the life of our Order has now lead us, three years later, to have a presence on the World Wide Web, to work with the Mary Foundation, and to begin a first in history formation class with 22 new Secular candidates for membership from three countries. What all of this means is that we all need to mortify ourselves-even our sense of unworthiness-to allow God to work with us according to His pleasure. In doing so others and ourselves will be blessed. In the end that is the whole point of these vows whether taken by celibate monks and nuns, or taking by ordinary men and women, according to their state in life, working in the secular and domestic world -- to allow God to work with us according to His pleasure.

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