What’s the Point of Mortification and “Offering It Up?”

Domenichino, The Way to Calvary (1610)

One of those phrases that Catholics use that non-Catholics are often baffled by is “offer it up.” Usually the context involves some sort of hardship, either voluntary or involuntary. Elizabeth Scalia gives the example “when you are in pain, when you are disappointed, when your feelings have been hurt, offer these things up to the Lord and ask him to use your suffering.” Sometimes, it’ll be with an explicit intention attached, like “I’m giving up snacks for Lent, and offering it up for those who are physically and spiritually starving.” Sometimes, it’ll just be a simple “Offer it up!” without any explicit intention. So what’s going on here, and why is it important?

A good starting place is Colossians 1:24-26, where St. Paul says to the Church in Colossae:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints.

This is one of those passages that shocks people at first, both because Paul talks about rejoicing in suffering, and because he talks about something lacking in Christ’s sufferings.

But what’s lacking is our participation. Christ goes to the Cross for us, but He doesn’t say, “Okay, this means you can stay home now. I’ve done the hard work.” He says the opposite: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24) and that “he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38). So Christ’s suffering on the Cross isn’t in place of our suffering. It’s an invitation to give our suffering meaning, by uniting our crosses with His. When we offer up our suffering, this is exactly what we’re doing.

Other Advantages of Mortification 

But there are three other aspects of mortification and offering things up worth considering: suffering for others, building virtue and self-mastery, and as a powerful spiritual tool.

1) Suffering for Others: In Baptism, we are united to Christ’s Body, which is to say, to Christ’s crucified and glorified Body. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3).This means that just as Christ suffered for others, we are given both the duty and the opportunity to do this for others. This is one of the purposes of the Body of Christ: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Corinthians 12:26). And this is exactly what St. Paul says that he is doing for the Colossians, in Col. 1:24.

Vincenzo Gemito, The Professor or St. Paul (1917)

2) Virtue and Self-Mastery: A second purpose of mortification and voluntary suffering is to gain mastery over one’s own body. St. Paul describes this in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

So, just as you would push your body to the limits to prepare for a big race, Paul talks about doing the same thing in the quest for Heaven.

In saying “no” to the body’s desires (even neutral or good desires), we develop a self-mastery over the body that helps keep us out of sins of the flesh. So, for example, if you refrain from scratching an itch, and turn that tiny pain into a sacrifice, a moment of union with the Cross, you’re in a much better position when the “itch” you want to scratch is a third donut or some other fleshly sin. You’ve developed the habit of making the body serve you, rather than serving your body.

As a Christian, you can’t afford to be enslaved to the flesh, so it’s important to become master over your body, including your emotions and your passions. If you find yourself unable to control your temper, or your lustful desires, or your appetite, that’s a good sign that it might be time for mortification. This is particularly helpful for people who struggle with sins that are primarily not premeditated: for example, the couple that is trying and failing to stay chaste.

3) As a Powerful Spiritual Tool: If you’re battling a particular sin, or discerning something important (like a vocation), these are prime times for prayer, fasting, and other forms of mortification. When the Apostles are unable to exorcise a particular demon, Our Lord calls them to prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29). It’s while they are praying and fasting that the Holy Spirit reveals that He has a special mission for Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:2), and they respond with more prayer and fasting before laying hands upon them (Acts 13:3). And when Paul and Barnabas want to prepare the newly-appointed elders for their ordinations, they turn to prayer and fasting (Acts 14:23).

So What Makes for a Good Form of Mortification? 

As I mentioned, you want to subdue the body, but you don’t want to violate the dignity of the body. Anything that mutilates the body or causes serious or lasting harm is contrary to the Christian spirit of mortification, and contrary to the Christian vision of human dignity. Good penances in this regard:

Ivan Kramskoi, Christ in the Desert (1872)
  • Fasting of any sort: cutting out snacks and desserts, skipping a meal, etc. Some penitents will just give up having their food the way that they like it: for example, they’ll eat what they normally might, but cut out all condiments, salt and pepper, etc.

  • Cold showers. For a lighter penance, start with cold water, and switch to warm after praying an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for some intention.
  • Removing obstacles to prayer. If you find that you don’t spend enough time in prayer because you’re wasting time watching TV or staring at Facebook, cut those things out, and replace them with times of prayer.
  • The heroic minute. When your alarm goes off, get up immediately (no snooze button!), kiss the ground, and pray, “Serviam!” (“I will serve!”). St. Josemaria Escriva discusses the heroic minute in The WayThe heroic minute. It is the time fixed for getting up. Without hesitation: a supernatural reflection and… up! The heroic minute: here you have a mortification that strengthens your will and does no harm to your body.
  • Prayer vigils. If your state of life permits it, consider doing a Holy Hour in the middle of the night. You might find that you spend most of the hour just fighting to stay awake, but that’s a perfect thing to offer up. Pray Mark 14:38: that fact that you’re inconveniencing yourself for Him is a sacrifice that will please Him.
  • Being kind when you don’t want to. Perhaps the hardest mortification you can do is simply resisting the cutting remark, or smiling at people you don’t want to smile at. St. Josemaria again: “That joke, that witty remark held on the tip of your tongue; the cheerful smile for those who annoy you; that silence when you’re unjustly accused; your friendly conversation with people whom you find boring and tactless; the daily effort to overlook one irritating detail or another in the persons who live with you… this, with perseverance, is indeed solid interior mortification.

If you find that the penance is putting you in a bad mood, this might be a sign that you’re going too far. Then again, it might just mean that you were overly attached to whatever it is that you’re cutting yourself off from. This would be a good question to take to a priest to handle on a case-by-case basis.

In all of these cases, the mortification needs to be accompanied by prayer. This isn’t about a self-improvement project (although it will have that effect). Rather, it’s about a Lenten spiritual preparation for Jesus Christ, preparing ourselves, and letting Him prepare us, for the joyful burdens of discipleship.

7 Comments

  1. I agree with you, Joe, that the last one is the hardest. Only I’d describe it a bit differently. I’d say loving your neighbor (as commanded) is so much harder than loving yourself (which is so simple as to be assumed a “given” in the 2nd great commandment). One of my Lenten “fastings” this year is to put myself second, when I can. It’ll be a hard one to keep.

  2. These are such wonderful suggestions. Mortification is my biggest struggle. I find myself thinking “isn’t being a parent enough?” but alas no. Must put back down the doughnut and pick up an orange instead.

  3. Mandated mortification is actually a great gift from God in that it directs our souls towards the interior life. The multitudes of varying activities provided by the modern world can be highly oppressing to the spiritual life, and Lent and mortification gives some mandated relief from some of the worry and toil that are usually inherent in these activities. Like the story of Martha and Mary we all seem to be inclined towards the way of Martha, as if this is the way of supreme virtue. We think that the way of Mary is the way of the sluggard and so we are embarrassed to spend time in meditation, contemplation and study seeing these as shamefully unprofitable activity. So, for this reason, it is highly beneficial for us that the Lord and the Church help to lead us away from such deceptive and endless activity, and towards the prayerful and contemplative life…thereby reinforcing the teaching that Jesus gave to Martha: ” Martha, Martha, you are troubled and concerned about many things. One thing is essential, and Mary has chosen the better part”. So, mortification and prayer helps us to focus on this one essential thing that Jesus is talking about. It is the stupendous feast of His Father…. but it seems that it’s the only activity that no one wants to go to.

    Oh thank you Lord for defending and even commanding the spiritual life, as it is that life which makes us truly human!

  4. In Eastern Orthodoxy, we call these efforts or pursuits asceticism. That is definitely the focus of your #2, and #1 and #3 contain it as well. I am curious about why Western spirituality casts ascetic struggle in a different light. From my point of view however, there is a different flavor to what you described above, and what I read about in Orthodox literature. I am not sure that I can put a finger on it though.

    Have a blessed Lent!

  5. Not seeing an answer here to the question I asked above, I asked an Orthodox friend, who was Catholic before becoming Orthodox, for his perspective. His email to me is as follows:

    The Catholics have asceticism without the concepts of the Fathers to guide them. This is due largely to the Augustinian bottleneck. Augustine himself was not bothered by the centuries of Fathers preceding him. His City of God and Confessions sets the tone for the West: learned, guilt-ridden, introspective, solitary. Very different from the Fathers! Hidden in that Western tone is contempt of certain virtues which are prized among the Orthodox. Kindness, e.g., is something I heard little enough about in my five years among the Franks. That is why when I read stuff like “Where there is no humility, there is no salvation” or “Always fear making others bitter” (quotes from Fr. Sampson), it is still startling.

    1. Hey George,

      I attend an Byzantine Catholic parish and, as such, am regularly exposed to the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and Eastern expressions of Christianity. As you say, the three main purposes of mortification outlined by Joe are all found in Eastern thought, they’d just perhaps expressed a little differently. I don’t see any major differences between East and West on this subject… but perhaps that’s because I’m an Englishman living in America and therefore used to translating terms, idioms and overlooking accents 😉

      As for your friend’s email, I’m afraid I’m rather at a loss. I’m not really sure what his answer is and find some of his statements rather troubling:

      * Could the statement “Augustine… was not bothered by the centuries of Fathers preceding him” really be substantiated?

      * Does your friend regard being “learned” and “introspective” as being a bad thing? I would consider the Three Holy Hierarchs as possessing these most excellent qualities!

      * As for “guilt-ridden”, how many times in the Divine Liturgy do we pray for “Lord have mercy”? In the pre-communion prayer, like St. Paul, we each describe ourselves as the first among sinners!

      Does your friend really think that the West has contempt for kindness?! I am sorry he didn’t hear much spoken about the subject while he was Catholic. From the way he writes, I would guess that he didn’t experience much of it either. For that, I’m really sorry.

      God bless,

      David.

    2. George,

      I went to my first Ukrainian Catholic Divine Liturgy today (one of the priests at the seminary is biritual), and I’d echo both your initial comment and David’s response. The East and West approach the same truths in different ways, and sometimes with different emphases. In my very limited experience, this seems more like a Latin/Greek difference than a Catholic/Orthodox one.

      That said, I would disagree with your friend’s take on both Catholicism and Augustine. Take the prayers of the faithful, for example. In the West, we say, “Lord, hear our prayer!” In the East, you say,”Lord, have mercy!” You even have prayers asking for mercy after Communion. In the West, the pattern is entreating God for His mercy prior to Communion, so that we may receive worthily. Some of the priest’s prayers and devotional post-Communion prayers pray that we have received worthily, but there aren’t public prayers to that effect. Also, your Great Lent puts ours to shame. So, as to which side is more penitent (or “guilt-ridden”), I think it’s a toss-up.

      I would also question what your friend means by “the Fathers.” Does he consider the Western Fathers to be Church Fathers, or no? Because Augustine is deeply versed in his predecessors in the West (having learned from Ambrose, and being steeped in the Catholicism of North Africa). This lineage of Western Patristics goes back to the Apostles through men like Irenaeus of Lyons. Of course, Augustine was also aware of the Eastern lung of the Church, and he had contemporaries and correspondents (like St. Jerome) who bridged both worlds.

      The Eastern Fathers pre-Schism didn’t seem to have this disdain for Augustine. I think he’s become a convenient scapegoat in the intervening centuries, and I think it’s entirely unwarranted. It’s easy to paint Augustine as some caricature of what a Roman Catholic is (some sort of stoical academic without an animating faith, etc.), but that’s neither an accurate view of Augustine or Catholics more broadly.

      I think that a better take would be Rod Dreher’s, also written from the perspective of someone who left Catholicism for Orthodoxy. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I at least recognize the picture of Catholicism that he’s painting. In the case of your friend’s, I can’t really say that much.

      I.X.,

      Joe

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