|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.
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.
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).
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 Way: “The 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.