In the whole of Sacred Scripture, there is no scene that appeals to the imagination of children better than Noah’s Ark. The drawings that decorate the walls of Christian primary schools all over the world tend to depict smiling giraffes stretching their necks out of the windows of Mr and Mrs Noah’s well-appointed living quarters while lions and sheep stand shoulder to shank in bucolic harmony on the deck.
The reality must have been somewhat less idyllic, after Noah and his family had sealed themselves into the damp and dark, and huddled in close confinement with malodorous ill-tempered beasts while the rising torrents thundered and crashed all around them.
During Lent we are encouraged to batten down the hatches against the temptations of the world and the devil from without and to do battle with the wild beasts of our own vices within. Meanwhile the Ark which is the Church transports us on the forty day journey into the Pascal Mystery of Good Friday and Easter. For the same period that Noah and the animals were shut up in the Ark, we are to apply ourselves with greater intensity than usual to what, as disciples of Christ, we are meant to be doing all the year round: praying, alms-giving and mortification.
Say the word mortification in polite society, and the reaction will most likely be negative. The post-Freudian mindset in which modern opinion has been formed tends to associate the idea of Christian mortification with a warped, unwholesome view of human nature.
Obviously this is a case of double standards in operation. The same metropolitan sophisticates who shiver with disapproval at the mention of Christian mortification will gladly spend mind-boggling sums of money on starvation diets and self-torture regimes in Teutonic spas, all in the cause of body beautiful. At the more fashionable of these places the menu is likely to consist of formidable doses of Epsom salts and pieces of stale bread, each morsel of which has to be chewed forty times. Presumably the calories burnt in exercising the jaw exceed those consumed in the food.
Dare to suggest that it is a good Catholic practice to fast and discipline our bodies for the sake of our immortal souls, however, and the response will be an embarrassed silence.
Perhaps this has something to do with a suspicion that the Catholic Church has contrived to make a cult out of suffering for its own sake – a prejudice which has been exploited and reinforced in our age in novels like The Name of the Rose and The Da Vinci Code. But nothing could actually be further from the truth. The suffering which Christians voluntarily embrace is very much a means to an end. Through self-denial we detach ourselves from enslavement to earthly preoccupations so that, as St Peter says, “your prayers may not be hindered.” (1 Pt 3.7) We endure discomfort so that our wayward appetites might learn obedience to our reason and to our will. In this sense, mortification serves to liberate us from the tyranny of our passions.
None of this is unique to Christianity. We only have to reflect on the ascetic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism to realise that the practice of self-denial is a feature of many religions. Where the Christian understanding of mortification is perhaps unique is in the fact that it is woven so inextricably into the very Mystery of Redemption itself.
In the words of Our Lord: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains alone. But if it dies it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12.24) Although these words obviously refer to His own Passion, they also apply to us, because while His Passion and Death pay in full the price for our sins, we are invited to unite ourselves to and participate in that work of Redemption. This is surely what St Paul means when he says “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His Body that is the Church.” (Col 1.24) There can be no suggestion that the Sacrifice of Calvary is in any way deficient. Less than a drop of the Precious Blood would be more than sufficient to save the whole human race. What St Paul is saying is that when our own sacrifices and sufferings are united with those of Our Saviour, then they take on the supernatural value that merits rewards not only for ourselves but also for Christ’s Mystical Body the Church.
There can be a temptation to assume that real mortification is just for a chosen few – those spiritual champions and heroines who retire from the world to the cloister and the hermitage. But the truth is that we all receive the vocation to die to ourselves when we are baptised. To understand this better it might be a good idea at the beginning of Lent to read and reflect on the sixth chapter of the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?” asks St Paul; “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6.3-4) After Baptism, we are to continue dying to ourselves, so that the life of the Resurrection might take ever greater possession of us. We are to dethrone the ego and all self-centredness so that He might be enthroned in our hearts forever.
The Sacrifice of all sacrifices that He made on the Cross was a gift of His own self, and herein is the key to any genuinely Christian mortification. For our self-denial and sacrifice to be pleasing to Almighty God, they cannot consist in a sterile exercise in self-improvement. They must be accompanied by an increase in charity. For this reason, in Lent, the Church also enjoins us to give alms. And surely whatever we are able to give materially is meant to be a mere token of a growth in the virtue of charity. Whether or not we have managed to lose an inch or two around the waist by the time Good Friday arrives will be of little interest to God. What will be pleasing to Him will be a heart that has been expanded by loving, giving and forgiving with ever greater generosity and self-sacrifice.
The Church, then, is like a great Ark, and Her Liturgy is the seascape through which She transports us. During the forty days of Lent, we are carried towards and through the Mysteries that are central to our Redemption. If we make a serious effort to deny ourselves, to pray more and, most importantly, to be more charitable and giving, then we shall take part in this voyage not so much as passengers and spectators but as participants. Through our own mortifications, our prayers and our growth in charity we shall be more effectively united to the Passion and Death of Our Lord. Having died to ourselves, we shall be better prepared to participate in the joy and the glory of His Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Fr Julian Large