“Ask a Priest: Is Mortification Necessary?”

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Q: For repentance, is mortification necessary to be a saint? Many saints do mortification, and I would like to know the Church’s positions on that. Can you mention some mortification practices for repentance? And could you recommend some good books on the subject? – Alex

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: In the wide sense, every Catholic should practice some form of mortification. It’s not just something for saints.

We should do some kind of bodily penance, including occasional fasting or abstinence from certain foods.

This kind of mortification helps us to make reparation for our sins and for the temporal punishment linked to them.

When you mention the mortification practiced by the saints, you might be referring to extreme cases, such as St. Simeon the Stylite, who lived atop a pillar for decades, or St. Kevin, who would stand in the cold waters at Glendalough in Ireland, reciting the psalms.

Many spiritual writers, however, dissuade people from extremes in mortification, for two basic reasons.

One, there is a very human tendency for us to “compensate” later for extreme mortification. We fast one day, then binge on junk food the next. The pendulum swings wildly.

A second reason is that extreme mortification can inflate our egos. We feel proud of our accomplishments, and might even look down on those who can’t measure up to the same degree of self-denial. Moments of spiritual pride are golden opportunities for the devil to tempt us into a big fall.

Two quick suggestions for balanced mortification would be these:

First, make a little sacrifice at each meal. If you can cultivate this habit, you could go a long way in overcoming other problems.

Second, learn to embrace the trials and struggles of everyday life with patience and humility. Rather than standing in icy waters reciting 150 psalms, it might be more meritorious to deal kindly with a difficult co-worker or neighbor.

Good spiritual books usually deal with the topic of mortification within the whole context of the Christian life.

Some weighty suggestions are The Spiritual Life, by Adolphe Tanquerey, and The Theology of Christian Perfection, by Antonio Royo Marín and Jordan Aumann.

More-accessible books include 60 Days to Becoming a Missionary Disciple, by John Bartunek, and Back to Virtue, by Peter Kreeft.

If ever you feel drawn to extreme forms of mortification, it would be good to check first with your confessor or spiritual director. Sometimes less is more.

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