“Ask a Priest: Is Extreme Mortification OK?”

Q: I’m undertaking the preparation for St. Louis de Montfort’s total consecration to Mary. I understand that it is important to deny oneself to the point of mortification. This is difficult for me, especially because I am a little soul. Now, I’m confused about how we should treat our bodies. Should we subject the flesh to the soul by such mortifications, even violent, as many holy saints have done? Or should we care for the bodies we were given because we are made in God’s image? I suppose my question is, how are these ideas reconciled? What exactly is the mortification we should seek? Thank you very much. –M.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good to hear of your devotion to Our Lady. You can depend on her for guidance and intercession.

Mortification has long been an accepted tool in the battle for Christian perfection. St. Thomas Aquinas said that people in religious life, for example, could become holy only if there was detachment from the things of this world (see his answer in the Summa Theologiae, II.2, Question 186. Article 3).

We need not, however, imitate the extreme forms of mortification practiced by some saints. That might actually be counterproductive, because our tendency is to “make up” for those bouts of strict mortification we put ourselves through. Today we get by on bread and water, tomorrow we binge on Big Macs and ice cream.

The best mortification is usually moderate. This means, in addition to forgoing meat or some other favorite food on Fridays, that we learn to take smaller desserts or use less seasoning on food. We could take slightly cooler showers, or jump out of bed at the first sound of the alarm in the morning.

These little acts of mortification will go a long way to help us discipline ourselves, and they can also be offered in reparation for our sins and for the sins of the world. The key thing is that we mortify for a spiritual motive.

The Catechism in No. 2015 says: “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes: He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows.”

Don’t be afraid of mortification, then. But don’t overdo it, either. If you have doubts about a particular practice, check with a reliable confessor or spiritual director.

(For more reading see this article by Father John Bartunek.)

I hope this helps.

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