Penance and Mortification

Penance and Mortification

The modern world has made a mockery of penance and mortification. One of the direct results of the Protestant Reformation was the implicit rejection of an incarnational faith, with notions of “faith alone,” and the explicit rejection of indulgences. The skeptic, or the overly spiritualized Protestant, cannot fathom earthly actions, in the form of monetary sacrifice or physical mortification, being acceptable offerings to the Father in remission for the suffering souls in purgatory.

The Enlightenment followed, further ingratiating the modern Christian with enlightened reason in place of medievalism’s blind faith; one should think their way to truth rather than wallow in the muck of self-denial. “Tame the mind rather than tame the body!” the heresy of modernism would say, or has said.

Dear Parent, understand that the modern American culture in which you have been raised is like warm water, and you are the frog. With every passing decade, the temperature has been turned up. Our nation, with many blessings indeed, was founded by men of the Enlightenment. They were largely anti-Catholic rationalists with smidgens of Christian faith remaining here and there. It was the author of our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who committed the blasphemous, idolatrous mortal crime of publishing The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, commonly known as the Jefferson Bible. This Enlightenment scoundrel, whom we scandalously christen as a Founding Father, removed all signs of the miraculous and supernatural in order to promote Jesus as a wise man—a man of whom the Enlightenment would be proud—rather than as the Savior who died for His dainty, self-indulgent self. This, Good Parent, is the America in which you live.

And thus, you should not be surprised that the progeny of such men reject all notions of a Christianity that is corporeal, physical, and bloody.

We Catholics glory in the flesh! We place little bits and pieces of flesh and bone in golden reliquaries, giving places of honor to the remnants of saints to reside with us. We dig up graves to see how much bodies have decayed in order to help assess a candidate for sainthood. We secretly wear hair shirts. We strap on cilices high up our thighs, quietly enduring the pain of little metal pricks digging into our skin without anyone ever knowing. We walk the pilgrimage of Camino de Santiago—all five hundred miles of it. We process on our knees around Marian shrines. We fast. We abstain. And why do we do these crazy things? Precisely because we believe in the resurrection and glorification of the very bodies that we seek to tame.

And you must teach your child how to tame his flesh now before the world teaches him how to indulge it and infects him with Protestant and Enlightenment ideals that diminish the role of the flesh in our salvation.

Diminish the role of the flesh in our salvation? What could be more blind to the truth! We are called to imitate Our Lord who became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14). He did not, however, become just any flesh. He did not take the form of royalty, of dainty Enlightenment bureaucrats reaching for their powdered wig or their aged bottle of wine. Rather, He took on the form of humanity’s broken and rejected flesh, the form of a slave (Phil 2:7). His life, not just His passion, was filled with suffering, for God intended for our faith to be corporal, not purely spiritual.

Remember, your child is not an angel. In fact, it was the incarnation that drove Lucifer and his angels to rebel; they could not imagine worshiping the Word, Who became flesh, nor bowing before His mother. If your child is not raised in an incarnational faith, he will eventually reject the helpless, Infant Savior, just as Lucifer did.

And so, what will your response be? Find every opportunity to lead your child in sacrifice. Do not be lukewarm and merely pray more during Lent, but also renounce something difficult. Real difficult. Do not treat Advent like one big Christmas season. Rather, treat it like the ninety-day march through the desert to Bethlehem that it was for the Holy Family. Christmas does not begin until Christmas. Advent is a small Lent. Act like it. Offer something up, even during the countless Christmas parties. Fast from meat on Fridays. (Although few know this, abstinence from meat or some other sacrifice is still required.) Find physically hard things to do, and let your little one know why you are doing it. Consider, Parent, obtaining a hair shirt or cilice (though it is not for everyone).[1]

Most importantly, teach your child to accept involuntary suffering like a Christian. The next time your little one has a stomach bug, kindly ask him for whom he would like to offer up the suffering. The next time your child has a headache, gently call to mind the crown of thorns and help your little one to ease Christ’s pain by uniting his or her suffering with His.

I cannot provide an exhaustive list of opportunities to teach penance and mortification because, frankly, life itself is supposed to be one continuous Lent, as St. Benedict once wrote. As a parent, you must see every moment of your child’s life as an opportunity to make a sacrificial offering. This I promise: if you understand your child’s entire life—body and soul—as an offering to the heavenly Father, and if you have the fortitude to speak the truth, then the instructional moments will present themselves several times a day. You will not seek them out; they will seek you out.

Dear Parent, you must consider whether you are afraid of teaching your child how to suffer. The younger your child is, the easier it is. But how will you instruct the older child, even the grown child, whom you have neglected in this regard? It begins with your own repentances for failing your child. Confess to a priest: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I missed twenty-five years of opportunities to enroll my child in the School of Jesus Crucified.” While you might have to explain yourself a bit to the priest, this, my Dear Reader, is a beautiful confession. But next, you must find the fortitude, overcoming the awkwardness, to preach to your adult child the truths of Calvary. If he rejects you, at least he will be confronted with truth and have the opportunity to accept it.

Oh, but so many well-intentioned parents bury the truth under guises of finessing their wayward child. Admittedly, a parent must be cunning in their dealings with a rebellious child. Often, a lack of faith and fortitude causes parents to soft peddle the truth. Nothing here should be interpreted as being heavy-handed. Truth in charity, always. But truth. Truth.

The truth, therefore, is that your child will not enjoy the glories of heaven without being schooled in the classroom of Calvary. Suffering is necessary. Penance and mortification are necessary. It is the way. It is the way to eternal glory.
A Joyous Conclusion

[1] Prudence and humility demand that such mortification be performed under supervision of a holy priest.

This article is taken from a chapter in Parenting for Eternity by Conor Gallagher which is available from TAN Books.



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