Taking Up the Cross Daily by Praying with Our Senses

On the Role of Mortification in the Christian Life

The term “mortification” has become increasingly less common in contemporary discussions of the spiritual life. One might say it is now nearly absent from such discussions. We hear about someone being “mortified” when they are humiliated, or embarrassed. And yet, the Christian practice of mortification is as old as the gospel, and has always been a standard component in Christian spirituality, even if less so of late. The Apostle St. Paul confides to the Christians in Corinth, “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” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).1 Mortification is a dying to self, a form of self-denial. It involves the offering up of suffering, a very traditional Catholic practice.

In his papal encyclical, Spe Salvi, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI included a brief discussion on “offering up” suffering, specifically on “‘offering up’ the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating ‘jabs,’ thereby giving them a meaning … In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love.”2 Christian life, including family life, as well as religious life, is filled with many such “irritating jabs.” One online Catholic blog, Parenting Mortification, is devoted to looking at the many sufferings that arise in the ordinary married and family life of Catholic parents, and learning to turn those into opportunities to sanctify them. Our Lord instructed his Apostles: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). But what exactly are mortifications, and how can they be of benefit to the interior life?

Mortifications can be passive or active, but they can also be corporal or interior. Passive mortifications are when we “offer up” the difficulties, challenges, and other forms of suffering that come our way unlooked for, e.g., an illness. Active mortifications are those we seek out in order to deny ourselves, and take up our cross daily. Although the concept of corporal mortification might conjure up bloody images of extreme penances, it simply refers to any form of denial or suffering that affects the body, including the common cold passively embraced, or actively abstaining from meat on a Friday, or on Fridays during Lent. Sometimes, the criticism of active mortifications may be heard, along the lines of, “life has more than enough suffering of its own, why actively seek out more?”

Certainly, an excessive emphasis on mortification can represent a warped view of the Christian life. Mortification does not exhaust Christian spirituality, but it does have its place, and an important place at that. One might respond to someone who criticizes active mortifications because life has enough suffering already, with the question, “and how well, how cheerfully, do you deal with suffering when it comes your way?” The practice of active mortifications should lead one to be more cheerful, and to help better deal with the sufferings of life that come unlooked for. In a chapter on mortification, Catholic theologian Scott Hahn writes: “By voluntary self-denial, we return to God what is his: and we demonstrate our preference for spiritual goods. In due course, we will lose the good things one by one. How much better for us if we give them up voluntarily, for love? If our self-denial is habitual, then perhaps we won’t grow so bitter when age takes away our delights, as it certainly will, without asking our permission.”3

In preparation for the Second Vatican Council, Pope St. John XXIII reminded the faithful “not to overlook the practice of voluntary mortification.”4 St. John XXIII was not novel in his appeal. This was the bread and butter, as it were, of the early Christians; and if we think our lives are full of suffering, how much more theirs.5 We read about the numerous mortifications and penances within the ascetical lives of countless Saints throughout all eras of Christian history. St. Thomas More described corporal mortifications as a giving “alms with” one’s “own body.”6 One way he lived this, even as a married layman, was through his custom of wearing a hair shirt which caused him some discomfort. Other Saints are famous for their corporal mortifications: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John Vianney, and St. Therese of Lisieux.

Some of these forms of corporal mortification were more common than others. The use of the discipline, a whip of rope or leather with which Christians hit themselves on the back, was commonplace among Catholics, especially the celibate—lay, religious, and priests. St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists, was quite severe on himself with his use of the discipline, also wearing a crown of real thorns which drew blood. St. Catherine of Siena, a Third Order Dominican, is associated with transforming the traditional hair shirt into the pointed chain cilice made infamous by the gross misrepresentation in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.7 We could multiply saints who whipped themselves and/or wore a hair shirt or a cilice around their thigh, shoulders, and/or waist—e.g., Pope St. John Paul II; St. Padre Pio, St. Francis De Sales; Blessed Teresa of Calcutta; St. John Bosco; Blessed Oscar Romero; and Blessed Pope Paul VI.8 When we look into the lives of these saints, we find that it is only the rare saint, like St. Paul of the Cross or St. Padre Pio, that did bodily harm to themselves, e.g., drawing blood. It should go without saying that doing oneself harm should be avoided. Cases such as St. Paul of the Cross are exceptional and had to do with their unique vocations; God was calling these few saints to found a religious community, a new movement, or to spearhead reform. But it is difficult to find canonized saints who neglected completely the practice of active corporal mortification of some sort.

Such mortifications were ubiquitous among the religious, and even if they are no longer so, individual religious still practice them. I know Franciscans that sleep on the floor, more than one Jesuit still uses the cilice and discipline, there are some Carmelite nuns who make, use, and sell cilices, and some Dominicans still wear a knotted rope around their waist under their clothing. Many other religious take cold showers, sleep without a pillow, or limit their use of air conditioning when it is warm, or heat when it is cold, actively as a form of mortification. In addition to the religious, there are secular clergy in the U.S., beyond the very small number of numerary priests of Opus Dei, who use a cilice, a discipline, sleep on the floor, and/or take cold showers. Some diocesan clergy, likely inspired by Dominican spirituality, have worn the knotted rope around their waist under their clothing. Others fast regularly, purposely omitting either a breakfast or a lunch or a dinner on various days. These clergy are not injuring themselves, they are not drawing blood, but are actively causing discomfort, which they can then offer to the Lord. All of these examples above are more along the lines of larger corporal mortifications, which sometimes may be beneficial, always under the guidance and with the permission of a spiritual director.

What I want to focus on in this article, however, are the smaller mortifications, which can sometimes be more difficult, especially the interior mortifications I will discuss below. Religious orders, and various other formal institutions within the Church, carry with them their own traditions of mortification and asceticism, even if much of this has been sadly abandoned. In what follows, however, I want to focus more on the secular clergy and the laity, where there has, thankfully, never been as uniform a spirituality as that found, and appropriately so, within a given religious order, or in more secular movements, prelatures, and institutions. Specific mortifications, other than those bare minimums mandated by Church law like fasting on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday, are not universal, and that’s as it should be. The Church lays down bare minimum rules ordered to the sanctification of souls, encouraging all the faithful to do more than the bare minimum. The notion, however, that Christians should be cross-bearers, involving mortifications of some sort, is universal.

Regarding secular clergy, I want to begin with some comments from the Program of Priestly Formation (PPF), since this relates to the formation of diocesan priests. The PPF includes “ascetic practice,” as one of the “requisite skills for living chastely,” and it includes “priestly asceticism” as one of the “means to live celibate chastity well.”9 A few paragraphs further, the PPF articulates a number of points that are required in order “To live an effective life of celibate chastity.” Among these requirements, the PPF specifies that, “Certain habits or skills are necessary instruments on the path to effective and healthy celibate chastity. … Among these habits and skills (are) ascetical practices that foster vigilance and self-mastery over one’s impulses and drives.”10 The PPF emphasizes seminary formation in matters of asceticism including: “Spiritual formation initiates seminarians to a path of voluntary renunciation and self-denial that makes them more available to the will of God, and more available to their people. Asceticism and the practice of penance is a path of learning to embrace the cross …”11 Again, in the context of seminary formation, the PPF indicates that a seminary “rule of life” should accomplish a number of tasks, but “must also foster” attitudes, habits, and practices, that include “encouraging fasting, almsgiving, and the asceticism demanded by a Christian life, and the priestly state.”12

Such comments do not mean that we should only deny ourselves as Christians. That would be a gravely mistaken view of the Christian life. A Christian, and even a saint, can enjoy the good things of this earth appropriately, but we have difficulty doing this if we never deny ourselves. As one canonized saint mentions in his advice on the struggle to become holy:

Sanctity has the flexibility of supple muscles. Whoever wishes to be a saint should know how to behave so that while he does something that involves a mortification for him, he omits doing something else—as long as this does not offend God—which he would also find difficult, and thanks the Lord for this comfort. If we Christians were to act otherwise, we would run the risk of becoming stiff and lifeless, like a rag doll. Sanctity is not rigid like cardboard; it knows how to smile, to give way to others, and to hope. It is life—a supernatural life.13

In this context we can think about little active corporal mortifications that can be beneficial for our relationship with God and loving others. Some of the easiest and least obtrusive are mealtime mortifications. The idea is not to do all of them, but rather incorporate one or a few at mealtimes, selecting one mortification, while omitting others that might be mortifying. Enjoying the meal, but selecting a point or more to offer as a sacrifice to God. There are more possibilities than I could mention. Taking the smaller portion of meat, while leaving the larger portion for the others. Taking two cookies instead of five. Having only one glass of wine, instead of two. Drinking white wine instead of the red you would prefer. Taking less salad dressing, or a less preferable dressing. Omitting cream or sugar from your coffee. Taking less butter on your toast. Waiting three swallows of food, or waiting until one portion of food is eaten, before taking a drink. Abstaining from one food item, like bread. Eating a little more of what you prefer less, perhaps vegetables, and a little less of what you prefer more, perhaps meat or dessert. Abstaining from one type of condiment—salt, pepper, mustard, ketchup, oil, vinegar, mayonnaise, etc. The options are nearly endless. One of the beauties of these small mealtime mortifications is that they are so unobtrusive, especially if you vary them meal-to-meal and day-to-day, that it is very likely no one will notice. So, maybe this morning I’ll omit raisins from my oatmeal. Perhaps tomorrow, I’ll eat the oatmeal with the raisins, but this time omit sugar. The next day, maybe I’ll eat the oatmeal with both sugar and raisins, but maybe no nuts. It’s a good idea, when possible, to choose in advance, what will be sacrificed.

Varying such mortifications can be helpful on multiple levels. First, it allows you to avoid the pitfall of “being rigid like cardboard” as in the above quotation. Secondly, it does not draw attention to your mortification. Thirdly, it is less easy (albeit not impossible) to suffer from pride from such small mortifications. Imagine saying to oneself, “look at me, even though I had ice cubes in my water for lunch, I was so incredibly spiritual at dinner that I drank water without ice cubes!” Pride is always laughable, but it is almost too laughable with such small mortifications. Pride is, however, an obvious potential pitfall of larger mortifications. Moreover, the Christian who, say, uses the discipline a few days a week, might think they have sufficiently born the cross of Christ, that they can indulge every other whim that comes their way. That would be a sad mistake. It is fine to indulge a whim, or to enjoy the many pleasures of life. But to never say no to a whim, or to a licit pleasure? If we never develop a habit of saying no to ourselves when it’s only a little matter, what makes us think we will be able to do so when the urge is much stronger, and it really does matter? If we want even a hope of being joyful when we really need to deny ourselves, or when we have no choice in the matter because of age or sickness, then we need joyfully and habitually to deny ourselves in little things throughout each day.

Lots of other examples abound of mortifications, not all corporal, but which can help us in other ways, as in working more efficiently, using our time better, using our resources better, etc. One way we can battle what Pope Francis has recently called a “throw away culture,”14 is by taking better care of the resources we use such as clothing, cars, computers, etc. Letting go of such things when someone else is in need of them, is another aspect of this, and can be a great mortification. One nine year old I know, upon finding $60 on the ground, after being unable to find the owner, donated $40 of that find to help refugees from Syria. Such almsgiving can be an excellent mortification, one I know I would find very difficult. We can also look at areas of punctuality, organization, doing the task that is most important but unpleasant first instead of continually postponing it, etc. Each of these can be a challenge which we can offer to God.

More difficult than even the most extreme corporal mortifications of some of the saints, however, are often the interior mortifications we either passively bear, or actively take on. We have a very sane, but extremely challenging, list of examples of serious interior mortifications that we can actively pursue from St. Josemaría Escrivá, taken from his classic work of Christian spirituality, The Way:

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.15

And elsewhere, from his homily, “In the Footsteps of Christ”:

Penance means being very charitable at all times towards those around you, starting with the members of your own family. It is to be full of tenderness and kindness towards the suffering, the sick, and the infirm. It is to give patient answers to people who are boring and annoying. It means interrupting our work, or changing our plans, when circumstances make this necessary, above all when the just and rightful needs of others are involved. Penance consists in putting up good-humoredly with the thousand and one little pinpricks of each day.16

St. Josemaría again writes, “Sometimes a smile can be the best proof of a spirit of penance.”17 Indeed, one test of whether or not we are living a healthy Christian spirit of mortification is whether or not we are cheerful, and whether or not we help make the lives of others more cheerful. In general, it is good to select mortifications that will not bother, or mortify, others, but will rather pass unnoticed and/or make their lives more cheerful.

Such practices can be done for almost any reason, just as our prayers can. If mortifications are a means of praying, this time by involving our senses, then we can practice mortifications for the same reasons we pray. We can offer mortifications as penance for our own sins. If we are parents, perhaps we can offer mortifications in penance for any sins our children or spouse may have committed, as Job did for his children (Job 1:5). If we are priests, we can offer mortifications in penance for the penitents who have come to us in the confessional. We can offer mortifications for the love of God, or for the love of a saint like the Blessed Virgin Mary. We can offer mortifications in thanksgiving. We can offer mortifications for a prayer intention, maybe for an ill friend or family members. We can offer mortifications for our apostolate work, or to help get that friend or family member back to the confessional, or back to the Church. The possibilities for our intentions are quite vast, as with those of our prayer in general.

Of course, the ultimate reason for mortification, for bearing the cross, is because it is an encounter with Christ. At the same time, it has many other benefits. One of the clearest is that it aids in the development of the virtue of fortitude, and in that way, contributes to our interior life much the way that exercise and dietary abnegations function for athletes. Ultimately, however, mortifications are ordered to charity. We take suffering, either those we seek or those that find us, and we turn such suffering into something holy, into prayer, into our extensions of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. When we offer it for others, we help them as well. Even when not explicitly offered for others, as with any good we do, we aid the Body of Christ.

The Christian discipline of mortification is not exclusively for priests and religious, but for the laity as well. If such practices are off the radar screen of many seminarians, priests, and religious, the sad truth is that they are probably even more so out of the minds of most Catholic laity. And, yet, family life provides not only so many opportunities for passive mortification, but for active mortifications. Examples abound, just as they do in the communal life of the religious. Saving the extra piece of your wife’s favorite dessert for her. Going away from a meal not quite fully satisfied so that your children can have enough of the food they enjoy. Occasionally doing a chore that your spouse has committed to doing. Making sacrifices to ensure that you arrive home punctually from work. Taking pains to work in an organized way, with real intensity, so that you have more time to spend with your family. Going to bed when your spouse goes to bed, or just going to bed “on time,” even though there is a show on television you would like to watch, or you would like to read that next chapter to find out what happens, etc. Getting up to attend to the crying baby, perhaps to change the diaper, in the middle of the night, to let your wife sleep, or to bring the baby to her to nurse. Taking the kids to the park, so your spouse can sleep in. Learning to embrace and love the little annoyances, the pet peeves, that your spouse does which don’t really adversely affect the smooth running of the home or their sanctification, but simply annoy you. Learning to eliminate aspects of your behavior that you know annoy your spouse, that are pet peeves for her. All of these, and many more, are great opportunities for mortifications, and specifically mortifications that can make the lives of those you live with more cheerful. If you take them on with a Christian spirit, they will make you more cheerful as well.

Such mortification, or asceticism, in the words of University of Notre Dame theologian, David Fagerberg, “recreates our appetite for God by disciplining our appetites for the world.”18 Or, as Fagerberg puts it another way, “Asceticism pries our allegiance away from the fading goods of the flesh to eternal goods of the spirit, not because temporal things are not good, but because they are only temporary. They were meant to be pointers, stepping stones.”19 Thus, I want to encourage all of us—me too, since I loathe suffering of all sorts—whether we are religious or secular, cleric or lay, celibate or married, to follow Christ along the path of the cross, little though our crosses be. If we do so, we will learn to pray with our senses and, thus, be more closely united to Christ, and, alongside Christ, through him, we will contribute to transforming the world.20

  1. All Scripture quotations taken from the RSVCE.
  2. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2007), no. 40.
  3. Scott Hahn, Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots (New York: Doubleday, 2009), 179.
  4. Pope St. John XXIII, Paenitentiam Agere (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1962), no. 1.
  5. On the relationship between the major mortifications of the early Christian ascetics and early Christian martyrdom, see Maureen A. Tilley, “The Ascetic Body and the (Un)Making of the World of the Martyr,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 59 (1991): 467-479.
  6. St. Thomas More, The Life of Pico Della Mirandola: ‘A Very Spectacle To All’ (New York: Scepter, 2010), 16.
  7. Raymond of Capua, Life of Saint Catherine of Siena, trans. by the Ladies of the Sacred Heart (New York: Kenedy & Sons, 1862), 44 and 68-69.
  8. Fr. Robert Barron, “John Paul II and ‘Taking the Discipline,’” Our Sunday Visitor (15 March 2010).
  9. Program of Priestly Formation (PPF), 5th ed. (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006), no. 79.
  10. PPF, no. 93.
  11. PPF, no. 110. See also no. 98: “In a consumer society, a right attitude toward the world and earthly goods is easily lost. That is why a seminarian has to be helped to cultivate personal self-discipline and asceticism.” For a theological look at penitential practices in the context of St. Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of the virtue of penance, see Maria C. Morrow, “Reconnecting Sacrament and Virtue: Penance in Thomas’s Summa Theologiae,” New Blackfriars 91 (2010): 304-320.
  12. PPF, no. 269.
  13. St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Forge (New York: Scepter, 1987), no. 156.
  14. Pope Francis, Laudato Si (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015), nos. 16, 22, and 43.
  15. St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Way (Princeton: Scepter, 2001), no. 173.
  16. St. Josemaría Escrivá, Friends of God (New York: Scepter, 1981), no. 138.
  17. The Forge, no. 149. Indeed, St. Josemará confides, “I assure you that a smile is sometimes more difficult than an hour’s worth of cilice” (Friends of God, no. 139). For St. Josemaría, this advice about smiling was not merely theoretical, but came from his own experience as his private journal notes from a retreat in 1941 reveal: “It’s hard for me to smile…. What a good mortification—one ready at hand, and unnoticed! If my spiritual director approves, I’ll do my particular exam on cheerfulness. It’s no small thing! Resolution: To smile, smile always, for love of Jesus Christ.” See Andrés Vázquez de Prada, The Founder of Opus Dei: The Life of St. Josemaría Escrivá Vol. II: God and Daring (New York: Scepter, 2003 {2002}), 384. By “particular exam,” that is, “particular examination of conscience,” St. Josemaría is referring to one small point to work on, examined briefly midday and then again at the beginning of a general examination of conscience at night before going to bed, where “Your particular examination should be directed towards the acquisition of a definite virtue or the rooting out of your predominant defect” (The Way, no. 241). He always viewed the general exam as “like defence,” and the particular exam as “attack. The first is your armor. The second, your sword” (The Way, no. 238). The particular exam was a weapon of attack to uncover the “root” of one’s faults discovered from fruitful general exams (The Way, no. 240).
  18. David W. Fagerberg, On Liturgical Asceticism (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2013), 77.
  19. Fagerberg, Liturgical Asceticism, 121.
  20. I have taken this phraseology of mortification as a “prayer of the senses” from St. Josemaría Escrivá, e.g., St. Josemaría Escrivá, Christ is Passing By (New York: Scepter, 1973), no. 9 and no. 78.
Dr. Jeffrey Morrow, Ph.D. About Dr. Jeffrey Morrow, Ph.D.

Dr. Jeffrey Morrow is an associate professor at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University, located in South Orange, New Jersey. He also serves as a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Dr. Morrow is a Jewish convert to Catholicism. He resides in northern New Jersey with his wife and five children.


  1. […] The term “mortification” has become increasingly less common in contemporary discussions of the spiritual life….Read more here. […]