Letter Lessons - spiritual truths of mortification

John Kubasak

How powerful are the spiritual truths of mortification

    In her first Letter Lesson, Cora Evans covers a lot of spiritual ground.  She had the grace of being taught by St. Aloysius for two years.  St. Aloysius Gonzaga was a Jesuit novice/seminarian who died at the young age of 23.  As a child, St. Aloysius was already developing a life of prayer, fasting, and mortification1.  He died as a result of living the corporal works of mercy: while caring for victims of a plague in Rome, Aloysius contracted the disease himself.

    St. Aloysius conveyed to Cora some of the lessons from his own life, and the reason behind the prayers, fasting, and mortification.  Those things aren’t done for their own sake, but for Christ.  More specifically, the goal is perfection.  “Jesus invited us all to follow Him. He is the Master of all perfection. Then, it is only reasonable that He wants us to become masters of self” (First Letter Lesson).  If we slip away from that goal, our spiritual lives will run off course.

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    For it is not against flesh and blood we contend, as St. Paul reminded the Ephesians.  We fight “against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (6:12).  With our fallen human nature, this spiritual battle tries every human that lives.  None can sit on the sidelines.  St. Paul remarked that he didn’t understand his own actions sometimes, that “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom 7:15).  This from St. Paul, apostle and evangelist, who mystically communed with Our Resurrected Lord!  We can’t be so foolish to ever think that saints had it easier than the rest of us.   

    In this spiritual contest, Jesus gave us many ways to defend and fight for ourselves.  He didn’t leave us in that quandary on our own.  His grace makes possible the way of perfection—that is, becoming truly Christ-like.  He opened up extraordinary channels of grace through the Church and the seven sacraments.  In ordinary ways, too, Jesus makes His grace available to us.  To help in the day-to-day matters of our spiritual life, St. Aloysius recommended a series of things to Cora: mortification, contemplation, and calmness.

    Mortification of the body veils great grace under a mantle of suffering.  Cora highlighted the importance of mortification not in a flagellant sense, but as disciplining to build up.  “The five senses must learn to play upon the body and bring Heaven’s grace down from Heaven. That grace, spiritual rain, waters the soul, and in turn the soul gives greater life to spirit, and the path or ladder rungs are formed, and we begin the climb with our cross to God. The spirit leads, the soul follows, and the five senses follow as train-bearers for a bride.”  Fasting and penance sometimes get cast in a bad light, but Cora reminds us that done correctly, they create a ladder to God.  A solid spiritual life is impossible without mortification.  One of the reasons that mortifications draw us toward God is that they turn our attention away from ourselves.  Our senses and appetites are an unruly crowd, and have subtle ways of trying to assert control over us.  If they control us, our lives become about seeking pleasure/seeking to satisfy those appetites—not growing toward God.

    I have experienced this as I’ve started to fast over the past few weeks.  Previously, my fasting had been relegated to Lent.  This has been the most concerted effort than I’ve ever given it in my life.  Everything in my spiritual life has felt a benefit: prayer, practice of virtue, being attentive at Mass, and praying the rosary.  On days that I skipped fasting, I had an odd, new feeling, like my soul was aching.  With a taste of fasting, I realized how much I needed it.  The practice of fasting nourished my soul to the extent that it asked for more.

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    Mortification is a first step, and it needs accompanying development to lift up a soul.  Contemplative prayer puts the fruits of mortification to good use.  Cora used an image of a farm: “Public prayers are seeds sown in the earth (our bodies), but contemplation is the planter, the worker, the tireless plougher and giver to the earth, for seldom is a harvest kept by the farmer… The rain for the tiller of the earth (the body) is the Holy Spirit.”  Contemplation is the highest form of prayer and often thought to be the exclusive realm of the great saints.  Cora Evans gives a very simple definition of contemplation, however: “to be alone with Christ.”  That’s great news for all of us that aren’t experts in meditative prayer yet!  Anyone with a heart, mind, and soul can unite themselves to Christ in contemplation.

    Contemplation, in turn, is found in calmness of heart.  Further, “calmness is mastered greatly by the gift of knowing and loving silence (see Is 30:15)”.  In his celebrated book The Power of Silence, Robert Cardinal Sarah said that “we encounter God only in the eternal silence in which He abides.  Have you ever heard the voice of God as you hear mine?  God’s voice is silent” (pg.21-22).  Encountering God in silent prayer has two effects, according to Card. Sarah; first, it “allows man to place himself joyfully at God’s disposal.”  Second, it allows “God to take hold of us” (The Power of Silence, pg. 121).  When it comes to God, silence isn’t sterile, bland, or boring.  It’s about relationship.

    In her first Letter Lesson, Cora Evans relates the lofty spiritual truths of mortification, contemplation, and calmness.  She concludes the lesson with a section on “Application and Sense Mortification,” attaching actual tasks to implement her spiritual writings.  For all the wonderful teachings and lessons from St. Aloysius, the Christian life must still be lived.  Cora suggests some simple ways to apply the topics of her Letter Lesson.

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     Every day for a week, take a walk around the block/to the store/to the office and greet at least three strangers with a smile and a “good morning.”  Then, write a letter to a sick friend or shut-in each day of the week.  These simple actions bring Christ to others.  Have you ever had your day changed by a smile?  Or felt a surge of joy when a letter arrived from a friend?  Greeting people on the street might sound uncomfortable, but it’s a way to mortify ourselves.  Offer a loving smile and glance, for the sake of Jesus, even at the risk of a glare.

     Another subtle way to mortify our speech is to be more intentional in our conversations.  Cora suggests saying few words and actively avoiding gossip.  She had “counter beads” to keep track each time she reveled in relating the latest news or willfully pried into the affairs of others.  Have you ever kept track like Cora did with her beads?  It could shed a lot of light on either advances in virtue, or if we’re regressing into vice.  Tracking tools could be a notepad, mental notes, or a notes app on a smart phone.  So many things are data-driven today; to get an accurate assessment of your spiritual progress, why not turn to something objective?

     Finally, Cora incarnates the lesson of lukewarmness.  “Remembering Christ within us, how He hated lack of zeal, and how He said through the Spirit that He would vomit the lukewarm out of His mouth (Rv 3:16), we must actually taste of the lukewarm by drinking a cup of warm coffee, or tea, or milk” for each failure in the above mortification.  The message to the church in Laodicea condemns lukewarmness harshly: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:15-16).  To get a literal idea of lukewarmness, Cora suggests actually drinking tepid coffee, tea, or milk—"without a scowl, always.”  Hopefully the unpleasant drink will reinforce the warning against tepidity.

These applications of her lessons provide ways to form the soul and the body.  Use these to advance in becoming more like Our Lord.  Servant of God Cora Evans, pray for us!