The MOST Theological Collection: Vatican II: Marian Council
"Chapter 11 - Following after the cross with Mary"
To mortify ourselves in imitation of Mary and her Divine Son brings many benefits. We have seen mortification as acting on faith so as to dispose ourselves to receive an increase of faith; we have seen it as atonement.
Now we want to examine a special aspect of mortification in relation to faith. That will help us gain some practical insights on the best ways to practice mortification.
Faith, as we know, is the total adherence of a man to God-in his mind, by assent to God's truth and by confident belief that God will keep His promises; in his will, by obeying the will of God.
It is this last aspect that interests us now: faith obeying God's will. Really, all spiritual perfection lies precisely in this. Why? There is only one thing in man that is free: the will. Our mind could be compared to a meter which ought merely to register the truth that stands before it. If only the mind sees clearly, it is dominated by the truth. Of course, there is such a thing as wishful thinking, in which our feelings or desires sway, even distort the reading of that mental meter.
Now, since only our will is free, if we take the only free element in us, and align it absolutely, in every respect, with the will of God, obviously there is nothing more that can be done: that is absolute perfection.
To understand just how we can align our wills with the will of God, we need to notice that there are, basically, two kinds of situations, one in which the will of God is already clearly known to us, the other. in which His will is, at least in some aspects, not yet clear.
The will of God becomes entirely clear to us when we are given a command by some lawful authority. Vatican II, as we saw in chapter 9, made clear to us that we must obey the authorities of the Church. St. Paul, writing to the Romans, even at the time when they were ruled by the unfortunate Emperor Nero, told them:1 "Let every person be subject to superior authorities. For there is no authority except from God. Those that are in authority are put in place by God. So he who resists the authority, resists the ordinance of God."
It is sometimes said: The will of the superior is the will of God. This is true in one sense, false in another. It is true in the sense that God does want us to obey authorities, unless, of course, they order what is morally wrong. It is not however true in another sense, that is, it does not mean that what the superior decides is always the best. It may actually fall far short of the best, it may even be imprudent. Yet, unless it is morally wrong, we should obey. We recall the vehement words of Christ Himself about the Scribes and Pharisees. They were guilty of dreadful hypocrisy, as He Himself said. Yet He also said:2 "The Scribes and Pharisees have taken their seat upon the seat of Moses," that is, they have religious authority. "Therefore, all things they say to you, do and observe. But do not do as they do."
But we have already examined this matter of obedience in chapter 9. Now we are concerned with another type of situation in which the will of God is clear: that of providentially sent difficulties. We all have them, they vary much in each individual life. Some of these difficulties are relatively small, such as the problem of being patient with other drivers in crowded traffic, or submitting to an irritable boss at work, or dealing with unreasonable customers in a store. Students may have to endure boring teachers; teachers, dull, unresponsive students; assembly line workers submit to a monotony more fitted for machines than for men. But there are more demanding trials: severe and prolonged sickness, loss of a limb or of sight or hearing, the death of loved ones, and even, open persecution for having done what is right, a persecution that sometimes comes from those who have a positive obligation to promote the cause of Christ. St. Paul told Timothy:3 "All who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." His words are all too true, even in our times.
How can we make the greatest spiritual profit from these things that are sent to us, or at least, permitted to come, by the hand of our Father? It is obvious that we should not grumble and complain, and here, we need to watch ourselves carefully. It is not too rare to see a devout person who will say: "I am completely resigned to the will of God. I will never complain." Yet, when difficulties do come, some of these persons complain more often and more bitterly than those who make no special profession of following religious ideals.
But we can and will go farther, if we want to make the greatest spiritual gain. We will not only not complain, we will positively welcome and embrace these difficulties, and be sincerely glad to have them. Of course, we do not mean to say that evil is not evil. St. Paul, as we saw, pictures the whole Christian life by saying that we are saved and made holy if and to the extent that we are not only members of Christ, but are like Him. Paul told the Romans that we are heirs with Christ4 "if indeed we suffer with Him, so we may also be glorified with Him." Over this we rejoice, at t he chance to be more like Christ, and His Mother. And St. Paul was right in adding:5 "I judge that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us." In the same vein, Christ Himself said:6 "The servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you," and:7 "Blessed are you when they curse you and persecute you and say all evil against you, lying, for my sake. Be glad and exult, for your reward is copious in heaven."
At first sight, it may seem to be asking too much to suggest that we actually be glad over afflictions. And someone might even add: Did not He Himself suffer much, and even ask that the chalice pass from Him? Did not His Mother grieve most deeply at His passion? We make two points in reply. First, it is true, this is asking much. Yet, our human nature tends to follow the pattern of the pendulum: it swings readily from one extreme to another, but does not stop in the middle. Now one extreme is to complain over trials; the other is to accept them with joy. Precisely because they are at opposite ends of the scale, the action-reaction principle, the pendulum pattern, will help us, once we make the first bold break. Psychologists would add: It is the sign of a poorly adjusted person to indulge in flight from reality. To embrace it not only makes one well balanced, but makes the difficulties more easily bearable. It takes much of the sting out of them.
Secondly, we must admit that Mary and her Divine Son did grieve deeply and suffer bitterly. Yet this does not contradict what we have said. For there are many levels within a human being, from the vegetative and the animal levels up to the highest realms of the spirit. Suppose we think of a high mountain, whose peak pierces the clouds. On the lower slopes, as one looks up, he sees only blackness, clouds, storm. Yet on the peak itself all is clear: the sun is shining. Similarly, the lower levels of our nature may be most grievously afflicted; yet the point of the spirit, if we follow the way of Jesus and Mary, will rise up into unshakeable, everlasting serenity, peace, even joy.
When things are easy, and we enjoy consolation in the things of God, it is easy to adhere to His will. But when we must summon all our powers to hold on, then we are in a fortunate necessity. We must either mane a large gain, by holding on tightly, or go down. So, we welcome the opportunity for a large gain in likeness to Christ and His Blessed Mother, by adhering to the Father's will strongly, in the dark, in spite of pressure to the contrary. The Father is more eager to give His graces than we are to receive them. If only we become more open, in this way, He can give more. That pleases Him the more, benefits us the more.
But not always are all aspects of the will of God clear. For example, a priest might be given an order to collect money for the relief of the poor. Since it is an order given by lawful authority, there is no doubt that God wills that the priest go ahead, and work diligently. But, to what extent God wills that the campaign succeed, by what means, what degree of progress, at what time: all these factors are not really clear. God for His own good reasons may wish to make it necessary to work harder, to delay results, to give success through means different from what our poor minds imagine should be the case. So we need to preserve a sort of pliability in working even for certainly good things. Or, to put it another way: there are two sides to such a picture, one in which God's will is clear, the other, in which it is not. Where His will is clear we should not be simply passive: we should actively will and work for what He wants, to the extent that His will is clear. But in the other aspect, that in which we do not know all details of His will, there we preserve a sort of expectant pliability, ready to actively align ourselves with His will when that becomes clear.
Again, God might seem to give a religious vocation to some young person. That is of course a good thing. Yet He might wish to frustrate that, to send or permit instead some lingering illness that makes the carrying out of such a vocation impossible. Here too, we need to distinguish the two sides, and to align actively with the clear aspect of God's will, to hold ourselves in adaptive readiness for the later appearance of the features of His will that are not clear at the start.
If we are to be able to recognize God's will as it gradually unfolds in such cases as these-and in many less dramatic situations too, even in the small decisions of daily living-we need as it were some conditioning. That consists in mortifying our desires.8 We might approach it this way. Our Lord told us:9 "Where your treasure is, there is your heart also." Our treasure is anything that strongly attracts us, It is anything that exerts a pull on our thoughts, our wills. our inferior nature. We might compare it to a gravitational force, tending to pull everything towards itself. Some put their treasure in fine meals: when their minds are free they love to daydream about eating; others put their treasure in powerful cars, or in accumulated wealth, or in travel, or in sex, or even in studying theology. Now all these things are legitimate, within proper bounds. But even if we think of only the legitimate use of these things, they still can create a danger for us. All of them are good, but they are less lofty, less good than God. Some of them are even more elevated than the common level: but as long as the level on which they lie is even somewhat lower than the level on which God is found, they can hinder our ascent. By pulling our thoughts, our desires, our hearts and sensitivities to a level that is anything less than the divine level, they make It that much less easy for us to rise.
Suppose, then, that God sends a grace, which is intended to lead me to do some good thing. But suppose also that I have within me a strong desire that goes in the opposite direction. The pull of that opposing force will make it hard for the pull of divine grace to have its effect, for divine grace is gentle, in that it respects our freedom.
It is clear, then, that our mortifications can do double or even multiple duty if we use them not only as a means to prepare for greater faith (by acting on faith), not only as a means of atonement (balancing the scales of the moral order) but also as a means of removing the pulls of creatures that make it less easy for us to discern the will of God in concrete, individual situations.
St. John of the Cross compares such pulls or attachments to a line that holds a bird down.10 Suppose, he says a bird is tied down by a thick rope: it can fly no higher than the rope permits. But suppose instead of a rope, he is held only by a thread of the same length: as long as he does not break that thread, he is still limited to the same amount of rise. Similarly, it matters little, says St. John, whether it be a great or a large attachment that limits our ascent to God: so long as we do not break that thread, our flight is confined to the lower reaches. We can never reach perfection.
As we saw in chapter 10, we need both providential and self-imposed mortification. St. Paul, as we said, had a most unusual measure of, unsought, providentially permitted difficulties in the course of his missionary labours. Yet he imposed on himself also fasting and other penances. There seem to be two reasons: the total amount of penance was, in his opinion, not enough without these additions; and also self-imposed mortifications can be carefully directed precisely against those spots in our tendencies that need curbing the most.
How much self-imposed mortification is needed in the life of each person? No general rule can be given. We can only notice that we are very apt to go to extremes. Most persons go to the extreme of not doing enough; a few will go to the opposite extreme, and damage health, in their imprudence. The reason for both extremes is the fact that it is hard to be objective about one's own case, especially in matters of this kind. So, if possible, we do well to get the help of an experienced spiritual director, to help us choose general guidelines for mortification, and to make adjustments in those policies at intervals. How often such revision will be in order will of course vary much in individual cases.
Finally, we can not only imitate the total dedication of Mary to the will of God, by which she even consented to the dread immolation of her Divine Son; but we can also obtain another special help from her. We need to ask her to obtain light and strength for us. And there is still another service she will perform for us if we wish. In civil law it is possible to appoint an attorney to act in our name in certain matters. Now in this matter of trials and mortifications, we do not always know all aspects of the will of the Father. Especially, we do not know if it would please Him if we would ask for some trials or sufferings, to atone for our own sins or those of others. We would like to do more than just wait passively, in a pliant state, until His will appears. We would like to actively will what He wants. In the interval before His will becomes clear, we can make a closer approach to active alignment if we give to her a sort of Power of Attorney. That is, we appoint her to speak for us to the Father, to make in our name any offer of accepting any specific future trials which it might please Him to have us make. We do not know what to ask for: she does. She can raise our pliant expectancy to active alignment, for she will actively speak for us if we ask her to do it.