Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The MOST Theological Collection: Mary in Our Life

"Chapter XIV: Why the Cross?"


Browse by Title
New Search
Table of Contents for this Work

THE SAYINGS of Our Lord on the subject of mortification are many and forceful. "And he who does not carry his cross and follow me, cannot be my disciple" ... "And he who does not take up his cross, and follow me, is not worthy of me," are only two among them.1 We do not like to read these texts; they are unpleasant to human nature. But they are inescapable: Christianity without the cross is inconceivable. He who follows Christ must take up the cross. Mary accepted the cross most perfectly of all the followers of Christ. We have already seen in detail her perfect union with Him on Calvary; equally perfect was her union with Him in all the hardships of His life before Calvary. In this chapter we shall discover, with her help, the chief reasons for the necessity of the cross.

We have stressed the fact that the very essence of the Christian life is love. We presented humility as a peculiarly necessary prerequisite for that love, for humility is concerned with emptying us of the disordered self in us, so that there may be room for God who is love. Now humility accomplishes this emptying especially in our attitudes toward ourselves and others. It reveals our true position and makes us take the proper reaction to it. An appreciation of our true position also shows the need of mortification. For mortification also deals with this matter of the emptying of self.

The first reason for mortification is the fact of original sin. For even though original sin is removed by baptism, some of its consequences-our weakness and inclination to evil-are not. Hence we must face the fact that we have tendencies to evil. We are composed of body and soul, matter and spirit. We live in a material world, surrounded by things of sense. It is not surprising that the demands of the senses war against those of the spirit. This tendency of the lower nature to get out of hand makes it difficult for the intellect to see truth fairly (recall again the introduction to this book). The will naturally finds it easier to let us go downhill than to plod its way upward. All these things alone make obvious the need for strong corrective measures.

We may well compare our lower nature to a piece of spring steel: in order to straighten it, it is not sufficient merely to push it into a straight position. If we do no more than that, it will jump back to its natural bent. We frequently have to push it far in the opposite direction. In the case of the metal, we might finally be able to make it remain straight. In our own case, the warfare is never over. Now, just as we must regularly push the spring far in the opposite direction, so also we must often deny the senses even lawful things, if we are to keep them under control. If we attempt to walk on the edge of a cliff for long, we shall probably fall over sooner or later. So also, if we hold to the mere minimum at all times, we shall sooner or later fall into sin. Further, it is not merely the tendency of the senses to disorder that we must fear: our very mind, the higher part, also tends to the disorder of pride and to other vices as well.

In short, every part of our being is in need of corrective and precautionary measures. These needs would exist even if we were living in a world of innocent people who never tempted us to get out of line in any respect. But the truth is, the spirit of the world in which we live is frontally opposed to the spirit of Christ This fact increases the need of mortification. And the forces of the devil provide a constant threat that we dare not ignore; to drop our armaments before such an enemy would be real folly.

These reasons are all valid even for one who has never committed sin. They apply with a new force to those who have committed sin (and we all have: only by a special privilege such as was given to Mary could anyone for his whole life avoid all sin, even venial sin.)2 Hence we have a great need of penance to counteract the further disorder brought about by our sins. For the weakening effects of original sin are heightened by personal sin. There is a saying: God forgives, man forgives, but nature never forgives. This means that there are certain natural laws whose operation is not suspended by our repentance and pardon. All sins leave us weaker, and more inclined to the same or even worse sins. No amount of venial sins can add up to a mortal sin: yet they do dispose us to mortal sin. Every time we commit any sin, our resistance to that sin is weakened for the future. It is obvious that here is a new tendency to disorder which mortification must correct.3

The disorder left in our soul by sin involves not only a weakness of will toward good, but also a darkness of mind. We find it hard to see things in their true light, in relation to God and eternity. We naturally gravitate toward believing that this world is the only world, that it can and should be a paradise in which we "shall be as gods." Hence there is need of the sobering influence of mortification to help banish such illusions. God is indeed good to us when He sprinkles our path with difficulties that keep us in our right senses.

We may note in passing that although we ought to use and prize indulgences, they do not at all obviate the need for mortification to correct the disorders of original and personal sins.

We have seen two reasons for the need of mortification: the weakness and tendency to disorder left by original sin and by our own personal sins. Such tendency to disorder would call for mortification even if God had destined us for a merely natural end. But the loftiness of the end for which He has destined us- the supernatural end of union with Him in the face-to-face vision of heaven-reveals another reason for mortification. For since we are destined to such an intimate union with God in Heaven, it is obvious that a high degree of purity is required. Every part of our being-not only our senses but even our higher faculties-stands in need of purification. We have two choices in this matter. We must either accomplish the purification in this life, when it can still merit for us an even greater glory in Heaven, or we must suffer it without any merit in Purgatory.

In the preceding chapter we spoke of the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the spirit. We can, as was said, accomplish part of our purification actively, that is, by mortification with the help of the more usual graces. But there is a point beyond which we cannot advance unless God Himself intervenes and, by what is called a passive purification, finishes the work for us. Hence the need of the two nights. The first of the two nights purifies the sensory part of man and leads into initial infused contemplation. The second of the nights purifies the spiritual side of man and leads him into the unitive way. Few in this life reach the first passive night. Still fewer reach the second. But the work must be done somewhere. If it is not done in this life with merit, it will be done in Purgatory, without merit. Here, then, we have a powerful incentive to work hard on mortification, for it brings such great rewards not only in the next life, but even in this life; while to neglect mortification not only loses advantages for us, but even puts us in danger of losing our final goal altogether.4

The fourth and greatest reason for mortification is a reason of love. Just as in the treatment of humility we saw that we ought to be glad to accept humiliations precisely because Jesus and Mary chose them, so for the same reason we can now say that we ought to be glad to accept mortification and suffering, because it is par excellence the way of Jesus and Mary: it is the road of the cross. The motive of love also presents the duty of mortification as one of reparation. For once a man who loves God realizes how shamefully both he and others have offended and are offending God, he cannot do other than wish to make reparation to the outraged Heart of Christ. Especially in our own day is there great need for reparation, when the sins of individuals and nations have risen to a pitch seldom if ever equaled in all past history. In his classic encyclical on the Sacred Heart, Miserentissimus Redemptor, Pope Pius XI speaks of his own times thus:

Surely these things are so sad that one might say that through events of this sort even now there are foretold and portended those "beginnings of sorrows" which "the man of sin ... who ... is lifted up above all that is called God or that is worshipped" is to bring....

And so the thought comes upon us, even though our mind is unwilling, that the times are now approaching closer of which Our Lord prophesied: "And because iniquity hath abounded, the charity of many shall grow cold."5

In offering our reparation to the Heart of Christ, let us not forget to offer it up through the hands of Mary, so that she may purify it of the stains of self which so readily creep into even our best works, and that she may join it to her own priceless reparation. Thus Pope Pius XI, in the official prayer of reparation, wrote:

... we offer it in union with the aces of atonement of Thy Virgin Mother and of all the Saints and of the pious faithful on earth.... O loving Jesus, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary our model in reparation, deign to receive the voluntary offering we make of this act of expiation....6

We owe reparation to the Sacred Heart of Christ because of the pain that sin has caused Him. But Mary shared in His sufferings, for sin was not only the cause of the Passion of Christ, but also of the Com-passion of Mary. Hence it is strictly and literally true to say that every sin of ours has wounded not only the Sacred Heart of her Son, but also her own Immaculate Heart. Therefore, while offering our reparation to His Heart through her, we should not forget to offer reparation to her own Heart as well, for the pain that we have caused her. With this in mind, Saint Pius X, even before Fatima, granted indulgences to encourage exercises of reparation to Mary.7

When we speak of making reparation, not only for our own sins, but for those of others as well, one may object, "But I have more than I can do to atone for my own sins; it would be pride for me to presume to make reparation for the sins of others." In a certain sense this complaint is valid. But remember: we are not alone: our poor reparation is to be joined to the infinite reparation made by Jesus on Calvary and re-presented in the Mass, and to the reparation that Mary made with Him. In this way we can, without presumption, attempt to repair for the sins of others. Therefore, in that same prayer of reparation, Pope Pius XI encourages us to say:

... we humbly ask Thy pardon and declare our readiness to atone by voluntary expiation not only for our own personal offences, but also for the sins of those who, straying far from the path of salvation, refuse ... to follow Thee ... or ... have cast off the sweet yoke of Thy law. We are now resolved to expiate each and every deplorable outrage committed against Thee....8

The right attitude to mortification requires a delicate balance. Various fanatical groups within the Church, both in the past and present, have distorted the balance. In general, they tend to make mortification an end in itself, to be pursued blindly, out of pride in their ability to "take it" and without obedience to proper authority. They forget that mortification is a means to love. They forget that great penances with little love do not have great value (lack of obedience points to pride, not love, as a motive). They forget the law of gradual progress, imposing on everyone without discretion the heroic penances of the saints.

But it is possible to learn something even from those who are in error. For very often such persons err precisely because they have realized some part of the truth so forcefully that they are blinded to all the other elements that should be included. The truth the fanatical groups have seen is that most of us are far from being generous with God. We rightly condemn the errors of fanatics, but we could profitably learn from them the lesson of generosity. It is well to say that we must take prudent precautions, must follow a good director, must advance gradually, must make all subserve the end of love-these things are all true and must be kept constantly in mind. But we must also remember that although great love can make small penances worth much, we must ask ourselves: Are we sure we have the great love? If we had as much love as we are apt to imagine, we would probably find some middle position between our tiny, rare mortifications and the excesses we rightly condemn. And we would tend to grow in generosity. How can we hope to attain with only slight effort the high degree of detachment which we ought to have in order to make room in our hearts for great love? We tend to bargain with God, to ask, "How much do I have to give? I will give this and that, and then I can be free from paying attention to Him for the rest of the time." We are like the child who prayed: "O Lord, I give you all I am and all I have." He read this out of his prayer book. But then, with the simple perception of a child, he realized what it meant, and he hurriedly added, "-that is, all except my little white rabbit."

Although we do not mention our white rabbits in our offerings to God, we do have them. We recite many acts of offering whose words are generous. We think we mean them (do they sometimes flatter our pride?). But God accepts what He sees in our heart, rather than what He hears from our lips. If our lips speak of great love to God, He will not believe them if our hearts and our actions give the lie to our words. Generosity in mortification is one of the most concrete proofs of genuine love.

Finally, we may reduce all reasons for mortification to love. We mortify ourselves because love dictates that we expiate past offenses, we mortify ourselves because intense love naturally chooses hard things to prove its strength to the one loved, we mortify ourselves to make ourselves grow in the capacity to love God still more. Giant penances with little love are worth but little, while small penances, if really performed with great love, are worth much Hence Garrigou-Lagrange says of those who practice a total consecration to Mary:

Mary, wonderful to relate, makes the cross easier and, at the same time, more meritorious, because she obtains for us a greater charity which is the principle of merit, and because, by offering our acts to the Lord, she increases their value. By reason of her pre-eminent charity, Mary merited more while performing the easiest acts than all the martyrs in their tortures.9


1 Luke 14:27; Matt. 10:38. [Confraternity version.]
2 We must distinguish between fully deliberate venial sins and semi-deliberate venial sins. It is a defined doctrine that no one, without a special privilege, can avoid all venial sins for a lifetime—but this definition is amply safeguarded if we state that one cannot avoid all venial sins of frailty and surprise for a lifetime. It is possible to hope to obtain the grace to avoid all fully deliberate sins. And of course it is clear that anyone can always avoid any given single sins if he co-operates with the grace given him. Fully deliberate venial sins are a great obstacle to our progress. But venial sins of frailty and surprise are not such an obstacle. See chap. IX on this distinction.
3 St. Augustine has this in mind when he writes, speaking to God: "For You have ordered it, and it is true, that every disordered soul is its own punishment" (Confessions, I, xii, 19).
4 On this point see Garrigou-Lagrange, Christian Perfection and Contemplation, pp. 356-57, 399-400. Notice ibidem that there are equivalents to the two nights, e.g., in the case of infants who die after baptism.
5 Pope Pius XI, Miserentissimus Redemptor (May 6, 1928 ), AAS 20: 175 and 176. The internal quotations are from Matt. 24:8, II Thess. 2:3-4, and Matt. 24:12, respectively.
6 AAS 20:185.
7 He granted plenary indulgence for special devotions on the first Saturday in honor of the Immaculate Virgin, in a spirit of reparation for the blasphemies uttered against her. Confession, Holy Communion, and prayers for the intention of the Holy Father are required. This indulgence is still in force. June 13, 1912, AAS 4:623.
8 AAS 20:184. See also chap. XX.
9 Garrigou-Lagrange, op. cit., p. 387.