Bernardo M. Villegas
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Lenten Season During the Pandemic

          Last February 17, the whole Christian world started the Lenten season.  This is the second time we will be spending this penitential period under the heavy weight of the pandemic which has, as we say in the Oratio Imperata for the Protection Against the COVID-19 virus, “disturbed and even claimed lives.”  It would be worthwhile to remind ourselves that many of the inconveniences, discomforts, deprivations, and sufferings brought about by the virus can be converted into spiritual treasures that can help us gain for ourselves and the people we love our eternal reward in heaven.  It would be a pity if all these negative impacts of the pandemic would just go down the spiritual drain if we are not able to convert them into what are known as “passive mortifications” through which we  respond to the clear message of Christ:  “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” (Luke 9:23)  Although the term “mortification” is increasingly avoided in the hedonistic and consumerist environment of a materialist culture, the season of Lent is an opportune time to remind ourselves that one cannot be truly a Christian unless he knows how to “die to himself”.  The term mortification is derived from the Latin word “mortis” which means death.

         Even in human terms alone, mortification brings many benefits.  The first obvious one is that it helps us develop the virtue of fortitude, strength of character.  Fortitude helps us strengthen our spiritual life.  It works very much the same way that training, exercise and dietary abnegations help athletes perform better and better in their respective sports.  As St. Paul  quipped in 1 Corinthians 9:26 - 27):  “Therefore, I do not run like someone running aimlessly:  I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.  No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”  As St. Josemaria Esriva, one of the greatest spiritual advisers in modern times, wrote in his classic, The Way (93), “Tender, soft, flabby…: that’s not the way I want you.  It’s about time you got rid of that peculiar pity you feel for yourself.”

         Mortification can be passive or active; they can also be corporal (bodily) or interior (relating to our mind, will, memory or imagination).  The passive ones are those that have abounded during the pandemic.  No one has been spared all types of difficulties, challenges, privations and trials during the last twelve months.  We never asked or looked for them.  The faithful Christian is one who accepts these sufferings gladly  and offer them up to God as a way of sharing the Cross of Christ, as being a co-redeemer with Him.  The active mortifications are the ones we seek out ourselves, voluntarily denying ourselves some legitimate pleasures such as those related to food, drinks, entertainment, or pleasant memories or imaginations.  Corporal mortification refers to any form of self-denial of suffering that affects the body, including the common cold, headaches, bodily pains, or fasting from meat on Fridays during lent or skipping some usual snacks or merienda on specific days of the week. When some practise “intermittent fasting” for health reasons, they should also add a spiritual motivation to this act of self-denial.   Those who have been addicted to Netlix could also consider reducing the number of times they watch their favorite series or films.  Interior mortifications consist of ways in which we deny our own thoughts or will, whether actively or passively, without complaint.

         During these difficult times of the pandemic, interior mortifications have acquired greater significance.  On one hand, there is the bright side of entire families being cooped up in their homes 24/7 because of the lockdowns.  There is more time for intimacy and personal interactions with beloved ones.  On the other hand, there can be greater occasions for frictions, disagreements, fighting for limited space or digital devices, irritability, etc.  These are times when the highest virtue of charity is put to a test.  Interior mortifications can be more pleasing to God than bodily sacrifices under these circumstances.  As St. Josemaria wrote in The Way (173):  “The appropriate word you left unsaid; the joke you didn’t tell; the cheerful smile for those who bother you; that silence when you’re unjustly accused; your kind conversation with people you find boring and tactless; the daily effort to overlook one irritating detail or other in those who live with you…this,  with perseverance, is indeed solid interior mortification.”  Giving up our own comfort or pleasure in order to make the lives of others pleasant is the highest form of mortification because it is linked to the supreme virtue of love for neighbor, next only to the love of God.

         There are those who object to active mortifications because they say that “life has more than enough suffering of its own; why actively seek out more?”  We should ask them how well, how gladly and cheerfully they deal with the sufferings that come their way.  By practising active mortifications, we are more prepared to accept the daily pinpricks and trials that are part of our daily lives.  We are better prepared to continue being cheerful when things do not go according to our plans.  As the famous spiritual author, Scott Hahn wrote in Signs of Life, “In due course, we will lose the good things of the earth anyway, one by one:  but 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.”

         Obviously, mortification has nothing to do with masochism, the desire for pain for its own sake.  An excessive emphasis on mortification can reflect a warped view of the Christian life.  Although mortification does not exhaust Christian spirituality (in his goodness, God created pleasures for us to enjoy them), it does have a place in it, and an important place at that.  Mortification recreates our appetite for God, by disciplining our appetites for the world.  As David Fagerberg wrote in “On Liturgical Asceticism”: “Asceticism pries our allegiance away from the fading goods of the flesh, to the eternal goods of the spirit.  Not because temporal things are not good, but because they are only temporal things:  they are meant to be pointers, stepping stones to God.”  A healthy dose of mortification in our lives will help us avoid the great evil of consumerism, i.e. identifying earthly happiness with the consumption and accumulation of more and more material goods. 

         Generally, we should choose mortifications that do not bother or mortify others, but rather pass unnoticed and/or make their lives better.   An obvious example of the wrong kind of mortification  is the decision to deny oneself the pleasure of a daily shower in a tropical climate.  The unpleasant odor that one would exude will be a source of mortification to others.   An acid test for whether or not you are living a healthy Christian spirit of mortification is whether or not you are cheerful and whether or not you are making the lives of others more pleasant.  At times, a smile may be your best mortification and even your best penance.  As we have repeatedly stressed, ultimately mortifications are ordered to charity.  We take suffering and turn them into something holy, into prayer, into our extensions of the Holy Sacrifice of  the Mass.  When we offer them for others, we help them as well.  But even when they are not explicitly offered for others, we help the Body of Christ.  We become truly co-redeemers of souls.  Let us not waste the opportunities during this pandemic to grow in love for God and for our neighbors through both active and passive mortifications.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.