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Suffering As Gift and Vocation

Christian vs cultural asceticism

Suffering can be a sublime gift. Look at the fruit of the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. It surprises many to learn that our sufferings too can be offered,” and offered for the same reason Jesus died on the Cross, to assist in the plan of saving souls. — Offering of Suffering

If I have so much trouble practising any kind of penance or making the slightest act of self-denial, why do I think about it so much and feel such shame and guilt for not doing it?

Because it matters. It matters a lot for these reasons among others:

  • Jesus assumes we will do it.

  • Mary begs us to do it.

  • Saints did it.

Cultural Asceticism

Pagans, philosophers and athletes practice asceticism for entirely different reasons than Catholics. Diet and fitness training are the most common forms of asceticism in our culture. Many seek to develop habits which include self-denial with food, entertainment and other forms of deprivation for these reasons:

  • To prepare us for future hardship and suffering (think Ukraine here)

  • To break free from slavery to our body’s junk-food cravings and other demands for comfort

  • By means of fasting, to detoxify the body, to give digestive system a chance to restore itself, to improve metabolism, to enhance brain function and to improve the immune system

  • To break habits that interfere with focusing on what matters for our future (social media or Netflix binges)

  • To gain mental clarity and spiritual vision

  • To achieve important goals that require consistent intense effort such as gaining a high level of expertise (becoming a chess master), creating consistent quality output as an artist or writer), or proficiency in a skill (coding).

Catholic Asceticism

In contrast, Christians embrace self-sacrifice and a penitential lifestyle with a focus directed to pleasing God rather than to attaining ego-driven or goals which our culture encourages. Catholic Christians understand more deeply the mystery of suffering as redemptive which Pope St. John Paul II explained in The Christian Meaning of Suffering.

Penance must have its roots in charity, not in austerity. Austerity may accompany its growth, but it will be a by-product rather than an essential fruit. A certain austerity will even be a sign of true penitence, but it will not be an infallible sign, nor the only one. The infallible signs are humility and charity. — Spirit of Penance, Path to God

We at least want to fast, to do penance and to deny ourselves legitimate pleasures, even if, like me, this desire doesn’t reach the level of the will. We deny ourselves and do penance in order to love Jesus more intimately and to imitate Him more completely.

I needed help to motivate myself to embrace a lifestyle of penance in keeping with my Carmelite vocation. While reading so many books and articles about fasting, penance and self-denial. I collected these reasons so I could review them frequently. If you’re simultaneously attracted and resistant to self-mortification, I hope these will help us all to answer Mary’s call to make sacrifices for the conversion of souls.

Reasons to live a penitential lifestyle

To be spiritually liberated

Everywhere St. Paul speaks of the gospel’s making him free, of Christ’s making him free. Freedom, peace, and penance go together. It is only those who die and live again in Christ who are free. Renunciation is liberative and life-giving. — Spirit of Penance

To participate with Jesus in His redemptive work

To express the life of the Crucified means to live His Passion. to associate ourselves with His sufferings, to unite ourselves to His intentions — the glory of the Father and the salvation of souls . … Jesus wills to continue His Passion in us so that we may be associated with Him in the work of redemption. … Jesus, who could have accomplished His work alone, willed to need us in order to apply the infinite merits of His Passion to many souls. –Divine Intimacy

To be more recollected in mental prayer

Mortification of the senses should not be limited to Carthusians and to those in cloisters as it is an indispensable exercise for all souls, in that they may become recollected and wholly concentrated upon God. — Divine Intimacy

To break free from carnal/sensual attachments

When people desire anything to an excessive degree, they immediately lose their peace of soul. … Those who are not mortified are easily overcome by small temptations. … While in this state their hearts are heavy when they try to detach themselves and they are quickly angered by those who oppose them. … We find our peace only by resisting our passions, not by giving in to them. Peace is in the heart of the devout and fervent, not in those who are carnal and give themselves to outward things. — Imitation of Christ

To enhance effectiveness in intercession

We fast because our need is great and our God is greater. We fast in reverence of this truth. In fasting, we are saying to God, “Our spiritual need is greater than our physical discomfort and the supply for both comes from You alone.” –Fasting As Intercession

To enhance spiritual vision

The material veil that hides from the mind all but the vague outline of divine truth is worn thin by penance. Prayer and faith have now, in the light which is less dimmed by material things, a chance to penetrate. Not only are the things of the spirit more clearly seen; the things of matter are at last understood in their true context. — Spirit of Penance

To console Jesus

It is easy to understand that we must make reparation for our own sins, but sometimes we do not see as clearly that reparation should also aim at consoling the Heart of Jesus. In fact, a soul who lovingly penetrates the mystery of Jesus will realize that when, in Gethsemane, He saw all our sins, He also saw the good works we would do in order to comfort Him. What we do today with this intention consoled Him then in reality. This thought spurs us on to further acts of reparation, so that Jesus finds no reason to complain sorrowfully to us: “My Heart hath expected reproach and misery…I looked for one that would comfort Me, and I found none (Mass of the Sacred Heart). — Divine Intimacy

To free the soul from the body’s demands which hinder genuine prayer

St. Teresa of Avila warns us that “if prayer is to be genuine, it must be reinforced with this practice for prayer and self-indulgence do not go together”. It would be an illusion to think that we can reach intimacy with God without the serious exercise of physical mortification.This body of ours, says St. Teresa, “has one fault: the more we indulge it, the more things it discovers to be essential to it.” –Divine Intimacy

Identifies and unites me to my suffering Bridegroom

The imitation of Christ should not be limited to some particular aspect of His life; it means living Christ and Christ becoming completely assimilated to Him.The life-giving principle of our resemblance to Christ is grace : the more grace we possess, the greater our resemblance to Him. … However, in order to accomplish this fully, we must continually die to ourselves, “always bearing about in our body the mortification of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest…in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4,10.1I). –Divine Intimacy

To remain spiritually alive

Unless prayer informs penance, and penance expresses prayer, each is incomplete. Just as in the act of respiration there is the dual process of inhalation and exhalation, so in the act of religion there is the dual activity of mystical receiving and exhalation is the ascetical giving. … But in order to keep alive physically, you have to breathe in and out; in order to keep alive spiritually, you have to pray and do penance. –Spirit of Penance

To express a desire to share in Jesus’ suffering for the salvation of souls

The Sacred Heart, in appearance to St. Gertrude the Great and other Saints made it clear that although Christ is in His glory in Heaven, He and His Mother suffer great pain and anguish over sin and the loss of souls., This is a mystery that is beyond our comprehension but we might begin to understand the possibility of His anguish when we think about His Passion and death on the Cross and yet millions of souls reject His gift of eternal life. — Offering It Up

To clear the way for grace to transform souls

It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls. … Suffering, more than anything else makes present in the history of humanity, the powers of the Redemption. Those who share in the sufferings of Christ preserve in their own suffering a very special particle of the infinite treasure of the world’s Redemption, and can share this treasure with others. –Offering It Up

To prepare for the transforming union (entrance into the seventh mansion of St Teresa’s Interior Castle)

Mortification frees the soul from every obstacle which might retard the growth of grace, which would hinder the soul’s love for God and its flight toward Him; whereas prayer which consists essentially in intimate conversation with God feeds this love and quickens this flight. … It is in this sense that the saints, and particularly the contemplative saints, have always seen in the living water promised by Jesus, not only sanctifying grace, but also those special graces of light and love which are its consequences and which the soul attains to in prayer, in the moments of intimate contact with the God. –Divine Intimacy

Other than pride which is so strong in us that it waits till we’ve been dead 10 minutes before it leaves, the two deadly sins I struggle with most are gluttony and sloth. Besides humility, I desperately need the virtues of abstinence (temperance) and diligence. Practicing self-denial sucker-punches pride when we quickly fail in our resolutions, especially at the beginning of Advent or Lent.

I stopped making resolutions. I just make a start on some self-denial, knowing I couldn’t even manage that much without His grace. I’m lying to myself if I say I want to practice penance. My behaviour tells the truth of the matter. I plead with Our Lady to help me love Jesus so much more than I do. I beg Jesus to increase my love for Him so that the desire to deny myself will move from my intellect to my will.

Suffering has a supernatural value only when it is borne with Christ and for Christ. It is Jesus who sanctifies suffering; apart from him it is worth nothing and is of no use. But if it is embraced for the love of Him, it becomes precious coin, capable of redeeming and sanctifying souls; it becomes a continuation of the Passion. The value, the fruitfulness of our daily sacrifices comes from this unreserved acceptance, which makes us receive them just as God offers them to us, without trying to avoid them or to lessen their weight…. All are part of the divine plan. — Divine Intimacy


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