Dying to Live, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 29 January 1933

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'It is one of the curious anomalies of present day civilization that when man achieves greatest control over nature, he has the least control over himself. The great boast of our age is our domination of the universe: we have harnessed the waterfalls, made the wind a slave to carry us on wings of steel, and squeezed from the earth the secret of its age. Yet, despite this mastery of nature, there perhaps never was a time when man was less a master of himself. He is equipped like a veritable giant to control the forces of nature, but is as weak as a pigmy to control the forces of his passions and inclinations.

If, indeed, this life is a vale of character making, and if it involves conflict with those forces and powers which would drag us away from our ideals, then it behooves us to realize that the truest conquest is self-conquest, that true progress may more properly consist in mastering our rampant impulses and selflsh desires, than in mastering the winds and seas. But this conquest of self cannot be attained except by a struggle which in Christian language is mortiflcation. Mortification means dying to live for the love of God.

First of all, it means dying to live. It is a law of nature and grace that a higher life is purchased only by dying to a lower one, or that we live to the life of the spirit and the Kingdom of God only by dying to this world, with its flesh and its concupiscence. Let me first of all recall the tremendous emphasis which Our Blessed Lord placed upon this aspect of mortification – ^words which we but rarely hear in these milk and water Christianities of our day. “Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit,” “Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life, and few there are that find it! … If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. . . If any man come to Me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.

. . . And if thy hand scandalize thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life, maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into unquenchable fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished. And if thy foot scandalize thee, cut it off. It is better for thee to enter lame into life everlasting, than having two feet, to be cast into the hell of unquenchable fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished. And if thy eye scandalize thee, pluck it out. It is better for thee with one eye to enter the kingdom of God, than having two eyes to be cast into the hell of fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished.. . . . The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away. . . . For whosoever will save his life, shall lose it: but whosoever shall lose his life for My sake. . . , shall save it.”

These warnings sound strange to our lives, moulded so often on the assumption that this life is the only one we can be sure of, and hence, while we have it, we should eat, drink and be merry, for to- morrow we die. They sometimes are dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders, as if such suggestions be- longed to the past and should have no part in our modern life of ease and luxury. I would therefore , suggest that the law of mortification, which consists of dying to live, is one of the fundamental laws of life and one which cannot be ignored by anyone who knows the meaning and purpose of life. As the poet has put it:

“For birth hath in itself the germ of death.
But death hath in itself the germ of birth.
It is the falling acorn buds’ the tree,
The falling rain that bears the greenery.
The fern-plants moulder when the ferns arise,
For there is nothing lives but something dies.
And there is nothing dies but something lives
Till skies be fugitives,
Till time, the hidden root of change, updries,
Are Birth and Death inseparable on earth;
For they are twain, yet one, and Death is Birth.”

Glance over the various levels of creation, the chemical, the plant, the animal, the human order, and see how well verified is the law that a higher life is purchased only by death to a lower life.

Note that if the sunshine and the rain and the chemicals of the earth are ever to enjoy communion with plant life, so much as to be one with its organism and enjoy the thrill of living, they must surrender their form of existence in the lower order. If the grass of the field is to enjoy communion with the life of the animal and be so much with it that it can see, taste, touch and smell with the animal, it must die to its lower life; this means that as grass it must be torn up from the soil by the very roots and ground between the jaws of death. For death is the condition of birth. If the sunshine and the rain, if the plants and the flowers, if the animals and the birds, if the great expanse of living things are ever to enjoy communion with a higher life of man, so much so’ as to become a part of his life as a thinking and loving being, they too must surrender their lower lives and existences and pass through the Calvary and the Gethsemane of death.

In like manner, if a man is ever to enter into the higher life of Christ – and man has no right to say there is no higher life than his own any more than a rose has a right to say there is no higher life than it – if he is ever to enjoy communion with Him, so as to have the blood of God running in his veins and the spirit of God throbbing in his soul, he must die to the lower life of the flesh. Aye, he must be born again, for unless a man is born to that life of God by a death to the lower life of nature, he cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And hence the law of Calvary is the law of every Christian: unless there is the Cross there will never be the resurrection, unless there is the defeat of Calvary there will never be the victory of Easter, unless there are the nails there will never be the glorious wounds, unless there is the garment of scorn, there will never be the robes blazing like the sun, unless there is the crown of thorns there will never be the halo of light, unless there is the descent into the grave there will never be the Ascension, for the law laid down at the beginning of time which shall be effective until time shall be no more, is that no one shall be crowned unless he has struggled and overcome, and no one shall enjoy the life of God until he has died to his selfish self. But in this surrender of the lower life, let it not be thought that mortification is a sign of weakness; rather it is a sign of power: it is the will controlling itself, submitting itself to defeat at its own hands, in order to win its finest victory; it is the making of the dead self a stepping stone to better things and the conquest of self the condition of the victory which brings everlasting peace and joy with God.

Wrongly indeed do we think that Our Blessed Lord might have saved us in some less costly way than in emptying His Precious Blood from the chalice of His Body. Oh, if He were only a teacher of humanitarian ethics, if He were only a moral reformer, then it might have sufficed for Him to show His inimitable tenderness. His heavenly purity and His melting kindness; then He might have sat like some Greek teachers before Him in some market place or on some porch, where the great minds of the world might have sought out His wisdom and His counsel. But if He was to be more than a teacher, if He was to be the High Priest Who would not make a new world but invigorate an old one, if He was to force the human conscience to stand face to face with the sternest sides of truth ere He disclosed His Divine Remedy, then, unless the existing conditions of human life were to be altered. He had to die to the ignominy of a Good Friday to live to the life of an Eternal Easter. Since the servant is not above the Master, how can we expect to avoid the law of Christ?

“Could we but crush that ever-craving lust
For bliss, which kills all bliss; and lose our life.
Our barren unit life, to find again
A thousand lives in those for whom we die;
So were we men and women, and should hold
Our rightful place in God’s great universe,
Wherein, in heaven and earth, by will and nature,
Nought lives for self. All, all, from crown to footstool
The lamb, before the world’s foundation slain.
The angels, ministers to God’s elect;
The clouds, whose glory is to die in showers;
The fleeting streams, who in their ocean graves.
Flee the decay of stagnant self-content;
The oak, ennobled by the shipwright’s axe;
The soil, which yields its marrow to the flower;
The flower which breeds a thousand velvet worms.
Some only to be prey to every bird –
All spend themselves on others; and shall man,
Whose twofold being is the mystic knot
Which couples earth and heaven – doubly bound,
As being both worm and angel, to that service
By which both worms and angels hold their lives –
Shall he, whose very breath is debt on debt.
Refuse, forsooth, to see what God has made him?
No, let him show himself the creature’s lord
By free-will gift of that self-sacriflce
Which they, perforce, by nature’s law must suffer;
Take up his cross, and follow Christ the Lord.”

But mortification means not only dying to live. Its fullest meaning embraces also its inspiration, which is love, for the difference between pain and sacrifice is love. Love is the soul of sacrifice. Everything in nature testifies to this: the deer that fights for its fawn, the bird that toils for its nestlings, the spider that would die rather than drop its bag of eggs – all these know that love is not worth calling love unless it can dare and suffer for the one it loves. That, too, is why I believe that we always speak of arrows and darts of love – something that wounds. The day man forgets that love is identical with sacrifice, that day he will ask how a God of love could demand mortification and self-denial. As a matter of fact, the most intense human sufferings and the bitterest arrows of outrageous fortunes become softened and sometimes sweetened when they are borne in love for another. A mother keeps vigil over the bedside of her fever-stricken child: neighbors call it sacrifice, but she calls it love; the hero rushes into lapping tongues of fire to rescue his friend: onlookers call it sacrifice, but he calls it love; the lover gives to his beloved a ring, not of tin or strav^, but of diamonds and platinum: acquaintances call it sacrifice, but he calls it love. And finally. Our Blessed Lord empties Himself of His heavenly glory, puts on the cloak of mortality, and goes down to the horrible red death of a crucifixion: we call it sacrifice, but He calls it love: “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Hence, whenever and wherever there is an intense and passionate love of Christ and Him Crucified, sacrifice involved in crushing anything which keeps one away from Him is not felt pain but the sweetest kind of love, for what is pain but sacrifice without love. The saint does not view sacrifice as an executioner with a sword who will take away his life, but as a yoke that is sweet and a burden that is light. The devout do not hate life because life hates them or because they have drunk of its dregs and found them bitter, but because they love God more and in loving God more they dislike anything which would tear Him away. Oh, could the world but realize that the love of Christ Crucified so possesses thousands and tens of thousands of souls that they would rather lose all the world and the riches thereof than one second of intimacy with Him at the foot of the Cross. Could it but sense the passionless passion and wild tranquility with which such souls each morning rush to the Communion rail to enjoy intimate union with their changeless and understanding Friend, Jesus in the Eucharist. Could it but dimly guess how these Christ loving hearts rejoice in carrying a Cross in order that by sharing in His death they might also share in His resurrection! Sacrifice for them is not a loss, but an exchange; not a suffering, but a dedication; not. a foregoing of the enjoyable, but a conversion of passing pleasures into an eternal and unchangeable joy. Sacrifice for them is not pain, but love. Their only pain, in fact, is their inability to do more for their Beloved. Like ships which never know the full joy and the great glory for which they were made until they are unmoored from port and given over to the high seas and strong winds, so neither do souls know the full joy of their life until they too are unmoored from the port of all worldly attachments and following the words of Our Blessed Lord “launch out into the deep.” Like coals, conscious of their own blackness, they cast themselves into the fire of sacrifice, there to become Christ-like in fiaming brilliance. Like the logs of the forest, once in the consuming fire of the love of the Cross, these souls sing their song, for the log sings its song only in the fires which consume. Possessed with the desire to be like their Christ, none of them will come down from the Calvary of this world with hands unscarred and white. Like other Sauls made Pauls by their intense love of the Saviour, there fioats up like burning incense from their fiery hearts the words: “Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulations? Or distress? Or famine? Or nakedness? Or danger? Or persecution? Or the sword? I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor power, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus Our Lord.”

The world which begins with pleasure instead of ending with it perhaps can never understand why such an intense love of Our Blessed Lord should ever make souls want to die to live, and still be happy in their death. But then, neither can the world ever understand why the only recorded time that Our Blessed Lord ever sang was when He went out in the black, cruel night – to His Death!