Mortification and the Supernatural Life, by Father Basil William Maturin

There are two words that constantly keep ringing the changes throughout the teaching of our Lord and His Apostles. One is “Life,” and the other is Death. And different people, according to their difference of temperament and training, take up one or other of these words as the keynote of their spiritual life.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, say some, “is a Gospel of Life. It breathes with the vigour of a fresh energetic life from beginning to end. ‘In Him was Life and the Life was the Light of men.’ ‘I am come that they might have Life, and that they might have it more abundantly.’ ‘They will not come unto Me that they might have Life.’ ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life. He that believeth in Me shall never die.’ ‘I am the Bread of Life.’ ‘The Law of the Spirit of Life hath delivered me from the Law of Sin and of Death.’ From first to last it is full of this thought of living rather than dying, of giving forth rather than restraint, of letting yourself go in energetic action rather than holding yourself back in timid self-repression. What we need is not to die but to live and to live more abundantly, to die to sin by living to righteousness, conquering evil by good. If we thought less of ourselves and gave ourselves out more to others, we should get rid of a multitude of faults bred of self-analysis and morbid self-repression.”

And so these men tell us that the Gospel is a Gospel of Life; and in Life not death, in action rather than in mortification we are to find the remedy for our needs. And as we hear them speak, still more as we watch them live, we feel that they certainly have not got the whole of the truth, and part of a truth is often very misleading. There is too much talk about life and living to be healthy, too much of the very self-consciousness that is deprecated, too little taking in – it all seems to be giving out, and a good deal of it a waste of energy. Somehow such people, though they may quote the words of our Lord about living, seem very far from reproducing the calm strong life that He lived and taught.

And then there are others who read the teachings of our Lord very differently, who say: “Nay, but His Gospel is a Gospel of Death, its message of hope and joy is only for those who are ready to give up all and to die for it ‘If any man will come after Me let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.’ ‘He that saves his life shall lose it, he that loses his life shall find It’ ‘Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die it remains alone, but if it die it shall bring forth much fruit.’ ‘We are buried with Him by Baptism into His Death.’ ‘If ye live after the Flesh ye shall die, but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body ye shall live.’ ‘I die daily,’ says Saint Paul, ‘I bear about in my body the dying of the Lord Jesus.’ The Gospel of Christ is a Gospel of death. We must die to everything that is of earth that we may gain the things of heaven. We must mortify every earthly passion, every human feeling and desire. The very beauty of this fair earth has its subtle danger; better turn our backs and close our eyes to it and wait for the beauty of that land that lies beyond.”

And as we listen to such words, and watch the lives of those who teach them, we feel, again, they may have part of our Lord’s teaching, but certainly they have not the whole. And in their lives we feel the chill and the rigour of death, but a death that has little cheer or hope and still less love. We must always respect the sincerity and courage of those who are ready to deny themselves, and who reduce life’s pleasures and comforts to a minimum. But we do not feel inclined to follow them, or to believe that they have the true secret ‘of that Gospel which sets men’s hearts on fire. God has not given us things merely that we should give them up, or powers merely that we should not use them.

For the fact is, that each of these has taken but one side of our Lord’s teaching and ignored the other. These two words, Life and Death, ring out with equal distinctness and ever-recurrent rhythm, one always, following close upon the other. Now He seems to be speaking about that Life which He came to give, and which He would have us live, and, lo, He is speaking of Death; and again. He is speaking of the Cross and the Tomb, and behold it is of Life He speaks. They are never separated in the teaching of our Lord. Neither life stands alone nor death alone. And it is the part of those who would follow Him to reconcile these two principles in their own practical lives. No doubt it is easier to take one of them and try to produce that, but it will not be the Christian life. You may die to everything that the world has to give, or you may live with the stream of life ever at full flood, but you will not have that exquisite grace, that wonderful blending of opposite characteristics so free from extremes, so essentially true, that is the marked product of the faithful following of the teaching of Christ.

No wonder, if it reconciles life and death which are ever in deadly antagonism, that it brings together and harmonises in the soul other characteristics that seemingly are irreconcilable.

We must, then, in our practical life constantly bring together these two principles of life and death. Death must ever suggest, nay, if I may say so, bring with it, some new experience of life, and life must always have upon it the shadow of the tomb, or, better still, the light that shines upon it from the other side. Death is not all darkness, nor life all light. The light of life illuminates and warms the pallor of death. The daily dying is robbed of the chill coldness of the tomb, for in the agony of death the heart seems only to grow warmer and more human. And the life is freed from the noise and bluster that so vulgarises it, and gains something of the reverence and restraint of the chamber of death. A life without any mortification quickly runs to seed, and mortification practised as an end in itself soon degenerates into hardness and cynicism. In every act of dying we must gaze into the tomb with the Magdalene till we see it transformed by the vision of life and beauty that lies beyond it and shines through it. And in every act of living there must be just that element of mortification which prevents us from draining life down to the dregs and exhausting its energies in the death of decay from which there is no door into any life beyond. We all know the weariness and disappointment that flows quickly upon the footsteps of self-indulgence.

We must keep before ourselves constantly in the practice of mortification this principle, if we would get good from it instead of harm. There is no particular advantage in the mere act of giving up what we like. The idea of giving up the good things of this life, its pleasures and enjoyments, simply because it is better in itself to be without them, is assuredly a mistaken one. There is not necessarily any spiritual advantage in the mere act of depriving ourselves of anything in itself harmless. The fact of not having does not make a man better than the fact of having. Many a man suffering from grinding poverty would conceivably have been a better man and a better Christian if he had not been so poor. In itself it is better, broadly speaking, to have than not to have, to have a full life than an empty life, to have health and friends and the power of enjoyment than not to have them. A man who has everything that this world can give him is not necessarily a worse man or a less spiritual man than one who has nothing.

Still less can we suppose that the pain of an act of sacrifice is in itself, as pain, pleasing to God. That in giving up a pleasure or an indulgence or an easy life the essential value of the sacrifice is the amount of suffering it costs us. Surely not The suffering, however important an element it may be, is accidental. There are not a few who think that in proportion as they cease to feel the pain of some act of self-denial it loses its value, and they often torture themselves with fear because they do not suffer more. When prayer or self-denial becomes a pleasure to them they feel as if a good deal of their value was gone. No doubt suffering has its own great and mysterious office as a means of purifying the soul, and as penance for sin, but that is a different thing. I am considering it now merely as an element in mortification and self-sacrifice, and the idea that it is the essential element upon which the value of any act of self-denial depends is assuredly non-Christian.

And yet again, the practice of mortification is not based upon the idea that the things we give up are in themselves bad. There has always been a tendency with some minds to regard certain things that have been abused by many people as in themselves evil. Everything in the world has been created by God, and on the morning of Creation **God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good Those things that have caused the greatest evil upon earth are good and capable of doing good. The evil lies not in the things, but in the men who abuse them and become enslaved by them. The abuse of narcotics has been the curse and ruin of many a man’s life, yet the proper use of them has saved many another. “The love of money is,” says Saint James, “a root of all evil,” yet in the hands of a good man money is an immense power for good. The Church has often been pressed to condemn things that have been the source of much evil, and has been looked upon as lukewarm because she will not take the extreme view that is so often taken by those outside, but she has ever been firm in maintaining that “every creature of God is good, and nothing to be rejected if it be received with thanksgiving, for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer.

Therefore, in the practice of mortification, we do not condemn those things which we give up. We do not throw the blame upon them but upon ourselves. He who grows in the Christian spirit of mortification looks with no cold eye of contempt upon the fair world in which he lives, still less does he condemn those who use what he gives up. The condemnation he reserves for himself alone, and he regards with reverence those things from which he turns away. If there be in him any touch of bitterness or hardness, or any spirit of condemnation of those who enjoy what he has abandoned, we know that he has failed.

For the value of mortification is as a means to an end, it is the end that interprets and sanctifies the means. And the end is not death but life. It is not the act of mortification in itself nor the pain that it costs which gives it its value, but what it gains. It is not the mere giving up but the receiving. The surrender of something good in itself for something better. The pain of the sacrifice is valuable as a witness and test of the worth of that for which the sacrifice is made and the faith of him who makes it. It is a surrender of the lower for the higher, the dying to things less worth having to win things more costly. The act of dying is but the passage into a larger life. We do not die for the sake of death, but as being the only way to break through the barriers that hold us back from a better and wider life. The martyrs have been known to sing Te Deums in the flames and on the rack – they caught glimpses of the life to which death was the short and painful passage – but it was on the life beyond that their eyes rested. It was for them the condition of entering into the glory beyond, and they trod with kindling eye and outstretched hand that fiery passage, eager to seize upon the life to which it led. So Saint Paul says of our Lord: For the joy that was set before Him He endured the Cross. In the darkness He saw the light and reached towards it. In His Passion He pressed forward to the Resurrection.

We often dwell upon the act of sacrifice, upon the chill of a mortified life, upon the sternness of the demands of Christ, as if such acts ended in themselves, but we should look through and beyond them to that for which alone they are made and for which alone they are worth making, and see the pathway of death made radiant with the light of the life beyond.

Such an idea of mortification robs it of its gloom, still more of all that charge of unreasonableness which is sometimes brought against it. We can gain nothing worth having in this world without paying for It. To acquire anything however fragile and perishable we must part with something we already possess, which we value less than that which we would acquire. If we do not think it worth the price we do not pay it. The law of gaining possession is the parting with what we value less for what we value more. He would be unreasonable who only thought of the price he paid instead of the thing he purchased. He forgets his loss in the joy of his gain. It is the possession that his mind delights to dwell upon rather than the cost A man cannot keep his money and at the same time get what he has set his heart upon having. The question is, which he values most; and our Lord says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in a field, which a man having found hides, and for joy thereof goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” The pain of parting with everything was lost and forgotten in the joy of his new possession The predominant feeling was joy not sorrow, gain not loss. The pallor of death is lighted up with the glory of the life beyond, “Mortality is swallowed up by life.”

Such then is the principle of mortification taught by our Lord and exemplified in the lives of a vast multitude that no man can number. It is in truth the carrying out of a natural law in the spiritual life. The Saint is but doing in the higher sphere what is done every day in the market-place. The principle is, “Little for little, much for much, and all for all.” He who values this life more than the life beyond the grave will purchase its pleasures and enjoyments at the price of that life. He who believes that he was made for eternity and that in that other world is his home and happiness, will be ready to sacrifice this world for it; and he who so believes and finds anything here on earth come between him and the life which he has chosen will be ready, at whatever cost, to give it up. For the joy of the hidden treasure he is ready to sell the field.

But it is not always to the next world that we have to sacrifice this. There are ever rising before us while here on earth worlds of higher possibilities than that in which we dwell. And as the visions of such worlds rise before us and stir our hearts with the desire to enter into them, the law by which we enter is always the same. If we would rise into a world above us we must sacrifice the one we dwell in. We cannot keep hold of this and at the same time pass up. The boy looks into the great world of manhood and sees the larger life of those who dwell there, but he cannot enter into it till he dies to his boyhood and gives up its pleasures and its occupations and passes up into the world above him, into which he had so long gazed, of which he had dreamed, for which he had prepared himself. And so the young man looks up out of a life of idleness and pleasure-seeking into the more strenuous life of thought and usefulness. He looks up and sees those who live in that higher world, he feels its attraction and at the same time the strength of the bonds by which he is held in his present world; that higher world is all around him, appealing to him by its promise of better things, and its vision makes his low world of pleasure look very small and limited and poor, but he can only pass into the higher by the law of sacrifice and mortification, he must seek the things of that world above him, set his affection upon it and mortify the members of his body that cling to and are entangled in that lower world in which he lives. If he cannot die to the old life he cannot live to the new. It offers itself with all it has to give, but he must make his choice, live and die exhausting his powers in the narrow life of pleasure, or dying upwards into a life that opens out wider prospects and stirs his heart by more stimulating hopes. Those who watch him as he passes into the new life see the meeting and blending of death and life, the death agony to the old, the birth pangs into the new, they see how truly life is the other side of death, the pain of breaking away from some old habit or association the price of being able to enter into some keener enjoyment. “Mortality is swallowed up by life.”

And these worlds of new promises and better hopes are always opening before us, calling us to enter and make our own the good things they have to give, but always upon the same condition, none can pass upwards save by dying to the lower. We may live in the narrow world of self-centred egotism, measuring every one and everything by the petty standard of their relation to ourselves, and we may rise and pass upwards into ever-widening spheres of thought and interest and activity, till self has been lost sight of in the crowding claims that press from all sides upon heart and brain. How hard it is to rise, how fast each bond binds us to the lower life, how dim and impalpable the vision of the world above us till we enter in and take possession; and how substantial the grip of those things for which we live, till with pain and tears we break away and die upward into the world above; and then how poor and shadowy and worthless the world we leave seems when looked at from above, like the toys of childhood seen by the eyes of a man.

So we pass onward and upward from the lowest to the highest edge of the kingdom of human nature, ever dying that we may live more fully, the pathway of our life strewn with those things which once we valued and cast away that we might fill our hands with things more precious. The eye becoming more keen of vision to see the true value of things, the hand more sensitive to their touch.

But can we rise no higher? Is the limit of our natural power the limit of our possibilities? Are all our resources to be found within ourselves and the sphere of their activities in the world of men and things around us? No. There are times when most men feel capacities for greater things than this world supplier A possibility of knowledge and action that craves for a wider sphere than they can find here on earth, a power of love that cannot be satisfied. Like pinioned eagles men beat against the bars of creation and would soar aloft to the infinite. Having risen through one realm after another in the natural order, from a life of pleasure and self-indulgence to a life of thought and usefulness, man cannot rest, he would still press onward, break through the limitations of his own nature and press his way upwards into the kingdom that is above him – the Kingdom of Heaven.

But how can he? Where can he find a lever to raise him above himself? All that is human he can do, but within the limits of his nature lie the limits of his possibilities. The beast may develop instincts and intelligence that are almost human, but he cannot cross the barrier of his own kingdom. No more can man unaided enter into the Kingdom of Heaven than the beast the kingdom of human life, or the inorganic the world of organic life.

If he is to rise he must be lifted across the barriers and placed by the hands of One stronger than he, by a Citizen of that Heavenly City, within its realms.

And in the first of all His Parables, the Parable of the Sower, our Lord taught, from the analogy of Nature, the conditions under which such a passage from a lower kingdom to a higher was possible, and that it was the object of His coming on earth so to raise man.

The method by which his transformation is effected does not stand alone, a startling exception to all God’s ways wherever else they can be traced; on the contrary, there is a close analogy between God’s method of working in the natural and the supernatural order. Our Lord bids us look and study in the workings of Nature the methods of grace.

The silent, motionless, inorganic world finds itself in close relationship with another world, touching upon it, seemingly almost within its reach, yet infinitely separated from it. A kingdom of life and beauty rich with all the manifold variety of form and structure and colour. There is a presence there that it feels but cannot understand, that rules everywhere and transforms all that it touches. Into that kingdom it cannot force its way. It is shut down and held back by impassable barriers. It can push its way up into the Heavens, or assume strange forms that mimic life; and under the action of certain forces it seems endowed with almost the attributes of life, it can press forward to the utmost limits of its own domain, as the sea beats upon the shore, but it cannot pass them. The barrier between the inorganic and the organic cannot be broken through from below. There are points of approach where the two kingdoms seem almost to meet and blend, but upon examination it is found that the gulf that divides them is really as wide as ever, they are separated by an infinite distance.

There is only one way by which the lower can cross the gulf and pass into the higher kingdom. If some visitor from the world above will descend and enter into the kingdom below and unite itself to it, taking the inorganic into itself and communicating to it the gift of its own life, and lifting it into the kingdom from which it has come, so and only so can it rise. The power to rise is not in itself, it is communicated to it from another, one who has life, and by union with that visitor from the world of life lifeless matter can be made partaker of its wondrous gift The seed descends into the earth, buries itself in its womb, takes into itself the elements which the earth supplies, makes them a part of itself, weaves them into the texture of the growing plant, lifts them across the hitherto impassable barrier and transplants them into another world, and in transplanting transforms. Who could recognise the earth thus transformed by the magic touch of life? Who could have guessed its latent possibilities which the seed has revealed? The form, the colour, the structure, the organism of the flower it has received from the life which was in the seed, but the material of which it is made is taken from the lifeless earth. Take it to pieces, and you will find nothing but what is of the lower kingdom of inorganic matter. The microscope can disclose nothing else, except that mysterious hidden presence which no eye has ever seen, which binds and fuses the various elements of earth in such wonderful combinations and harmonises them into a complex unity. Whence comes the glory of that fair flower, the exquisite blending of its colours, the perfect moulding of its petals and the sweet perfume that bathes it in an atmosphere of its own? It comes from the life. It is the crown of glory which life can set upon the dull brown earth if it yields itself into its hands. As long as that presence, unseen yet vibrating through every atom, holds them together they live and are partakers of the glory of the kingdom into which they have been transplanted, if it relaxes its grasp, they turn back towards the earth from which they came. When that presence is withdrawn, those wonderful combinations dissolve, their beauty pales and dies, the gates of death are opened that these elements of the earth may pass back again into the inorganic kingdom from which they were lifted, and the powers of that higher kingdom are withdrawn for ever. The earth rose through the gate of death, dying upwards into a higher world in the grasp of the power into whose hands it yielded. It dies back again through the death of decay, into the lower world from which it came.

And our Lord said: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a seed which a man took and cast into the earth”.

If man would rise beyond the limits of his own nature and enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, he can only rise by the same laws as those by which inorganic matter can pass into the kingdom of life.

1. A visitor from the higher Kingdom must descend into the lower, take into Himself the elements of which that lower kingdom is composed, making them His own, infusing into them His own Life and holding them in its grasp, endowing them with His power, enriching them with His attributes, crowning them with His beauty, and penetrating them with His Presence, and thus transplanting them into the Kingdom from which He comes.

And this was done once for all when “the Word who was with God and was God became flesh and dwelt amongst us”; when the King of that heavenly Kingdom Himself came down and uniting man’s nature to Himself lifted it across every barrier that had hitherto held it down, burst open the gates of death, and bore it in His mighty grasp to the very Throne of God.

And it is done for each one of us individually when, in Baptism, the Sower sows the seed of the Incarnate life in our nature. Then there is imparted to each of us in our weakness a power that, working like a seed in the soil, can lift us up above the capacities of our own nature, making us, as Saint Peter says, “partakers of the Divine nature,” and transplanting us from the kingdom of earth to the Kingdom of Heaven, from the kingdom of Nature to the Kingdom of Grace.

As the earth is powerless to rise till the seed, bringing a new and mysterious force into it, seizes upon those elements in it which yield themselves to its influence and transforms and raises them, so it is with this Divine seed cast into the soil of human nature. It enters as a new force into our nature, and there is absolutely no limit to the height to which it can raise it. It can “take the poor out of the dust and lift the beggar from the dung-hill and set him amongst the princes, even amongst the princes of the people.” And as the earth becomes transformed under the moulding force of the life that is in the seed so that it is scarcely recognisable, manifesting extraordinary powers and revealing possibilities that were unknown, so does man’s nature under the forming and quickening powers of grace. It is the seed that reveals to the earth its latent powers, wakens them and uses them. So does grace reveal man to himself. Coming into his nature it shows him what he can be, new uses to which his powers can be put, new combinations, new developments. Like the seed in the soil it draws under its influence various elements scattered through our nature seemingly useless and disconnected, and weaves them all into a wondrous unity, seizing in its strong grasp all that can be laid hold of and taking it into its service. It can enable us to do things which by nature we could not do, showing us at once our own weakness and its power. And as the earth under the moulding hand of the life that is in the seed reveals magic powers that transform it, so does man’s nature as he yields to the forming and quickening powers of grace. It can be as different as the waving corn-field, ripe with its golden harvest, differs from the barren earth. Where that heavenly seed has been planted all things become possible, the Kingdom of Heaven with all its riches lies open to be entered and taken possession of, “all things are yours and ye are Christ’s and Christ is God’s”. And as the flower in all its glory of colour and beauty of form is but matter under the new creative influence of life, so is it with man, new born into the Kingdom of God with the energy of the Divine life acting within him. The material, if I may use such an expression, of the virtues of the Saints is human, the creative force is Divine. The elements out of which the noblest Christian virtues are formed are the elements taken from the earth of our poor human nature, but the moulding force is in the seed “which is the Word of God”.

2. But there is another law. The seed cannot act upon the earth except it surrenders itself to it. In the Parable of the Sower our Lord taught that the growth of the seed is entirely dependent upon the soil; if it is hard or rocky or thorny it will prevent or mar its growth, if it is “good soil,” yielding itself entirely to the action of the seed, it will bring forth fruit to perfection. The earth must surrender itself to the new force that has come down into it to raise it up; it cannot rise of itself, it neither has the power nor knows the way into the kingdom of its new inheritance.

And with man it is the same. All the efforts of his nature cannot enable him to do one act above his nature, all his intelligence, courage, determination will not enable him to pass one step beyond into the Kingdom of God. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.” This is the work of that new Life, that transforming force which, like a seed, has been planted in him. It is his work henceforth to remove every obstacle to the operation of this seed, to surrender himself and all his powers to its moulding hand. To die out of the lower kingdom up into the higher Kingdom into which this gift would transplant him. Henceforth his life must be one of mortification, dying that he may live, a yielding of nature to grace, a surrender of the things of earth to the powers of Heaven, a constant mingling of the sadness of earthly surrender with the Divine gladness of Heavenly attainment. No doubt there were tears on the faces of many an Israelite on the night of their great deliverance, the ties and associations of four hundred years had to be broken, they had to go into a new world and to leave the old, but as the breath of the desert breathed upon their cheeks, as its wide spaces opened out before them and led them up to the Land of Promise, their tears would soon dry, their “sorrow would be turned into joy.

There is always a sense of loss at first in passing from a lower to a higher life, but the loss is soon forgotten in the gain, the games of childhood in the strenuous work of manhood, the joys of home in the claims and interests of the world And no doubt the breaking with those things which hold us down to earth is painful. The restraints and customs of civilisation are difficult for the savage, but when he is tamed and educated and civilised he knows how great are his gains. And as we pass from the undeveloped and spiritually ignorant state of the citizens of the kingdom of earth and become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven we enter into “the glorious liberty of the Sons of God”. This is the mortification that the Christian life demands. The surrender of our whole selves to the new Life that descends from above to sanctify and energise every power and faculty of our nature and fit us to enter into the Vision of God.

In such mortification there is no unreasonableness, for it is the very height of reason to sacrifice the lower to the higher, the ephemeral to that which is permanent. There is no gloom, however great the suffering, for he who so mortifies himself knows that he is on the road to eternal joy, and oftentimes amidst the sorrows of earth he gets a foretaste of that peace which passeth all understanding. There is no bitterness, for it is the act of Divine Love, it is done for God and in God, it springs from no hatred of self, no morbid contempt for the things of the world. It endows the soul with a Divine tenderness so that however hard upon itself it is ever gentle towards others. In such a one we see first the conflict and then the reconciliation of life and death, death conquering one form of life and endowing the soul with another and a better, death the conqueror and the conquered: “Mortality is swallowed up by life”.