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Mortification & Lent: What is mortification?

March 21, 2011 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Lent, Mortification

Dear Father John, what is mortification and how does it relate to Lent? What does Saint Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 9 where he says, “I pummel my body and subdue it…” Is he talking about “mortification”?

The root word for “mortification” comes from the Latin, mors and mortis, and it translates as “death.” In the spiritual life, therefore, mortification refers to voluntary actions by which we gradually “put to death” all of our vices, sinful habits, and the self-centered tendencies that lurk beneath them. Spiritual writers use terms like abnegation, sacrifice, self-sacrifice, and self-denial to refer to the same thing.

Jesus spoke about mortification as an absolute necessity for growth into Christian maturity. Here are some of the better-known passages:

If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me (Luke 9:23)

In all truth I tell you, unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest (John 12:24).

Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it (Mark 8:35).

St. Paul regularly emphasized this “best practice” of the spiritual life. Besides the passage you mention in your question, here are some other favorites:

…[Y]ou must see yourselves as being dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:11).

You were to put aside [we could say “put to death] your old self, which belongs to your old way of life and is corrupted by following illusory desires. Your mind was to be renewed in spirit so that you could put on the New Man that has been created on God's principles, in the uprightness and holiness of the truth (Ephesians 4:22-24).

…[W]e too, then, should throw off everything that weighs us down and the sin that clings so closely, and with perseverance keep running in the race which lies ahead of us (Hebrews 12:1).

It may seem like overkill to list so many quotations (and there are a lot more), but I do so because this is a hard concept for us to accept. A secular culture by definition seeks heaven on earth. According to that mindset, suffering of any kind is valueless and to be avoided – a far cry from the Christian pattern of death to sin (through voluntary self-denial) as a path to true life.

In Pope Benedict’s recent message for Lent, he explains the reason behind this pillar of Christian spirituality: “Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person.”

In other words, because God has chosen to redeem our fallen human nature, and not just replace it, his grace enters into our wounded, self-centered, sin-tending souls, and gradually transforms them (think of Jesus’ parable of the leaven in the dough). But since we are free, spiritual creatures (not just instinct-driven squirrels), we have to freely cooperate with his grace in order for this process to fully develop. One of the ways we do this is through freely denying ourselves certain pleasures that are not in themselves sinful, e.g., not listening to the radio for the first three minutes of a half-hour commute, offering the silence as an act of mortification, and maybe using it to pray. When we do that, we learn to govern our tendencies to pleasure and self-seeking (which are always waiting for opportunities to run wild); we tame them so that they are fruitful and not destructive, like a tamed stallion as opposed to a wild stallion. This self-governance helps creates interior order and peace, so that we can better hear and respond to God’s action in our lives. The mortification is never an end in itself, but a means by which we become better followers of Christ.

Spiritual writers have used many images to explain the value of mortification. Picture a jar full of very sour vinegar. You want to fill it up with sweet honey. First, you have to empty out the vinegar, and then scrub the inside of the jar, and only then can you put in the honey. Just so, to receive the many gifts of grace God wants to give us, we have to empty out and scrub clean every corner of our heart and mind, otherwise, the grace can’t get in. Think of a garden (as in Jesus’ parable of the sower). The soil is our fallen human nature, riddled and overgrown with poisonous weeds (vices, selfish tendencies, psychological and emotional wounds…). God comes and plants the seed of grace, the seeds of all the Christian virtues. We water those seeds through prayer and the sacraments. But we also need to pull up the weeds (and some of them have very deep roots), otherwise, they will choke the growth of grace, and our virtues will end up looking like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.

OK, now let’s get practical. What does this have to do with Lent? The Church is a wise mother. She knows that we like to feast more than we like to fast, which is perfectly normal. But she also knows that if we don’t fast (practice mortification), we will get spiritually out of shape pretty quickly. So she has built into the liturgical year certain seasons when we focus a little bit more than usual on this aspect of our spiritual life – penitential days and seasons, like Lent. So, fasting (some form of mortification, voluntary self-denial) is a normal part of every Catholic’s Lenten journey; it gets us in shape for the holiest days of the year – Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday.

Each of us should choose some form of mortification (something that we notice, but not something that distracts us or overburdens us – balance and realism are important for a healthy spiritual life). In this way, we can unite our increased spiritual efforts to those of our Catholic brothers and sisters throughout the world, making this season a real family affair. Together we go with Jesus into the desert, where he spent 40 days practicing mortification, as a preparation for his public mission.

In another post on this blog, we have made some suggestions about what you can “give up for Lent.” Hopefully, this current entry has helped you understand more deeply the value of giving up something.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC, ThD


Art for this post on Mortification & Lent: What is mortification?: The Anchorite, Teodor Axentowicz, 1881, PD-US author's term of life plus 75 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • $1650412

    Dan, may I ask what version of the Bible these quotes, on this- as usual- fabulous post(!), are from? Is there one you recommend over the others?

    • Dear Jo in Christ. Fr Bartunek has been traveling. I have not received an answer yet. I know he does enjoy the Ronald Knox translation (difficult to find). Personally, I like the Revised Standard Version for study and the Jerusalem Bible for meditation. Hope that helps.

    • Jo – Father got back to me – it is the New Jerusalem. I use the Jerusalem for meditation. I like the RSV for study… I know that Father John’s favorite translation is Knox…

  • Guest

    Thank you, Fr. John for this very informative Article. You have shown me the way to follow this very special Lenten Season. God bless you.

  • underhermantle

    Lent and mortification. What is “mortification”?

  • guadalupe

    Ok, I’m a little confused here. I understand we are to walk with Our Lord for the 40 days, but that there are actually only 36 days because we don’t fast on Sundays. So an additional 4 days were added? Wed Thurs. Friday Saturday of Ash Wed. Week?
    Are we to fast all week? See I need a little direction here, thanks.

    • Not sure I understand your question.

    • Cathy

      I hope it is ok that I responded. I used to think the way you wrote the question. I understand what you were asking.
      Lent does begin on Ash Wednesday, and includes the Wed, Thurs, Fri, and Sat of Ash Wednesday week. Ash Wednesday starts the Lenten season. May God bless you on you Lenten journey.

      • guadalupe

        Thank you so much, it’s just fine that you responded. Sorry that my question was so unclear.
        And may you walk hand in hand with Our Lord during this Holy Season.


  • melinwy

    Great question and answer, truly helped me understand.

    God Bless you and thank you.

  • We should all wear sackcloth and ashes for the hell our priests are going through. How many priests have been kicked out of their only homes – the rectory – after an accusation against them is telephoned which may or may not be true. How can he prove his innocence 30 or 40 years after the fact? And the priest is not told the name of his accuser. Whatever happened to fair play and the opportunity to face one’s accusers? Please pray for our beloved priests who, despite being one phone call away from the end of their careers, still find the strength and love to guide and lead us. What brave souls they are. They deserve our daily prayers this special year and always. May God remain with them.

    • Guest

      Charlene, your response to the Post, though one year old, is so apt, even more so now, when it appears the the secular word spurred on by the biased media coverage of virulent campaign by Priests/Catholic haters have reached a crescendo with the sole aim of – if not destroying Christ’s Church completely – then to demoralize the entire Clergy to a point where they will despair completely. In these circumstances, the best Lenten Prayers we can offer Christ for the strengthening of His Priests is praying Daily the Holy Rosary to our Holy Mother of Priests to protect them from the vicious attacks from the Evil One. I make this appeal with the realization that on Earth and in Heaven our Holy Mother of God is the one singular person who sends Satan to the deepest hole in Hell. She is the only one Satan fears completely and can never dare to go near her. Therefore, her intercession for the protection of our Priests and our Mother Church during this Lenten Season is most effective.

  • Larry

    Dear Father John,
    As a catechist I have been asked to talk about “What is Lent” to our R C I A group. Would you suggest an outline to follow with in a 90 minute session? The topic is so big how can I present the high points and be assured I covered it enough within this one session. We are drawing nearer to the Great Easter Vigil.

    Peace be upon you!


  • LizEst

    Thank you so much for this post Father John. I had to chuckle at the term “instinct-driven squirrels.” You’ve no doubt observed them!

    Sometimes it’s the little mortifications, the little denials, that will work wonders. They are, in a way, much more difficult to change because they are so much part and parcel of who we are (because of original sin)…and are so easy to backslide on. We can hardly put our hand to the plow, when we are always turning around to take another small bite of something we should not, say something we should not no matter how small, advise something we should not, acquiesce to something that we ought not. We really have to master these impulses and the little tendencies to sin.

    “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones” Luke 16:10a

  • Godlovesyou2

    I know so little about the Catholic faith and would like to have a friend to mentor me but this friend must have patience as i have been out of the church a long time and things have changed but i find no intrest from the parish i was gong to the big excuse was not enough priests.but they have two deacons and at least one could befriend me and try to help me understand my faith i was born into. My church i went to was very slack on helping people and depend on lay people to go to hospitals and nursing homes to give communion etc.?Then i wanted to sponsr a priest so they gave me one from Mexico and i can’t change him for one that can uinderstand English so i can send him what he needs but neither of us understand each other so i don’t bother any more.

    • Dear Friend: I would look to Becky or Joneen for insight and advice. They both answer frequently on this site and are godly and well formed women.

      • Guest

         How do I delete my account? This is not for me:(

        • Sorry to hear it. Go to the bottom of the daily emails and you will see an “Unsubscribe” option. Just follow that path – easy to leave us behind. Blessings to you.

  • This article was written well over a year ago. Is it okay if I comment this late in the game?
    I appreciated the article on Lent and mortification. I’m not very good at mortification , but your article inspires me to be more creative about how to “punish” my body. I’ll keep this article in mind when we come into the Lenten season in 2013.

    I enjoy ‘catching up’ with the articles written before I found this blog. This is a true treasure.

    • Maryellen – you can always comment on any article. It sometimes help to reignite conversation. Be careful that you are not too severe without oversight of a spiritual director.

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