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Mortification: A Bad Word? Book Club – Journal of a Soul

September 25, 2012 by  
Filed under Book Club, Vicki Burbach

Mortification – A Bad Word?

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As much mortification as possible, especially of the tongue. I must always be ready to humble myself, especially when things go badly. Bodily mortifications are to be few but constant, and without excessive obligation. I will give up salt altogether; I will never eat fruit in the evening, and never drink more than one glass of wine. As a general rule, I will always leave untouched a mouthful of whatever food is set before me: wine, meat dishes, fruit, pastry, etc. I will never take a morsel of bread over and above the usual amount I find on the table when I begin my meal, nor will I ever mention it to anyone if something is lacking. In general, I will pay more attention to the spirit than to the letter of the mortification, deciding each case on its own merits. – Journal of a Soul, pg. 95

No matter what I do, I can’t seem to lose the last five pounds I gained with my sixth baby. Of course, maybe that has something to do with the shake I ate this afternoon, or the spoonful of ice cream I just snuck out of the freezer. I’ll be the first to admit it – I’m not very good at telling myself NO.

I live in a world where SACRIFICE is a dirty word, and Mortification? Well, until I became Catholic, I’d never even heard that word, and when I did, I threw it out as something only those “crazy” saints did – hair shirts and chains, extreme fasting and mutilation – that was only for those REALLY holy people, and God didn’t call me to that level of sacrifice.

It wasn’t until I read St. Thérèse’s autobiography that I realized how small sacrifices were as valuable for my sanctification, if not more so, than those great sacrifices made by the saints.

I’ll never forget my first “bodily mortification” for Jesus. I know this sounds ridiculous (remember, I’m just a common housewife and not even a wee bit holy), but all my life, I’ve used two towels when I shower. If we stayed in a hotel, I always had to ask for extra towels. When we visited someone and they gave me one towel, I always asked for an extra. It was an idiosyncrasy I modeled after my mother, and I couldn’t conceive of doing things differently.

Well, shortly after reading Story of a Soul, I remember telling myself, “I am never again going to use two towels.” I know – you are thinking “Big Deal,” there are starving children all over the world and you were thinking about giving up a towel?! Well, you start where you are, I guess. And I wasn’t very far. Anyway, I did it that morning. It was strange. It felt like a big sacrifice. But I remember telling Jesus that I loved Him more than that extra towel, and that I offered my discomfort to Him.

That first sacrifice was probably 8-10 years ago. One thing I've learned about  those little sacrifices is that you get used to them.  After a while, using one towel became second nature, and was no longer a sacrifice at all.

[On a side note, the only sacrifice I've made over the years that has always remained a sacrifice is abstaining from meat on Fridays.  Our family began abstaining from meat on Fridays a few years ago, and this continues to be difficult for me every week. I think the Holy Spirit was on to something when He introduced this practice.]

Over the years, I’ve made more sacrifices, but never enough. I've offered some for penance, others for intentions and others to encourage detachment. My most significant effort was giving up soda for a special intention. If interested, you can read about that on a previous blog I wrote : Soda and Surrender.

We live in a world full of self-indulgence, and I am a product of that world. I want what I want when I want it and I deserve to have it, so don’t tell me I should restrain myself! Sadly, I heard it said recently that the world has decided it doesn’t need God, and she’s been hanging onto worldly pleasures because she has to grasp onto something.  Lord, have mercy on me.

But I can turn that around. I can follow Pope John XXIII’s example. I can make some commitments to mortify myself. I can even start small.  But if I continue to be a slave to the world, I can never truly serve Christ. As He says in Matthew: No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other (Matthew 6:24).

The beautiful thing about Pope John XXIII’s journal is that it is personal and real. I get to see when he failed in his commitments, and I see him picking himself back up, dusting himself off and moving forward. And I can do the same. By God’s grace. Think BABY STEPS.

I’ve run a couple of marathons in my life. Each one within months of delivering a baby via c-section. When I started training, I wasn’t running. I was barely walking. I started with five minutes of walking, and before I knew it, I was jogging ten miles – something I could never have conceived of before I actually did it. Running a marathon is essentially a mental game, and getting up to marathon distance within four months felt amazing. Talk about “conquering” the flesh!

What in the world does a marathon have to do with this excerpt, you ask? Well, because this entry helped to reiterate the first steps for me, from someone who’s been there. I know from experience that I can take baby steps. Give up salt. Never eat fruit in the evening. These are things I can do. They are baby steps. Now pile them all together and I'd be getting somewhere. But for me, one small step would be significant.


Discussion Questions:

1. Do you practice fasting or other forms of mortification?  How do you go about it?  When and how did you start?  Do you have advice for the rest of us?

2. Open forum – comment on any of the reading of this past week.


Reading Assignment:

Week 4: Jan. 31, 1903 – End of 1903

Happy Reading!


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About Vicki Burbach

Vicki Burbach is a wife and homeschooling mother of six children ages four to sixteen years who relishes the calm inspiration of spiritual reading amidst the roller coaster of life. A passionate convert to the Faith, Vicki is an avid reader who started the book club so she could embark with like-minded bibliophiles on a spiritual journey through some of the greatest Catholic books ever written. She is author of the new book How to Read Your Way to Heaven - A Spiritual Reading Program for the Worst of Sinners, the Greatest of Saints, and Everyone in Between. You can also find her at

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  • Peg

    Does fasting count if you don’t do it intentionally?

    • Cecilia

      Peg, I wondered about that, too. In hindsight I will notice I had hardly eaten during the day & wondered if I actually fasted and hadn’t noticed. Would love to know the answer.

      • LizEst

        Good question. Fasting does not count unless one does it intentionally. The whole point of mortification is to do something that disciplines our will (self-denial) in order to grow in holiness by relying more on God instead of ourselves.

        There is no self-denial in unintentional fasting. Intention has EVERYTHING to do with it. One is not taking up their cross and following Christ by
        following their own will…and then trying to make it look (to themselves or God [and remember you can’t fool God] or whoever) as if one were really making a sacrifice.

        So, let’s say you are dieting and want to count that as fasting. It does NOT count as fasting because your intention is to diet. It is different the other way around, though: if you are fasting and it results in dieting, that’s just a benefit! Remember, intention is key here…and one can never deceive God about intention. God sees and knows our hearts. Hope that helps.

        • Peg

          Thanks, Liz …I agree with your response, and I’m not actually dieting …just not eating.
          Actually, when I make it intentional it becomes much harder even though the actual denial is not all that foreign to me.
          Hm, interesting …

    • Becky Ward

      From the Catholic Dictionary – “A form of penance that imposes limits on the kind or quantity of food or drink” This is just the first line, but I think there’s difference between forgetting to eat, and intentionally limiting our intake for a specific reason.
      Fr. Bartunek says in a post somewhere that we can’t ‘fall into sin’. We must know about it or we aren’t guilty of sin. I see a parallelle between that and fasting accidentally. 🙂
      I do believe though, that the suffering of those who are going hungry because they have no food, definitely reaches heaven and blesses us all.

    • Cecilia

      Peg, I thought about this all day. If one does a morning offering and one doesn’t eat or limits the amount of food, even though unintentionally wouldn’t that act as a type of fast? Even though we can’t “fall into sin” nor “fall into holiness” the conscious act of trying to live throughout the day in His divine will surely must envelope those unconscious acts. I hope I’m not looking for a loophole in fasting ’cause I struggle w/it so much….

  • Sue

    Thank you for this – it’s years since I read St Therese’s Journal. I need constant reminders because I start making small sacrifices, then my routine gets disrupted – I forget the sacrifices and am back to square one. I’m very impressed with the marathon running, I’m unlikely to do the same but yes – in mortification take baby steps and remember to keep taking them.

  • Fran

    After we discovered Medjugorje and started reading Our Lady’s messages about fasting and prayer, I began to fast twice a week as she asked. That was in the late 80’s. My fasting consists of two meals instead of three, no sugar in my coffee, little things. We eat fish and chips every Friday, it’s our tradition now as a family : ) I never let anyone outside the family know what I’m doing. If they offer something, it’s a mortification to eat it or more so, to have to break my fast. I am by no means ‘holy’ either but these are the little things that I can accomplish.

  • John in AZ

    Each day I joyfully look for areas where I can do self-mortification. I pray on my knees. I prayerfully devote the last hard exercise repetitions, yard work, housework. I fast as well. As the above journal states, “As a general rule, I will always leave untouched a mouthful of
    whatever food is set before me: wine, meat dishes, fruit, pastry, etc. I
    will never take a morsel of bread over and above the usual amount I
    find on the table when I begin my meal, nor will I ever mention it to
    anyone if something is lacking. In general, I will pay more attention to
    the spirit than to the letter of the mortification, deciding each case
    on its own merits.”

  • Lila

    why should we never eat fruit in the evening?

    • It tastes better in the dark,

      • Vicki


      • LizEst

        I suppose so if you eat it from the forbidden tree! ;))

      • Becky Ward

        I love your answer Dan!
        I recently heard that we should always eat fruit on an empty stomach because then it can work like it is supposed to in cleaning and detoxing our bodies. If we eat fruit with or after a meal, the fruit mixes with all the other stuff in our stomach and begins to ferment……the fruit can’t do what it should and we can become very uncomfortable.
        Complete paraphrase….please do not quote me on this….yet it might supply an answer to the question. (Gas)

        • LizEst

          Yes, Becky, you’ve got the essence of it (good paraphrase). It sounds much like (but may not be) a diet plan back in the 80s. I wonder if it is making a resurgence.

    • Vicki

      Lila – I hesitate to guess at this because I’m probably completely wrong, but I was wondering about that too. Do you think perhaps it’s because they didn’t sit around and eat chips and ice cream in 1901, but fruit was considered a treat? I thought maybe it would be like me deciding that I wasn’t going to eat ice cream at night – not to “treat” myself that way. I’d be interested to hear other opinions.

      • LizEst

        I think it depends on the person and circumstances because what is a mortification for one person may not be a mortification for someone else. When my mother was little, even though there was plenty of fruit where she was, apples were very expensive and hard to come by at that time. As a treat, on a special occasion, my grandfather would buy one apple and everyone would get a little taste…shared between 11 children and the parents. That was very rare. So, presumably, sacrificing that would have had a great deal of merit.

  • Cecilia

    Its interesting that you used your training for a marathon as an example of the mental & physical stamina needed to run the race. I have learned to look at many experiences in the physical world and to see a parallel effect in the spiritual world in teaching about the latter. For example, just as we all have physical muscles that need to be exorcised and built up we also have spiritual muscles that must be exorcised to carry us thru like a long distance runner (St. Paul’s example). A family wanting to start a family prayer time with a rosary and/or scripture, I recommend they start with the children learning the basic prayers for a week. Then the following week try a decade of the rosary reading the scripture story behind the mystery they are praying. If they continue in this manner, slowly introducing the prayers and the mysteries, they, as a family, begin to grow more and more into praying the complete decades as their spiritual muscles tend to grow. The same thing applies to fasting and mortification. As a child I was taught to offer anything and everything “up to God” as a gift. So picking up scraps of paper from the floor became a gift worthy to be offered to the Lord. As we grow in these little spiritual exorcises, our desire to do more for the Lord also seems to grow. On a personal level, I have learned that whenever I have piled on more prayers, more mortifications, etc, I usually become overwhelmed, start dropping them and then feel I have failed completely. So if I approach things the way a small child would, i.e. bit by bit my spiritual and physical life is more manageable.

  • Robert Kraus

    I have a tendency to try to do too much at once for fasting/mortification. I read a saint’s account and want to be an overnight saint-sation! (bad I know)…I think your example of the ‘two towels’ is helpful in that small successes build on each other and you can grow from there.

    • LizEst

      Love your term “saint-sation.” Not as bad as you think it is. Would that we all aspired to be saint-sations instead of “good enoughs”! As St. Therese of Lisieux said, “God cannot inspire unreasonable desires.”

      It’s tough to take the enthusiasm which comes of inspired reading and focus it on deliberate and steady progress…but it can be done. This is one of the same things Pope John XXIII had trouble with. He was very eager in his resolutions and in putting them in place, and then couldn’t sustain the practical application of such for long (at least initially). We see this even in secular proverbs, as in the difference between being a “flash in the pan” and “slow and steady wins the race.”

      You must keep that drive and redirect it properly so that it takes root in fertile ground and produces a great yield, so you can say with St. Paul, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness await me” (2 Timothy 4:7-8a). God bless you Robert. Your self-awareness indicates you are on the way!

  • Lizbette

    I think you are right–fruit was a treat. Also, it was “eating between meals” which used to be discouraged (by my mother but if I remember correctly, they made St. Therese eat something between meals at Carmel and it was against the usual rule). But that is just mho.

  • LizEst

    1. If/what/how/when stay with my sd. Only advice would be to discuss all with sd and get approval. Some people can get into mortification and make it a “thing,” not unlike what someone wrote about piling on more mortification and prayers, etc. When that happens, it can become a source of pride and sin for them (not judging the person who wrote that, in any way). It certainly makes it easier to exhaust oneself and drop the whole thing. So, all done with docility and obedience.

    2. a. During his spiritual exercises of December 1902, Pope John XXIII writes of having a new sd. Though it may not be so, it seems to me that, from this point on, he begins to make greater strides in his quest for holiness. Not only did he get a good sd, but he was also obedient to that director. So, this makes a very good case to all of us for having the right sd and for taking his/her direction to heart.
    b. I was moved by his words of 26 December where he says, “He [the Lord] has come and he has consoled me.” I would love to know how God graced him at Christmas! Seems it was much more than just a nice thought or two.
    c. On 16 January, “Practical experience has now convinced me of this: the concept of holiness which I had formed and applied to myself was mistaken…” He continues to make progress. More surely on the path now, but still somewhat slowly and imperceptibly, he advances.

  • Ann

    I received this article today about Pope John XXIII and thought you all would enjoy it. It shows the true essence of the man.

    Mrs. Adjoubei’s

    As he left Bulgaria in 1934, Bishop Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII,
    stated, “If a Slavic, whether Catholic or not, knocks on my door, it will be
    opened and he will be greeted like a true friend.” Later, a Slavic arrived one
    day at the airport of Fiumicino, and he asked to see the Pope. Pope John XXIII
    replied immediately, “Let him come!” The meeting was set for the following March

    After the general audience, the Pope called for Mr. Adjoubei and
    his wife, Rada, a young woman from Khrushchev. He received them in his library
    and asked them to be seated. They spoke about many things including the saints
    of Russia and the beauty of Orthodox liturgy, and then John XXIII picked up a
    string of rosary beads that was laid on his table. “Madam, this is for you. My
    staff told me that I should give coins or stamps to non-Catholic princesses; but
    I want to give you a rosary because priests, in addition to the biblical prayer
    of the psalms, also have this popular form of prayer. For me, as the Pope, it is
    like fifteen open windows – fifteen mysteries – through which I contemplate the
    events of the world in the light of our Lord.

    “I say a rosary in the
    morning, another at the beginning of the afternoon, and another in the evening.
    I made a great impression by telling the journalists that in the fifth joyful
    mystery – “he listened and questioned them” – I was really praying for them… I
    made an impression on those people when I said that, in the third joyful mystery
    – the Birth of Jesus – I pray for all the babies who are to be born in the next
    twenty-four hours, because, Catholics or not, they will find the wishes of the
    Pope upon their entry into life. Now when I recite the third mystery, I will
    also remember your children, Madam.”

    Mrs. Adjoubei, who held the rosary
    in her hands, answered, “Thank you, Holy Father, how grateful I am to you! I
    will tell my children what you said.” The Pope looked at her smiling, “I know
    the name of your sons… the third is called Yan, or John like me… When you
    get back home, give him a special hug from me.”

    Rosary for the
    Church, #14 – 1973

  • Teresa

    I read somewhere years ago to begin with small mortifications so I started by ordering unsweetened tea and drinking it without any sweetener. It has a mildly bitter taste which serves to remind me that Jesus suffered for us and I expect to suffer for Him. Fasting is difficult for me as I get migraines if I don’t eat at regular intervals. Lately I have been trying to eat less but still at regular intervals. So far that has worked.

    • LizEst

      Teresa, please be careful. Fasting is not meant to put your health at risk. As long as you are being careful and you’re healthy, that’s OK. But, failure to take care of one’s health is a sin against the fifth commandment. And, we must not do evil in order to do good.

      Canon 1245 of the Code of Canon Law [Church Law] says, in part, “…for a just cause and according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop, a pastor can grant in individual cases a dispensation from the obligation of observing a feast day or a day of penance or can grant a commutation of the obligation into other pious works…” So, for you, even during Lent, you could go to your pastor and ask him for a dispensation from the fasting obligation. He could grant a dispensation or he could commute the obligation and ask you to do something else (which is more likely), instead of fasting.

      Moderating your food intake (eating less) seems to be working as mortification with you. That’s great. There are many, many other mortifications one can do, if you want to expand that self-denial. One could watch less television, spend less time on the computer (except on this site! ha!), not respond when someone insults you or misinterprets your actions, help someone who hates you, let someone else go ahead of you, etc! The list is almost endless!

  • Bernadette

    Thank you for this. It has inspired me to write down 4 reasonable mortifications in my prayer journal (2 of which I have already been doing). By writing down and rereading these intentions periodically, this should make mortifications less of a ‘hit and miss’ situation for me. I don’t want to forget them, which is sometimes easy to do. God bless you!

    • LizEst

      Sounds like you have taken Blessed John XXIII’s Journal to heart! God bless you, Bernadette.

  • Lynn

    Can using time/treasure/talent for others count as mortification?

    • As long as it is some measure of sacrifice for you.

  • Vicki

    This is only tangentially related to the quote from John XXIII, but today I read the quote below in Kimberly Hahn’s book, Legacy of Love. She comments that in Isaiah’s time, people fasted and prayed, but their prayers went unanswered because they lacked charity. She noted that it’s not about following the letter of the law, so much as changing the heart that is important, which John XXIII alludes to as well, when he says that he will pay more attention to the spirit than the letter in mortification. Just wanted to share!

    Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
    to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?

    Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
    when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
    Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
    your righteousness shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
    Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry, and he will say Here I am. (Isaiah 58:609a)

    • This is great! Something I tend to forget sometimes the spirit not the letter of the law… it’s so easy to get caught up in what we’re sacrificing that we forget the bigger picture.
      Our Lord is giving me a chance this mid-October to live in the mountains with an Indigenous group for a week. No electricity or plumbing… (It’s part of the internship program of our law school’s Human Rights Center.) At first I was scared I that won’t be able to hack it… (Still nervous admittedly. Prayers please!) But praying the Chaplet one night, He reminded me who I was doing it for. And that’s what matters most… Not what we giving up but for whom all this is for. Not about us but always about others.
      Thank you! I needed this reminder!

      • LizEst

        Praying for you. This will be an eye-opening experience. It is one thing to imagine the poor and how difficult life is for them. It is quite another thing to have experiential knowledge gained from living intimately with them in their everyday lives. The Lord is moving powerfully in your life. When you complete this internship, you will be able to speak with authority about such things. So, trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (cf Proverbs 3:5).

        • Thank you for the encouragement! Praying for you too!

        • Speaking as an urban native you might actually find that Indigenous People who haven’t been colonized are far richer then what people may think. Colonized Natives are living in poverty.

          A cross cultural experience may reveal in us what we lack and be blessed by a people we view as people less fortunate… it is a good thing when we can both give and receive.

          It is honourable within Indigenous Communities to give gifts too…

          and vs 6 – in all your ways acknowledge him and he shall direct your path…

          God bless and Peace to you 🙂

          • Thank you for your kind words and humbling reminder. “reveal in us what we lack and be blessed by people we view as less fortunate” “that we can both give and receive” There is so much truth to those words. I’ll keep those in mind.

          • LizEst

            Ah yes, Sarah-Jane. While I had what you said in mind when I wrote to Mary (above), I did not write it down. You are quite right. Thank you for pointing out my omission. Blessed Mother Teresa used to say that “the greatest poverty of all is to live and to die unloved and unwanted.” We have much to learn from indigenous peoples and also from the poor who lack what many consider the basic necessities of life. Truly, only one thing is necessary…and that is God. “Solo Dios basta” [Only God suffices] Santa Teresa de Avila, Doctor of the Church.

      • Vicki

        What a wonderful opportunity for you to grow in faith and charity! I’m sure it will be a very powerful experience. My prayers will be with you – and I hope you’ll share your trip with us when you return!

        • Thank you! Praying for you too! I’ll be happy to share about it when I return.

  • Merline

    Everything I read on CSD is a new learning for me. I was always taught to make small sacrifices right from my childhood. In fact I used to wonder how could I rubbish it as useless at one point of my life. Well later I gained conscious of the fact that I DID NOT FOCUS ON MY LOVING JESUS DURING THESE SMALL DISCOMFORTS . Instead I was focusing on the deed of sacrifice and how I could go to the next level. No wonder at one point I found it fruitless. This is what happens when we try to do something without imploring His grace. Any sacrifice small or big becomes meaningful not only with our effort but also by his grace which sanctifies it. I have now learned to always pray for His mercy on my little deeds and it also keeps me on the ground when someone tempts me to take pride on it.

    • LizEst

      All good united to Christ has infinite value because of Jesus’ infinite value. God bless you Merline. Your words are beautiful. Thank you.

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