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Mortification: A Bad Word?

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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