Prayer and Mortification: Liturgical Abnegation is Freedom

The spiritual tradition was on to something when it thought the matter of prayer included the development of virtue, which means accompanying prayer with mortification.

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Prayer is not a matter of getting God to give us what we want, it is a method for making us want what God desires to give. That is, it is not a matter of changing God’s mind, it is a matter of changing our hearts (and by “heart” I mean our will). Therefore, it is his kingdom that should come, not ours; his will that should be done, not ours; we pray in order to Hallow his name, not ours.

De Caussade writes, “To hallow the name of God is to know, to adore and to love the ineffable Being whom this name designates.”i (The starting trigger for prayer is the confession that God is God, and we are not.) Jean Grou adds that this petition of the Lord’s prayer binds our whole being – thoughts, affections, and actions – to the glory of God. “If we do nothing for God’s glory, if it be not the first intention of all our prayers and the chief aim of our actions; if we hardly think of it, even, and consider only our own interests in our worship of God, it is almost a mockery to say to Him: Hallowed be Thy Name.”ii

It seems to me, then, that the spiritual tradition was on to something when it thought the matter of prayer included the development of virtue, which means accompanying prayer with mortification. Prayer’s purpose is to glorify God for the pure delight of doing so, and, as C. S. Lewis observed “the joys of Heaven are, for most of us in our present condition, ‘an acquired taste.’”iii Prayer is not just lobbing our requests heavenward, it includes a matter of acquiring this taste. What, exactly, does that entail? Adopting Jesus’s attitude, one which George MacDonald describes this way.

His whole thought, his whole delight, was in the thought, in the will, in the being of his Father. The joy of the Lord’s life, that which made it life to him, was the Father; of him he was always thinking, to him he was always turning. I suppose most men have some thought of pleasure or satisfaction or strength to which they turn when action pauses, life becomes for a moment still, and the wheel sleeps on its own swiftness: with Jesus it needed no pause of action, no rush of renewed consciousness, to send him home; his thought was ever and always his Father. To its home in the heart of the Father his heart ever turned. That was his treasure-house, the jewel of his mind, the mystery of his gladness, claiming all degrees and shades of delight, from peace and calmest content to ecstasy. His life was hid in God. iv

Constant prayer consists of being sent home to the heart of the Father continually. Prayer is joining Jesus in his hiding place. He is – if I dare the phrase – the first one to live the Christian life, after which he becomes our model, our exemplar, our paradigm, and the life he lived is the life we seek. To pray is to follow him; to follow him is a life of prayer.

But he makes a condition for following him. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8, Mathew 16, and Luke 9). Abnegation is the word for denying self, that is, self-denial, and Catholic spiritual authors who write about abnegation explain why Jesus made it central. Jean Grou calls this central to the gospel because “in this complete abnegation He admitted no compromise. There is no middle course. He said you must deny yourself, or I shall deny you; you can only belong to Me on that condition.”v And Francis Libermann says:

It is not I who preaches abnegation, it is our Lord Himself who has set down the conditions under which He will receive us as His followers: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, and wife and children and brothers and sister, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27). No doctrine has ever found more forceful expressions in the Gospels … If we are not generous enough to prepare ourselves to renounce everything, we should not follow Him. The words of our Savior allow of no quibbling.vi

This shows an interesting side of prayer, sometimes overlooked. The desire for God is accompanied by a decrease in desire for sin. Following God means not following someone else, or something else. Love of God (prayer) is linked to hatred of sin (mortification), like mercy is linked to justice, forgiveness to penance, grace to labor, and so spiritual theologians speak of prayer and mortification in one breath. The soul is elevated to God – raised, we may say, by an updraft under our wings caused by the blowing of the Holy Spirit – and spiritual theologians identify the two wings as prayer and mortification. Ravignan refers to St. Bernard of Clairvaux when the latter wrote “we have two wings to fly; two, because with one alone we could not fly; and ‘those two wings,’ he says, ‘are prayer and mortification’. That is to say, that prayer with mortification is always heard.

As to prayer without mortification, it may be good sometimes; but it will be far less efficacious. This is hard on nature, but it is what our Lord loveth.”vii Elsewhere Ravignan explains the two must go together because “he who only mortifies his flesh, without humbling his mind by prayer, becomes proud … And, on the other hand, he who gives himself to prayer, and neglects to mortify his flesh, ought to be afraid of our Saviour’s words in the gospel ‘Why do you call me Lord, Lord, if you do not what I desire of you?’ ”viii

To be hidden in Christ requires denying the egocentric self, and this is a hard teaching, Fenelon admits.

Men have a great repugnance to this truth and consider it to be a very hard saying, because they are lovers of self from self-interest. They understand, in a general and superficial way, that they must love God more than all his creatures, but they have no conception of loving God more than themselves, and loving themselves only for Him. They can utter these great words without difficulty, because they do not enter into their meaning, but they shudder when it is explained to them, that God and his glory are to be preferred before ourselves and everything else to such a degree that we must love his glory more than our own happiness.ix

Prayer is therefore coupled with carrying crosses, for crosses are the tools God uses to create persons of prayer. Fenelon wrote letters of spiritual direction to many people (some of them figures in the court of the king of France, Louis XIV). Imagine receiving letters with mortifying advice like this:

  • I have no doubt that God treats you as one of his friends by giving you the cross. God is able to seek out and destroy the fruits of self-love. You, on your own, could never find those hidden roots.x
  • You are influenced not only by self-interest, but by the persuasions of pride, when you reject the gifts of God because they do not come in the shape to suit your taste.xi
  • You will be tempted to speak out in the humble tone of voice to tell others of your problems. Watch out for this! A humility that is still talkative does not run very deep.xii
  • Usually you bargain with God to set a limit on your suffering. God has to start over with you every time you push them away.xiii
  • What could be sweeter to your self-love than being praised for not having any?xiv
  • You are too self-conscious. You also let your feelings guide you too much. You want to find peace? Be less infatuated with yourself, and more concerned with pleasing God.xv
  • People who think they are lowering themselves have a lot of conceit. But a truly humble person is content in all situations. He isn’t always wondering if what is being said to him, or about him, is to his advantage.xvi

As already noted, mortification without prayer can yield pride, while prayer without mortification does not become more than skin deep. But to extend the two wings at the same time will allow the Spirit to lift us off the ground, into the hidden life of Christ, where we can hallow God’s name. De Bergamo calls it a place of humility. The person who practices both prayer and mortification

neither prays nor loves nor desires anything except that in all things the name of God be sanctified: ‘Hallowed be Thy name’. Humility is not a sickly virtue, timid and feeble as some imagine; on the contrary, it is strong, magnanimous, generous and constant, because it is founded on truth and justice. The truth consists in knowing what God is and what we are. Justice consists in our recognizing that God as our Creator has a right to command us, and that we as His creatures are bound to obey Him.xvii

Biblical passages about the cross have been worn so smooth by constant repetition that we hardly hear the words anymore, and are scarcely startled when Paul says that he has been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20), that he dies daily (1 Corinthians 15:31), that those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh (Galatians 5:24), that our old self was crucified with Jesus (Romans 6:6), and that we must die with Christ (Romans 6:8).

But crosses sound more alarming when applied to us as an exercise of abnegation. Libermann says “Do not set limits to the crosses you are willing to bear. Accept all that come as so many precious stones and be afraid to let any escape from your grasp.”xviii And “I am perfectly certain that the very best moments of your life, whether past, present or future, are those spent upon the cross. It is here that Jesus is always to be found.”xix And he places special emphasis on one petition Jesus was trying to get across to us in the prayer he taught: “Nothing is more sanctifying than crosses. Remain constantly in your abjectness before God and tell Him, a thousand times a day if necessary, ‘Thy will be done.’”xx He explains further by taking a familiar image from Jeremiah and Isaiah.

You should remain in the Lord’s presence like clay before the potter. The workman does what he pleases with it: he beats it, presses it, and beats it again to make it supple. The clay offers no resistance; it leaves the potter perfect liberty to do with it what he wishes. The potter fashions a vase and it often happens that when it is half-finished he breaks it up and reduces it to a shapeless mass. He then starts anew to make of it the particular vase he wants. The more the clay has been battered and crushed, the easier it is for the potter to achieve his purpose…xxi

Allow God full liberty to handle you, since you are his possession, his property. And because God’s essence is love, when his essence expresses itself it will be as goodness intended for us.

Abnegation is denial of self, denial of self-love, self-will, self-interest, and it is done in order to glorify God more purely, so I have been calling it “liturgical abnegation.” It is liturgy done on the cross. It is not motivated by practical stoicism, or self-improvement, or autonomous morality, or the esteem gained from worldlings, or any kind of self-love. It is practiced for one reason only: in order to become a burnt offering to God, to please God, to adore God, to glorify God. This is our prayer.

The result of having the cataracts of sin removed from our eyes by graced mortification is to see the world differently. My teacher, Aidan Kavanagh, used to define liturgy as “doing the world the way the world was meant to be done.” Man is a temporal creature – like other creatures of time – but with this important difference: he is not supposed to cling to temporal moments. He is meant to eat food that is eternal, that will let him live forever, as Jesus offered in John 6.

Thus, liturgical abnegation is freedom. De Sales uses the word liberty. “I speak of a different sort of liberty – that of beloved children. And that is a thorough detachment from all things, in order to follow God’s recognised Will. Let me show you what I mean. We ask God above all things that His Name may be hallowed, His Kingdom come, His Will be done in earth as in Heaven. All this is the true spirit of liberty; for so long as God’s Name be hallowed, His Majesty reigning in you, and His Will fulfilled, the spirit cares for nought beside.”xxii Mortification consists in always choosing and following that which God wishes.

What else might we be tempted to hallow (revere, fear, glory in) besides God? There seem to be countless options, but they all seem to circle back to an egocentric desire to ourselves be esteemed, honored, satisfied, and praised by the world. That is why we go chasing after the world; that is why the world goes chasing after us. Instead of being hid in Christ, the world invites us to put ourselves on display in it. We may use the world, but we must not be ruled by the world. This is a lesson Ignatius of Loyola taught at the very beginning of his Exercises. First, he writes, “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul”; second, “the other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created”; and third, “hence, man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him.”xxiii

All kinds of happinesses put themselves to human nature on this earth, and we may freely admit that there are joys to be had in this world. But they are temporal joys. Read: temporary joys. So Charles Gay suggest we respond to their temptation with the same words John the Baptist used.

To each of these joys which present themselves to us, instinct says: “Art thou the felicity we are in search of, or are we to look for another? Art thou the dawn of another day, or the mid-day, in the brightness of which my life is to find its blossom and its fruit?” John the Baptist replied to the Jews: “I am but the forerunner, a precursor, a prophet, a voice, a testimony …” It is in the same sense that grace answers to instinct, whenever it is interrogated with regard to the pleasures of this life, in reference to our supreme happiness. It says, that these pleasures are weak signs of the goodness of God: they are shadows, and at most but preludes, of our true happiness; but that they are not this true happiness itself; that they enable us to foresee it, but do not give it; that true joy is further off, and higher; that it will not come to us ’till after our death; that till then we must wait for it, and, while waiting for it, we must merit it.xxiv

Worldliness can be defined as taking the world without reference to God. Prayer can be defined as seeking God always, everywhere, constantly. The world will reveal him to us, if we look through it to the Creator. Even trials will reveal him to us, if we understand their purpose. “Let us seek God by prayer, in spite of distractions, and if sometimes a few sparks of this sacred fire by which Mary was consumed, present themselves, let us receive them gently, and hallowed by their holy influence, accept all the trials which God sends to detach us from earthly affections.”xxv

This sacred spark sets fire to both prayer and mortification in our hearts. It produces silence, which is the environment for liturgy.

Prayer, mortification and silence prepare the soul for the action of the Blessed Eucharist. Once the obstacles are cleared away from the soul this great Sacrament of union accomplishes in its perfection that which is its special effect, namely the creation of a union of spirit between the soul and Jesus. Prayer prepares the way for this, for prayer that is good must have as its effect the gradual growth in self-abnegation … As the Christian soul empties of self, it fills up with God, not merely with some thought or aspect of God as visualised by a self-centred spirituality or even as revealed in created reflections, but with God as He is in Himself and as He reveals Himself to “little ones”.xxvi

Endnotes:

i Jean Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence (St. Louis: B Herder Book Co., 1921), 29.

ii Jean Grou, The School of Jesus Christ (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1932), 308.

iii C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 61.

iv George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, First, Second and Third Series (Whitehorn, CA: Johannsen, 1999), 171.

v Grou, The School of Jesus Christ, 81.

vi Francis Libermann, Instructions for Missionaries, 133.

vii Gustave de Ravignan, Ravignan’s Last Retreat (London: Burns and Oates, 1859), 159-160.

viii Alphonsus Rodriguez, The Practice of Christian and Religious Perfection , vol 2 (London: James Duffy, 1861), 3-4.

ix Francois Fenelon, Spiritual Progress (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1853), 13.

x Francois Fenelon, The Seeking Heart (Jacksonville, FL: SeedSowers Publishing, 1992), 10.

xi Fenelon, The Seeking Heart, 39.

xii Fenelon, The Seeking Heart, 16.

xiii Fenelon, The Seeking Heart, 30.

xiv Fenelon, The Seeking Heart, 154.

xv Fenelon, The Seeking Heart, 105.

xvi Fenelon, The Seeking Heart, 158.

xvii Gaetano Maria de Bergamo, Humility of Heart (Mandeville, LA: Founding Father Films Publishing, 2015), 41-2.

xviii Francis Libermann, Letters to Religious Sisters and Aspirants , Spiritan Series 5, vol. 1 (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1963), 144.

xix Francis Libermann, Letters to Clergy & Religious , Spiritan Series 8, vol. 4 (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1964), 354.

xx Francis Libermann, Letters to People in the World , Spiritan Series 6, vol. 2 (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1963), 245.

xxi Francis Libermann, Letters to Clergy & Religious , Spiritan Series 9, vol. 5 (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1966), 116.

xxii Francis de Sales, A Selection From the Spiritual Letters of S. Francis de Sales , ed. Lear (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1876), 60.

xxiii Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius , trans. Louis Puhl (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1951), 12.

xxiv Charles Gay, The Christian Life and Virtues Considered in the Religious State (London: Burns & Oates, 1878), 292.

xxv Gustav de Ravignan, Conferences on the Spiritual Life (London: R. Washbourne, 1873 ), 202.

xxvi Edward Leen, Progress Through Mental Prayer (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1935), 11.


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About David Fagerberg, Ph.D. 4 Articles
David Fagerberg, Ph.D. taught at the University of Notre Dame from 2003 until his retirement in 2021. His area of study is liturgical theology – its definition and methodology – and how the Church’s lex orandi (law of prayer) is the foundation for her lex credendi (law of belief). He has written several books and numerous essays on subjects including liturgy, sacramental theology, Eastern Orthodoxy, linguistic philosophy, scholasticism, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. His most recent book is Liturgical Dogmatics: How Catholic Beliefs Flow from Liturgical Prayer (Ignatius Press, 2021).

9 Comments

  1. The Son incomprehensible says Dorothy Sayers on the Trinity. She, quoted by Carl Olson The Trinity: A Mystery for Eternity misunderstood the mystery of the Trinity a mystery the incarnation of Christ a mystery although the revelation of the Father in Christ is exactly that, a revelation accessible to man.
    That said there is an essential dynamic tied to David Fagerberg’s comprehensive essay on the immense value of prayer and mortification [in liturgical context] and the freedom reached.
    Dr Fagerberg couldn’t quote a better source than Francis De Sales who touches on the essential dynamic of mortification applied to everyone whatever their status.
    For the priest, mortification engaged within the liturgy is essential. That entails absolute attentiveness to what we read and say to the people, Our Lord in respect to ourselves. The deeper we enter into the meaning of the Eucharistic prayer and words of consecration, the further we identify with Christ’s sacrifice, his veritable abnegation of self, his divinity in submission to the Father’s will and suffering. This oblation of self is largely lost by priests, although the sacrificial effort to give of oneself enters into this dynamic. By the oblation of oneself in participation with Christ we enter into the depth of a mystery, the binding love that unifies the Trinity of Persons.
    Mystery is transmitted insofar as its effect within us rather than comprehension. Poetry conveys hidden meaning that we do not fully understand, somehow a sense within. As we find in the poetry of John of the Cross in The Spiritual Canticle, the Living Flame of Love. We perceive what occurs within not fully comprehending why though fully satisfied with what we know is conveyed. Freedom realized in absence of desire for things, desire for what we know by the effects within and faith. Laity recognize this and are drawn in. A realization of Trinitarian unity, the Holy Spirit drawing all of us to love of the Father through the Son.

  2. This is indeed awesome! l love it. You really spoke to me through this well articulated spiritual treatise. Greetings from Scottish Aberdeen. Remain blessed 🙏🙏🙏

  3. As said elsewhere the revelation of the Father in Christ is the foremost truth finding intelligibility in itself. It’s intelligibility requires no supporting propositions, secondary proofs. That is why the Catechism teaches that this truth available to all, although not all assent, all recognize it – that it is not arrived at by reason [although reason follows to support our apprehension].

  4. C. S. Lewis is quoted as saying: “the joys of Heaven are, for most of us in our present condition, ‘an acquired taste.’.”

    In line with this article, Lewis also said: “I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

  5. The Son incomprehensible says Dorothy Sayers on the Trinity. She, quoted by Carl Olson The Trinity: A Mystery for Eternity mistakenly misunderstood the mystery of the Trinity a mystery the incarnation of Christ a mystery although the revelation of the Father in Christ is exactly that, a revelation accessible to man.
    That said there is an essential dynamic tied to David Fagerberg’s comprehensive essay on the immense value of prayer and mortification [in liturgical context] and the freedom reached. Dr Fagerberg couldn’t quote a better source than Francis De Sales who touches on the essential dynamic of mortification applied to everyone whatever their status.
    For the priest, mortification engaged within the liturgy is essential. That entails absolute attentiveness to what we read and say to the people, Our Lord in respect to ourselves. The deeper we enter into the meaning of the Eucharistic prayer and words of consecration, the further we identify with Christ’s sacrifice, his veritable abnegation of self, his divinity in submission to the Father’s will and suffering. This oblation of self is largely lost by priests, although the sacrificial effort to give of oneself enters into this dynamic. By the oblation of oneself in participation with Christ we enter into the depth of a mystery, the binding love that unifies the Trinity of Persons.
    Mystery is transmitted insofar as its effect within us rather than comprehension. Poetry conveys hidden meaning that we may not fully understand, somehow a sense within. As we find in the poetry of John of the Cross in The Spiritual Canticle, the Living Flame of Love. We perceive what occurs within not fully comprehending why though fully satisfied with what we know is conveyed. Freedom realized in absence of desire for things, desire for what we know by the effects within and faith. Laity recognize this and are drawn in. A realization of Trinitarian unity, the Holy Spirit drawing all of us to love of the Father through the Son.

  6. Mother Janet Stuart, Superior General of the Religious of the Sacred Heart at the beginning of the 20th century, gave this description of a mortified person:
    “A mortified person knows how to wait, how to listen, how to laisser tomber,(let go), how to mortify mortification itself when charity or obedience requires it.
    “She is polite, for politeness is l’art de se gêner soi-même afin de ne point gêner les autres. (Politeness is the art of accepting discomfort in order to put the other at ease.)
    “Her voice is low – an excellent thing in women, and a fortiori, in a Religious.
    “Her ways are gentle, for her soul is in her hands.
    “She plays second fiddle excellently.
    “She is a miser of time – God’s time.”
    “The mortified soul gives no clue to her likes and dislikes, but takes them as they come, frost or fog, beetles or earwigs, noises and smells, places and times, for better or worse.
    “Her attitude towards the disagreeable is ‘tant mieux’. (So much the better.)
    “All other things being equal, she does the unpleasant things first and best.
    “She loves ‘common life’.”

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