JESUS LIVING IN MARY:
HANDBOOK OF THE SPIRITUALITY OF ST. LOUIS DE MONTFORT

MORTIFICATION


Summary
I.	Introduction. 
II.	The Impact of Berullian Spirituality: 
	1.	God Alone; 
	2.	Motives of Mortification. 
III.	Mortification in Montfort’s Life: 
	1.	Youth; 
	2.	Missionary apostolate. 
IV.	Montfort’s Teaching on Mortification: 
	1.	Christocentric mortification; 
	2.	Universal mortification: 
	3.	Interior and small mortifications. 
V.	The Relevance of Montfort’s Teaching on Mortification Today.

I. INTRODUCTION

"If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mt 16:24). These Gospel imperatives are spoken to Jesus’ followers of all times and they are highlighted by Saint Louis de Montfort,1 as they are by CCC.2 The contemporary teaching of the Church states: "The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes: ‘He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows.’"3

Mortification is, therefore, an understandably important theme in the life and writings of Saint Louis Marie de Montfort. He uses the word mostly in its traditional sense: "the deliberate restraint that one places on natural impulses in order to make them increasingly subject to sanctification through obedience to reason illumined by faith."4 Father de Montfort speaks of self-denial, carrying the Cross, disciplining by austerities inherent in one’s state of life or even self-imposed renunciation of the world, worldly goods, and worldly company.

This article will discuss the influences on Montfort’s understanding of and doctrine on mortification. It will also attempt to demonstrate how mortification was present in his life and teaching, and the relevance of Montfort’s doctrine of mortification.


II. THE IMPACT OF BERULLIAN SPIRITUALITY

 

Saint Louis Marie de Montfort is known as the last of the great Bérullians. His views and teaching on mortification should be seen in the context of the Bérullian or French school of spirituality, which exercised considerable influence on him together with other currents of thought.

1. God Alone

Asceticism is a hallmark of Bérullian spirituality. Essentially, the Bérullian asceticism embodies the double movement of total renunciation of self and total clinging to God. In fact, the total renunciation of the self is only authentic and valid to the extent that it frees us to cling to God Alone. The focus should be on "God Alone" —and Montfort will stress that in God Alone we find our neighbor, especially the poor and the brokenhearted—and not on oneself. Nothing should be motivated by self-will or self-seeking; rather, the contemplation of God Alone should move one to action. "It is these two aspects of the Bérullian heritage that mark most deeply the personal experience of Louis de Montfort."5 Theocentrism—a life focused on God—is the constant aim of Bérullian mortification. Yet it must be constantly stressed that this centering on God—most especially for Montfort—includes a practical love for one’s neighbor.

2. Motives of mortification

Not only did Bérullian mortification seek to be united with "God Alone"— the first motive for mortification—but it is also the means to overcome the radical weakness of human nature and man’s fundamentally sinful condition: a second motive for mortification. This strong stress by some members of eighteenth-century spirituality on the weakness of man in the light of original and actual sin is termed Christian pessimism. According to this view, the body, or the flesh, is to be mortified continually to subjugate its evil tendencies, so intense because of original and actual sins. Bérulle’s thought is summed up in his famous text: "Of ourselves we have no right to anything but nothingness, sin, and hell—in other words, nothingness from start to finish. . . . Sin is a second nothingness and worse than the first—a nothingness opposed to God, resistant to God—and hell is the consummation of, and permanent establishment in, this wretched nothingness."6 Montfort echoes this attitude when he writes: "Never give your body all it demands. With permission, refuse it even some lawful satisfaction" (RW 74).

Bérullian spirituality, however, was staunchly Christ-centered. Only in Jesus can humanity be both reconciled with God and re-created. The aim of the spiritual life is total communion with Jesus. The way to Jesus is through the Cross, and here we have a strong third motive for mortification: carrying the Cross like Jesus. The Cross held a preeminent place in the French school. In imitation of Jesus, who carried the Cross and died on it, and in order to live in him, we must die to self and to all created things and immolate ourselves to God. This aspect of Bérullian spirituality seems to have particularly influenced Montfort. During his formative years in Paris, a book that he devoured and that became a foundation for his meditation was The Holy Ways of the Cross by Henri Marie Boudon, an exponent of French spirituality. A strict interpretation of poverty and an impassioned fidelity to the Cross characterize the teachings of this book.7

Bérulle’s doctrine on the total surrender of the humanity of Christ to the Divine Person can also be considered a fourth motive for total self- abnegation. Bérulle’s concept of Consecration—Holy Slavery—is modeled on the truth that the humanity of Christ so totally clings to the Divine Logos that the human nature has no ontological personality of its own. This total self-emptying, the kenosis, is, then, a call to the followers of Christ to practice mortification to belong as much as possible to the Divine Word.

Saint Louis de Montfort followed the French school quite closely in finding motives for a life of penance and mortification. As we will see, however, he modifies these reasons in accord with his own experience of an evangelical, apostolic life.8


III. MORTIFICATION IN MONTFORT’S LIFE

 

Moved by the gifts of the Spirit expressing themselves through his own temperament—described as energetic, passionate, aggressive, fiery, and yet gentle and affectionate—and encouraged by the religious climate of his time, Montfort led a life of rigorous mortification. He willingly gave up the comforts of life because he firmly believed that "wisdom is not found in the hearts of those who live in comfort" (LEW 194).

1. Youth

Louis Marie surely practiced mortification even as a young man preparing for the priesthood. It appears that he fasted frequently, something that must have been particularly difficult for him because his appetite was hearty and his constitution sturdy. While studying in Paris under severe economic strain, he used to go three times a week to keep all-night vigils at wakes held in the parish of Saint Sulpice. Here his intense, habitual asceticism came to the fore, as it appears that he refused the light refreshment offered to sustain him during the long hours of the night. He habitually wore a hair shirt. His use of the discipline was often severe. Papŕsogli calls him "one of the most mortified saints of the century."9

Though one spiritual director discouraged his intense practice of mortifications, others encouraged Montfort in its pursuit. While he was studying in Paris, Father Prévost, who was his confessor for some time, did not hesitate to ask him to give up the only material object in the world to which he had an attachment: his little statue of the Blessed Virgin.10

2. Missionary apostolate

Montfort’s sixteen years of priestly, apostolic ministry witnessed his most intense period of mortification. As a priest in the early eighteenth century France, he was entitled and expected to live the dignified life of the first estate. He chose, however, the lifestyle of a poor vagabond preacher with few possessions. It was this thought-out choice which became the source of many of his mortifications: his identity with the outcasts qualified his food, clothing, shelter, friends, and, to a great extent, his reputation among priests and bishops. When Saint Louis de Montfort tells his Congregation of missionary priests that their principal mortification is to be found in their hardships as itinerant preachers, he is speaking from experience. (cf. LCM 10)

Saint Louis Marie’s primary penances and mortifications flowed from his life as a vagabond, homeless preacher of parish missions. Montfort lived the rule he gave to his Missionaries of the Company of Mary: "Their motto will be: do not follow the ways of the world. Consequently, they will avoid, as far as is consistent with charity and obedience, whatever savors of worldliness" (RM 38).

But this is not to say that penitential acts did not abound in his rather short life. Montfort was a firm believer in being spiritually fit. He never wanted to be taken by surprise by some providential call to a Cross that might overwhelm him. His chosen penances prepared him, so he was convinced, for any eventuality and helped him to be totally centered on the Lord in his life and preaching. Mortification gave him the opportunity to imitate Christ and atone for his own sins and the sins of others.

Many of his biographers believe that Saint Louis de Montfort’s penances erred on the side of extravagance. Perhaps so. But the custom of the times, his motives, and also the fact that he would never undertake a serious penance without the permission of his spiritual director soften such a Judgement.11 Most of the accounts of Montfort’s penances are repetitions of chapter 11 of Grandet’s biography, where he almost gleefully describes in vivid terms "his daily austerities, which exceeded by far the natural forces of man."12 In spite of Grandet’s attempt to place Saint Louis Marie outside the realm of the human, he does imply that many of these mortifications were at times omitted by the saint when preaching missions.13

Montfort considered the practice of mortification an indispensable means of holiness and salvation taught by the Gospels, explained by the masters of the spiritual life, and practiced by saints (SM 4).

Clearly, mortification held a prominent place in Montfort’s life. A lack of mortification, he firmly believed, was incompatible with serious Christian life. In FC, he writes: "Be careful not to admit into your society those delicate and sensitive people who are afraid of the slightest pin-prick, who cry out and complain at the least pain, who know nothing of the hair-shirt, the discipline or other instruments of penance, and who mingle, with their fashionable devotions, a most refined tediousness and a most studied lack of mortification" (FC 17).


IV. MONTFORT’S TEACHING ON MORTIFICATION

In his writings, Montfort presents solid teaching on mortification. For him, it should be understood and practiced in the context of our relationship with Christ; it is universal, and it is far more than external acts.

1. Christocentric mortification

What is most striking about Montfort’s teaching on mortification is its Christ-centeredness. Christian life is about acquiring and possessing Jesus Wisdom and remaining with him. In his principal work, LEW, he says: "So let us remain with Jesus, the eternal and incarnate Wisdom. Apart from him, there is nothing but aimless wandering, untruth, and death. ‘I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life’" (LEW 89).

For Montfort, Christ is, above all, the one who suffered and died for us on the Cross. The mystery of Christ is the mystery of the Cross. "Never the Cross without Jesus, or Jesus without the cross" (LEW 172). Eternal Wisdom has fixed his abode in the Cross so firmly that we will not find him anywhere else in the world, least of all in the souls of those who live in comfort. "He has so truly incorporated and united himself with the cross that in all truth we can say: Wisdom is the Cross and the Cross is Wisdom" (LEW 180).

As his writings demonstrate, Montfort was a contemplative of the mystery of the Cross and a singer of its praises. The Cross is glorious and worthy of adoration. "Through his [Christ’s] dying upon it the cross of ignominy became so glorious, its poverty and starkness so enriching, its sorrows so agreeable, its austerity so attractive, that it became as it were deified and an object to be adored by angels and by men" (LEW 172). Because of its eternal union with Christ, the Cross has a permanent significance. At the last judgment, Christ will judge the world with his Cross and by it. It is a greater gift than even the gift of faith (LEW 175).

The mystery of the Cross is the mystery of God’s love. The Cross is the soundest proof of divine love. "Among all the motives impelling us to love Jesus Christ, Wisdom Incarnate, the strongest, in my opinion, is the suffering he chose to endure to prove his love for us" (LEW 154). For our part, we respond to God’s love by carrying our own crosses. "The cross was the proof God gave of his love for us; and it is also the proof which God requires to show our love for him" (LEW 176).

The Cross is precious to us for many reasons. It makes us resemble Jesus Christ. It is the means of union with Christ. Jesus Christ accepts as his own only those who carry their crosses. It enlightens the mind and is the source of an understanding that no book in the world can give. It is an "abundant source of every delight and consolation; it brings joy, peace, and grace to our souls" (LEW 176). It gives the one who carries it the weight of everlasting glory. It changes momentary suffering into an eternity of happiness (LEW 180).

Christians are called to participate actively in the Cross of Christ. "Make no mistake about it; since incarnate Wisdom had to enter heaven by the cross, you also must enter by the same way" (LEW 180). For Montfort, this is what mortification is about, i.e., carrying the Cross through, with, and in Christ and participating in his paschal mystery. "All those who belong to Christ, incarnate Wisdom, have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. They always bear about in their bodies the dying of Jesus. They continually do violence to themselves, carry their cross daily. They are dead and indeed buried with Christ" (LEW 194).

Mortification is necessary because self-denial and renunciation of the world and self are ways to possess Incarnate Wisdom. In LEW, Montfort lists mortification among the four means necessary to acquire Wisdom. A relationship with Christ is impossible without mortification. "Do not imagine that incarnate Wisdom, who is purer than the rays of the sun, will enter a soul and a body soiled by the pleasures of the senses. Do not believe that he will grant his rest and ineffable peace to those who love worldly company and vanities" (LEW 195). Though the Incarnate Wisdom is eager to give himself to us, it is a sad truth that there are so few who are "sufficiently unworldly or sufficiently interior and mortified to be worthy of him, of his treasures, and of union with him" (ibid).

The call to mortification, Montfort points out, is found among the principal utterances of Wisdom Incarnate himself, which we must believe and practice if we are to be saved. He gives a list of sixty such utterances, and the very first is the call to self-abnegation and to carry the Cross: "If anyone wishes to follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. Lk. 9:23" (LEW 133).

Many wise and honest people living in this world simply do not know the value of the Cross, because they are too fond of sensual pleasures and seek only their own comforts. That is the reason the Cross is not welcomed, why it is even rejected. In a letter to a religious, Montfort wrote: "If Christians only knew the value of the cross, they would walk a hundred miles to obtain it, because enclosed in the beloved cross is true wisdom" (L 13).

There is also another problem. Many Christians know the value of the Cross in theory because so much is written and spoken about it. But in practice, "people lose courage, complain, excuse themselves, and run away as soon as the possibility of suffering arises" (LEW 174).

2. Universal mortification

Mortification is required of all at all times. It has a perennial significance. Montfort speaks of it as universal. He explains universal mortification as total, continuous, courageous, and prudent. "Wisdom is not satisfied with half-hearted mortification or mortification of a few days" (LEW 196). Genuine mortification is courageously applied to the senses and faculties, mortifying the eyes, sense of smell and taste, the faculties of mind and will, and their inordinate and useless affections (RW 170).

Universal mortification penetrates the diverse areas of human life. Its highest point is the giving up of our worldly possessions—expressive of interior poverty—which is the quickest, the best, and the surest means to possess Wisdom. Montfort recognizes that this may not be easy for all or even within the vocation of all. Hence, he recommends detachment of the heart from material things, possessing them as though not possessing them (LEW 197). Not following the showy fashions and the false maxims of the world and fleeing from the company of worldly people are important areas of mortification.

Mortification of the body, according to Montfort, is indispensable in our efforts to possess Wisdom. Speaking of bodily mortifications, he says that accepting our life as it is and living it patiently everyday by enduring our bodily ailments, the inconveniences of the weather, and the difficulties arising from other people’s actions is mortification enough. To this we may add some voluntary penances and mortifications, such as fasts, vigils, and other austerities practiced by holy penitents (LEW 201). This balanced advice on the subject of mortification seems surprising coming from a person so "mortified" as Father de Montfort; yet it is basically the very route that he himself followed. His advice to his Missionaries on the subject of mortification is simple: "The Rule does not prescribe any corporal penances. This is left to their own fervor controlled by obedience. They will, however, abstain from meat on Wednesdays and fast on Fridays or Saturdays and, on the evenings of these two days only a light meal is to be served" (RM 36).

It is true that bodily mortifications are difficult. The body idolizes itself, and the world considers all bodily penances pointless. But Montfort warns: "Beware of thinking that bodily mortification is not necessary to acquire Wisdom, for Wisdom is never found in those who live a life of ease and who gratify their senses" (RW 172). He advises caution, however, in the practice of bodily mortification. Both excess and defect are to be avoided here. And again, Montfort’s common sense is evident: "Although certain great and holy people have sought and asked for crosses and even by their peculiar behavior have brought sufferings, scorn and humiliations upon themselves, let us be content with admiring and praising the marvelous work of the Holy Spirit in their souls. Let us humble ourselves at the sight of such sublime virtue without attempting to reach such heights ourselves" (FC 44).

It is also important to note that for Montfort, mortification is not synonymous with a gloomy spirit. Rather, it is a source of joy, for it brings with it the knowledge of obeying the command of the Lord and of imitating him. "You will find in it [mortification, the carrying of the Cross] a delight beyond anything you have known. . . . The joy that comes from the cross is greater than that of a poor man who suddenly comes into a fortune or of a peasant who is raised to the throne, greater than the joy of a trader who becomes a millionaire" (FC 34).

3. Interior and small mortifications

Montfort points out that interior mortifications are more important than exterior ones, even though the latter are not to be disregarded. The conquest of selfishness, or self-will, is the greatest challenge. Even the good results of difficult practices of mortification may be spoiled by self-seeking. Hence he recommends that all exterior acts of mortification be done under obedience. "For exterior and voluntary mortification to be profitable, it must be accompanied by the mortifying of the judgment and the will through holy obedience, because without this obedience all mortification is spoiled by self will and often becomes more pleasing to the devil than to God" (LEW 201).

Montfort also teaches that little mortifications are often more meritorious than great ones because they are less apt to give rise to vanity. Small interior acts of mortification made for God, for example, repressing useless words and glances or checking a movement of anger or impatience, etc., could turn out to be great victories. In this connection, he specifically asks—in his down-to-earth language—to mortify "1) a certain natural activity that inclines you to hurry and to accomplish much; 2) changing moods that rule you and displease your neighbor; 3) your tongue, which always wishes to talk, laugh, mock etc.; 4) a tendency to lack religious modesty in your bearing, which makes you act like a child, laugh like a fool, jump around like a juggler, and eat and drink like an animal" (RW 176).

Special devotee of the Blessed Virgin Mary that he was, Montfort sees Mary as the best example of universal mortification. He lists mortification as one of her ten principal virtues, which should be imitated by those who are devoted to her. Acts of interior or exterior mortification may be performed as one of the five principal practices of true devotion to her (TD 108, 116).


V. THE RELEVANCE OF MONTFORT’S TEACHING ON MORTIFICATION TODAY

 

While some people may be put off by what appear to contemporary man as excesses in Montfort’s own practice of mortification, his teaching on this point is important and relevant for every one. What is particularly appealing is the Christocentrism of his teaching on mortification. Montfort does not think that "mortification" performed for its own sake has value. The pains and agonies of the athlete in order to get in shape cannot be considered for that reason alone as mortifications. Acts of penance and mortification become meaningful, useful, and necessary as our participation in the mystery of the Cross of Christ and as means for our union with him. It is their relation to Jesus that turns daily hardships into mortifications.

Montfort’s concept of universal mortification also has a lasting impact. Mortification is for all. All Christians are called to it. It should affect our entire life all the time, not merely one or other aspect of our life at a given time. In other words, mortification is a permanent part of the Christian life. This teaching of Montfort is relevant especially today, when more and more people seem to think less and less of mortification and asceticism as an integral part of the Christian or spiritual life.

His teaching that interior and small mortifications are as important as, if not more important than, exterior and greater mortifications should also not be forgotten. As in many other things, quality is more important than quantity: "God considers not so much what we suffer as how we suffer" (FC 49). Mortifications are much more than rituals. True mortification should change our lives, behavior patterns, and relationships for the better. Acts of mortification should have a healthy impact on the daily lives of those who perform them. Montfort’s teaching on mortification points to that.

T. Myladil


Notes: (1) FC is fundamentally a commentary on the call of Jesus to carry the Cross after him. It is not only a treatise on the Cross; its highly practical content makes of it a booklet on mortification. Montfort considers mortification—the carrying of the Cross—to be a response to this command of the Lord to take up one’s Cross daily. (2) CCC 2029 is nothing more than Mt 16:24, summarizing the necessity of mortification to achieve holiness. (3) CCC 2015. The quote is from St. Gregory of Nyssa, Hom. in Cant. 8. (4) P. F. Mulhern, Mortification, in The New Catholic Encyclopedia, McGraw-Hill, New York 1966, 9:1153. (5) B. Papŕsogli, Montfort: A Prophet for Our Times, Edizioni Monfortane, Rome 1991, 105. (6) Cardinal de Bérulle, Opuscules de piété, Aubier- Montaigne, Paris 1944, 439-440. (7) Papŕsogli, Montfort, 75-76. (8) It is important to note that Saint Louis de Montfort stresses in his version of Holy Slavery not the dependence of the humanity of Christ on the Divine Person but the loving mutual surrender of Jesus to Mary and Mary to Jesus. This point, often overlooked, has repercussions throughout Montfort’s doctrine. (9) Papŕsogli, Montfort, 80. (10) Ibid., 39. (11) There is no doubt that Saint Louis de Montfort’s mortifications were intense: "Given the excesses of his nature, his great desire for perfection and that zeal of his which is a mixture of nature and grace, it is not surprising that his practice of mortification errs on the side of extravagance rather than restraint." Ibid., 46. Montfort surely would not think that he was "extravagant" in his penances, especially since they were constantly held in check by his obedience to his directors. (12) Grandet, 341-345. (13) Ibid., 342: "He observed this same style of life [i.e., one of great mortifications] often enough during the time of missions," which implies that often he at least lessened his mortifications while undergoing the rigors of a parish mission.

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Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).

Provided courtesy of the Montfort Fathers © All Rights Reserved.

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