In an e-mail, reader Patricia asks a question that is particularly relevant during Lent:
What does physical mortification mean in the modern world today?
The simplest, but admittedly least enlightening, answer is that it means what it has always meant: the attempt to subdue passions and desires through self-denial or through exertions of the body; in other words, to subject the body to the rule of the soul. Mortification can also be a means of penance for sin and a way to avoid future sins.
In practical terms, the Catholic Church prescribes only two forms of mortification: fasting and abstinence. And, for most Catholics, Lent is the primary time of year in which they practice either, even though the Church recommends fasting at various points throughout the year, and still requires abstinence every Friday, unless you substitute some comparable form of penance.
Beyond that, however, Catholics are free to practice additional mortification, as they see necessary. Some mortifications, such as sleeping less, making prostrations during prayer, walking the stairs rather than using the elevator, or taking a somewhat colder shower than usual, can safely be practiced by almost any Catholic. More rigorous mortifications, such as a total fast, restricting fluid intake, or inflicting physical pain upon oneself, should not be undertaken without consulting with your spiritual director (for most people, your parish priest).
The Church urges us to practice mortification in Lent, to go above and beyond what the rules of fasting and abstinence require. But if you have any doubt about whether you might be taking on more than you should, please consult your parish priest.
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