WHILE our LORD'S example manifested itself in various kinds of life, as, e.g., the contemplative and apostolic on the one hand, on the other the social and domestic, there is, nevertheless, one pervading spirit prevailing equally in them all, of which I would speak to-day,-- the spirit of mortification.
It may seem strange that this was so, since our LORD'S life was passed, as we have seen, for the most part in the midst of the world; and the two, the world's life and the spirit of mortification, are thought to be incompatible one with another. Mortification, it is generally supposed, belongs only to a life of seclusion, to the cloister, to special seasons of retreat. But it was without doubt one main purpose of our LORD'S life to show, that mortification is not so limited, that it is a universal state, pervading the new life of the elect under all its forms alike, whether in or out of the world.
Again, it might appear, that because our LORD was sinless, therefore mortification could have no place in Him, since mortification is the subdual of sin. But this would be to regard mortification only from the point of our natural corruption, under one, and that the lowest idea of it alone. This is indeed the most necessary end of mortification. But mortification extends to other objects beside the subdual of sin. Mortification is one chief instrument of perfection for all the virtues. It is the law which GOD has ordained for progressive advancement in sanctity, as pruning a tree is the means of developing the fruitfulness of even the healthiest branch. And in this respect mortification applied to our LORD, as perfectly as to one of us. It was our LORD'S will to take our nature in such a state, that it needed to be gradually advanced to perfection. Not that He was not perfect at all times in His created, as well as in His uncreated nature, but He was pleased, in order to become more perfectly like unto us, and a more entire example to us, to develop its perfection progressively, as alone it can be developed in us, restraining Himself within the limits ordained for His brethren, advancing to His fulness, as they must needs advance, by degrees, and by like means; and as He grew "in wisdom and in stature," from a child to a man, so also He impressed gradually on Humanity the advancing grandeur of saintly beauty, trial and self-mortification being in Him, as in all His elect, the means of perpetual increase.
And not only does mortification extend thus to the formation of virtues in a sinless being, it has yet another and a more mysterious range. It has a necessary office also in perfecting the purest influences of grace. The highest illuminations, raptures, visions, powers of contemplation, energies of holiest activity, embraces of Divine love, ecstasies of prayer, are preserved true, conformed to the will of GOD, and refined to perfection, by continual chastenings and subduals. For these finer elements of a spiritual life need to be made consistent with moral duty, with the exercise of the virtues; need to be restrained to place and time, and therefore require to be brought under the power of a renewed will, which is effected by the same law of mortification. In both these latter cases mortification had a direct and real application to our LORD'S created nature, as He was pleased to assume it, while in our own case it has the additional purpose of overcoming sin.
Trace now the working of mortification through some of the leading features of our LORD'S life, and see how it extended to all its parts. He mortified the love of home, the natural attachment to place and ease, in the Flight into Egypt, to dwell for years among the heathen. He mortified His tenderness, His love to His blessed mother and His foster-FATHER, putting them to pain, and Himself to greater pain, during the three days when they lost Him, then a child of twelve years old, in the streets of Jerusalem. He mortified His yearnings to go forth to labour, His desire to sacrifice Himself, His powers, His intense purposes of love, restraining them for thirty years, till the time arrived for His ministry. He knew, and by sharing it sanctified, the loneliness of the pure virgin state, set apart and consecrated to His Divine mission. He mortified the natural shrinking of humanity from trial, when, as S. Mark describes it, "the Spirit driveth Him into the wilderness, to be tempted." He mortified His appetites, while He hungered during His long fast. He mortified all natural desires, while passing a homeless life, a wanderer, evil spoken of, held in contempt, opposed in doing good, persecuted in the act of blessing. He mortified the longing for retirement, for prayer, for contemplation, while pursued, pressed by the crowd, wearied with toil. He mortified the sensitiveness of our nature, while He endured the rage, the violence, the coarseness, of the common world; the faults, the misconstructions, the dulness, of the good. He mortified the yearnings for sympathy, when forsaken by His disciples in His hour of greatest distress. Who can enter into the depths of the mortification of all the finer elements alike of His Soul and His Body throughout His Passion? Who can contemplate the strong deep energies of a human will, offering itself to fulfil the will of GOD in the perfect sacrifice of self through that awful scene, and not rise with marvelling unspeakable in the thought of what Humanity is destined to be, might be in our small measure, in any one of us, if we really took Him as an example "to follow His steps?" It was only one, the closing, act of the long progress of mortification, when He mortified even the Communion of His Soul with the Eternal FATHER, and Himself, very GOD, endured the intolerable desolation of being forsaken of GOD.
These are but selected instances, and every one will readily recall to himself other like instances of the spirit of mortification, pervading our LORD'S life. It is not, however, so much the separate acts on which I dwell, but on the fact that such mortification, as an universal law, pervaded the whole tenour of His life, His home life, as well as His wandering life of labour, His social life, as well as His solitude, His nights of contemplation, and ecstasies of union with GOD, as well as His exercises of moral virtue.
Moreover an important practical truth comes out to view in the history of our LORD'S mortifications, as revealing the sources out of which the demands for mortification arise. There are mainly two sources, from which alike by the ordinance of GOD the occasions and powers of mortification are derived. 1. One main source lies within the soul itself, and depends entirely on internal effort. Mortification in this case is a pressure put upon some strong movement of our nature by a still stronger power within itself, which prevails. It may be a desire, an affection, an imagination, which 'has to be controlled. There is a power given to the human will to exercise this control. The exercise of such control is mortification. This power is a supernatural attribute of the renewed will; it is the common gift of all true humanity in union with GOD. It is this power which we put forth whenever we make a spiritual effort. There was a perpetual exercise of this power in our LORD, differing from such power in us only in its ineffable perfection. This may properly be called self-mortification.
2. The second source of mortification lies in the pressure of external trials. The circumstances of our daily life, the difficulties, the disappointments, the denials of our lot, our state of health, or of fortune, the faults or errors of those with whom we live,--these and such-like influences, pressing upon us, form an entire system of discipline, which continually acts upon us. In the patient endurance of an order of things which we cannot change, or fly from, far the most frequent calls to mortification are found. We are, perhaps, seldom tempted to question, whether these external trials are overruled by the Providence of GOD, except in one case. We stumble at the idea, that the vices and infirmities of others should be to us a source of mortification, and this ordained of GOD. And yet when it is written, that our LORD was "delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of GOD," and "by wicked hands crucified and slain," what other conclusion can possibly be drawn, but that the sufferings we experience from the sins and faults of others, are divinely ordered for our discipline? Even the Crucifixion was in a true sense GOD'S own act. It was a fearful penance for sin, inflicted by GOD on Himself. It is not that GOD caused the evil passions of those who slew Him, but He caused the direction, the effect of those passions on Himself. He willed them in their consequences. The same was true of all the trials of His life. He did not create the vices of the evil, or the faults of the good, but He caused them to be His instruments of mortification. The same law applies universally to the action of all human suffering which arises as the consequence of human sin.
We may therefore either mortify ourselves, or GOD may mortify us through the order of outward things. Our LORD was exercising self-mortification when He hungered in the Wilderness. He was mortified from without by the Divine Will in the Agony, when He said; "The cup which My FATHER hath given Me, shall I not drink it?" If we compare the two modes, self-mortification is the result of the most active energy in ourselves; mortification arising from outward things or persons, requires the meekest grace, has the least of self, the least of a choice, is more entirely of GOD.
Let us now seek to apply these lessons to ourselves. We first learn, that the need of mortification extends not only to the outgoings of our nature, but to our very nature itself. There are those who think that mortification is good, if it be applied to restrain vice; they would limit its use to unlawful indulgence. Let those who argue thus, ponder the awful histories of David and Solomon. Both alike were illuminated with Divine wisdom, patterns of greatest devotion. Both enjoyed the freest use of lawful indulgence. There could have been no inducement, no temptation, it might have been supposed, to pass beyond the bounds of permission. But both alike fell into the excess of voluptuousness. They are both melancholy instances to prove, that the fullest lawful indulgence may leave us a prey to the lowest temptations. The truth, which their histories strikingly illustrate, is this --that it is not enough to mortify the abuse of a passion, but also necessary to mortify the passion itself. Who can keep up the constant strain of holding back a passion just at the point where the indulgence passes into sin, the use into the abuse? Can a man be always watchful? Can he always hold the rein firm in his hand? Can he always stop just at the necessary time? If one would keep back the waters, he must go higher up the stream, and stay their upper sources. Would he save himself from evil, he must gain power over the first movements of the passion, over the look, the touch, the thought. Even as a security against deadly sins, mortification of the inner sources of our life is necessary.
But not merely is this necessary as a safeguard against possible consequences. It is equally necessary forward calmness and peace. Without the power of self-control, how can inward rest be attained, or how otherwise can we secure that chastened, that refined tone of feeling, which is the special characteristic of all true sanctity? The same principle applies to all subduals of self; for selfishness is the unchecked play of secret impulses and desires. All such results depend on the mortification of the first movements of the soul. There are, chiefly, two errors of judgment affecting more or less every one of us, to which we may in a great measure trace our failings as to the mortified life. 1. In our imaginings for the future the very idea of mortification is omitted. Consider, e.g., the ordinary plans we form for domestic life, the idea commonly entertained of marriage. We anticipate the gratification of manifold desires, perfect sympathy, a solace for the world's exactions on our patience and self-restraint. But what does experience teach us? As our dream meets the actual order of things, as we multiply objects of love and gain repose of heart, we have indeed drawn out some of the tenderest and most beautiful elements of our nature; but we have only exposed the more points where we may be wounded, and the very excess of tenderness and sympathy may be the occasion of the deeper desolation, when GOD takes away the desire of our eyes with a stroke. Or the dream may be disenchanted by disappointments wholly unforeseen. There are faults to be borne at home, and faults at home come closer than those in the world; they touch deeper and more sensitive feelings; they are more frequent; they come when we are least restrained, least on our guard. Or sympathy may fail where most looked for; or, it may be, some deep flaw of character, wholly un-perceived before, may come out in the loved person under new temptations, and perhaps increase with years, marring our dream yet more fatally. And home with all its deep sources of promised blessing, is found to be only another sphere for the exercise of patience and forbearance, of mutual forgiveness and mutual endurance.
How many in the retrospect of their home life mourn over unhappiness, which they have caused, which might have been spared, had there been more self-control, a truer, more feeling considerateness, a readier acceptance of unavoidable imperfections in others, as well as in themselves! How many go heavily burdened with sin, which patience and unselfishness would not have known! But how could this better course have been kept, except the fond dreams of youth had been chastened by early discipline?
Or take the case of a single and separate life, wholly given to religion. One pictures to oneself that all must be repose, where all is GOD; that with the world is left behind that very order of things which was found so trying. But there are faults in the religious; there are imperfections in their plans; there are errors in their judgment; there are defects in all human embodiments of even the most perfect ideals; there are special burdens of heart attending every religious work, arising out of the very fact, that such life and work, to be fulfilled in natures faithless and frail as ours, lie in close and continual contact with the influences and powers of the spiritual world. Even the cell of devotion is thus found to be but another sphere of long-suffering, patience and humiliation, perhaps testing the soul even yet more closely than the trials of home, crucifying yet finer and more sensitive impulses of the inner life.
Is it not so with every dream, every plan, if we live long enough to test it by the realities of the order of things in which we move? And how can this be otherwise? For GOD has predestined us to be conformed to the image of His SON, and His SON went not up to joy, but first He suffered pain; He went not up to His glory, before He was crucified. May we not here find the secret cause of all disappointments, and of a large proportion of our sins? Mortification is forced unexpectedly on our dreams of happiness, and when it comes, we murmur and rebel, if we do not actually draw back and fall away.
2. We regard mortification as an occasional need, and not, as in truth it is intended to be, a state, a constancy. There are unquestionably, blessed be GOD, raptures of pure innocent delight, both for the natural heart and in religion, which GOD desires to cherish, and which His grace sanctifies; but even these need chastening, and mortification is the chastening of our nature. The gift of regeneration destroys none of the pure impulses of joyousness which thrill through our nature; but it involves a real death to be undergone within it. When our LORD said, "I saw Satan as lightning fall from heaven," He implied, not that Satan's overthrow was accomplished, but that the decline of his reign had commenced; its overthrow was then present to our LORD'S mind, though only to be accomplished in time. Even so the infused grace of holy Baptism is the commencement of the death of the natural state of humanity, to be wholly accomplished as the. regenerating grace reaches its fulfilment. The mystery sealed in Baptism implies, that the elect is dead to the world and to self, and the world and self dead to him. All outward things bear on them from that hour the stamp of death, and are passing away. If the regenerate soul could speak its full mystery, it would say, "My feet are loosed from the earth; I have no more attachment to earth's outward things. I am henceforth as one that no longer lives to himself; my life has passed out of nature into GOD." The apprehension that we gradually gain, through experience, of the need of mortification, is simply learning slowly what we have been, or ought to have been, from the beginning. We may learn, often after many years, that our life has been a practical lie; that we have been saying one thing before GOD, and have been, in truth, another thing; that we have been using great words without meaning, and making vows which we never understood.
Even when we comprehend the idea of mortification, we may from our false prepossessions mis-read the dispensations of GOD. He forces us from time to time, unless we utterly fall away, to mortify ourselves; and when we have made the effort, we think we have earned a respite; that we may then at least take our ease; that we have a claim for indulgence because of our one effort. But GOD means, by thus forcing us to occasional efforts, to accustom us to the idea of mortification, and so to lead us into it, by little and little, as a permanent state.
We may distinguish three degrees of mortification, and these degrees mark its gradual progress. The first degree is to mortify actual vices. The second is to mortify the desires, the thoughts, the senses, the affections, out of which vices spring. The third degree is to welcome mortification for its own sake, because it is of CHRIST. These three degrees are plainly marked in the Scriptures. The first degree is enjoined in the words, "Mortify your members which are on the earth, fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry." This is the mortification of actual vices. The second degree is enforced in another passage of the same Apostle; "They that are CHRIST'S, have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts;" not merely the vices, but the flesh out of which they spring. And the third advance is marked in S. Paul's description of the saintly life; "I am crucified with CHRIST, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but CHRIST liveth in me; and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the SON of GOD, Who loved me, and gave Himself for me;"--a very union with CHRIST through faith, because of the loving will that has freely embraced the mystery of mortification for His dear Name's sake.
But why are these degrees necessary? Why a progressive advance at all? Only because we cannot, even the best and saintliest cannot, except by slow and trembling steps, arise to the height of our real state; for the highest degree alone is the true and full copying of the example which our LORD gave to us; only this third stage of mortification, as it becomes an abiding state, is the perfect following of His steps.
Here, then, we see one true use of the inner powers of the renewed soul. They are designed to make and maintain a constant effort in subduing the outgoings of our inner life; to convert the hindrances of the outer world, the difficulties of our vocation, the defects of others, the oppositions and temptations which we experience everywhere about us, into instruments and occasions of self-restraint, and so to form a mortified life, that, as we advance, we may be conformed to the example of our LORD, and pass out of nature, out of the world, out of ourselves, into a life "hid with CHRIST in GOD."
But who is able to attain any measure of such a spirit? Of ourselves, in the mere strength of our own nature and our own will, we cannot overcome any single lust of our flesh, or resist the pressure of this world's allurements. We are not sufficient for these things; but our sufficiency is of GOD, Holy Scripture does not assume that our nature can exert such power within itself. It tells us of the Spirit within us putting forth His supernatural strength. "If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live." The work is done in us, and we outwardly are the agents; but it is done by the Spirit; it is the power of GOD inwardly working through us. Even more strongly still is the effort of mortification attributed to the HOLY GHOST dwelling in us. "The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye should not do the things that ye would." [Gal. v. 17. This is the truer version. The meaning of the passage is that the Spirit so opposes the flesh, that if only we follow His influence, He keeps us from doing what the natural impulse wills. S. Chrysostom explaining the connection between this and the following verse, thus comments on them: "He that hath the Spirit as be ought, quenches thereby every evil desire, and when released from such, he needs no help from the law, but is exalted far above its precepts. What need hath he, who is never angry, to hear the command, Thou shalt not kill? What need hath he, who never casts unchaste looks, of the admonition, Thou shalt not commit adultery? Who would discourse about the fruits of wickedness with him who had plucked up the root itself?"--Comment, in loc. Vol. VI. p. 81. Libr. of Fathers. Oxford.] He constrains the flesh, hinders its action, and subdues it. He exerts within us His own creative power. In our feebleness His Almighty influence works. It is as we cast ourselves on the unseen GOD within us, that we are strong. He Who led CHRIST into the wilderness
to be tempted, is with us in our hour of temptation. He it is, Who receives of the things of CHRIST, and shows them unto us. He will Himself transform the flesh within us. He will quicken us, that the same mind which is in CHRIST, may be formed within us; that, dying unto the world, we may live unto Him; that we may "live no longer unto ourselves, but unto Him Who died for us, and rose again."
O blessed spirit of mortification! O grace most precious, the extinction of vice, the safeguard of innocence, the refinement of virtue, the strength of sanctity, the peace of the soul, the rest from struggles, the discipline that matures the image of CHRIST, Who is the express image of the FATHER! How can I so long have shrunk back from it, as from an enemy; so long preferred what has led to shame and sin! O that Thy Spirit, Blessed JESUS, may enter into us, that we may follow Thy steps, and, enduring the Cross, attain to some true measure of Thy perfect life! Or if not, what a shameful contrast, what a reproach must Thy Crucified Form ever be in the presence of Thy FATHER and of the holy Angels, that Thou shouldest go before, with Thy wasted form; with Thy wounds on Thy hands, Thy feet, Thy side; with the thorns on Thy brow; and we should follow with all our instruments of ease, our softness, our self-pleasing; and yet we know, that only as Thou, "the Hope of glory," art formed in us, can Thine elect enter into their true inheritance in Thy eternal kingdom.