When Prayer becomes Mortification

I first started praying the Liturgy of the Hours in the mid-winter of 2008, a few months after my reversion to Catholicism. At that time it was all exciting and new, and I looked forward to my prayer times every day; but that’s not why I adopted the Liturgy of the Hours as a personal devotion. And then, when I became a Lay Dominican, I necessarily embarked on a life of diligent prayer. Per the rule, I am to pray a significant fraction of the Liturgy of the Hours, a daily rosary, daily mass (if possible), and a number of other things. And it was new and exciting, and that was great. But again, I didn’t choose it because it was exciting.

I chose it because it wouldn’t always be exciting. The great and glorious thing about the Liturgy of the Hours is that it gives you a structure for your daily prayer, a structure that lifts you up and supports you even on those days when you don’t feel like praying. And that’s been a great help to me since, because, truly, I don’t always feel like it; but I know I need it.

This last week, though, I learned something new. There’s a scary Catholic spiritual word: mortification. It means “dying to self”; and though it is often confused with doing penance it’s really something different. Penance involves doing or bearing something in reparation for sin—usually but not always one’s own. Mortification means accepting and embracing something contrary to your own will as practice.

As Christians, we are to learn to love others with Christ’s love, and to live for them rather than for ourselves. This is hard. (And please, do not confuse me with someone who has this all together.) This is very hard; and we need practice, and that practice is we call mortification.

Some days recently I’ve found doing my daily prayer to be quite difficult. I just don’t want to sit down and do it—there’s so much else calling for my attention that I’d rather do. Evening prayer only takes a few minutes, and yet I grudge those few minutes: in the time before I sit down to do it, it looms over me like a giant monolith, seemingly impassable.

And that’s where mortification comes in. I’d been telling myself that I really needed to sit down and pray, I’d promised to do it, and spending time with God is good for me, and like that. But it’s simpler than that, really; when I am in that mood, sitting down to pray is a kind of mortification. I am giving over my own will, and seeking God’s will. The benefit I receive in sitting down to pray comes largely, when I am in this mood, from the simple act of choosing to sit down and pray. Other good will follow, no doubt.

But the barrier to overcome isn’t the looming monolith of the Divine Office; the barrier is my own will, and the solution is the simple choice to mortify myself, and to give over my own will for long enough to sit down and get started.

And somehow, that’s easier.

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