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Beyond the Ashes: Embracing the “Interior Spirit” of Lent

In the eyes of the world, Ash Wednesday is the day when people with “dirty foreheads” appear in supermarkets and cafes and order fish instead of steak. But in the eyes of the faithful, this day is the beginning of a season designed to make the weak-kneed-but-willing into true champions.

I can’t tell you how many times people have stopped me in the supermarket on Ash Wednesday to say, “Excuse me, but you’ve got dirt on your head” and it always makes me smile. “It’s not dirt, it’s ashes,” I explain, “Didn’t you know it’s Ash Wednesday?” A little light goes off in their eyes. “Oh yeah! I used to give up chocolate when I was a kid.”

Giving up things – known more officially as corporal mortification - is an important part of Lent. Jesus taught us that “If any man would come after me let him deny himself . . .” (Matt 6:24). We can’t follow Jesus without taking up our cross because “he who does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple . . .” (Luke 14:27).

“To take up the cross – the acceptance of sorrow and the contradictions God permits for our purification, the costly fulfillment of our duties, Christian mortification voluntarily accepted – is the indispensable condition for following the Master,” writes Father Francis Fernandez in, In Conversation with God.

I used to give up a lot of things – including my precious Cool Whip – until one day in prayer it occurred to me that the “why” is a lot more important than the “what.” In other words, my reason for giving up Cool Whip impresses God much more than the fact that I’m giving up a snack that I normally eat by the tub-full.

After all these years, and all these Ash Wednesdays, it made me refocus on why I was doing this. Exactly why was I giving up Cool Whip? Was it because we’re expected to give up something we really like during Lent or because I truly loved God and wanted to die to self in order to become a more loving person?

"A slight mortification done with all the love of which a soul is capable has greater value than a painful penance performed in a material way, with no interior spirit,” writes Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen.

Even though giving up Cool Whip seems like a lot more than a “slight mortification” to me, his point is well-made. It really doesn’t matter what I give up, how big or how small, because the “interior spirit” is what matters to God.

In the parlance of Lent, the “interior spirit” is known as spiritual mortification. It involves the renunciation of the ego, the will, and the understanding. Just as our bodies have unruly tendencies toward enjoyment of material things, our ego loves itself. We love our own opinion, the applause of others, etc.

Denying these tendencies is what's called the "spirit of mortification."

If you think about it, of what value is giving up our favorite foods when we refuse to yield our opinion or to accommodate ourselves to others? While it’s laudable to give more to the poor during this season, it’s even more worthy if we reconcile with our enemies and offer forgiveness to those who offended us. Why attend the Stations of the Cross at our parish every week if we bite off the heads of anyone who opposes or otherwise annoys us?

In other words, physical mortification without the proper spirit of mortification to motivate it, is pretty much a waste of time.

So how do we incorporate spiritual mortification practices into our penitential choices this Lent?

A good place to start is by considering the sin we confess most often and then focusing our spiritual mortification in that area.

For example, if pride is what trips you up, make Lent a time to humble yourself through service to others either by volunteering somewhere or just by being more available to friends. Speak pleasantly to someone who has been critical of you or you don’t really like. Bite your tongue when tempted to gossip.

If it’s vanity that makes you stumble, try dressing for Jesus every day instead of for others during Lent. I went to a retreat years ago and the priest challenged us on this point by suggesting that the ladies give up wearing makeup for Lent. (The mere suggestion drew an audible gasp from the retreatants.)

The good news is that when we undertake the practice of both corporal and spiritual mortification during Lent because we want to please God, this is when the discipline is elevated into much more than just a penitential practice. With the right interior spirit, it becomes a prayer.

Perhaps this is why St. Josemaria Escriva called mortification the "prayer of the senses."

The person who focuses on offering their mortifications – regardless of how big or how small – just for love of God, is uttering the most powerful kind of prayer.

As we enter into this holy season, let us take a moment to glance within and test the “why” behind our mortifications to make sure that our every sacrifice is motivated by the love of God and neighbor that makes us true followers of Jesus Christ.

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