Mortifications for the Faint of Heart

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Today we are celebrating the sainthood of Rose of Lima.  St. Rose is a fellow Dominican, who died at the age of 31 in the year 1617. She also has the mark of being the first saint canonized from the “New World” or the Americas. St. Rose is most well known for the penances she inflicted upon herself. These included not eating meat or fruit for most of her life, sleeping on a bed strewn with rocks and broken glass when she was not depriving herself of sleep altogether, wearing a crown of thorns concealed by roses or her habit veil, and living in a tiny hermitage in her parents’ backyard.

These are shocking to read about in a way. Why on earth would someone inflict such pain and torture on herself? Her penances might even lead someone to accuse her of abusing her body, her own temple of the Holy Spirit!

But St. Rose’s penances served many purposes. Firstly, they helped her to unite her sufferings to that of Jesus Christ’s passion and death. Secondly, regarding the severity of her penances, we must remember that she had received very special graces from God to perform such penitential exercises. This grace seems to date back even to Rose’s childhood when, upon having a very bad earache and being asked if she was in pain, her reply was: “Yes, a little, but our Lord’s crown of thorns must have hurt much more.” But for all her mortifications, she never allowed them to affect anyone but herself, and continued to work diligently to help support the family by growing and selling flowers and sewing embroidery work.

Saints like Rose of Lima who are so deeply united to Christ’s passion are sometimes disheartening for us. We can barely bring ourselves to skip a television show from time to time, pass on an extra helping of a favorite food, or even leave a joke unsaid. In turn, we often think that our mortifications or little penances cannot measure up to such heights of sanctity as Rose of Lima’s.

But every mortification, no matter how little, is directed at our only end, God. So that alone can take the smallest mortification or penance and unite it to the ultimate mortification and penance ever undertaken, the death of God, by the hands of his own creatures! The Dominican Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange spoke very eloquently on the power of mortification:

Christian mortification, far from debasing our personality, exalts it to such a point that it renders us independent of the world, its maxims, its theories, its fashions, its foolishness, and its snares. It exalts our soul above everything created, permitting us to depend only on ourselves and on God. In the measure that it makes our dependence on God closer, it develops our personality, rendering it more like the divine personality of Christ. What personality is more marvelous than that of the saints? It goes beyond the limits of time and space, and after the passing centuries it imposes itself on the admiration of the crowds without the help of any human means, but solely through the superiority of wisdom and charity.

I bet no one reading this post sleeps on rocks and glass, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do penance. We can skip that candy bar or perhaps have a commute without the radio or stop following our favorite team for a week or two, all for the love of Jesus Christ. In the almost 400 years that have passed since the death of St. Rose, people have admired her mortifications as signs of her wisdom and charity, not as signs of her superhuman will. So as you and I carry on in our desire to follow  the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew,  “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24), let us ask for the intercession of St. Rose of Lima to take our little mortifications and present them to God as if they were her own!

St. Rose of Lima, pray for us!

Br. John Maria Devaney, O.P.