Exploring Mortification: Unveiling the Neuroscience, Psychology, and Spirituality Behind Self-Denial—Part 1

Exploring Mortification: Unveiling the Neuroscience, Psychology, and Spirituality Behind Self-Denial—Part 1
The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence — Jacopo Tintoretto (c.1518–1594)

‌And he said to all: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.‌‌— Luke 9:23—
Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth: fornication, uncleanness, lust, evil concupiscence and covetousness, which is the service of idols. For which things the wrath of God cometh upon the children of unbelief. In which you also walked some time, when you lived in them. But now put you also all away: anger, indignation, malice, blasphemy, filthy speech out of your mouth. Lie not one to another: stripping yourselves of the old man with his deeds, and putting on the new, him who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the image of him that created him. ‌‌— Colossians 3:5-10—

What is mortification?

The book of Proverbs says, “Blows that wound cleanse away evil; Strokes make clean the innermost parts.” In this verse, Holy Writ speaks very candidly on the benefits of mortification. Christ tells us that we must, “Take up our cross daily and follow him,” and St Paul exhorts us to follow his example who, “Subjects his body to mortifications.” Mortification is part of the christian life and many saints go so far as to say that prayer without mortification is like a soul without a body, just as mortification without prayer is like a body without a soul.

Mortification helps us to strengthen the virtue of fortitude and temperance, which in turn helps us to control our appetites. The virtue of fortitude and temperance are key virtues in strengthening our will which in our times is presented with so much comfort as to make it paralysed in activity.

For the modern Christian, mortification is forgotten and is seen as something that is negative and no longer needed for the modern church. Meanwhile in the secular world, neuroscience has taken up mortification under the name of ‘self-help’ emphasising, cold baths and showers, regular sleep, fasting, and gratitude, which have been shown to have many mental health benefits on its practitioners. These things help the person to overcome bad habits, strengthens the will, and brings clarity to the mind in making decisions. What we have abandoned—they have taken up.

The church has always recommended mortification to overcome vices in her documents and in the stories of the saints. Yet why these things? And how exactly do they help us overcome vices if they seem totally unrelated to vices we develop. For example, “How can a cold shower help me overcome addiction when the two appear unrelated?”

In this series I will examine what the church has taught through Scripture and Tradition on the benefits of mortification and the spiritual reasons for its practice. I will also explore how and why mortification like cold baths and showers, regular sleep, fasting, and gratitude works through recent neurological studies and modern psychology. I will show how Mortification does help overcome vices by training our will to do the unpleasant and painful by building the virtues of fortitude and temperance. And lastly I will explain how our body rewards us for enduring suffering and how this helps us overcome vices and leads Apostle’s command to mortification.