On a Sunday afternoon in March of 1968, when I was 11 years old, one of my aunts packed her 8 children (6 boys and 2 girls) into her station wagon and took them over to my Grandparents’ house to visit. At that time, we lived in the country and my parents’ home was next-door to my grandparents’ home.
That particular Sunday happened to be during Lent. Like most Catholics, we were taught that during Lent we should sacrifice daily by “giving up something.” I don’t know how common it was, but in our family, we were told that we could “cheat” on Sundays. For example, the particular Lent that I’m talking about, I gave up eating candy; however, I was allowed to eat as much candy as I wanted to on Sundays, as long as I refrained from eating candy during the week.
Anyway, when my cousins arrived at my grandparents’ house, the boys immediately came over to my parents’ house to see me and my brothers. One of my cousins brought his new kite with him. The weather that day was clear, sunny, and moderately windy – perfect for flying kites.
I considered myself an expert at flying kites. I didn’t have much to work with, but what I had was sufficient – a paper kite and some string rolled up on a stick of wood. Living in the country with plenty of time on our hands, my brothers and I actually learned how to make our own kites from scratch, and we were able to spend the time that was necessary to perfect our kite flying skills.
One of my cousins, who was a year older than me, proudly displayed and bragged about his brand new (and expensive) kite, which was made out of reinforced plastic. He also showed off a new gadget he purchased with money he earned while working at his dad’s grocery store. The gadget looked like an oversized fishing rod reel. Instead of having to manually wind up the string on his kite like the rest of us, he could simply hold onto the handle of his new gadget and quickly reel-in his kite.
Within a short period of time, at least 5 boys (me, my cousin, and a few of my brothers) were in the front yard of my parents’ home flying our kites. The only person who was unable to get his kite to stay up in the air was my cousin. Every time he got the kite up, the wind caught it, whipped it around, and sent it crashing to the ground. This went on for over 25 minutes.
Each time he had a problem with his kite (which was every few minutes), he started cussing. During that time, most of what came out of his mouth were cuss words. When I asked him why he was cussing so much, he responded that he had given up cussing for Lent, and since it was Sunday, he needed to make up for the previous week.
Throughout the whole time my cousin was struggling to keep his kite in the air, I continued to tell him that the reason his kite wasn’t staying up was because it didn’t have a tail. He ignored my comments and continued to get frustrated and angry (while at the same time trying to act like he knew what he was doing).
After over 25 minutes of frustration (and seeing how well our kites were doing), my cousin finally gave in and asked me to make a tail for his kite. I ran into the house and grabbed some old rags, ripped them apart, and then pieced together a tail for his kite. After some experimentation with the length of the tail, my cousin was able to keep his kite in the air with all of the other kites. Despite his new found success, he still found reasons to cuss, but was a much happier person during his cussing episodes.
If you’ve ever owned your own successful business, you know that there are certain secrets that successful business owners know about running a business that are unknown to others. Before a person can really be successful in business, he (or she) must first learn and then put into practice those secrets. Without knowledge and use of the secrets, the business will continually be whipped around by the competition and will eventually come crashing to the ground (just like my cousin’s kite). To be successful in any endeavor, including holiness, a person must know and practice the secrets necessary to achieve success in that endeavor.
There are three primary secrets that are critical to holiness and perfection. Every saint was aware of and enthusiastically practiced these three secrets. One of the secrets is something I’ve talked a lot about in my weekly articles: daily prayer. Another one I mention periodically, but haven’t really broken down and analyzed for you is humility. Can you tell me what the third secret to holiness and perfection is?
It’s actually something that has been practiced by devout Catholics for over two thousand years, but fell out of favor in the 1960’s and, since then, has been virtually forgotten by most Catholics. It is the daily practice of mortification. A simple definition of mortification is “the voluntary abstinence from, or self denial of, one’s own desires or bodily passions.”
In the past, I’ve talked about the 10 principal virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary: (1) her profound humility; (2) her lively faith; (3) her blind obedience; (4) her continual mental prayer; (5) her mortification in all things; (6) her surpassing purity; (7) her ardent charity; (8) her heroic patience; (9) her angelic sweetness; and (10) her divine wisdom. Of the 10 principal virtues, it was the 3 virtues of humility, prayer, and mortification that provided her with the grace and strength to practice the other 7 virtues.
Jesus Christ made it very clear what was required of us if we wanted to enter into His Kingdom: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mt. 16:24; Lk. 9:23) It is impossible to have (and maintain) a fruitful relationship with Christ without first denying yourself. This is what mortification is all about.
One of the greatest challenges we face every day is the conquest of our own selfishness, our own self will. This can only be done through daily acts of mortification. These acts can be exterior, such as the denial of food or certain comforts, or interior, such as the conscious repression of useless or hurtful words, gestures or glances, or the suppression of anger or impatience toward another person.
There was a time in the Catholic Church when we were all reminded every Friday to practice mortification by refraining from eating meat. Although the Church no longer requires this of its members, Georgette and I continue to follow this practice year-round. Our children have also adopted this weekly practice. But for the devout Catholic, practicing mortification once a week isn’t enough. There must be daily acts of mortification, which can be as simple as giving up that one extra portion of food you desire, or keeping your mouth shut when you want to complain about or criticize another person.
Are you willing to deny yourself and take up your cross every day? It’s a lot to ask, but no one ever said it was going to be easy to get into heaven.
During those years when we were flying our kites, every once in awhile a string broke and the kite that was attached to the string quickly disappeared into the sky. The moment we die our souls will break free from our bodies and immediately pass into eternity. Where our souls ultimately end up will depend on whether we routinely and voluntarily engaged in (and practiced) prayer, humility and mortification.
I have a challenge for you for this Lenten Season – to begin (and continue for the rest of your life) the saintly practice of daily mortification. It is truly one of the great hidden secrets to holiness and perfection.