You may have heard about the death last month of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. He died from an overdose of drugs. I initially heard about Hoffman’s death from my 17-year-old daughter Teresa. Here’s how the conversation unfolded:
Teresa: Dad, did you hear about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman?
Teresa: Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Harry: Who is Philip Seymour Hoffman?
Teresa: He’s the actor who played Plutarch in the movie Catching Fire.
Harry: Oh, okay. Now I know who you’re talking about.
Teresa then filled me in on the details of how Hoffman had been found dead on the floor of his New York City apartment with a needle sticking out of his arm. He had apparently gone through rehabilitation for his addiction to heroin last summer, but had a relapse several months later. In October, his live-in girlfriend of 14 years kicked him out of the residence they shared with their three children, and he rented a close-by apartment so he could continue to periodically see them.
Hoffman appeared to have everything going for him. He was an accomplished actor who was respected and admired by his fellow actors. He knew he was an addict, and he knew he was destroying himself, but he was unable to exercise the discipline or control that was necessary to deal with and overcome his addiction.
The cravings and urges of his body won out over his mind, emotions, and soul.
You and I have a lot in common with Philip Seymour Hoffman. More often than not, we fail to recognize how pitifully weak we are — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Even Jesus talked about our weakened state when He said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41) He said this after His apostles failed to stay awake and pray with Him for an hour in the garden of Gethsemane.
The one word that we need to explore from our Lord’s statement is the word “flesh.” What did He mean when He used that word? Was He talking about what we commonly consider to be flesh — the soft parts of a person’s body, such as the skin and muscles? The answer to that question is no, He wasn’t talking only about the soft parts a person’s body. He was also talking about the mind, the emotions, and the conditioned reflexes and tendencies of a person’s body.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was engaged in a battle with his flesh and he lost. Each of us is continually engaged in a battle with our own flesh. And unless we constantly prepare for and train for this battle, we are ultimately going to lose. So what is it that we can do to prepare, train, and build up the strength and discipline that is needed to win the battles with our own flesh that inevitably confront us?
I’ll give you a hint. If you’re a devout Catholic, every year during Lent you utilize the one tool that’s necessary to manage and conquer the flesh. That tool is mortification.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia defines “mortification” as “the deliberate restraint that one places on natural impulses….”
In order to develop the strength to manage and control the flesh, we must regularly practice “deliberate restraint” toward our “natural impulses.” Because of original sin, we are naturally inclined toward wrongdoing. When our Lord’s apostles fell asleep instead of following through on what He had asked them to do, their flesh gave in to their natural impulses. When we sin, our flesh gives in to our natural impulses.
The only way we can really train ourselves to exercise control over our flesh is to develop the habit of exercising deliberate restraint over our natural impulses. What do we need to do to exercise deliberate restraint? Jesus gave us the answer when He said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
I mentioned earlier that, more often than not, we fail to recognize how pitifully weak we are. Early in the morning on Ash Wednesday, when I stepped into the shower, I turned the handle on the faucet too far to the right and the water went cold on me. I quickly stepped away and reached for the handle again, but then it occurred to me that because it was Ash Wednesday, I should deny myself a warm shower.
Within less than 10 seconds, I regretted my decision. I quickly developed goose bumps all over my body and was shivering the entire time. Although it was the fastest shower I ever took, it was, at the same time, a painfully slow shower. My mind and body silently cried out to my hand to grab the faucet handle and turn it so that the warm water would flow out of the showerhead. But I resisted, because I had already made the commitment to stick it out and offer my cold shower to our Lord as a sacrifice.
I didn’t really want to write about this experience because it makes me look like a wimp. It reveals how weak I really am. What kind of a man am I if I can’t stand under cold water for four minutes?
The morning after Ash Wednesday, as I stepped into the shower, the thought crossed my mind that I should take another cold shower. Can you guess what happened next? My flesh won. It felt so good standing under that warm shower of water. And I bet it felt so good every time Philip Seymour Hoffman shot himself up with heroin.
The ability to manage and control the flesh is impossible without continual acts of mortification. Every year during Lent, we are reminded of the importance of mortification. That’s why we learned as children that we should “give up” something that we really desire during Lent.
Don’t be a wimp this Lent. Get in the daily habit of denying yourself something that you really desire. Do you desire a warm shower? Begin the process of taking control of your flesh by denying yourself a warm shower. Do you eat between meals? Begin the process of taking control of your flesh by denying yourself food between meals. Do you like to talk about other people? Begin the process of taking control of your flesh by denying yourself the satisfaction of talking about others.
What was it again that our Lord said we must do in order to follow Him? “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” I think you get His point.