The Exercise of Exterior Mortification

June 14, 2021 • 13 min

From Introduction to the Devout Life, page 162
By St. Francis de Sales

Chapter XXIII.

The Exercise of Exterior Mortification.

The exterior reflects the interior

Old writers on agriculture and country affairs tell us that if any word be written upon a sound almond, and it is again enclosed in the shell and planted, all the fruit upon the tree growing from it will have the same word engraven upon it.

For my part, Philothea, I could never approve of the method of those who, to reform a man begin with his exterior, such as his gestures, his dress, or his hair. On the contrary, I think we ought to begin with his interior: “Be converted to me, with your whole heart” (Joel, ii.) “Son, give me thine heart.” (Prov. xxiii.) For the heart being the genuine source of our actions, our works will be always such as our heart is. The Divine Spouse inviting the soul: “Put me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thy arm.” (Cantic. v.) Yes, truly; for whosoever has Jesus Christ in his heart will quickly show Him in all his exterior actions.

I desire, therefore, dear Philothea, above all things to engrave upon your heart this sacred motto, “Live Jesus;” being assured that your life, which proceeds from the heart, as an almond-tree from an almond, will afterwards bring forth the same words of salvation written upon all your actions; for, as this sweet Jesus lives within your heart, so will He also live in your exterior, in your eyes, your mouth, your hands, and even the hair on your head; so that you will be able to say with St. Paul: “I live, no, not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

In a word, he that has gained the heart has gained the whole man; but even this heart, by which we would begin, requires to be instructed how it ought to frame its outward behaviour, to the end that men may not only behold holy devotion therein, but also wisdom and discretion; for this reason I crave your serious attention to the following short admonitions.

Advice on fasting

If you are able to endure fasting, you would do well to fast some days besides those which are commanded by the Church; for, besides the usual effects of fasting, viz., to elevate the spirit, to keep the flesh in subjection, to exercise virtue, and to acquire a greater reward in heaven, it is a great means to restrain gluttony, and keep the sensual appetites and the body subject to the law of the spirit: and although we may not fast much, yet the enemy fears us when he knows we know how to fast. Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays are the days on which the ancient Christians exercised themselves most in abstinence; choose, then, some one of those days to fast on, as far as your devotion and the discretion of your director shall advise you.

Moderation in discipline

I would willingly say to you, as St. Jerome said to the good Lady Leta: “Long and immoderate fastings displease me much, especially in those that are yet in their tender age.” I have learned by experience that the young ass, being weary in his journey, seeks to go off from the straight road: that is to say, that young people, being brought into infirmities through excess of fasting, easily turn to a delicate and luxurious way of living.

Deer cannot run well under two circumstances—when they are either too fat or too lean. We are greatly exposed to temptations, both when our body is too much pampered, and when it is too much weakened; for the one makes it insolent with ease, and the other desperate with affliction; and as we cannot bear it when it is too fat, so it cannot bear us when it is too lean.

The want of this moderation in the use of fasting, discipline, hair-shirts, and other austerities, renders the best years of many unprofitable in the service of charity, as it did even in the case of St. Bernard, who repented that he had used overmuch austerity; and the more they exceeded in the ill-treatment of their bodies in the beginning, the more they were constrained to favour them in the end. Would they not have done better to have mortified their bodies moderately, and in proportion to the offices and labours to which their condition obliged them?

Labor for God as an alternative mortification

Labour, as well as fasting, serves to mortify and subdue the flesh. Now, provided the labour you undertake contributes to the glory of God and your own welfare, I had rather you would suffer the pain of the labour than that of fasting. This is the sense of the Church, since, on account of such labours as contribute to the service of God and our neighbour dispenses persons engaged in them, even from the fasts commanded.

Some find it painful to fast; others to serve the sick or visit prisoners; others to hear confessions, to preach, pray, and perform such like exercises. These latter kind of pains are of more value than the former; for, besides subduing the body, they produce fruits much more desirable, and therefore, generally speaking, it is better to preserve our bodily strength more than may be necessary than to weaken it too much; for we can always decrease it when we will, but we cannot always repair it when we would desire to do so.

Indifference as an alternative mortification

We should attend with great reverence to the admonition given by our Blessed Saviour to his disciples: “Eat the things that are set before you” (Luke, x. 9). It is, in my opinion, a greater virtue to eat without choice that which is laid before you, and in the same order as it is presented, whether it be more or less agreeable to your taste, than to always choose the worst; for although this latter way of living seems more austere, yet the former has, notwithstanding, more resignation, since by it we renounce not only our own taste, but even our own choice; and it is no small mortification to accommodate one’s taste to every kind of meat, and keep it in subjection to all occurrences.

Besides, this kind of mortification makes no parade, gives no trouble to anyone, and is happily adapted to civil life. To set one kind of meat aside to take another, to pick and scrape off every dish, to think nothing well dressed or sufficiently nice, and make a mystery of every morsel, bespeaks a heart over-nice, and too much attached to eating and drinking.

I esteem more St. Bernard’s drinking oil instead of water or wine than if he had drank wormwood water purposely; for it was a plain sign that he thought not of what he drank; and in this indifference respecting our food consists the perfection of the practice of the sacred rule: “Eat that which is set before you.” I except, however, such meats as may prejudice the health, or incommode the spirit, such as hot or high-seasoned meats: as also certain occasions in which nature requires recreation and assistance, in order to be able to support some labour for the glory of God. A continual and moderate sobriety is preferable to violent abstinence, practised by fits and followed by intemperance.

State of life to be considered

A moderate use of discipline awakens the fervour of devotion. The hair-shirt mortifies the flesh exceedingly, but the use of it, generally speaking, is not proper either for married persons or tender complexions, or for such as have other great pains to support. However, on some remarkable days of penance, it may be used with advice of a discreet confessor.

Sleeping and watching

We must dedicate the night to sleep, everyone as much as his constitution requires, in order to enable him to watch and spend the day profitably; and also because the Holy Scripture, the examples of the saints, and natural reason, strenuously recommend the morning to us as the most useful portion of the day, and that our Lord Himself is named the Rising Sun, and our Blessed Lady the dawning of the day.

I think it a point of virtue to take care to go to rest early in the evening, that we may be enabled to awake and arise early in the morning, which is certainly of all other times the most favourable to piety and to the health, the most agreeable, and that which least disposes to disturbance and distractions; when the very birds invite us to awake and praise God; so that early rising is equally serviceable to health and holiness.

Our hearts are what need purifying

Balaam, mounted on his ass, was going to King Balak, but because he had not a right intention, the angel waited for him on the way, with a sword in his hand to kill him. The ass, on seeing the angel, stood still three several times, and became restive; Balaam, in the meantime, beat it cruelly with his staff to make it advance, until the beast, at the third time, falling down under Balaam, by an extraordinary miracle, spoke to him: “What have I done to thee? why strikest thou me, lo! now this third time?” (Numb. xxii. 28). But soon after Balaam’s eyes were opened and he saw the angel, who said to him: “Why beatest thou thy ass? If she had not turned out of the way, giving place to me, I had slain thee, and she should have lived.” Then Balaam said to the angel: “I have sinned, not knowing that thou didst stand against me.”

Behold, Philothea, although Balaam is the cause of the evil, yet he strikes and beats his poor ass that could not prevent it. It is often the same case with us; for example, a woman sees her husband or child sick, and presently betakes herself to fasting, haircloth, and such discipline, as David did on the like occasion.

Alas! my dear friend, you beat the poor ass, you afflict your body, but it cannot remedy the evil, nor is it on that account that God’s sword is drawn against you: correct your heart, which is an idolator of your husband, and which has permitted a thousand vices in your child; has encouraged it on to pride, vanity, and ambition.

Again, a man perceives that he frequently relapses in a shameful manner into the sin of impurity; an inward remorse comes, sword in hand, against his conscience, to pierce it through with a holy fear; and presently, his heart returning to itself, he says: “Ah, wicked flesh! ah, treacherous body! thou hast betrayed me;” and immediately he lays great blows on his flesh, with immoderate fasting, excessive disciplining, and unsupportable hair-shirts.

Oh, poor soul, if thy flesh could speak, as Balaam’s ass did, it would say to thee: “Why, O wretch, dost thou strike me?” It is against thee, O soul, that God arms his vengeance; it is thou that art the criminal: why dost thou lead me into bad company? why dost thou employ mine eyes, my hands and my lips in wantonness? why dost thou trouble me with impure imaginations? Cherish thou good thoughts, and I shall have no evil impulses; keep company with such as are modest and chaste, and I shall not be provoked to impurity. It is thou, alas! that throwest me into the fire, and yet thou would not have me burn; thou castest smoke into my eyes, and yet wouldst not have them inflamed.

And God, without doubt, says to you in these cases: Beat, break, bend, and crush your hearts to pieces, for it is against them principally that my anger is excited. As to cure diseases of the skin it is not so necessary to wash or bathe the body as it is to purify the blood and strengthen the liver; so to cure our vices, although it may be good to mortify the flesh, yet it is, above all, necessary to purify our affections, and to refresh our hearts effectually.

But in and through all, let us be sure never to undertake corporal austerities, but with the advice of our spiritual guide.

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