When someone as lovely as Olivia writes and asks if I’ll write a post for her series on Marian virtues, I find a way to say yes. Even if she asks me to write about Universal Mortification. Even if I really have no idea what that is.
When the time comes to actually write that post, I realize with increasing discomfort how oddly fitting it is that I’ve been tasked with this particular virtue.
Mortification can be described as the practice of being the master of one’s own impulses. Sometimes, people practice exterior mortification, through physical penances like fasting. These acts are meant to prayerfully unite us to Christ, who suffered for us. The idea is that by suffering in small ways, we can better imitate Christ and become more like him.
Other times, mortification is interior…putting someone else’s needs and feelings and preferences before our own.
Either way, mortification is uncomfortable.
And universal mortification, the virtue I’m to write about, means we are supposed to do this mortifying stuff all.the.time.
I am the very worst at this. Even when I manage to convince myself to do anything remotely mortifying, I moan and groan and complain so much that I wring all the opportunity for virtue right out of it. I’ve convinced myself that God never wants me to suffer or be uncomfortable in any way. Never mind that suffering and discomfort are part of the human condition. Never mind that my vocation as a mother of small children includes consistently placing the needs of others ahead of my own. Never mind that complaining is not, has never been and will never be a virtue.
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been sensitive. I don’t mean just that my feelings get hurt easily. I mean physically sensitive. Every seam in my socks, every tag in my shirts, pillows that were too firm or too soft, food that was too chewy or too gelatinous, any of it could really bother me and ruin my day. Bright or buzzing lights. Loud sounds. Strong (or even faint) smells. Having anyone touch my hair. When any of these things happened (pretty much every day), headaches, itchy skin, and fretful feelings followed.
As an adult, I’m a better master of my overactive physical sensory system. Or maybe I’m a better manager of my environment. At any rate, I don’t have to be so uncomfortable any more. No one can force me to wear a shirt with an itchy tag. Once I was living on my own, I set the thermostat where I wanted it, used only unscented detergent, slept on perfect pillows, and always had the most comfortable spot on the couch.
But then I became a mother. Suddenly, my own physical comfort was not the most important thing. You know how the sleeping baby is pressing on the nerve in your arm and your arm goes all pins and needles but you won’t move because you don’t dare wake the baby? Or how you’re still hungry but there are only three peanut butter crackers left and you give them to your three little ones instead? Or how you reallyreallyreally have to go to the bathroom but your potty training three year old is about to have an accident and you cross your legs as hard as you can and let her go first?
Maybe you do.
I’m guessing Mary knew about these things, too. She accepted an unplanned, divine pregnancy that would ostracize her from her friends and family, then rode a donkey on a long journey to Bethlehem when she was very, very pregnant. She gave birth in a stable surrounded by animals, alone with her husband, away from home, and probably no one brought her any orange juice afterward.This alone seems like an excellent start to a life of accepting discomforts without complaint as a way of serving Jesus.
Did little Jesus ever throw his scrambled eggs in her hair? Or spit up down the front of her robe? Did her arms ache from holding and rocking his sleepless little wiggling body when she could barely keep her eyes open?
These are nearly universal experiences of mothering.We suffer through these little things, putting our children’s needs and comfort before our own, because that’s our job. When I do these things, though, I often sigh heavily. I roll my eyes. I wish internally that my kid would give me the last cracker. I bark at her to hurry up because I really need the bathroom. I might be the master of my physical impulses, just barely, but I’m far from mastering my heart’s impulse to gripe about the sacrifices I’m making.
Mothering is ripe with opportunities for mortification, and being a mother has probably eliminated the need for me to wear a hair shirt. But I could stand to do a much better job of bearing the small (and large) discomforts of mothering with grace.
Mother Mary, I want to imitate your virtue of universal mortification. Inspire in me a desire to put others’ comfort before my own, at least sometimes. And if I can’t rejoice in suffering, help me at least to stop complaining about it so much.
This post is part of a series on the Ten Virtues of Mary, hosted by To the Heights and running every Tuesday until the middle of December. So if you need some help in the virtue department, here’s a great place to start!
October 7 – Introduction to the Ten Virtues of Mary – Olivia of To the Heights
October 14 – Lively Faith – Molly of Molly Makes Do
October 21 – Blind Obedience – Kendra of Catholic All Year
October 28 – Constant Mental Prayer – Jenna of Call Her Happy
November 4 – Heroic Patience – Kelly of This Ain’t the Lyceum
November 11 – Profound Humility – Carolyn of Svellerella
November 18 – Angelic Sweetness – Regina of Good One God
November 25 – Divine Wisdom – Britt of The Fisk Files
December 2 – Universal Mortification – Abbey of Surviving Our Blessings
December 9 – Divine Purity – Gina of Someday Saints
December 16 – Ardent Charity – Christy of Fountains of Home
December 17 – Massive GIVEAWAY at To the Heights – Just in time for Christmas