Every morning I mortify my flesh under icy needles of water. In our society, that's shocking.
So why do I practice corporal mortification? First, I do it to identify with the sufferings of Christ. By his passion, Jesus Christ redeemed the world for all eternity. But because he opened himself to all human suffering, including mine, I can share in his redemptive work.
The second reason is to cultivate virtue. Most of us who grew up Catholic are familiar with the phrase “Offer it up.” As a child I was taught that in some mysterious way my suffering could be offered up to God as a prayer, and he would use it to help someone else. What I didn’t realize was that he would also use my suffering to transform me.
This reality became clearer to me when I became a father. Recently, my daughter broke one of my neighbor’s lawn ornaments. Although she’s only 3-1/2, there was punishment, or if you like, penance—she lost her book and story privileges for a week. When I tucked her in the first night, she wailed because story time is her favorite activity. But the next night, she looked at me and said, “No books or story tonight, Daddy. I’ll listen next time.” In her own innocent way, she accepted her suffering and offered it back to me as a gift, and that gift transformed her into a more virtuous person.
If I, as my children’s earthly father, use penance to build up goodness in them, how much more will our heavenly Father use penance to shape us into the sons and daughters he wants us to be for all eternity? That’s what many people don’t understand about corporal mortification. When I offer up my suffering from a cold shower, it’s out of love, not fear. It’s not an attempt to punish myself in order to dodge God’s wrath. It’s my way of asking him to transform me into the son he wants me to be.
The third reason why I practice corporal mortification is to be liberated from evil. Yes my body is sacred, but it’s also a rebel waging a civil war against my soul. Either I learn how to keep my passions and appetites under control, or they will control me. For example, my boss’s secretary keeps a tin of chocolates on her desk for the staff. On several occasions, I’ve begun my day with the intent that I would fast from sweets for a particular prayer intention. But by three o’clock, I am almost a chocoholic version of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings—“Must have the precious!”