The light on my alarm clock says 5:30 a.m. I rub my eyes with disbelief that I’m up at such a godforsaken hour. I stand in front of my dresser for what seems like eternity as I struggle against my desire to crawl back under the covers. My sweatpants and running shoes wait by my bed.
The first mile of my run is always the slowest, but by the second I’m warming up and finding my groove. By the fourth mile I’ve increased my stride. I see the final part of my route up ahead, a long hill. At the top, I slow to a trot and then to a walk and catch my breath. I’m sure many people, even non-joggers, could relate to what I’ve just described. What I do next though probably would shock a lot of people.
Back upstairs in the bathroom, I stand naked outside the shower door. Before entering, I make the sign of the cross and whisper a prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, I offer up to you this cold shower in penance for my sins. I also offer it up as a prayer for…” I state the name of the person and intention for which I am praying, and then I open the door and step into the shower.
After I finish washing, I put my hand on the handle bar that controls the temperature. I take a deep breath and crank it to 100 percent cold. There’s about a two-second gap where the last of the warmer water clears out of the pipes, and then it hits me. I gasp as the water stings my flesh like a hundred ice-cold needles. This final part of my ritual doesn’t last long. I say four prayers, an Our Father, a Hail Mary, a Glory Be, and finally the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.
Tempting though it is to rush through the words and be done with it, I force myself to say them at a normal pace. At the end of the prayers, I turn off the water and dry off to get ready for work.
Corporal mortification received a lot of press recently thanks to The Da Vinci Code. In the weeks leading up to the film’s release last year, there was a cornucopia of news stories about Opus Dei, and in almost every one of them, the topic would eventually turn to corporal mortification. Inevitably the story would include a picture or a demonstration of the cilice, a spiked metal chain worn by the celibate members of Opus Dei around their upper thigh for two hours a day, and/or the “discipline,” a cordlike whip used once a week against the back or buttocks while reciting a brief prayer.
The fact that this practice shocks people says something about our priorities. In our society, it’s considered perfectly normal to mortify our bodies so long as the reason is secular and the goal is physical. No one bats an eye at cosmetic plastic surgery, Botox, tattoos, and body piercing. But if you perform corporal mortification for religious reasons, to achieve some spiritual good, you’re an oddball.
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!”
That also illustrates the fourth reason why I practice corporal mortification—to build perseverance. If I can’t resist something as inconsequential as a piece of chocolate, how am I going to be able to resist real temptation when it comes my way?
Finally, I practice corporal mortification to remind myself that this world isn’t heaven. I live a very comfortable suburban life. Almost anything I want is at my fingertips—something as simple as a glass of filtered water with ice cubes or something as complex as music downloads from Napster. These are good things, but the danger of having all these creature comforts is that I’ll start to fall into the trap of thinking this is my permanent home, when it’s not.
As morbidly fascinating as things like cilices, disciplines, and cold showers might be to the uninitiated, the truth is that exterior mortification is a piece of cake compared to interior mortification, such as my need to cultivate the virtue of patience. What makes this type of mortification so difficult is that when the occasions to practice it arise, they usually involve situations over which I have no control. What’s more, they usually arise at moments when I’m at my weakest, like when I’m hitting every single red light on my way home from work after I’ve already had a rough day. Or getting a phone call from someone just as I’m sitting down to finally read that book I’ve been dying to get to.
So do me a favor if you happen to read or watch The Da Vinci Code. When you get to the scene where Silas is flagellating himself to a bloody pulp, think of this real life-scene instead: Think of a husband and father denying himself the pleasure of a warm shower in order to grow in the virtue of self-discipline. The cold water bouncing off his head and shoulders remind him that sin causes pain. He carries that thought with him the rest of the day so that later that evening when his family needs him, he’ll remember the icy pain from that morning shower, and he will put their needs ahead of his own. When you can picture that, only then will you begin to understand corporal mortification.