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. Or having to rock my son at 3 a.m. because he’s gasping and wheezing with croup and there’s nothing I can do to console him.

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.