Our five Vincentian virtues come from St. Vincent’s five “Characteristic Virtues,” with one difference: what Vincent called mortification, we call selflessness. While the distinction between the two is not trivial, he also talked about the “spirit of mortification,” which is a good way for us to understand our call to selflessness. [CCD XII:249]
The word “mortification” comes from the Latin mortificāre, meaning “to put to death,” which is the same image our Rule uses, calling selflessness “dying to our ego with a life of self-sacrifice.” [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1] And isn’t this what Christ taught? “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Through mortification, we may physically separate ourselves from earthly needs, as with fasting during Lent. But the purpose of mortification is not physical; it is not exterior, but interior, “to mortify our egoism and open our heart to love of God and neighbor.” [Benedict XVI, Lenten Message] Yes, we become hungry when we fast, but it is “dying to our ego” that we seek.
Indeed, our Catechism teaches that our call to conversion “does not aim first at outward works, ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion.” [Catechism, 1430] While mortification is a means, you could say, selflessness is its end.
St. Louise de Marillac said that the importance of mortification was “the necessity of keeping our souls constantly in the state in which they were created.” [Spiritual Writings, 797] She went on to explain that while we are created in God’s image and likeness, we become “disfigured” when we allow our passions to overwhelm us. Those passions may be the food or treats that we give up for Lent, but more importantly they are the self-centered motivations that we sometimes allow to take over. The more we focus on ourselves, the less we are able to truly be friends to others.
Lack of the “spirit of selflessness,” Vincent taught, not only separates us from God, but from each other; so much so that “we can’t live – I repeat – we can’t live with one another if our interior and exterior senses aren’t mortified.” [CCD XII:249] The first Rule in 1835 echoed this idea, saying that without self-denial, understood as surrendering one’s own opinion, “no association is durable. The man who is in love with his own ideas will disdain the opinions of others…” [Rule, 1835, Introduction]
We die to our egos, to our selfishness, and to our will only to be filled with new life, to be filled with God! And when we share ourselves with the neighbor, we may truly share Him, also.
What part of myself do I allow to separate me from others?