St Philip Neri, whose feast day was on May 26, had many pithy maxims about the spiritual life. One of them was that you can measure a man’s holiness in the width of three fingers. He would tap his forehead, meaning to signify the extent to which a person’s will – his sense that he knows best – is mortified. There we are straightaway: one of those old-fashioned, off-putting words from spiritual tradition, “mortified”, for which, for it to happen, there is no emotional anaesthetic.
It was recently revealed to me in prayer not only how unmortified my will is, but also that it retains some rebellion. Mortification is not about pain so much as passivity, which is why everything within resists it. It was not being deprived of the taste of forbidden fruit that irked Adam and Eve; it was the thought that God had apparently taken away their agency that gave savour to the serpent’s suggestion.
It was while praying that a spirit of rebellion, of un-mortification, rose in me, and with shock I realise that it has festered there ever since, exerting an insidious pull on my spiritual life. Interestingly, this rebellion was not some desire for personal power or advantage or sensory gratification. (I am not immune to such things, it’s just that if asked to predict whence such a crisis would come these are the areas I would have predicted.)
This rebellious spirit was the result of a court judgment several years ago concerning someone close to me. I remember awaiting the judgment outside the court and praying with every fibre of my being for what I believed to be a good outcome. I confidently invoked the intercession of St Thomas More. When the judgment came, it was the opposite of what I had hoped for.
What broke at that moment was not my will. As a child, I remember a rebellion of disappointment at being denied some pocket money purchase I had set my heart on. This was temporary and bearable by comparison because desire dies and with time I would lose interest in the proposed acquisition and even might have had to concede that my parents had wisely foreseen this. But the rebellion over the court judgment is more complicated. It’s hard to move on because it altered the status quo.
I realise now that this rebellion has something childish about it, but it is the hurt child who withdraws, who ceases to hope for the impossible, who directs his will towards not letting himself be hurt once more by trusting.
The adult in me understands that it is a faithless generation that asks for a sign, that the only sign given is Jonah – a prophet whose agency appears to be frustrated at every turn, even though he’s reluctantly doing the will of God. But the child in me confused mortification with abandonment and un-love.
Only by entering into the mortification of Jesus, who lives always as a child, as Son, can I hope to end this rebellion – and discover in the sign of Jonah in his apparent defeat, deathly failure and three days in the tomb, the depth to which the Father’s life-giving Spirit reaches, conquering sin and death and all that seems to rob life of its joy and meaning.
Come, Spirit of Jesus Risen, who alone can change a stubborn heart.