On a Mission

Passive Mortification: Making the Best of a Bad Hair Day

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS

We’ve all had one – the day that starts off bad and gets worse by the hour. The car won’t start, the cat got out, your boss just imposed an impossible deadline, the kids came home with the stomach bug and the dishwasher stopped mid-cycle. This is known as a bad hair day, and it could be a total loss if not for the saving grace of a thing called passive mortification.

Yes, it means “offering it up” which is usually met on such days with a sigh and a huge eye roll; but this is the season of Lent and it’s the perfect time to give this practice a second look.

In his papal encyclical, Spe Salvi, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI mentioned “’offering up’ the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating ‘jabs,’ thereby giving them a meaning … In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love.”

Bad hair days are full of those “little jabs” and when we accept them without complaining, and with the right disposition, they become a gold mine of repentance and reparation for sin.

What is the right disposition?

First, it’s understanding why passive mortification, or purification, is just as important as the active mortifications we take up during the season of Lent. As Msgr. Charles Pope explains, “These purifications are called passive because they are worked in us by God.”

In other words, they were hand-picked just for us – and for a good reason. We need them in order to attain the particular sanctity that God has in mind for us. When we look at the “jabs” that make up a typical bad hair day in this light, they become a bit easier to bear – even during Lent when we’re trying to improve ourselves.

The reason why this becomes even more important during Lent is because in spite of how sincerely we select our active Lenten mortifications, they don’t always do the trick. While we’re open and willing to make sacrifices, God may choose to seize the opportunity to add a few more pinpricks that may be needed to purify us for the heaven we seek.

“The fact is, even undertaking many active purifications (e.g., fasting, prayer, and almsgiving) will not be enough to effect the changes required to attain the perfection and deep contemplative union to which we are summoned,” Msgr. Pope writes. “We are often unable to completely and accurately see what purgings are required for us…. Just as it is difficult, if not impossible, for a person to perform surgery on himself, so too are we often incapable of undertaking the work of passive purification. Only God knows when, how, and to what degree this work must take place.”

Look at it this way, it’s Lent. We‘re going to suffer anyway. Why not go for it and try to get the most out of it? If God decides that in addition to giving up chocolate today, you need to bite your tongue and smile when a lady butts in front of you in the speedy check-out lane with more than 20 items in her cart, so be it. If you deny yourself the pleasure of giving her the nasty look she deserves, you’ve conquered more than just the inconsiderate in the world – you’ve conquered yourself.

Even more to your benefit is the fact that by offering up these annoying little “jabs” without complaining, you have turned that act of mortification into a very powerful prayer.

“If mortifications are a means of praying, this time by involving our senses, then we can practice mortifications for the same reasons we pray,” suggests Dr. Jeffrey Morrow. “We can offer mortifications as penance for our own sins. If we are parents, perhaps we can offer mortifications in penance for any sins our children or spouse may have committed, as Job did for his children (Job 1:5)… We can offer mortifications for the love of God, or for the love of a saint like the Blessed Virgin Mary. We can offer mortifications in thanksgiving. We can offer mortifications for a prayer intention, maybe for an ill friend or family members. We can offer mortifications for our apostolate work, or to help get that friend or family member back to the confessional, or back to the Church. The possibilities for our intentions are quite vast, as with those of our prayer in general.”

That’s how to make the best out of a bad hair day!

Let us pray for the grace to do this, but not without preparing ourselves with a beautiful little prayer suggested by Msgr. Pope:

“Be as gentle as possible, Lord, but do what you need to do.”


© Susan Brinkmann. All Rights Reserved

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