The word mortification conveys an unpleasant meaning; it indicates every kind of restraint that we can impose upon ourselves either in fulfilling of our duties, or with the purpose of correcting our faults, of making amends for sins committed, or of making progress in holiness, because mortification serves all these various ends. There is a distinction to be made between interior and exterior mortification.
The first consists in the violence we do to ourselves, in order to direct and control our mind, our memory and imagination, to forbid to ourselves bad or useless thought and desires, and to supervise and discipline in general all the acts and sentiments of the soul.
Exterior mortification comprises the privations, restrictions, punishments, that one may inflict upon body or senses; the eyes or ears, the taste, touch, or smell. To refrain from looking at something which we may properly enjoy, to shut our ears when curiosity would have us listen; to deprive oneself of some sweet dish, candies, or at least to take less than would be allowed to us; to hold oneself erect instead of indulging in an easy or comfortable attitude; all these are practices of bodily mortification, and there are numerous others, for which our daily life offers opportunities.
As already mentioned, all this is not pleasant to contemplate; we all have an instinctive horror of restraint and we should much prefer to listen to something else and more pleasant than the disciplining of senses and sentiments. Perhaps you fall into the error of believing that mortification does not concern you, that it is a thing for devout persons alone, those eager for sanctity, or for those who retire into convents to do penance, like the monks and sisters; as for yourself, it suits you better to think that such austerities are not for such as you.
It is true, that it is not for you to imitate the severe penances of these holy souls, but it does not follow that a little mortification is not wholesome even for children such as you are; in fact, mortification is of the greatest benefit to you.
Let us consider why this is so. First of all, I am not aware that our Saviour Jesus Christ made a single exception when He said: “If any one would come after me, let him renounce himself and carry his cross.” This law is absolutely general, it applies to all, not excepting even children, otherwise our Lord would not have failed to tell us so.
Besides, it could not be different. Why must we renounce ourselves and carry our cross under penalty of not being the disciple of Jesus Christ? Because it is the means necessary to avoid sin. We all are born with bad inclinations; there are within us the roots of all evil always ready to yield a harvest of every kind of sin.
If you search your soul, what do you find there? Be sincere about it! You find there for instance the root of pride, of envy and jealousy; then there is the root of idleness or that of gluttony.
Why do you get angry the moment you are bidden to do something? Why do you sulk? Why do you toss your head and look disdainfully at companions whom you consider to be inferior to yourself? Why are you proud of new clothes or hat, and of your finery? This same pride begets in you a number of foolish thoughts, of absurd pretensions, of harsh words: thus you commit many sins, and what will happen in the future if you do not combat this pride, if you do not mortify it? Pride is the father of all vices, there is no crime that it can not produce, and, beginning with Satan, the fallen angel, almost all bad people began their wickedness with indulging in sinful pride. Again, why are you so long about rising in the morning? Why take so long to dress? Why this horror of work? Why do you not know your lessons? Why are your exercises badly written? Why this greediness, this unseemly behavior at table? Why this secret pilfering of cake or candy?
These are the fruits of laziness and gluttony. You have no energy, you think of nothing but your comfort, your beloved self, you recoil from making the least effort. Yet if you do not declare war upon these baleful inclinations, if you do not mortify them, already so productive of many sins, to what will they lead you later on? IF an unfortunate person ventures upon quicksand or swam he sinks because there is no solid foundation; he sinks deeper and deeper; his limbs and feet become imprisoned in sand or sticky mud, he had no support, he sinks gradually to his chest, to his shoulders, his mouth, his eyes, he suffocates and is completely submerged. This is the picture of the child who is indolent, and does not combat his indolence; he is swallowed up gradually in the mire of sin and vice until his mind and heart are buried and suffocated. It is for you a question of life or death of your immortal soul, and mortification means the life and health of the soul, just as moderation in natural cravings means the health of the body.
The body itself is the better off for proper mortification; the physicians agree, for instance, that the restraints practised in Lent benefit the health of the body, as they should that of the soul. Do not, therefore, be scared when you are exhorted to mortify yourselves; remember that your welfare is at stake.
There is another good reason for mortification which should appeal strongly to your young hearts, and that reason is piety, and love of God. A child who really loves God, and who has an ardent desire to make a good First Communion cannot help feeling instinctively what a beneficial thing mortification is and how efficacious for this end.
He will recall the faults he has committed, he will detest them with his whole heart because they form an obstacle to his perfect union with our good Lord; his greatest wish is to be cleansed from his sins, he desires to do penance for them. He shows his deep sorrow for having offended God by depriving himself of some little pleasures, or by inflicting upon himself other restrictions in the way of voluntary expiation.
This child knows that his sacrifice is agreeable to God, not only because it shows a sincere repentance, but because it is also a proof of love. To love is to give; we should therefore give something to God, something which costs an effort in the giving, a sacrifice, a deprivation, a restraint, and this is why many little boys and girls, without anyone being aware of it, refuse themselves dessert at table, desist from speaking at certain times, impose upon themselves strict attention at Catechism or in class; rise in the morning at an earlier hour, or practise self-mortification in other little ways.
Very likely no one about them notices this. So much the better, as vanity might spoil it all. God sees it, the angels register faithfully all these little sacrifices, which become so much accumulated wealth, the revelation of which is reserved for the day of judgment to be transformed on that day into a great glory for those good children. In the meantime as a temporary reward for these sacrifices, God lets His graces flow abundantly upon these pious and active little souls, and they may rest assured that their First Communion will be holy and fruitful of all graces.
And this is how mortification, at first repulsive, becomes to good children acceptable and even pleasant and desirable.
Set to work then courageously! Do not be so fond of your ease, do not give way to indolence, let not a day pass without making some little sacrifice; give to God a share of your daily pleasures and recreation.
Those of you who enjoy the conveniences of life, remember the many children who lack many things, pleasures, leisure, clothes, delicacies, or, horrible thought, even their daily bread, and then you will not hesitate to deprive yourself once in a while of cakes or candies, and ask permission of your parents to give some alms to the poor and needy.
Remember how our Lord Jesus Christ endured so many privations, from the first to the last day of His life; compare your cozy little bed to the piteous crib at Bethlehem, your comfortable room to the plain house at Nazareth, your pleasures and leisure to the hard work and privations of the boy Jesus in the shop of Joseph the carpenter. Remember also, the cruel sufferings of Jesus in His Passion, and His painful death upon the Cross, and if you have a sorry feeling at all, you will be almost embarrassed at finding yourself so well cared for, when Jesus lived a life of work and privation, and you will not wish to approach Him, or to became invited to Him in Holy Communion, without resembling Him at least by some small practices of mortification.
Source: Conferences to Children on Practical Virtues, Imprimatur 1912