As a student at Nashotah House, you will read F.P. Harton’s classic book The Elements of the Spiritual Life in your ascetical theology class. Harton’s book goes hand-in-hand with Martin Thornton’s English Spirituality. If Thornton’s book is a historical survey of from where Anglicans derive their ascetical practices and worship life, Harton’s book could be considered the “practical guide” to the spiritual life.
Some have criticized Harton’s book as a bit dry, but I’ve found it to be altogether lucid and engaging, and I think most of my fellow students would echo a similar paean. I must admit, though, when I first glanced through the chapters I may have rolled my eyes at the amount of pages devoted to sin, temptation, mortification, and repentance. It is so much easier to get excited about topics concerning the peace, joy, and love of the spiritual life. But after reading through Harton’s expositions on sin and repentance, I was very refreshed and encouraged. In particular, I found his teaching on “mortification” to be the most helpful (and most challenging!).
Harton starts out right away by claiming, “[A]part from mortification, the spiritual life is impossible” (165). So, what is mortification? Sounds painful, right? Images of monks wearing hair-shirts and self-flagellating come to mind. But Harton clears up misconceptions and gives the reader a beautiful picture of what mortification is – basically, a refusal to serve self. Mortification comes about through self-discipline. Harton doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to the necessity of discipline: “The undisciplined soul cannot be the instrument of the Holy Spirit, and the means of attaining to self-discipline is mortification” (165). Initially, such a bold statement makes us cringe, but Harton goes on to show the glory of practicing mortification. His arguments are built on the premise that the goal of this process is to love and glorify our Lord above all else. So, mortification is really about learning to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. And that cannot be so bad since, according to Jesus, it is the greatest commandment!
What it comes down to is this: we can quickly and somewhat easily develop a consistent devotional life of prayer, study, and work. And to have such a rule of life is absolutely crucial. But Harton emphasizes that we must go beyond and realize that avoidance of sin is just as important in our movement toward God. We are in danger if we become so comfortable with our devotional life, our church attendance, and our good deeds, if we become lax in doing battle with the sin that seeks to destroy us. Sin is not just a bugger of a “DO NOT” list; it is an impediment to our truly loving God. “Continuance in willful sin is incompatible with true love of God,” says Harton. He advises that we pinpoint those things in our lives and set ourselves against them. In the process, we will notice other more subtle things that lead us toward sinful behavior and away from God and eradicate them as well. All this is not done with a spirit of melancholy and defeat, but with a peaceful trust that the graces of Christ will empower us in the process. “There must be a positive force behind the mortification – the force of a peaceful spirit…” (171).
Harton sums up the practice of mortification as a “detachment from created things” and encourages the practice of fasting and abstinence from things we have a tendency to gravitate toward in gluttony. Once we learn how to do this, we get better and better at it, and our powers of “observation” become stronger. Harton makes an analogy to reading on a train. If one wants to be focused, he must learn to tune out the passing landscapes, the noise of other persons, and center all his powers of concentration on the book. So it is in mortification. We tune our senses to notice those things that are distracting us from the love of God that is our true joy, then we renounce them.
So, I’ve been asking myself, “What is it that is distracting me and keeping me from unbroken fellowship with my Lord?” Admittedly, there is much. And as soon as I overcome one thing, I notice another lurking in the shadows of my heart. But the light of God’s grace is always breaking through to assist in this process and make mortification possible despite our weakness. We must first, however, open a window in our soul to allow that light to flood in.