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The New-Old Secret to Spiritual ‘Productivity’

Prevailing schools of thought on stress management and productivity involve sleeping and eating well, taking breaks, making time for hobbies, eliminating distractions, and “going easy on yourself.” People who are stressed out and can’t find the drive to accomplish their goals are not setting aside enough time to unwind.

But according to a recent report, cutting-edge CEOs are taking an opposite approach: subjecting their bodies to positive stress including ice baths, extreme diets, and hyper-vigorous exercise.

Joel Runyon, a tech leader, has given TED talks on the power of “cold treatment,” crediting the cold shower as his source of endurance and discipline. He’s not alone. Zach Rapp, another young tech leader who juggles three separate tech startups, uses stoicism as a means of controlling indulgence. He reports the positive benefits of avoiding food, sweets, and alcohol. But he endures more than dietary restrictions—he also induces physical discomfort to his body, takes freezing cold showers, and strategically deprives himself of sleep. 

Sound familiar? It should.

It might be new and innovative for secular leaders to promote such practices that are contrary to worldly wisdom, but such exercises that have been the pillar of self-discipline and holiness for the leaders of the Church since its foundation. Only we don’t call it positive stress: we call it self-mortification.

The Church keeps no secrets on this practice. Scripture and saints are consistent in every generation on the urgency of this key to the spiritual life.

  • Proverbs 20:30: “Blows that wound cleanse away evil; strokes make clean the innermost parts.”
  • St. Paul wrote, “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). This “pommel” literally means to “beat” and “strike” physically.
  • St. Augustine remarked on fasting: “O my God, thou hast taught me to take food only as a remedy. Ah! Lord, who is there among us who does not sometimes exceed the limit here? If there is such a one I say that man is great, and must give great glory to thy name.”
  • St. Peter Damian: “I scourge both flesh and spirit because I know that I have offended in both flesh and spirit.”
  • St. Alphonsus Liguori: “Let us read the lives of the saints; let us consider the penances which they performed, and blush to be so effeminate and so fearful of mortifying our flesh.”
  • St. Gemma’s close religious Br. Famiano said of her: “If she had been allowed to continue, she would have shortened her life through mortification. Once she let me see a knotted cord which I understood she had worn around her waist. Her confessor had ordered her to take it off because the knots had eaten their way into her flesh.”

Even recent saints are confirmed to have confided their mortifications to others. Cardinal Georges Cotter, theologian of the papal household under John Paul II, said, “Union with the redeeming suffering of Christ comes through accepting the trials and suffering of life or, like in the case of Pope John Paul II, with the voluntary choice of physical suffering.” Tobiana Sobodka, a nun from the Sacred Heart of Jesus order, said of the late pope, “Several times he would put himself through bodily penance. We would hear it: we were in the next room at Castel Gandolfo. You could hear the sound of the blows when he flagellated himself.”

It may be a new path for them, but millennial leaders have merely stumbled on ancient and scriptural wisdom.

When Joel Runyon says that “doing something uncomfortable every day makes everything else seem doable; a particularly valuable technique for entrepreneurs,” he’s also describing a valuable technique for future saints. When we expose ourselves to situations that are truly challenging, it makes tasks we once considered impossible seem suddenly feasible. That increases our confidence in our faith and our will.

The great Counter-Reformers of the sixteenth century knew particularly well the importance of self-mortification in order to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

  • St. Francis de Sales said, “Eat what is good without delighting in it, what is bad without expressing aversion to it, and show yourself equally indifferent to the one as to the other. There, is a real mortification.” He also said, “The more one mortifies his natural inclinations, the more he renders himself capable of receiving divine inspirations and of progressing in virtue.” He then said, “I am never better than when I am not well.”
  • St. Philip Neri: “Where there is no great mortification there is no great sanctity.”
  • St. John of the Cross: “Never relax, for you will not attain to the possession of true spiritual delights if first you do not learn to deny your every desire.”

Speaking of Francis de Sales, St. Jane Frances de Chantal said:

As regards mortifications I know, from a person in whom he placed the greatest confidence, that our Blessed Founder often took the discipline, and rose in the middle of the night to do so. In short, he mortified himself in every possible way, according to the opportunities which offered themselves for so doing, but in so secret and careful a manner that it was difficult, except for those who watched him very closely, to discover it.

He used to say that even trifling sufferings gave opportunities for the most useful mortifications; and for this reason he bore most patiently with the stings of flies, great and small, which would settle on his head, and even draw blood. He endured all kinds of bodily discomforts without a complaint, and without showing the slightest repugnance to them, receiving all from the hand of God.

Finally, and perhaps most exquisitely, is this from the twenty-three-year-old St. Aloysius Gonzaga: “I am but a crooked piece of iron, and have come into religion to be made straight by the hammer of mortification and penance.”

These saints, who remained faithful, energetic, and productive in their duties to reform the Church in the hardest of times, relied on self-mortification. As we strive this week to persevere through the last disciplines of Lent, with the joy of the Resurrection in sight, let us renew our practice of “positive stress” and self-denial. The saints—and CEOs—know that it works.

To learn more about saints who will help you deepen your faith and holiness through self-mortification, check out Shaun’s new book Reform Yourself! How to Pray, Find Peace, and Grow in Faith with the Saints of the Counter-Reformation, available now at Catholic Answers Press.



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