I have noticed that every time I have indulged myself, my appetite especially, for no matter what reason, I have always had remorse and felt unhappy; but that each generous victory, every additional act of penance, has been followed by peace of soul and contentment.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words in his diary on this day in 1913 – 104 years ago today.
These words are probably counter-intuitive for us. Most of us in the modern world have bought into the idea that life is about maximising our pleasure and getting as much “stuff” as we possibly can. Yet, so often this approach to life leaves us unsatisfied.
Fr Doyle – and indeed all of the saints – had a different philosophy. They believed that happiness and peace came from detachment, and from a radical love of God and neighbour. An essential part of developing this detachment is penance and mortification.
Perhaps our lesson today is that it wouldn’t hurt us much to say “no” to ourselves from time to time, and that it would probably make those around us a bit happier as well.
You may make the most complete and absolute offering of yourself to God to bear every pain He may wish to send. Renew this frequently and place yourself in His hands as His willing victim to be immolated on the altar of sacrifice. But it is better not to ask directly for great sufferings; few of the saints did so.
COMMENT: Today’s quote from Fr Doyle may perhaps be difficult to understand for most of us. It certainly counts as one of his “hard sayings”. He was gentle with so many people, but the person with whom he is corresponding here is clearly one who was advanced in the spiritual life and felt a call to this type of asceticism. It is not something that we are all called to do.
One of the characteristics of a growth in sanctity is a complete abandonment to the will of God, and an acceptance of sufferings if these should be His will. At the very least, according to St Ignatius, we should be indifferent to sickness and health, poverty or riches, popularity or rejection… But once again, for most of us this is hard, and we can but pray for an increase in our faith and trust in God’s gentle Providence.
It is indeed easy to condemn oneself to death, to make a generous offering of self-immolation; but to carry out the execution daily is more than most can do. . . . Go on bravely, don’t expect too much from yourself, for God often leaves one powerless in acts of self-conquest in order to make one humble and to have more recourse to Him. Remember above all that even one small victory makes up for a hundred defects.
COMMENT: Well, perhaps it is not quite as easy for us to condemn ourselves to death as Fr Doyle suggests! Perhaps many of us can identify with the character in the Flannery O’Connor story: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick!”
More seriously, we can sometimes be willing to make great sacrifices, but keeping up the struggle against our selfishness day after day is what really presents the difficulty for us. And as Fr Doyle encouragingly says, we should not expect too much from ourselves: we are weak, and should accept our weakness with humility. But this doesn’t mean that we settle for mediocrity: as Fr Doyle points out, God is always with us and will sustain us. As St Pio, whose feast is today, says,
Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.
There is a temptation for the demanding message of hugely popular saints like Padre Pio to be overlooked. Too often the lives of such saints get swamped with tales of their miracles and extraordinary phenomena. Lest that happen, here is one final thought from St Pio which in many ways is very similar to the spirit and teaching of Fr Doyle:
The life of a Christian is nothing but a perpetual struggle against self.
You know well that even the smallest cross and happening of your life is part of our Blessed Lord’s plan for your sanctification. It is not easy, I know, to look at things in this light. But one can train the will to look upon the act of others, even their sinful acts in as much as they concern ourselves, as coming from the hand of God. There is so much real holiness and so very much solid happiness and peace and contentment in this little principle, that I am very anxious you should try and acquire it, so that nothing may really ruffle the peace of your soul. Don’t think this is easy, it is not; and you will fail time after time in your efforts, but with perseverance, steady progress will be made.
COMMENT: The last few years have seen tremendous financial turmoil, and many people face severe financial difficulties, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
But as Fr Doyle points out, there is much peace and contentment to be found in the Providence of God. He arranges all things for our long term good and sanctification, even if we do not recognise, or appreciate it, at the time. Fr Doyle lived this reality in the trenches; it was precisely this faith in the loving protection of God that sustained him as he took incredible risks to save others.
As Fr Doyle points out, it may be very difficult for us to have this trust in God, especially if we are suddenly confronted with difficult and life-changing news. We must pray for the grace to acquire this faith and trust in Providence. The Father who feeds the birds of the air and dresses the flowers of the field will not let us down or abandon us.
We must love God with our whole heart. Can He be loved otherwise? Is it too much that a finite heart should love infinite Beauty? I fail in this wholehearted love if I keep back anything from Him, if I am determined not to pass certain limits as proof of my love, if I absolutely refuse to sacrifice certain things which He asks, if I refuse to follow the grace which is impelling me on.
We must love God with our whole strength. If I love God with all the strength that grace gives me now, this grace is increased by each act of love, so that I should from day to day love Him more. Love for a creature is strongest at its commencement, it becomes weaker, it ends in weariness and disgust. It is quite the contrary with divine love. Weak in the beginning, it grows as we come to know God better, as we taste Him more, as we approach Him more familiarly and enjoy His presence more intimately.
COMMENT: Today is the feast of the apostle St Matthew. St Matthew followed, giving up his comfort and mammon to follow a prophet who had not even anywhere to lay his head. Matthew continued following him, even unto death.
But both Fr Doyle and St Matthew grew in intimacy with Christ, and in turn gave more and more to Him. Tradition has it that St Matthew was martyred, possibly in Ethiopia. By the time Fr Doyle was sent to the trenches, he seems to have reached a level of detachment where he gladly shared the deprivations of his “poor brave boys”, and was even hoping to go to a leper colony if he survived the war.
Neither man started out so heroically, but responding to grace day by day transformed them in ways they never imagined. We too can be transformed if we rely on grace. It doesn’t necessarily mean martyrdom or great suffering for us, but it will mean that we will render great service to God and man if we just follow where God leads.
A devotion which does not consist in any special form of prayer nor in doing anything in particular more than to listen to inspirations, is devotion to the Holy Spirit of God. And does it not commend itself very specially to religious? For, as the work of Creation belongs preeminently to the Father and that of Redemption to the Son, so the work of our Sanctification and Perfection is the work of the Holy Ghost. We honour Him when we listen to His inspirations. He is ever whispering what we ought to do and what we ought not to do. When we are deliberately deaf to His voice, which is no other than the small voice of conscience, we grieve instead of honouring the Holy Spirit of God. So let us often say: Come O Holy Ghost into my heart and make me holy so that I may be generous with God and become a saint. See what the Holy Spirit made of the Apostles – changed them from skulking cowards into great saints afire with the love of God.
COMMENT: Devotion to the Holy Spirit is not just something of relevance for religious; it helps all of us, for we all need inspiration and we all need to be transformed in faith and fortitude.
One liturgical calendar I have consulted designates today as the feast of St John Houghton. I cannot find any other calendar that suggests that his memorial is today, but it matters little, for his story ties in with Fr Doyle’s quote above.
St John Houghton was a Carthusian priest who was one of the very first to oppose King Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy. He was hung, drawn and quartered for his efforts, hence the picture of him with a noose around his neck and his heart in his hand.
Originally the Carthusian monks did not know whether to support the Act or not, and it was after saying the Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit that the monks received the strength to oppose King Henry and the courage to follow through with their position despite its grizzly implications.
Fr Doyle, too, followed the inspirations of the Holy Spirit by volunteering as a military chaplain, and the grace of the Holy Spirit saw him through many tough times, allowing his cheerfulness to shine out to those around him.
Both St John Houghton and Fr Doyle trusted in the Holy Spirit and, to use Fr Doyle’s phrase, “were changed …from skulking cowards” and became “afire with the love of God”. That very same grace that was available to the Apostles and early Christians, to St John Houghton and Fr Doyle, remains available to us today.
Try and remember that sanctification means daily, hourly, hard work, and this unflinchingly, when weariness comes.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle engaged in this daily, hourly hard work in his ceaseless quest for sanctity, always knowing, however, that God loved him and supplied him with the grace he needed.
Fr Doyle’s quote today brings to mind the famous prayer that St Pius X wrote to honour St Joseph.
O Glorious St Joseph, model of all who are devoted to labour, obtain for me the grace to work in the spirit of penance in expiation of my many sins; to work conscientiously by placing love of duty above my inclinations; to gratefully and joyously deem it an honour to employ and to develop by labour the gifts I have received from God, to work methodically, peacefully, and in moderation and patience, without ever shrinking from it through weariness or difficulty; to work above all, with purity of intention and unselfishness, having unceasingly before my eyes death and the account I have to render of time lost, talents unused, good not done, and vain complacency in success, so destructive to the work of God. All for Jesus, all for Mary, all to imitate thee, O Patriarch St Joseph! This shall be my motto for life and eternity. Amen