Thoughts for August 20 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Bernard of Clairvaux, Doctor of the Church

How many deceive themselves in thinking sanctity consists in the holy follies of the saints! How many look upon holiness as something beyond their reach or capability, and think that it is to be found only in the performance of extraordinary actions. Satisfied that they have not the strength for great austerities, the time for much prayer, or the courage for painful humiliations, they silence their conscience with the thought that great sanctity is not for them, that they have not been called to be saints. With their eyes fixed on the heroic deeds of the few, they miss the daily little sacrifices God asks them to make; and while waiting for something great to prove their love, they lose the countless little opportunities of sanctification each day bears with it in its bosom.

COMMENTS: The feast of St Bernard seems as good a day as any to address some of the controversies that seem to surround Fr Doyle’s life of penance.

In today’s quotation, Fr Doyle is clear that sanctity does not necessitate severe penances. Yes, some are called by that path, but all are called along the path of embracing the daily tasks and challenges of each day. This is not easy but it is ultimately within all our reach, if we will it and if we rely on God’s grace.

Fr Doyle certainly embraced the mundane tasks of each day. But he also went much further and lived a life of severe penance. This caused something of a scandal for some when it was revealed in O’Rahilly’s biography. To this day it remains a stumbling block to some people.

It is clear that Fr Doyle repented of the two occasions when he was temporarily ill due to penance. It is also clear that he lived a most vigorous life of action during the war and that his health was in no way compromised as a result of his penances. If the test of prudence in penance is that it does not interfere with our daily duties and tasks, then he most certainly passed that test.

It is also clear, from today’s quotation and from many others, that he never advised others to adopt hard physical penances.

Fr Doyle also acted with the approval of his confessor, moderating his acts as his confessor suggested. Everything Fr Doyle did had a precdence in the lives of the saints, including some of the most popular, modern saints.

Finally, it is worth noting that Fr Doyle seems to have given up the hard physical penances for the last years of his life in the trenches, instead cheerfully embracing the hardships of that most awful life as his penance.

Yes, corporal penance was an aspect of Fr Doyle’s life, as with almost all canonised saints. But these hard penances were only one aspect of Fr Doyle’s spirituality. It would be a mistake to sum up a charming personality like that of Venerable Pope John Paul II only by reference to the leather belt with which he scourged himself, or St Therese of Lisieux only by reference to the hairshirt which she wore. There was so much more to both remarkable personalities than the physical penance they practiced. So too there was much more to Fr Doyle than physical penance. We should not ignore this aspect of his life, but neither should we allow it to overshadow the rest of it either.

And this brings us to today’s feast of St Bernard, who admitted that he ruined his health through imprudent penance, and repented of his folly. This revelation of his imprudence does not make St Bernard any less of a role model for the rest of us.

In conclusion, here is an interesting homily on St Bernard which touches on the topic of his imprudent penance.