During the winter I have done a penance which I shrink from and dread in a way which I cannot describe. I have had to drive myself by vow to perform it. I set my alarm for three o’clock when it is freezing, slip out of the house in my night-shirt and stand up to my neck in the pond, praying for sinners.
COMMENT: Ireland, and indeed much of Western Europe, is in the grip of an unusually cold spell of weather. It is rare enough for Ireland, and especially Dublin, to get snow. It is extraordinary that we are now heading into a fourth day of snow, and it is still only November!
It is an opportune time to consider this particular penance of Fr Doyle. This is one of those events that acts as a stumbling block for many. While there is no suggestion that it was a bitterly cold winter night like those now being experienced (some winter nights in Dublin can actually be quite mild), it still seems to be too extreme for us. And that is because for us, it IS too extreme. Not everyone is called to the same types of penance. For most, indeed probably ALL of us reading this, standing in an icy lake in the middle of the night would be an indiscreet penance that would damage our health and be bad for us spiritually.
But thankfully we are not all the same. Some are called by a different road. It is clear that Fr Doyle was called to live a more intense life of penance than the rest of us. He received the graces necessary to live this life. Four crucial points need to be borne in mind – 1. Fr Doyle NEVER encouraged anyone else to follow his example, and always encouraged others to offer small, simple sacrifices to God. 2. This particular penance did not damage Fr Doyle’s health or limit his capacity to perform his duties in life. On the contrary, his vigour in the war, and indeed in other aspects of his life, would seem to encourage us all to start having cold showers! 3. It seems clear from his notes and diaries that his spiritual director was aware of his penances, an important issue in ensuring that he acted within certain limits.
The final point is relevant for us on today’s feast of All of the Franciscan saints. St Francis himself rolled in the snow as an act of penance. Often St Francis is misrepresented as a medieval hippy and peace activist. In reality he was a very tough ascetic who emptied himself completely so that he could be filled by God. Other saints have also practiced similar penances; St Ignatius is known to have practiced the same penance of standing in a cold pond praying for sinners and it is probable that Fr Doyle was simply copying the example of his saintly founder. A precedent for all of Fr Doyle’s penances can be found in the lives of the saints.
Such activities are surely not for the rest of us. But Catholic spirituality has room for many expressions of love and piety and we should not presume to impose our own caution on one who was called by a different path. Indeed, it is likely that Fr Doyle’s heroism in the trenches can be traced directly back to the ways in which these types of penances fortified his will.
In conclusion, let us also be thankful that there have been, and indeed surely still are, great souls in the Church who offer their sufferings and penances for the rest of us. We sorely need them.