I do not want, in fact I forbid you, to be imprudent in the matter of corporal penances. But, my dear child, if you let a whole fortnight go by without any self-inflicted pain, can you honestly look Jesus in the face and say, “I am like to Him”?
COMMENT: Self-inflicted pain?? It sounds so…medieval, so exaggerated! It’s 2011, surely we’ve grown out of this by this stage?
Except we haven’t. We see more self-inflicted pain in this age than in any other. Consider all those people who jump out of bed to jog at the crack of dawn, no matter what the weather is like. And all those who faithfully push themselves at the gym several times a week or who undergo rigorous training to play in sporting competitions. What all of the diets and self-imposed fasts people take on in order to look better? How many young women can be seen undergoing the self-imposed pain of wearing dangerously high heels to look taller, or who suffer the self-imposed pain of coldness as they wear scanty clothing in winter in order to attract attention? What about the self-imposed pain of body piercings? Or how about the pain and discipline of work people impose on themselves to get a promotion to the next rung of the corporate ladder, or to pass an exam or to write a thesis?
But for some reason, people flinch with the mention of self-imposed pain in the spiritual life. It is perhaps this aspect of Fr Doyle’s life that presents the biggest stumbling block for some people. The very idea of penance is shocking and strange to many today. Last year the Pope wrote an excellent letter to the Catholics of Ireland, who are living through a time of crisis. In this letter he asked that our regular Friday penances be offered up in reparation for the abuses of unfaithful priests. I have no doubt that the very concept of Friday penances was a rather exotic one for many in this country.
But we need to recall that penance is an absolutely indispensible part of a serious Christian life. It will be impossible to find the life of any saint who did not practice it, and impossible to find any classic book on the spiritual life that does not advocate it. As St Thomas More said: “We cannot go to Heaven in feather beds”.
But this doesn’t mean that we need to wear hairshirts (like Thomas More himself) or scourge our flesh (like Blessed Pope John Paul II did with his leather belt). There other small penances that we can perform that are possibly even more difficult for some people than the momentary physical pain of corporal penance but that will still be very helpful.
Here is a link to an excellent pamphlet discussing Christian mortification by someone much more qualified in the area than I.
Fr Doyle was rather severe with himself physically (although, one might add, hardly any more severe than our favourite saints) but he was always gentle with others, moderating and even restricting their use of physical penances. Here is some advice he gave to another correspondent:
I want you to give up all corporal penance and to take for your particular examen “self-denial in little things”. Make ten acts for each examen, and the more trivial they are the better.
His advice here is especially relevant to the modern age. This self-denial in little things makes our will stronger and probably makes us easier to live with. It can be very simple, such as cleaning up after ourselves, getting out of bed (or going to bed!) on time, not saying a sharp or impatient word etc etc. Each day presents numerous opportunities for following this path.
For Fr Doyle these little things included not complaining to others when he had a headache or even giving up butter on this bread.
In doing these little things we are merely following the command of Jesus that we take up our cross daily and follow Him.