By entering religion and taking my vows I have given myself over absolutely to God and His service. He, therefore, has a right to be served in the way He wishes. If then He asks me to enter on a hard, mortified life and spend myself working for Him, how can I resist His will and desire? What is God asking from me now? Shall I go back on that offering?
COMMENT: The principle that we should serve God as he wishes and without reserve is not only confined to religious – it applies to lay people as well. However, for lay people it will normally involve doing our duties well rather than “going” somewhere else as it might with a religious.
Fr Doyle lived this total dedication in the trenches, going far out of his “comfort zone” to serve God.
Today’s saint, Raymond of Nonnatus, also gave himself completely to God. He was a Mercardian priest from the 13th century. The apostolate of this order was to ransom slaves captured by the Moors. He raised much money for this apostolate, and when the money ran out, he offered himself in exchange for some slaves. Tradition tells us that his captives made holes in his lips and locked them together to stop him from preaching.
We are unlikely to be asked to live in trenches with soldiers like Fr Doyle or to offer ourselves as a ransom to free slaves like St Raymond Nonnatus. This is all the more reason why we should live our relatively simple daily lives with complete generosity.
Why are we not saints? Want of courage and want of patience. We give up, we have not the strength of will and determination to succeed which the saints had. Another point is that our notion of sanctity is adding on, instead of making perfect what we already do.
COMMENT: There are two points worth considering in today’s quote from Fr Doyle. Firstly is the fact that we are not saints, that we are not holy, because we do not want it enough or have not the courage to strive for sanctity. Sanctity does not mean have great mystical experiences or being able to heal people or perform miracles. It means living the virtues heroically, and this capacity is always within our reach if we trust in God’s mercy and follow the means he has given us. For sure, reaching holiness is a lifelong task and not something we achieve in one day. Indeed, at one level it is not even something WE achieve, for holiness comes about through God’s operation in our soul. Our task is to get out of the way, to identify the obstacles to God’s grace and remove them, and to co-operate with the grace that God gives us. The important thing is that we begin, and keep striving. Many saints, including St Ignatius, were motivated to strive for sanctity by the thought that other ordinary men and women had become saints, and if they could do it, then so could Ignatius.
Perhaps more interestingly, Fr Doyle points out that holiness is not adding on, but making perfect what we already do. This of course presumes that we are already living a stable Catholic life. We do not have to go anywhere to become saints, we do not have to wait for the ideal circumstances to become saints (these ideal circumstances do not exists anyway). By doing our duties perfectly we will have achieved a high degree of holiness. Fr Doyle once again shows himself to be an excellent guide for ordinary lay people in the world.
According to some liturgical calendars, today is the feast of St Margaret Clitherow, St Margaret Ward and St Anne Line, three English martyrs who were tortured and killed on different occasions during the Elizabethan persecution of the Church. Their crimes? To give shelter to hunted priests.
St Margaret Clitherow was killed in a particularly nasty way, but if you want to know more I’ll leave you to google it. St Anne Line was especially connected with the incredible exploits of Fr John Gerard SJ who wrote an amazing firsthand account of his experience as a priest on the run in Elizabethan England. This remarkable Jesuit escaped from captivity in the Tower of London with the help of…orange juice!! Again, I’ll leave you to look up the details. Anybody with an interest in this period of history must read his autobiography. It was back in print for a while but seems no longer to be available, but it may be found in second hand stores or online. It was called The Autobiography of an Elizabethan or The Diary of a Hunted Priest, depending on the publisher.
These three brave women martyrs sacrificed their lives to preserve the Faith and the priesthood in their land. May we learn from their example.
There is one thing we need never be afraid of, namely, that the devil will ever tempt us to be humble. He may delude us in the practice of other virtues; indiscreet zeal, for instance, or the desire to devote our time solely to prayer. But we need never be in doubt as to whether itwould be better to humble ourselves or not. There can be no doubt about it. It is always safe to do so.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle makes a very important point in today’s quote which we can easily overlook when focusing on the main theme of humility. Sometimes, good people can be tempted to devote their time solely to prayer. Of course, a more common temptation today is to devote no time to prayer, but the temptation to “overdo it” can still present itself. By this, Fr Doyle clearly means that we have to have regard to our duties in life. A student who spends hours in the chapel, but avoids the library, or a husband who spends all his spare time in prayer or even apostolic works whilst ignoring his professional obligations and the needs of his family, can both easily fool themselves that they are behaving well. But in reality they are avoiding the work God intends for them perhaps through laziness or perhaps through an imprudent pursuit of spiritual consolations.
Fr Doyle’s more substantive point today relates to humility. Recalling the importance of humility is very apt today, the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, for St John always pointed to Christ and recognised his own unworthiness to even tie His sandals.
St John has two feasts in the Church calendar – his birth and his beheading. There are very few who are recognised by the universal Church in this way. This is an acknowledgement of St John’s greatness and thus we may take him as a trustworthy model, especially in terms of his detachment from the world, his zeal for souls, his dedication to the truth, and his humility before Christ.
How many wish to belong entirely to Jesus without reserve or restriction? Most want to serve two masters, to be under two standards. A union of wordliness and devotion; a perpetual succession of sins and repentance; something given to grace, more to nature; fervour and tepidity by turns. Such is the state of many religious. Obligations are whittled down; rules are interpreted laxly; all kinds of excuses are invented for self-indulgence, health, greater glory of God in the end, etc. No service is so hard as the half-and-half; what is given to God costs more; His yoke is heavy; the cross is dragged, not cheerfully carried; the thought of what is refused to grace causes remorse and sadness; there is no pleasure from the world and little from the service of Christ.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle seems to be on to something here in his analysis of our half-hearted spirituality, and it is very appropriate for our feast today (or, more accurately, the feast we would celebrate if it were not a Sunday). St Augustine wanted to serve God, but not yet. He wanted to be good, but did not want to give up his easy going life. Perhaps counter-intuitively to our purely human eyes, it is this half-hearted commitment that is most difficult and that tears us apart.
Jesus said that His yoke was easy and His burden was light. But we have to embrace the yoke and the burden, always knowing that God’s grace is there to help us. So often we can make the mistake of thinking that being fully committed to our faith will make us morose or sad or diminish our personality in some way. But the opposite is the case. In the life of Fr Doyle, to take just one example, we see a man who did not opt for the half-and-half solution, but who gave himself fully to God. Yet he was also a tremendous practical joker and was a man who was renowned for his kindness and his warm personal qualities, precisely because of his whole-hearted commitment which filled his soul with such joy. His soldiers, tough men as they were, loved him dearly. No dour, plaster saint could win that kind of affection from tough Irish soldiers in the trenches.
As St Augustine says in one of his famous quotes:
Our hearts were made for You, O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in you
Don’t be stingy in giving praise, particularly with the young.
If in a community there is some sister not as edifying as she might be, but who after a retreat makes an effort to rise, be ever the one to encourage and to hold out a helping hand. Many a first attempt has been crushed in the bud by the contemptuous look or sneering remark as to how long it will last.
COMMENT: How appropriate Fr Doyle’s advice is today on the feast of St Monica, the mother of St Augustine who prayed so long and so hard for his conversion.
Monica was married to a pagan who beat her. She cultivated the virtue of patience, ultimately winning her husband’s conversion before he died. So too with her son Augustine – her prayers and patience had an effect that bitterness or nagging could never have. There are many lessons for us here in our attempts to evangelise those around us who may be hostile to the faith.
Even as a child I longed and prayed to be a saint. But somehow it always seemed to me as if that longing could never be realised, for I felt there was some kind of a barrier like a high wall between myself and God. What it was, I cannot say even now. But recently this obstacle appears to me to have been removed, the way is open, and I feel I love Jesus now as I never did before, or even hoped to. With this comes the conviction, so strong and consoling with so much peace and happiness, that Jesus will grant my heart s desire before I die. I dare not put on paper what I feel, even if I could; but at times Jesus seems to pour all the grace of His Sacred Heart upon me, until I am intoxicated almost with His love and could cry out with the pain of that sweet wounding.
COMMENT: When Fr Doyle refers to a “sweet wounding”, is he referring to a specific mystical experience? Perhaps he is writing in a symbolic fashion, but if he is describing an actual mystical experience that involved some form of “sweet wounding”, then he was a very great mystic indeed.
Here is an excerpt from another one of Fr Doyle’s letters in which he speaks about a kind of spiritual wounding:
What you say is indeed true. Jesus has been “hunting” me during these past days, trying to wound my heart with His arrows of love. He has been so gentle, so patient, tender, loving, I do not know at times where to turn, and yet I somehow feel that much of this grace is given me for others, I know it has helped souls and lifted them close to Jesus.
I long to get back to my little room at night, to calm and quiet, and yet I dread it, for He is often so loving there. I feel He is near because I cannot go to Him in the Tabernacle. It is such a helpless feeling to be tossed about as it were on the waves of love, to feel the ardent, burning love of His Heart, to know He asks for love, and then to realise one human heart is so tiny.
Many saints have described mystical experiences involving both spiritual delights and physical pain, especially a kind of mystical wounding of the heart. Saints such as Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, Pio of Pietrelcina and Philip Neri come to mind, including many others. The most famous of all is St Teresa of Avila, and today is the feast of the Transverberation of the Heart of St Teresa. How great is that? The Church, or more specifically the Carmelites, have a feast especially dedicated to one of St Teresa’s great mystical experiences. Here is St Teresa’s description of her experience:
It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this way. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful—his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call cherubim. Their names they never tell me; but I see very well that there is in heaven so great a difference between one angel and another, and between these and the others, that I cannot explain it. I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.
Are Fr Doyle and St Teresa speaking of the same mystical experience, albeit using different terminology? It is impossible to tell, though we can at least say that Fr Doyle experienced the love of God in a powerful and transforming way.
It is consoling for the rest of us who struggle along to think that St Teresa reached such mystical heights despite the fact that she only truly reformed her life at 40, having even given up prayer altogether for a whole year at one stage. Fr Doyle was also something of a late starter, although perhaps not to quite the same degree. Special mystical experiences are not necessary for holiness; just think of the darkness that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta lived in for decades. We should have confidence that, if we continue to progress towards God, no matter what setbacks or diversions we encounter, that the Lord will continue to give us all the graces we need to reach Heaven.
I am truly glad you are looking to the perfection of your daily actions; it is the simplest, yet perhaps hardest, way of sanctification, with little fear of deception. It is the certain following of Christ: “He hath done all things well.” (Mark 7:37)
COMMENT: Performing all of our daily actions well, and doing so with love, as a constant theme of Fr Doyle’s advice to others. He is correct in stating that it is perhaps the hardest path to sanctity, for doing our duties perfectly itself requires quite a degree of perfection.
Fr Doyle lived this way himself, and in many ways he is so admirable precisely because he performed his duties as a military chaplain well. He could have played it safer and taken fewer risks, but he was always to be found in the place of greatest danger, precisely because that was his duty.
There are numerous saints whose feasts are celebrated each day of the year. Three saints whose feats occur today present three very different paths to sanctity, but they show us that holiness is to be found precisely in our daily actions.
Firstly, St Louis IX of France, was the King of France who lived from 1214-1270. He was a third order Franciscan who wore a hairshirt under his royal clothing and who prioritised the spiritual and temporal welfare of his subjects. He was the father of 11 children. He was also greatly devoted to the collection and preservation of relics. He lead two crusades to liberate the Holy Land and was killed on his second crusade.
St Genesius of Rome was an actor who wanted to win the favour of the emperor Diocletian who at that time was persecuting Christians. He infiltrated the Christian community in order to do research for a comedy play mocking Christianity that he wished to perform for the emperor. During the play itself he was struck forcefully by the grace and love of God, converted on the spot, and professed his faith in front of the emperor, urging him also to convert. He was subsequently tortured and martyred for his faith. (Those interested in St Genesius may wish to visit the Fraternity of St Genesius)
St Joseph Calasanz was a Spanish priest who founded a religious order in Rome (the Piarists) dedicated to teaching young boys in that city. He was a dedicated and holy priest, but was subsequently undermined and replaced as head of the order by a cabal of criminal perverts who lived an immoral community life and who preyed on the young boys. St Joseph had to live through the suppression of the order in 1646 and was dead before it was re-established in 1656.
Fr Doyle, St Louis, St Genesius and St Joseph Calasanz – four very different paths to sanctity in four very different ages and sets of circumstances. No matter what our role in life is we can still find holiness there if we perform our duties with fidelity.