Towards the end of the retreat a light came to me that, now that I have given Jesus all the sacrifices I possibly can in the matter of food, He is now going to ask retrenchment in the quantity. So far I have not felt that He asked this, but grace now seems to urge me to it. I dread what this means, but Jesus will give me strength to do what He wants.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote this note in his diary in December 1914. He was 41 years of age and had less than 3 years to live. Of course, Fr Doyle fasted, like all religious of the time, but significant extra fasting above the norm does not seem to have been one of Fr Doyle’s primary penances until after this date. For instance, during the war years he does mention fasting from food entirely, although perhaps some of this was a glad acceptance of his circumstances rather than a deliberate renunciation. On the other hand, he often practiced penance relating to the type of food consumed, for instance sugarless tea, meat without salt, dry bread without butter. For those of us who struggle with even little penances, it is surely consoling to read the following admissions from Fr Doyle:
One thing I feel Jesus asks, which I have not the courage to give Him — the promise to give up butter entirely.
The thought of a breakfast of dry bread and tea without sugar in future seemed intolerable.
In contrast, his contemporary the Servant of God Fr John Sullivan SJ was well known for his tendency to fast, typically only ever eating a small portion of rice for dinner. There is a wonderful diversity of ways in which we can follow God!
Fasting and abstinence are normal parts of the Christian life. It is important to remember that fasting and abstinence are two different, albeit related, things. The only days in which we are strictly required to fast are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. If we are physically or spiritually incapable of fasting on these days, we can still abstain from certain foods. The most obvious form of mortification relating to food is to abstain from meat on Fridays. But there are many other things we can do which in no way would affect our health or wellbeing but would still fortify our spirit. Perhaps we can follow Fr Doyle’s example of giving up sugar in our tea or jam or butter on our bread or go without salt on our meals? Each individual can discern for themselves what the most appropriate penance would be for their own circumstance in life.
In this context let us consider these wise words from St Francis de Sales:
If the work that you are doing is necessary to you or very useful for God’s glory, I prefer you to suffer the burden of work than that of fasting. This is the view of the Church which dispenses even from the prescribed fasting those who are doing work useful for the service of God and the neighbour.
The tradition of Catholic spirituality allows great freedom and discretion in these matters. The important thing, especially during Lent, is not to abuse this freedom by copping out of penance altogether!