It is scarcely necessary to state that deliberate sin in any shape or form utterly destroys the interior life and even gives a loathing and disgust for its practice. It is not so evident that deliberate imperfections, and for religious repeated violation of rule, have the same result. These are the “little foxes,” attractive and apparently harmless creatures, which must be hunted down and destroyed…if the vineyard is not to perish. A soul given to sin or consciously violating the rules to which it has freely bound itself for life, will sigh in vain for the secret loving embraces of its Beloved.
COMMENT: We have, in general, lost the sense of sin in the world today. For modern culture, it seems as if anything goes. It’s hard not to become influenced by this prevailing opinion, and as a result we can end up easily yielding to sin and temptation because we no longer think it’s a big deal anymore.
We must of course avoid the other extreme of scrupulosity, and Fr Doyle was a very effective director for those afflicted with this problem.
We are all called to perfection, but we will not reach that in one go, barring a miracle. Rather, we start where we are at. For some that will mean a struggle against habitual mortal sin; for others it is the struggle against deliberate venial sin and for the more advanced it will be a struggle against imperfections and omissions with respect to certain virtues.
Wherever we are at, we all have these “foxes” of whatever type that we must chase out of our lives. There’s no better time to start the chase than Advent and our preparation for Christmas!
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: This particular act of penance on the part of Fr Doyle is a stumbling block for some people. While there is no suggestion that it was a bitterly cold winter night (some winter nights in Dublin can actually be quite mild), this act still seems to be too extreme for us. And that is because it IS too extreme, for US. 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 many others. He received the graces necessary to live this life. Five 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. Indeed, there is evidence that Fr Doyle modified his penance in response to suggestions from his confessor. 4. Physical penance was the norm in religious life during Fr Doyle’s lifetime. Fr Doyle’s penances must be understood in the context of his time.
The final point is the most important one of all. A precedent for all of Fr Doyle’s penances can be found in the lives of the saints. Indeed, many of the saints surpassed Fr Doyle’s penances. Compared to them, Fr Doyle’s penances were quite unremarkable.
This last 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. Much the same can be said for many of the other Franciscan saints we celebrate today. Other saints have also practiced similar penances; St Benedict rolled in thorns while St Ignatius is known to have practiced the same penance of standing in a cold pond praying for sinners. It is probable that Fr Doyle was simply copying the example of his saintly founder. The extreme penances of many of the saints have not lessened our love and devotion for them…
Such activities are surely not for the rest of us; modern man is both physically and spiritually softer than his ancestors. 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 and who lived in a different spiritual climate. 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.
Do not try to run till you can walk well. Draw up a list of certain little sacrifices which you feel God is asking from you and which you know you will be able to give Him without very much difficulty: better be cowardly than too generous. Then, come what may, be faithful to your list and shake it in the face of the tempter when he suggests that you should give it up.
COMMENT: As always, Fr Doyle presents a sane and balanced spirituality to us. Constancy leads to success in all areas of life, whether it be in acquiring a new skill, in studying for exams or in the spiritual life. It was by constant effort that Fr Doyle grew spiritually to become the hero of the trenches.
His advice is also very relevant as we prepare to commence Advent. Often we forget that Advent is a time of penance and preparation. Perhaps it would be good to take Fr Doyle’s advice, and prepare a short list of small, specific sacrifices that we wish to make in preparation for Christmas?
Try to take your days one by one as they come to you. The hard things of yesterday are past, and you are not asked to bear what to-morrow may have in store; so that the cross is really light when you take it bit by bit.
COMMENTS: What sane advice from a man who knew a thing or two about hardship! Often we multiply our hardship when we think about ongoing future problems. When we are sick we tend not to be able to imagine what it would be like to be well again or to have our energy back. When we face economic deprivation we tend to imagine that we will not see happier days.
Fr Doyle’s words today should give comfort to all those who suffer in any way. Let us follow his advice to live life bit by bit. We are not now asked to carry tomorrow’s burden. That burden may even be lighter than we think when it arrives. And when tomorrow’s burden arrives, today’s burden will have passed already.
Let us carry our cross day by day and bit by bit, consoled by the fact that we are never abandoned by our loving God.
Vince teipsum (Conquer yourself). This is the secret of the Exercises. “I learnt no other lesson from my master Ignatius,” said St. Francis Xavier, referring to his first retreat at Paris. Here we all fail – good men, zealous men, holy men. Prayer is easy, works of zeal attractive; but going against self, till grace and perseverance give facility, is cruel work, a hard battle.
COMMENT: How important is this process of self-conquest. There is no holiness without it. The lives of the saints make this quite clear for all to see.
But we should take heart. Fr Doyle affirms that it is hard and that all fail in this battle to some degree or other. It is consoling that such a master tactician of the spiritual life recognises within himself the tendency to fail in this battle against self. But as Fr Doyle promises, if we persevere we will obtain the grace we need to make the way a little easier.
I have long had the feeling that, since the world is growing so rapidly worse and worse and God has lost His hold, as it were, upon the hearts of men, He is looking all the more earnestly and anxiously for big things from those who are faithful to Him still. He cannot, perhaps, gather a large army round His standard, but He wants every one in it to be a hero, absolutely and lovingly devoted to Him; if only we could get inside that magic circle of generous souls, I believe there is no grace He would not give us to help in the work He has so much at heart – our personal sanctification.
COMMENT: Today is the feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday in the liturgical year. Christ asks us to serve in His army, to follow His standard. It takes even greater commitment to follow Christ now than it did in other generations. But by the same token, even more grace is available to assist us.
Christ is the King Who ordains all things for our sanctification and who longs for our union with Him in Heaven. Such thoughts are deeply comforting in the midst of a confused and troubled world.
The life of Jesus was a continual prayer. Even during His public life He began, continued and ended everything He did by prayer, besides devoting whole nights and days to communing with His Father.
If we want our work for souls to be fruitful, we must bring prayer into it. If our children are not all that they ought to be, the cause may not be far to seek. Let us examine if we are praying enough for them, if our aspirations are ever ascending to the throne of God, to bless our work amongst those children and amongst others with whom we have to deal.
COMMENT: The only elaboration that Fr Doyle’s words require today is that of his own example. He was constantly immersed in prayer, often reciting thousands of aspiration each day, and regularly spending entire nights in prayer. It’s not coincidental that his own ministry as a writer, retreat master, preacher, spiritual director and military chaplain was marked by success and fruitfulness.
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: Is Fr Doyle referring here to a 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 it is clear that he was a very great mystic indeed.
Many saints have described mystical experiences involving spiritual delights and physical pain. Here is St Teresa of Avila describing one of her experiences:
It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. 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.
It is consoling for the rest of us 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. 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.
Thanks a million times, dearest Jesus, for all Your goodness. I will love and serve You now till death.
COMMENT: We often refer in passing to events in Ireland on this blog. But there are many readers of this site from outside Ireland. Today in particular we think of our American friends who celebrate Thanksgiving today.
Even those who face troubles and woes of various types have much to be thankful for. The Lord has given us life and faith and many other blessings and graces all throughout our lives. He has protected us from problems and difficulties that we may not even be aware of. Most importantly of all, He desires union with us for eternity and designs all things to this end. We just need to co-operate with His plan and rely on His grace.
Let us be thankful for everything, for all we have comes to us as a gift from our Father.