Today is the feast of St Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionist order. He lived in the 1700’s, and is known as a great missionary and mystic. But he is also known as one of the great penitential saints. Like many saints across the ages, he engaged in intense physical mortification. He rolled naked in thorns, slept on the floor and used a rock for a pillow. On one occasion he scourged himself so harshly that he fainted from the pain.
Here is an excerpt from a biography of the saint written by Fr Edmund Burke C.P., an Irish Passionist priest. It describes St Paul’s habit of scourging himself in public during the missions he gave…
For the greater part of his missionary career, Paul thus publicly scourged himself on the mission platform almost every day. Nor was this a mere formality: it was an unambiguous penance. There was a dramatic scene at the canonisation process when a priest witness showed the President a scar still visible on his hand, the result of an accidental stroke that he had received when he tried to restrain the saint and to take the discipline from him. Another well-authenticated incident occurred in the public square at Santa Fiora. Part of the discipline broke off under the force of his repeated blows and flew through the air to alight upon the high roof of a neighbouring house. As if this penance was not sufficient, the saint sometimes preached – either on the Passion or on Hell – with a crown of thorns on his brow. He forced this down upon his head during the sermon, until blood could be seen tricking down his temples.
It’s worth noting that St Paul of the Cross was not the only saint to perform such extreme acts in public missions at this time…
St Paul of the Cross is a great and popular saint. Yet he was also extraordinary severe with himself, perhaps sometimes imprudently so. Yet his severity, and that of many other saints, has not disqualified them from canonisation. It has not turned people away from them. The actions of these saints needs to be seen in the context of their time – people were really tougher in the past, and such intense penance was much more the norm in the Church at that time. Whether we think this was a good thing or not is really irrelevant – it is a fact.
The penances of the saints have to be seen in the context of their spiritual lives. They ardently loved God, and they sought an outlet for that love, and sometimes that outlet was through suffering and pain. Those of us who just plod along may not understand that, just as the “couch potato” doesn’t understand what would drive somebody to compete in an Ironman competition or to run a marathon. Sometimes those who are at a different stage of development – spiritual or physical – find it hard to appreciate the actions of those who are more advanced.
Fr Doyle’s penances were always private. We would know NOTHING of them if he had not recorded them in private diaries and if the decision had not been taken to publish his notes after his death contrary to his own express request. Fr Doyle was a happy, joyful and healthy soul who always advised others to take on very small and little penances. On one occasion he advised somebody to take on the littlest penance she could find, so long as it was done with love. For Fr Doyle, these little penances often revolved around doing one’s daily duty with fidelity and perfection.
Everything Fr Doyle did has a precedent in the lives of the saints, and in truth it was mild compared to many of them. It is in this context that his penances should be judged.
Today we start Fr Doyle’s reflections on the second week of the Spiritual Exercises. This part of the Exercises begins with a reflection on the call of Christ the King. Here is the text from St Ignatius:
First Point. The first Point is, to put before me a human king chosen by God our Lord, whom all Christian princes and men reverence and obey.
Second Point. The second, to look how this king speaks to all his people, saying: “It is my Will to conquer all the land of unbelievers. Therefore, whoever would like to come with me is to be content to eat as I, and also to drink and dress, etc., as I: likewise he is to labour like me in the day and watch in the night, etc., that so afterwards he may have part with me in the victory, as he has had it in the labours.”
Third Point. The third, to consider what the good subjects ought to answer to a King so liberal and so kind, and hence, if any one did not accept the appeal of such a king, how deserving he would be of being censured by all the world, and held for a mean-spirited knight.
IN PART 2
The second part of this Exercise consists in applying the above parable of the temporal King to Christ our Lord, conformably to the three Points mentioned.
First Point. And as to the first Point, if we consider such a call of the temporal King to his subjects, how much more worthy of consideration is it to see Christ our Lord, King eternal, and before Him all the entire world, which and each one in particular He calls, and says: “It is My will to conquer all the world and all enemies and so to enter into the glory of My Father; therefore, whoever would like to come with Me is to labour with Me, that following Me in the pain, he may also follow Me in the glory.”
Second Point. The second, to consider that all those who have judgment and reason will offer their entire selves to the labour.
Third Point. The third, those who will want to be more devoted and signalise themselves in all service of their King Eternal and universal Lord, not only will offer their persons to the labour, but even, acting against their own sensuality and against their carnal and worldly love, will make offerings of greater value and greater importance, saying:
“Eternal Lord of all things, I make my oblation with Thy favour and help, in presence of Thy infinite Goodness and in presence of Thy glorious Mother and of all the Saints of the heavenly Court; that I want and desire, and it is my deliberate determination, if only it be Thy greater service and praise, to imitate Thee in bearing all injuries and all abuse and all poverty of spirit, and actual poverty, too, if Thy most Holy Majesty wants to choose and receive me to such life and state.”
There is much of value here on which we may reflect. Here are Fr Doyle’s notes on this part of the retreat:
I seemed at prayer to hear Jesus asking me if I were willing to do all He would ask of me. I feel much less fear than in the first week, of what this may be, and greater courage and desire even for sacrifices.
This thought came to me: I am not to take the lives of others in the house as the standard of my own, what may be lawful for them is not for me; their life is most pleasing to God, such a life for me would not be so; God wants something higher, nobler, more generous from me, and for this will offer me special graces.
Meditating on the Kingdom of Christ, the thought suddenly came to me to make this offering : O eternal Lord . . . provided it be for Thy greater service and praise . . . and if Thy most Holy Majesty be pleased to choose and receive me for such a life and state, I offer myself to Thee for the Congo Mission. Thy will be done. Amen.
I feel that I could go through fire and water to serve such a man as Napoleon, that no sacrifice he could ask would be too hard. What would the army think of me if Napoleon said, “I want you to do so and so,” and I replied, “But, your Majesty, I am very sensitive to cold, I want to have a sleep in the afternoon, to rest when I am tired, and I really could not do without plenty of good things to eat!” Would I not deserve to have my uniform torn from me and be driven from the army, not even allowed to serve in the ranks? How do I serve Jesus my King? What kind of service? generous or making conditions? in easy things but not in hard ones? What have I done for Jesus? What am I doing for Jesus? What shall I do for Jesus?
COMMENT: The meditation on the Kingdom of Christ, and the meditation on the Two Standards which we will consider in a few days, has inspired many saints over the last four and a half centuries. It inspired Fr Doyle to offer himself for the Congo Mission, and, ultimately, to service in the blood soaked trenches of World War 1.
Christ wants to conquer the world and conquer His enemies, and He does so by saving souls and embracing them in His eternal love. This conquering of enemies is not something violent or aggressive, but is instead based on a campaign of love and service for others. Are we willing to play our part in this campaign? Or do we prefer an easy life; do we want “sleep in the afternoon and plenty of good things to eat?”
On October 19 we are fortunate to celebrate many saints who worked to win the world for Christ.
In the first instance, we have Fr Doyle’s spiritual confreres, the Jesuit martyrs of North America. Their story can easily be found online. It is a story of courage and heroism which is almost without equal. Ultimately it was the call of Christ, and the inspiration of the Spiritual Exercises, that drove these refined Frenchmen to travel to Canada and face cold, hunger, rancid food, hatred, violence, complete deprivation and loneliness and even cannibalism to bring the Gospel to the native tribes of North America. As heroic as that sounds, it pales into insignificance when one considers St Isaac Joques who, having escaped to France from the Mohawk Indians, minus some fingers which had been chewed off, promptly returned to the very same tribe, knowing that he faced almost certain death.
Today is also the feast of St Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists, whose penances rivalled, and exceeded, those of Fr Doyle. I intend to write a special post on this later today.
And if that wasn’t enough, it is also the feast of St Peter of Alcantara, one of the friends and advisors of St Teresa of Avila. How often sanctity is fostered in friendships! Teresa was not only advised by St Peter (who appeared to her after death), but by St John of the Cross and St Francis Borgia and was nursed on her deathbed by Blessed Anne of St Bartholomew, as well as being surrounded by many unknown, and unrecognised, saints in her convents. The examples of these holy friendships could be multiplied over and over in the lives of the saints. Fr Doyle himself was friendly with Blessed Fr John Sullivan SJ and was ordained at the same ceremony on 28 July 1907, and for a time was directed by Venerable Adolphe Petit.
And what a grand picture of it has God just taken from us in the blessed Fray Peter of Alcantara! The world is not yet in a fit state to bear such perfection. It is said that people’s health is feebler nowadays and that times are not what they were. But it was in these present times that this holy man lived; and yet his spirit was as robust as any in the days of old, so that he was able to keep the world beneath his feet. And, although everyone does not go about unshod or perform such severe penances as he did, there are many ways, as I have said on other occasions, of trampling on the world and these ways the Lord teaches to those in whom He sees courage. And what great courage His Majesty gave to this holy man to perform those severe penances, which are common knowledge, for forty-seven years! I will say something about this, for I know it is all true.
He told this to me, and to another person from whom he concealed little — the reason he told me was his love for me, for the Lord was pleased to give him this love so that he might stand up for me and encourage me at a time of great need, of which I have spoken and shall speak further. I think it was for forty years that he told me he had slept only for an hour and a half between each night and the next day, and that, when he began, the hardest part of his penance had been the conquering of sleep, for which reason he was always either on his knees or on his feet. What sleep he had he took sitting down, with his head resting against a piece of wood that he had fixed to the wall. Sleep lying down he could not, even if he had so wished, for his cell, as is well known, was only four and a half feet long. During all these years, how ever hot the sun or heavy the rain, he never wore his hood, or anything on his feet, and his only dress was a habit of sackcloth, with nothing between it and his flesh, and this he wore as tightly as he could bear, with a mantle of the same material above it. He told me that, when it was very cold, he would take off the mantle, and leave the door and window of his cell open, so that, when he put it on again and shut the door, he could derive some physical satisfaction from the increased protection. It was a very common thing for him to take food only once in three days. He asked me why I was so surprised at this and said that, when one got used to it, it was quite possible. A companion of his told me that sometimes he would go for a week without food. That must have been when he was engaged in prayer, for he used to have great raptures and violent impulses of love for God, of which I was myself once a witness.
His poverty was extreme, and so, even when he was quite young, was his mortification: he told me that he once spent three years in a house of his Order and could not have recognized a single friar there, except by his voice, for he never raised his eyes, and so, when he had to go to any part of the house, could only do so by following the other friars. It was the same thing out of doors. At women he never looked at all and this was his practice for many years. He told me that it was all the same to him now whether he saw anything or not; but he was very old when I made his acquaintance and so extremely weak that he seemed to be made of nothing butroots of trees. But with all this holiness he was very affable, though, except when answering questions, a man of few words. When he did speak it was a delight to listen to him, for he was extremely intelligent. There are many other things which I should like to say about him but I am afraid Your Reverence will ask why I am starting on this subject — indeed, I have been afraid of that even while writing. So I will stop here, adding that he died as he had lived, preaching to, and admonishing, his brethren. When he saw that his life was drawing to a close, he repeated the psalm “Laetatus sum in hic quae dicta sunt mihi”, and knelt down and died.
The life and spirit of St Peter, as well as that of St Paul of the Cross and the North American Martyrs, in many respects reflects the radical detachment, self-emptying and militant love of Christ which was so evident in the life of Fr Doyle. There is nothing in the life of Fr Doyle which is not also found in the life of the canonised saints. Their example humbles us as we enjoy our 21st Century complacency. As St Ignatius asked:
What have I done for Jesus? What am I doing for Jesus? What shall I do for Jesus?