A fierce temptation during Mass and thanksgiving to break my resolution and indulge my appetite at breakfast. The thought of a breakfast of dry bread and tea without sugar in future seemed intolerable. Jesus urged me to pray for strength though i could scarcely bring myself to do so. But the temptation left me in the refectory, and joy filled my heart with the victory. I see now that i need never yield if only I pray for strength.
I have felt strongly urged again to give myself entirely to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and to follow His inspirations. For example, I sometimes feel urged to take the discipline during the day, and when I have been able to overcome the repugnance to the trouble of it, my soul has been filled with joy. Many other thoughts of this kind come into my mind – to rise when I wake, not to do this or that – I am certain they are from the Holy Spirit, but I resist His voice, and hence feel unhappy. In future I will say a little prayer for light and then do what I am impelled to. Just now I was sitting in an armchair fearfully tired. It cost me a big effort to undress and take the discipline, and put on chain round waist. But the result was a most marvellous increase of bodily vigour.
How many deceive themselves in thinking sanctity consists in the holy follies of the saints! How many look upon holiness as something beyond their reach or capability, and think that it is to be found only in the performance of extraordinary actions. Satisfied that they have not the strength for great austerities, the time for much prayer, or the courage for painful humiliations, they silence their conscience with the thought that great sanctity is not for them, that they have not been called to be saints. With their eyes fixed on the heroic deeds of the few, they miss the daily little sacrifices God asks them to make; and while waiting for something great to prove their love, they lose the countless little opportunities of sanctification each day bears with it in its bosom.
COMMENTS: Today is the feast of St Bernard. It seems as good a day as any to address some of the controversies that seem to surround Fr Doyle’s life of penance.
In today’s quotation, Fr Doyle is clear that sanctity does not necessitate severe penances. Yes, a few are called by that path, but we are all called along the path of embracing the tasks and challenges of each day. We are all called to some form of penance, but for the most part it will be moderate and focused on doing our duties well. This is not easy but it is ultimately within our reach, if we will it and if we rely on God’s grace.
Fr Doyle certainly embraced the mundane tasks of each day. But he also went much further and lived a life of austerity. This caused something of a scandal for a very small number of people when it was revealed in O’Rahilly’s biography (though it is noteworthy that in his later editions, O’Rahilly mentions a number of Protestant clerics who admired Fr Doyle’s example in this area).
It is clear that Fr Doyle lived a most vigorous life of action during the war and that his health was in no way compromised as a result of his penances; in fact he even reported that he felt more energetic and healthy following penance. If the test of prudence in penance is that it does not interfere with our daily duties and tasks, then he most certainly passed that test.
It is also clear, from today’s quotation and from many others, that he never advised others to adopt hard physical penances and in fact he often forbade others to do so. Everything Fr Doyle did had a precedent in the lives of the saints, including some of the most popular, modern saints. It also appears that he had, or at least he thought he had, a specific calling to austerity of this type. It is also worth noting that Fr Doyle seems to have given up the hard physical penances for the last years of his life in the trenches, instead cheerfully embracing the hardships of that most awful life as his penance.
Fr Doyle also acted with the approval of his superiors. From one of his letters:
The Provincial told me to make known my devotions, penances etc to Father X…and to do whatever he told me. My heart fell, for perhaps of all the Jesuits in Ireland he would be the last I should care to consult on these things, I knew it was not his line and I felt if I got permission for one discipline a month I would do well. He was just the opposite to what I expected, was most kind and encouraging and ended by telling me to do whatever I thought God wanted, so I had the reward of being obedient.
This would seem to be the definitive seal of approval on Fr Doyle’s spiritual life.
We must not forget the context in which Fr Doyle lived. It is also important to remember that people – even the very holy – are influenced by their surrounding culture. Corporal penance was the norm in religious life right up to a few decades ago. Some well known Jesuits destroyed their private notes before death precisely because of the way the secrets of Fr Doyle’s spiritual life became public following the discovery of his diaries. Perhaps Fr Doyle’s penances were more common than we imagine. It is also worth remembering that penance – moderate and appropriate for our condition – is a normal part of the Christian life, so much so that the ever popular St John XXIII wrote an entire encyclical on penance and urged Catholics to offer penances for the success of the Second Vatican Council. Penance is not something obscure or disturbing in the Christian life. Indeed, it is odd for anyone to consider penance to be an anachronism given that we now live in a culture where hard, pressured work is seen as the norm, and where many people punish their bodies in a gym – this work, and these workouts, are probably much harsher than the penances normally practiced in the past. In fact, next weekend there will be a half Ironman competition in Dublin. The competitors started the morning with a 1.2 mile swim, followed by a 56 mile cycle and concluding with a 13.1 mile running race. And this is only a half Ironman, not the full thing. And we dare to look down our noses at the hardships that some people practiced a few decades ago???!!!
Yes, corporal penance was an aspect of Fr Doyle’s life, as with almost all canonised saints. But these hard penances were only one aspect of Fr Doyle’s spirituality. It would be a mistake to sum up a charming personality like that of St Pope John Paul II only by reference to the modified leather belt with which he scourged himself (it has never been made clear in what way the belt was modified – did it perhaps have something sharp or heavy embedded within it to make it a penitential item?) or St Therese of Lisieux only by reference to the hairshirt which she wore, or Blessed John Sullivan by the floor on which he slept and the chains which he wore. We can keep multiplying the examples – Venerable Matt Talbot, St Pio of Pietrelcina, St Francis of Assisi, St Dominic, St Ignatius, St Martin de Porres and on and on. There is so much more to the remarkable personalities of the saints than the physical penance they practiced. We should not ignore this aspect of the lives of the saints, but neither should we allow it to overshadow the rest of their lives and certainly we should not allow it to influence us to copy their example imprudently.
And this brings us to today’s feast of St Bernard, who admitted that he ruined his health through imprudent penance, and repented of his folly. This revelation of his imprudence does not make St Bernard any less of a role model for the rest of us, nor did it ever prevent him from being canonised or declared a Doctor of the Church.
By the way, it is often said that St Bernard exerted more influence during his own life than any other saint in history. Some of this was probably due to his own magnetic personality and to the gifts God gave him, and some of it is almost certainly due to the era in which he lived – Christendom in the West was not yet divided and the Church was organised and very powerful.
Here is an interesting homily on St Bernard which elaborates on St Bernard’s incredible influence on those around him, and which also touches on the topic of his imprudent penance.
My loving Jesus, on this the morning of my Ordination to the priesthood, I wish to place in Your Sacred Heart, in gratitude for all that You have done for me, the resolution from this day forward to go straight to holiness. My earnest wish and firm resolve is to strive with might and main to become a saint.
COMMENT: These words were written 112 years ago today, on July 28, 1907, on the morning of Fr Doyle’s ordination to the priesthood in Miltown Park, County Dublin.
Fr Doyle loved being a priest. He gives us some hint of his esteem for the priesthood in letters that he wrote to his sister.
This one was sent to his sister a few weeks before the event:
As you may imagine, all my thoughts at present are centred on the Great Day, July 28th. The various events of the year have helped keep it before my mind, learning to say Mass, the Divine Office etc; but now that such a short time remains, I find it hard to realise that I shall be a priest so very soon. Were it not for all the good prayers, especially yours, sister mine, which are being offered up daily for me, I should almost feel in despair, because these long years of waiting (nearly 17 now) have only brought home to me how unworthy I am of such an honour and such a dignity.
On the day of his ordination he wrote the following lines to this same sister:
I know that you will be glad to receive a few lines from the hands which a few hours ago have been consecrated with the holy oil. Thank God a thousand thousand times, I can say at long last, I am a priest, even though I be so unworthy of all that holy name implies. How can I tell you all that my heart feels at this moment? It is full to overflowing with joy and peace and gratitude to the good God for all that He has done for me, and with heartfelt thankfulness to the dear old Missionary for all her prayers. . . . I say my first Mass to-morrow at nine at Hampton for the dear Parents, the second (also at nine) at Terenure will be for you. . . . Thank you for all you have done for me; but above all thank the dear Sacred Heart for this crowning grace imparted to your little brother who loves you so dearly.
And on 28th July 1914, the 7th anniversary of his ordination, he wrote:
At Exposition Jesus spoke clearly in my soul, ‘Do the hard thing for my sake BECAUSE it is hard’. I also felt urged to perform all my priestly duties with great fervour to obtain grace for other priests to do the same, e.g. the Office, that priests may say theirs well.
Fr Doyle’s last ever entry in his diary was made on the 10th anniversary of his ordination (and 3 weeks prior to his death) on 28 July 1917:
I have again offered myself to Jesus as His Victim to do with me absolutely as He pleases. I will try to take all that happens, no matter from whom it comes, as sent to me by Jesus and will bear suffering, heat, cold, etc., with joy as part of my immolation, in reparation for the sins of priests. From this day I shall try bravely to bear all little pains in this spirit. A strong urging to this.
For Fr Doyle, his vocation was inseparable from his call to do penance for the sins of priests. How increasingly relevant Fr Doyle’s example is for us now in Ireland…
Here is a prayer for priests composed by Fr Doyle:
O my God, pour out in abundance Thy spirit of sacrifice upon Thy priests. It is both their glory and their duty to become victims, to be burnt up for souls, to live without ordinary joys, to be often the objects of distrust, injustice, and persecution.
The words they say every day at the altar, “This is my Body, this is my Blood,” grant them to apply to themselves: “I am no longer myself, I am Jesus, Jesus crucified. I am, like the bread and wine, a substance no longer itself, but by consecration another.”
O my God, I burn with desire for the sanctification of Thy priests. I wish all the priestly hands which touch Thee were hands whose touch is gentle and pleasing to Thee, that all the mouths uttering such sublime words at the altar should never descend to speaking trivialities.
Let priests in all their person stay at the level of their lofty functions, let every man find them simple and great, like the Holy Eucharist, accessible to all yet above the rest of men. O my God, grant them to carry with them from the Mass of today, a thirst for the Mass of tomorrow, and grant them, ladened themselves with gifts, to share these abundantly with their fellow men. Amen.
Fr Doyle was not the only remarkable Irish Jesuit ordained on July 28, 1907. His friend, Blessed John Sullivan was also ordained at the same time.
During a visit our Lord seemed to urge me not to wait till the end of the war, but to begin my life of reparation at once, in some things at least. I have begun to keep a book of acts done with this intention. He asked me for these sacrifices, (1) To rise at night in reparation for priests who lie in bed instead of saying Mass. (2) At all costs to make the 50,000 aspirations. (3) To give up illustrated papers. (4) To kiss floor of churches (5) Breviary always kneeling. (6) Mass with intense devotion. The Blessed Cure d’ Ars used to kneel without support while saying the Office. Could not I?
COMMENT: Fr Doyle noted these resolutions in his diary on July 26, 1916, 103 years ago today.
As is often the case, Fr Doyle’s resolutions probably seem rather daunting to us. This is a reflection of the difference between his religious culture a century ago and our religious culture today. It is also a reflection of the fact that he had already progressed very far in the spiritual life. Just as professional athletes amaze us with their physical prowess, so too the saints – and those renowned for their sanctity – also amaze us with their generosity and detachment.
There are perhaps three closely related points to take from Fr Doyle’s resolutions from 100 years ago, and thankfully they don’t necessarily mean having to kiss floors or interrupting our sleep at night!
The first point is that Fr Doyle was generous with God. He made specific, challenging resolutions. We do not have to match Fr Doyle’s resolutions – in almost all cases that would be imprudent and impossible. But we still need to be generous with God in whatever He asks. God will not ask us for more than we are capable of giving, and He is never outdone in His generosity. What is generous for one would not be for another; God meets us where we are at (but He does not wish us to stay there, but rather to grow from that point). He has given us everything we have, and He will give us even more in response to our own generosity to Him.
The second point is that we should look for sanctity now. Fr Doyle felt he was not to wait for the end of the war, but to make extra reparation in the present moment, even though the circumstances were not ideal. The reality is that from a purely human perspective the circumstances are never really ideal! We are called to seek God today, in the midst of its specific challenges and problems. Few of us are facing the adverse conditions that Fr Doyle faced 100 years ago. It did not stop him from following God, and serving others, with generosity.
Finally, Fr Doyle refers to the practice of St John Vianney and wonders why he could not copy his example. In this Fr Doyle shows us that he is true son of St Ignatius. While he recuperated in bed from his war injuries, Ignatius read lives of the saints, and inflamed with zeal, he wondered why he could not also do the heroic things that these saints did. They too were human and were weak, but, with the help of God, they achieved great things for Christ. It’s not advisable for us to copy all aspects of the lives of the saints – for many of us doing so would be like trying to copy the actions of an Olympic swimmer before we have even learned to swim! But we are called to be generous and to leave aside the comfortable mediocrity that can be so tempting in today’s culture. If the saints could be generous and heroic, why can’t we do the same, in our own ordinary circumstances of life?
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 2019, 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. What of all the diets and self-imposed fasts people take on in order to look better? What about the self-imposed pain of body piercings or tattoos? Or the self-inflicted suffering of unnecessary cosmetic surgery to acquire the latest “look”? 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 or a book? 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 about those who take part in Ironman competitions? These involve a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile cycle followed by a full marathon (26.2 miles) one after the other, without a break. That is surely more punishing than corporal mortification…
But for some reason, people flinch at the mention of self-imposed pain in the spiritual life. The very idea of penance is shocking and strange to us today.
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”. Pope Benedict also called our attention to the importance of penance in his excellent letter to the Catholics of Ireland, who are living through a time of crisis. In this letter he specifically mentioned the importance of penance in the reform of the Church in Ireland.
But this doesn’t mean that we need to wear hairshirts (like Thomas More himself) or scourge our flesh (like St Pope John Paul II did with his leather belt). There are 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 the saintly Belgian Cardinal Mercier..
Fr Doyle was severe with himself physically (although, one might add, no more severe than the most popular saints, and also always with the approval of his superiors) 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 that will strengthen our will, build our character and make us easier to live with.
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.
I gave way today to indulgence, with the usual result. Jesus seemed to reproach me bitterly, reminding me that He seeks a perpetual crucifixion from me.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words on 18 July 1914: 105 years ago today. It’s not clear what Fr Doyle had in mind by the word “indulgence”, nor is it clear what he means by the “usual result”. But an educated guess, based on all we know about him, would tell us that he went a little easier on himself by having butter on bread or perhaps a bit too much desert or even an afternoon nap. And the “usual result” of this was probably a sense of lethargy or tiredness or regret. According to the spirituality of the St Ignatius, this sadness is a sign of desolation, a sign perhaps that Fr Doyle did not do what God wanted of him in that moment. While he lay sick and wounded in his bed, St Ignatius read different kinds of books – some were chivalrous romance stories while others were books about saints and the life of Christ. While Ignatius enjoyed each kind of book, he was left with a feeling of emptiness or sadness after finishing the romance stories, while the books about Jesus and the saints left him full of peace and joy. It was this experience that lead St Ignatius to develop his rules for the discernment of spirits. Assuming he was not scrupulous (he wrote a booklet on how to tackle scruples, so we can assume that he wasn’t..) Fr Doyle’s sense of desolation after going a little easier on himself is, according to St Ignatius’ rules for the discernment of spirits, further proof that this personal austerity was truly God’s will for him.
Fr Doyle is one of those curious individuals who was energised by austerity. It made him stronger and fitter and healthier. Conversely, any type of indulgence left him feeling sad and dry.
Part of this may be due to his temperament, but also by his special calling to a life of “perpetual crucifixion”. There is something consoling for us in this – if Fr Doyle could yield occasionally, should we be surprised if we, too, sometimes slip up and fail to keep our resolutions? Such little falls can humble us, and allow us to see just how much we have to constantly rely on God’s grace for everything.
As for Fr Doyle’s life of “perpetual crucifixion”, as stated before here, if we admire his heroism in the war, we also have to admire (but perhaps not imitate!) his joyful life of strict discipline, for it was the training ground for his heroism in the war. We cannot have the Fr Doyle who was a hero of the trenches without also having the Fr Doyle who was a cheerful ascetic.