Thoughts for November 3 from Fr Willie Doyle

I was greatly struck and helped yesterday by these words of the Imitation (of Christ): My child: let me do with you what I will: I know what is good for you”. They gave me courage to place myself without reserve in God’s hands. How happy I feel now that I have done so and made my sacrifice.

COMMENT: These brief notes were written during Fr Doyle’s retreat and immediately after he had wrestled against his fears and decided to offer himself for the mission in Congo. They teach us an important lesson – great peace comes from abandoning ourselves to God’s will. Despite our concerns, we have nothing to fear from God’s loving providence.

Today is also the feast of St Martin de Porres. St Martin is greatly loved in Ireland – there is an Irish Dominican magazine named in his honour, and I understand that the Irish defrayed a large amount of the costs associated with his canonisation in 1962. St Martin was a humble Dominican lay brother in Peru in the 16th and 17th centuries. He was renowned for his love of the poor and for animals. Significantly, he lived a life of hard penance – his life was more austere than that of Fr Doyle. In adopting this lifestyle, he conformed to the religious culture of his era when physical asceticism was very much the norm. Whenever we consider the penances of the saints, we must remember that they were probably tougher and stronger than we are (modern comforts have made us soft!) and that such penances were absolutely normal in religious life until very very recently.

Here are some excerpts from an official biography of St Martin by Giuliana Cavillini. This biography was published around the time of his canonisation and was explicitly approved by the Dominican Postulator General as an official biography based on authentic sources used during the canonisation process…

It seems that St Martin scourged himself three times every night:

It was Martin’s custom to take the discipline the first time in his cell…There he prayed and flogged himself for three-quarters of an hour with a triple iron chain encrusted with points of iron. He offered his entire body, naked, to the blows because he wished to undergo what Jesus Christ had suffered when he was bound to a pillar, stripped and scourged. Martin’s skin became swollen, broke open under the blows and the blood flowed.

A quarter of an hour after midnight Martin scourged himself a second time. The instrument was a knotted cord. This second scourging was for sinners, to make reparation for the offences committed against God, to implore grace so that sinners far from God might return to Him.

Finally, near dawn, Martin began the third and most painful scourging….

It seems that this third scourging required the assistance of others. Martin was often so worn out from the other acts of mortification that enlisted the help of servants in the monastery to help. They beat him with branches, and this was offered for the souls in purgatory. 

St Martin also fasted continuously, more or less constantly living on bread and water, slept on boards and constantly wore a hair shirt and other penitential instruments, and when he died he was found with an iron chain tightly wound around his waist.

Why have I reported this acts? After all, holiness and intimacy with Christ absolutely do not necessitate extreme mortifications of this nature, and, to paraphrase Fr Doyle, “do not try this at home” – Fr Doyle was very explicit in his prohibition of others adopting extreme ascetically practices. Fr Doyle, while tough on himself, always urged others to tenderness, and to very simple and moderate mortifications. I have repeated these details from the official Dominican biography of St Martin because Fr Doyle’s penance was mild compared to this daily penance in the life of St Martin de Porres. Martin is absolutely loved by ordinary, simple people around the world. His penance was not a stumbling block to his canonisation, nor a barrier between him and the love and devotion of the faithful. 

May the example and prayers of both St Martin and Fr Doyle teach us the selfless love of others that they both embodied in their lives.

St Martin de Porres
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Thoughts for All Souls Day from Fr Willie Doyle

From their cleansing prison of fire the holy souls cry to us for help. With joy indeed they bear the pain which cleanses them from the foul marks of sin, for now at last they know the awful purity of Him against whom on earth they dared to sin. Upon their souls they see the hideous taint of what was once their joy; and even were heaven’s gates thrown open wide, they would not enter and stand with spotted robe before Him in whose eyes the heavens themselves are not pure. Still they sigh and long for the happiness of their eternal home, for the company of the blessed saints, for Jesus whom at last they know. To be separated from Him is now their most grievous pain, exceeding far the torture of the cleansing fires.

COMMENT: We take a short break today from the Spiritual Exercises to consider today’s feast – the feast of All Souls.

Relatively few people will reach Heaven immediately – most of us will need to be cleaned up a bit in Purgatory. The notion of Purgatory makes a lot of sense – if somebody invited us to meet the Pope we would want to ensure that we were dressed in our best clothing for the occasion. Even more so when it comes to contemplating the Trinity in heaven – we want to ensure that our soul has been cleansed from the many sins which have besmirched it. As Fr Doyle says, even if they could enter Heaven to see Jesus they would not, until they have been cleansed.

Here is a description of St Faustina’s vision of Purgatory:

I saw my Guardian Angel, who ordered me to follow him. In a moment I was in a misty place full of fire in which there was a great crowd of suffering souls. They were praying fervently, but to no avail, for themselves; only we can come to their aid. The flames, which were burning them, did not touch me at all. My Guardian Angel did not leave me for an instant. I asked these souls what their greatest suffering was. They answered me in one voice that their greatest torment was longing for God. I saw Our Lady visiting the souls in Purgatory. The souls call Her “The Star of the Sea”. She brings them refreshment. I wanted to talk with them some more, but my Guardian Angel beckoned me to leave. We went out of that prison of suffering. [I heard an interior voice which said] ‘My mercy does not want this, but justice demands it. Since that time, I am in closer communion with the suffering souls.

We must pray for the holy souls in Purgatory. They cannot help themselves, but they can assist us. Remember – they know they will enter Heaven. They are good souls who have avoided damnation. They can and do help us. As St Catherine of Bologna said:

I received many and very great favours from the Saints, but still greater favours from the Holy Souls.

We can assist these souls by obtaining indulgences for them. We can do this on any day of the year, but especially during this first week of November when the Church urges us to consider our faithful departed friends and family.

Here is a guide for obtaining indulgences this week.

Remember – if we are to get to Heaven, it is probable that we too shall desire the prayers and indulgences of the living after we have died.

 

22 October 1915

My God, this morning I was in despair. After some days of relaxation owing partly to sickness, I resolved to begin my life of crucifixion once more, but found I could not. I seemed to have lost all strength and courage, and simply hated the thought of the life. Then I ran to You in the Tabernacle, threw myself before You and begged You to do all since I could do nothing. In a moment all was sweet and easy. What help and grace You gave me, making me see clearly that I must never again give up this life or omit to mark my book.

St John Paul II, Fr Doyle and penance

St John Paul II

When it was not some infirmity or other than caused him to experience pain, it was he himself who inflicted discomfort and mortification on his own body. Aside from the prescribed fasting, which he followed with great rigour, especially during Lent, when he reduced his nourishment to one complete meal per day, he also abstained from food before ordaining priests and bishops. And it was not infrequent for him to spend nights lying on the bare floor. His housekeeper in Cracow realised it, even though the archbishop crumpled his bedclothes to conceal it. But he did more. As a number of members of his closest entourage heard with their own ears, in Poland and the Vatican, Karol Wojytla flagellated himself. In his bedroom closet, among his cassocks, hanging from a hook was an unusual trouser belt that he used as a whip and always brought to Castel Gandolfo.

Today is the feast of St John Paul. The above testimony is from Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the Postulator for the cause of canonisation of St John Paul II. This is the pope who attracted so many young people. Yet he lived a rigorous life of penance. So rigorous, in fact, that others heard him flagellating himself. And he used an unusual trouser belt. It’s not clear why it was unusual. Was it because it was modified in some way to make it more painful? 

Fr Doyle’s life of penance is not be something we are called to imitate in its totality today, but it was entirely in conformity with the tradition of the Church, and is mirrored in the lives and teachings of the saints, including the joyful and phenomenally popular St John Paul II.

It would be bizarre for anybody to over-emphasise the role of physical penance in the life of St John Paul II, and to reduce his personality to one aspect of his spiritual life. So, too, those who think that Fr Doyle’s penance would turn people away from him do him a disservice, and foster an unbalanced image of a very human, very joyful and very self-sacrificing war hero. 

 

St Paul of the Cross, Fr Doyle, and penance

St Paul of the Cross

 

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.

Thoughts for October 16 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Margaret Mary Alacoque

Meditating on the Particular Judgement, God gave me great light. I realised that I should have to give an exact account of every action of my life and for every instant of time. To take only my seventeen years of religious life, what account could I give of the 6,000 hours of meditation, 7,000 Masses, 12,000 examinations of conscience, etc.? Then my time how have I spent every moment? I resolved not to let a day more pass without seriously trying to reform my life in the manner in which I perform my ordinary daily duties. For years I have been “going to begin,” and from time to time made some slight efforts at improvement. But now, dear Jesus, let this change be the work of Thy right hand.

To perform each action well I will try and do them: (a) with a pure intention often renewed, (b) earnestly, punctually exactly, (c) with great fervour.  How little I think of committing venial sin, and how soon I forget I have done so! Yet God hates nothing more than even the shadow of sin, nothing does more harm to my spiritual progress and hinders any real advance in holiness. My God, give me an intense hatred and dread and horror of the smallest sin. I want to please You and love You and serve You as I have never done before. Let me begin by stamping out all sin in my soul.

We could not take pleasure in living in the company of one whose body is one running, festering sore; neither can God draw us close to Himself, caress and love us, if our souls are covered with venial sin, more loathsome and horrible in His eyes than the most foul disease. To avoid mortal sin I must carefully guard against deliberate venial sin, so to avoid venial sin I must fly from the shadow of imperfection in my actions. How often in the past have I done things when I did not know if they were sins or only deliberate imperfections and how little I cared, my God!

COMMENT: Today we continue with our reflections from the notes Fr Doyle took during the Spiritual Exercises of 1907.

The particular judgement is the moment of judgement immediately after our death. Typically it is understood as a moment in which we must render an account of our lives. As Fr Doyle put it: “I realised that I should have to give an exact account of every action of my life and for every instant of time”. And indeed, not just our actions, but our thoughts as well…

The only response we can make to this is to reform our lives, and the ideal way in which to do this is to reform our performance of our daily duties as Fr Doyle suggests. Otherwise we run the risk that our reform will be merely imaginary and superficial in nature.

Today is also the feast of St Margaret Mary Alacoque. Fr Doyle was greatly devoted to her. She was chosen by the Lord to spread devotion to the Sacred Heart. As we consider the particular judgement today, let us learn from the life of St Margaret Mary the reality that Jesus loves us intensely, and let us learn to see the particular judgement through the lens of this love. But let us also remember the other aspect of St Margaret Mary’s life, and that is the need for us to make reparation to the Sacred Heart for our sins. The best way for us to do this is through continuous conversion and making the sacrifice of doing our duties well.

I would also ask readers for their prayers for the repose of the soul my father who died 11 years ago today.

Here is a homily on the life and spirit of St Margaret Mary Alacoque.

15 October 1914

Last night I rose at one a.m. and walked two miles barefooted in reparation for the sins of priests to the chapel of Murrough (Co. Clare), where I made the Holy Hour. God made me realise the merit of each step, and I understood better how much I gain by not reading the paper; each picture, each sentence sacrificed mean additional merit. I felt a greater longing for self-inflicted suffering and a determination to do more “little things”.

This is possibly the chapel Fr Doyle prayed in this night in 1914. It is the chapel that seems to be closest to the location he mentions.