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, just yesterday there was 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 111 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.
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 2018, 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? How many young women can be seen undergoing the self-imposed pain of wearing dangerously high heels to look taller, or who suffer the self-imposed pain of coldness as they wear scanty clothing in winter in order to attract attention? 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 felt the presence of Jesus very near to me while praying in the chapel at Ramsgrange. He seemed to want me to write down what He said: ‘I want you, my child, to abandon every gratification, generously, absolutely, for the love of Me. Each time you give in to yourself you suffer an enormous loss. Do not deceive yourself by thinking that certain relaxations are necessary or will help your work. My grace is sufficient for you. Give Me all at all times; never come down from the cross to which I have nailed you. Be generous, go on blindly, accepting all, denying yourself all. Trust in Me, I will sustain you, but only if you are really generous. Begin this moment and mortify every look, action, desire. No gratification, no relaxation, no yielding to self. Surrender yourself to Me as My victim and let Me make you a saint.’
COMMENT: Fr Doyle recorded this message 106 years ago today, on June 16, 1912.
Fr Doyle was something of a mystic; the later editions of O’Rahilly’s biography make this much clearer than the earlier editions do. Fr Doyle seems to have received several messages similar to this one around this particular period of his life. Perhaps these messages or inspirations continued right to the end of his life, we do not know.
What are we to make of such inspirations? Well, ultimately they matter little. While various kinds of inspirations and messages are not uncommon in the lives of saints and other holy people, they are neither necessary for sanctity nor are they are a guarantee that the person practiced heroic sanctity. In general, this website has tended to avoid discussion of the mystical graces that Fr Doyle seems to have received. There is a good reason for this – they are unnecessary for our own progress and, 100 years removed from the event, we cannot be sure whether they were truly divinely inspired. Indeed, we should avoid too much curiosity about such mystical phenomena in general, especially when they have not been approved by the Church. Even St Pio, surely one of the saints most closely associated with extraordinary mystical phenomena in recent centuries, used to become impatient with those who were too curious about such things, insisting that it is better to live by faith alone without seeking “proof” of the supernatural in this way.
Clearly the core of this message – that of denying oneself always and in everything – is not of immediate, universal application. This was a particular call that Fr Doyle felt within himself, and it seems to have been approved by his confessor. It is not the road that most people are expected to follow.
Nonetheless, there are three particular messages that we may take from today’s quote and apply to our own lives.
Firstly, the idea that every time we yield, we suffer a loss. Obviously this is true of mortal sin. We suffer an incalculable loss whenever we freely consent to such sin. We lose the life of grace in our soul, we lose all of the merit we have accumulated in our life to date and we would end up losing eternal life if we were to die without repenting. However, we also lose even by giving in to venial sin. We may not lose the state of grace, but we also lose out on acquiring extra graces as a result of our struggle against sin. The same also applies to our purely temporal affairs. Every time we yield to the desire to eat chocolate we lose in our battle to stick to a diet; every time we yield to the temptation to stay in bed longer we lose in our battle to be more effective in our working day. The principle has many applications which we can easily apply to our own lives.
Secondly, we see in today’s quote the importance of trusting in Jesus. According to Fr Doyle’s perception, Jesus indicated that His grace was sufficient for him. This echoes the famous prayer of St Teresa of Avila:
Let nothing disturb thee, let nothing dismay thee, all things pass.
God never changes, patience attains all that it strives for. He who has God finds he lacks nothing.
God alone suffices.
Finally, Fr Doyle felt that Jesus said to him: “Let Me make you a saint”. We have to make serious efforts ourselves through various acts of piety and asceticism, but ultimately these are never enough on their own and they always require the addition of grace. If we do what we are meant to do, we can be assured that Jesus will provide the grace that we need to reach the sanctity He has in mind for us.
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: The idea of self-inflicted pain is not popular in contemporary spirituality. Oddly enough though, it seems wildly popular in modern secular culture with its fad for physical fitness and punishing bodies in the gym in order to make them ever more attractive…
Physical mortification was the norm in Fr Doyle’s day – there was nothing unusual in it all. People were perhaps tougher then, without all of the modern comforts we have gotten used to. While Fr Doyle was quite severe on himself on occasion, he always urged caution on the part of others. However, despite his caution, he issues an interesting challenge today – do we really imitate the crucified Christ if we do not do penance ourselves, even in some small fashion? The self inflicted “pain” Fr Doyle speaks of need not be something very big or burdensome. Getting up a little earlier, going to bed on time, reducing time wasted on television, starting work on time, biting our tongue when we want to criticise someone… There are many ways that we can practice a measured asceticism that is discreet, balanced, humble and will improve both our spiritual and temporal lives, as well as the lives of those around us…
Today is the anniversary of the death of Venerable Matt Talbot – he died on this day in 1925. He was close to the Jesuits and attended the Jesuit Church in Gardiner Street almost every day for many years. Fr Doyle was based in Belvedere School (about 200m from this church) for about a year around 1909. It is probable that he lived in the community in Gardiner Street. It seems more than likely that Fr Doyle crossed paths with Matt Talbot at some stage. However, we have no record of such an event, so we can only speculate. Similarly, we have no record of Matt having read O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle. Yet, Matt – despite being an unschooled labourer – was a voracious reader of spiritual literature and especially of spiritual biographies. It would be most strange if he never read this wildly popular book about a heroic local Jesuit. We know that he used to give books away or lend them to others, so perhaps he had it and passed it on. We shall never know…
Matt Talbot is a great model for lay people today. An alcoholic at an early age, he had a profound and unexpected conversion, and he suddenly “took the pledge” and gave up alcohol forever at the age of 28. This was against all expectation, and shows us that nobody is beyond help or hope. His example is important for a culture in which many people are addicted to one thing or another. If it is not alcohol or drugs, it may be food or sex or work or even the internet and social media.
Matt is also a great model because he did his work well, and lived an ordinary life in the middle of the world. He was an ascetic and a mystic and an ordinary man who looked after others and defended the rights of workers and of the poor. He kept his feet on the ground.
Matt became a Third Order Franciscan, regularly attending several Masses each day. As is well known, Matt dropped dead on the street while on the way to Mass. It was this sudden death that allowed his penitential chains to be found on his body. There is a tendency now to downplay the ascetical significance of these chains, with the suggestion that they were simple, light and non-penitential chains that signified his consecration to Mary as her slave. But in the popular imagining, the chains were most definitely penitential in nature. I remember being told, as a schoolboy in the 1980s, that the chains were so tightly wound around Matt that they were embedded in his flesh. Again, whether or not this is completely accurate is beside the point – many people believed that the chains were indeed embedded in Matt’s flesh. Matt is held in very high esteem all around the world, but especially in Dublin. His harsh penances did not repel people – on the contrary his asceticism is fundamentally part of his charm for many. His chains are important relics and an important part of his story and spirituality. And there was a lot more to Matt’s asceticism than chains. He lived in strict poverty, giving away most of his money. He fasted very strictly, and rose at 2am each night to pray for several hours before commencing his work as a labourer. He slept on a plank of wood and had a wooden pillow. Matt is not alone in this – many of the most popular saints lived deeply penitential lives, and it has not diminished their popularity one bit.
Matt’s example also teaches us a profound lesson in avoiding sin. After his conversion, he was determined not to fall back into alcoholism. He prayed hard, but he also took action – he organised his life in such a way that he would not face temptations. He kept himself busy and away from pubs and he even made it something of a rule never to carry money with him in case he was tempted to buy a drink. There is a suggestion that Matt cut the pockets out of his trousers so he would not be able to carry money around with him. Do we avoid temptations with the same determination and single-mindedness that Matt had?
Matt’s heroic virtues have been formally recognised by the Church; now a miracle is required for his beatification. Ireland needs saints! We need beatifications and canonisations! Let us remember to pray through the intercession of Matt Talbot when we are in need of help.
Prayer for the beatification of Venerable Matt Talbot.
Lord, in your servant, Matt Talbot you have given us a wonderful example of triumph over addiction, of devotion to duty, and of lifelong reverence for the Most Holy Sacrament.
May his life of prayer and penance give us courage to take up our crosses and follow in the footsteps of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Father, if it be your will that your beloved servant should be glorified by your Church, make known by your heavenly favours the power he enjoys in your sight. We ask this through the same Jesus Christ Our Lord.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle touches on a key point in today’s quote. He shows his keen understanding of the human mind, and of his own weakness. When Fr Doyle says he could suffer for years for Jesus he wasn’t speaking literally or showing off. Rather he was speaking figuratively and showing how we can so easily imagine ourselves to be heroic when heroic things come our way while really being soft and weak in our daily activities. Many of us can probably identify with this. Perhaps some momentary fervour in prayer makes us imagine that if we lived during a time of persecution like the early Christians experienced or like those that Catholics in Ireland and England experienced in the 16th and 17th centuries that we would be heroic and brave. And yet, how reluctant we are to deal with the minor inconveniences of every day. How fearful we can be of declaring ourselves to be Catholic in “polite” society or professional circles. As Jesus tells us in Luke Chapter 16, he who is faithful in little things will be faithful in big things, but he who is unfaithful in little things will be unfaithful in big things. We fool ourselves when we imagine we will be heroes in dramatic circumstances when we cannot discipline ourselves in day to day things.
In many ways we are like Peter. He declared his loyalty to Christ at the Last Supper, and just a few hours later he denied ever knowing him. As the Imitation of Christ says:
How great is human frailty which is always prone to vice. Today you confess your sins, and tomorrow you again commit what you have confessed. Now you resolve to take care, and an hour after you act as if you had never made a resolution. We have reason therefore to humble ourselves and never to think much of ourselves since we are so frail and inconstant.
Perhaps the solution to our own weakness is not to fall into the same mistakes that Peter fell into preceding his denial – he slept instead of staying awake to watch and pray; he followed Jesus “at a distance”, and just prior to denying Jesus he was warming himself at a fire. Lack of prayer, staying some distance from Jesus, and lack of mortification all preceded Peter’s denial. Almost certainly they precede our own denials and failures also. And, if we do fall in some way, let us at least avoid the mistake of Judas, who despaired of God’s endless mercy.