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.
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.
Feeling very unwell for the past few days, I gave way to self indulgence in food and sleep. Jesus has made it very clear to me that this has not pleased Him: “I have sent you this suffering that you may suffer more, not that you should try to avoid it”. He made me put on the chain again and promise Him, as long as I can hold out, not to take extra sleep etc. Great peace and contentment is the result.
COMMENT: This diary entry, written on this day in 1915, might seem a little strange. The first thing to remember is that Fr Doyle was something of a mystic, and he understood himself to be in a constant dialogue with the Lord. He had a sense that God often spoke to him in his soul; his diaries record several locutions wherein he perceived God to be speaking directly to him. Such experiences are not rare in the lives of the saints.
We find the idea of welcoming suffering to be strange today, and in particular the idea that God may want us, in some circumstances, to suffer. But saints and mystics frequently wrote about their calling as “victims” of reparation for sin. As St Paul says, we make up in out lives what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. In other words, by our suffering we join ourselves to the Passion of Christ and obtain many graces for others. To take just one example, St Faustina records in her diary how spiritually valuable suffering can be, and says that we will only realise its value when we die, at which point it will be too late and we will no longer be able to obtain merit for our sufferings.
Perhaps one lesson the rest of us can draw from Fr Doyle’s quote today is that when sufferings come – and it’s inevitable that they will come to us sometimes, if not in fact everyday – we should offer them to the Lord, and see to gain spiritually from the experience. We can can legitimately seek to reduce our sufferings, especially during illnesses etc, it is often those who accept them who have the peace and contentment that Fr Doyle speaks of today.
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.
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”.
Today is the feast of St John XXIII. Just as many Generation X Catholic have an affection for St John Paul II as he was the pope of their formative years, so too there are many of an older generation who have a strong affection for Pope John.
At first glance there does not seem to be much in common between Fr Doyle and St John XXIII. But a closer examination shows many similarities. This is not surprising – Fr Doyle and St John were close in age – Fr Doyle was born in 1873 and St John in 1881. Both were nourished on the same piety and devotional practices typical of that era. Fr Doyle, as a Jesuit, was obviously a son of St Ignatius. But St John himself did the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises himself on a number of occasions.
We know much about the spiritual life from the diaries of both men. St John’s spiritual diaries have been published under the title Journal of a Soul. It is an extraordinary book, revealing the saint’s struggle to overcome his defects and his growth in holiness. When one studies the book, comparing them to Fr Doyle’s diaries, the similarities between the two men become very clear.
One of St John XXIII’s encyclicals was entitled Paenitentiam Agere – On the need for the practice of interior and exterior penance. We find in this encyclical a call for all the faithful to offer up penances for the Church. We also find this interesting paragraph:
It is right, too, to seek example and inspiration from the great saints of the Church. Pure as they were, they inflicted such mortifications upon themselves as to leave us almost aghast with admiration. And as we contemplate their saintly heroism, shall not we be moved by God’s grace to impose on ourselves some voluntary sufferings and deprivations, we whose consciences are perhaps weighed down by so heavy a burden of guilt?
St John XXIII speaks of inspiration, admiration and saintly heroism when considering the harsh penances of the saints…
The entire document is well worth reading:
Fr Doyle’s life of penance may not be something we are called to imitate in its totality. Indeed, on this day in 1914, Fr Doyle wrote one of his characteristic diary entries:
Jesus told me at Exposition, and I do not think I have mistaken His voice, that the way in which I must sanctify myself myself is by suffering, corporal penance, and denial in all things.
Clearly, in the absence of a special and very rare calling, we are not expected to copy Fr Doyle by denying ourselves in all things. But it is important to remember that Fr Doyle’s penitential spirit was entirely in conformity with the tradition of the Church, and is mirrored in the lives and teachings of the saints, including the ever popular St John XXIII.
It would be bizarre for anybody to over-emphasise the role of physical penance in the life of St John XXIII and to reduce his personality to this one aspect of his spiritual life. So, too, those who allow Fr Doyle’s penance to dampen their devotion to him do him a disservice, and foster an unbalanced image of a very human and very self-sacrificing war hero.
Kneeling at the grave of the Little Flower I gave myself into her hands to guide and to make me a saint. I promised her to make it the rule of my whole life, every day without exception, to seek in all things my greater mortification, to give all and to refuse nothing. I have made this resolution with great confidence because I realise how utterly it is beyond my strength; but I feel the Little Flower will get me grace to keep it perfectly.
COMMENT: As can be seen from this quote, Fr Doyle had a great devotion to St Therese, whose feast we celebrate today. This devotion may have been heightened by the fact that they were born in the same year, 1873. It can come as a shock to see others younger than us who, already having died, are plainly seen to have lived lives of great holiness. It is a reminder to us that holiness is not the preserve of the old or something that we should set our minds to some day in the future. It is the task we are to achieve today, now!
Modern piety has tended to greatly distort the image of St Therese, presenting her in a rather sentimental manner. Perhaps her own nickname, as the Little Flower, is partly to blame. The reality is that St Therese was a tough spiritual warrior who faced many problems and sufferings, including a dreadful spiritual blackness. Her Little Way is anything but simple or “little” – her way of abandonment and trust and simplicity and acceptance of daily crosses is open to all, but it takes much effort and holiness to persevere in this, even for one day!
There are many similarities between Therese and Fr Doyle, especially when it comes to embracing our daily duties, the life of spiritual childhood and the spirit of mortification.
Consider, for example, the following quotes from Therese:
Above all I endeavoured to practise little hidden acts of virtue; thus I took pleasure in folding the mantles forgotten by the Sisters, and I sought for every possible occasion of helping them. One of God’s gifts was a great attraction towards penance, but I was not permitted to satisfy it; the only mortification allowed me consisted in mortifying my self-love, and this did me far more good than bodily penance would have done.
When someone knocks at our door, or when we are rung for, we must practise mortification and refrain from doing even another stitch before answering. I have practised this myself, and I assure you that it is a source of peace.
And here are some comments from one of her sisters in Carmel on St Therese’s spirit of penance:
Thus in many pretty ways she hid her mortifications. One fast-day, however, when our Reverend Mother ordered her some special food, I found her seasoning it with wormwood because it was too much to her taste. On another occasion I saw her drinking very slowly a most unpleasant medicine. “Make haste,” I said, “drink it off at once!” “Oh, no!” she answered; “must I not profit of these small opportunities for penance since the greater ones are forbidden me?”
Toward the end of her life I learned that, during her noviciate, one of our Sisters, when fastening the scapular for her, ran the large pin through her shoulder, and for hours she bore the pain with joy. On another occasion she gave me proof of her interior mortification. I had received a most interesting letter which was read aloud at recreation, during her absence. In the evening she expressed the wish to read it, and I gave it to her. Later on, when she returned it, I begged her to tell me what she thought of one of the points of the letter which I knew ought to have charmed her. She seemed rather confused, and after a pause she answered: “God asked of me the sacrifice of this letter because of the eagerness I displayed the other day . . . so I have not read it.”
This spirit of simple daily penance is reflected in the life of Fr Doyle. Here is a quote from him on embracing our daily duties, followed by some commentary from O’Rahilly’s biography:
“What is it to be a saint? Does it mean that we must macerate this flesh of ours with cruel austerities, such as we read of in the life-story of some of God s great heroes? Does it mean the bloody scourge, the painful vigil and sleepless night, that crucifying of the flesh in even its most innocent enjoyment? No, no, the hand of God does not lead us all by that stern path of awful heroism to our reward above. He does not ask from all of us the holy thirst for suffering, in its highest form, of a Teresa or a Catherine of Siena. But sweetly and gently would He lead us along the way of holiness by our constant unswerving faithfulness to our duty, duty accepted, duty done for His dear sake. How many alas! who might be saints are now leading lives of indifferent virtue, because they have deluded themselves with the thought that they have no strength to bear the holy follies of the saints. How many a fair flower of innocence, which God had destined to bloom in dazzling holiness, has faded and withered beneath the chill blast of a fear of suffering never asked from it.” (April, 1905.)
Words such as these, coming from the pen of one who was not unfamiliar with scourge and vigil and fast, are helpful and consoling. Not that they picture the path of holiness as other than the royal road of the cross. Fr. Doyle wished rather to remove the mirage of an unreal and impossible cross from the way of those of us whose true holiness is to be found in meeting the daily and hourly little crosses, humanly inglorious perhaps, but divinely destined for our sanctification. In the lives of canonised saints, and of him whose life we are recording, there are doubtless holy follies and grace-inspired imprudences. But these are not the essence of sanctity; they are its bloom, whereas its stem is self-conquest. Without these there can be great holiness – no terrifying penances marked the life of St. John Berchmans or of that winsome fragile nun who is known as the Little Flower. But without the slow secret mortification of doing ordinary and mostly trivial duties well, there can be no spiritual advance. Heroism is not a sudden romantic achievement; it is the fruit of years of humdrum faithfulness.
Today is also the anniversary of the death of Venerable Tomás Morales SJ who, as well as being a Jesuit, had a great affection for the Carmelites and for St Therese. Here is a quote from his writings which is relevant for our considerations today.
Fight always, even though you don’t feel like it, even though your mood may be different. Remember what St Therese said: “Where would our merit be if we only fought when we felt like it”.
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.
Reasons why our Communions and Masses do not make us Saints.
1. Want of preparation, through sloth, carelessness, or absorption in other things; no thought of the greatness and immense dignity of the act, no stirring up of fervour.
2. No pains to examine our conscience carefully, to destroy affection to venial sin, and to root out faults often unrecognized for years. A soul filled with venial sin has no hunger for Christ. “Let a man prove himself and so let him eat this Bread” says St. Paul.
3. Routine. “Many there are who sleep,” forgetting that one good Communion could make them saints.
COMMENT: How many Holy Communions have we received in our lives? For many people who read this blog the figure is in the thousands; for some who are older and who attend Mass every day, the figure may be well over 10,000.
Does our life reflect the reality that we have received the Eucharist hundreds or thousands of times?
Many of the soldiers in the trenches received Holy Communion with great reverence, fearing it would be their last opportunity to receive. Perhaps there is a lesson here.
In fact, this is exactly what today’s saint, Teresa Margaret Redi, a Carmelite nun who died in 1770, did in her last days. She died at the young age of 22. She had been in perfect health, but two days before her death she received the Eucharist with the same dispositions as if it were her last time. From a website dedicated to her:
On March 4th she asked Father Ildefonse to allow her to make a general confession, as though it were to be the last of her life, and to receive Communion the following morning in the same dispositions. Whether or not she had any presentiment that this was indeed to be her Viaticum one cannot know; but in fact it was. She was only twenty-two years old and in excellent health, yet it appears she was making preparations for her death.
On the evening of March 6th Teresa Margaret arrived late to dinner from her work in the infirmary. She ate the light Lenten meal alone. As she was returning to her room, she collapsed from violent abdominal spasms. She was put to bed and the doctor was called. He diagnosed a bout of colic, painful but not serious. Teresa Margaret did not sleep at all during the night, and she tried to lie still so as not to disturb those in the adjoining cells. The following morning she seemed to have taken a slight turn for the better.
But when the doctor returned he recognized that her internal organs were paralyzed and ordered a surgeon for a bleeding. Her foot was cut and a bit of congealed blood oozed out. The doctor was alarmed and recommended that she should receive the Last Sacraments right away. The infirmarian however, felt that this was not necessary, and was reluctant to send for a priest because of the patient’s continued vomiting. In addition, Sister Teresa Margaret’s pain appeared to have lessened. The priest was not called.
Teresa Margaret offered no comment, nor did she ask for the Last Sacraments. She seemed to have had a premonition of this when making her last Communion “as Viaticum”. She held her crucifix in her hands, from time to time pressing her lips to the five wounds, and invoking the names of Jesus and Mary, otherwise she continued to pray and suffer, as always, in silence.
By 3 p.m. her strength was almost exhausted, and her face had assumed an alarmingly livid hue. Finally a priest was called. He had time only to anoint her before she took her flight to God. She remained silent and uncomplaining to the end, with her crucifix pressed to her lips and her head slightly turned towards the Blessed Sacrament. The community was stunned. Less than twenty-four hours earlier she had been full of life and smiling serenely as she went about her usual duties.
One final quote from St Teresa Margaret Redi, very much in the line of Fr Doyle:
Since nature resists good, even though the spirit may be willing, I resolve to enter upon a continual warfare against self. The arms with which I shall do battle are prayer, the presence of God, silence; yet I am aware how little I am able to use these weapons. Nevertheless I shall arm myself with complete confidence in you, patience, humility and conformity with your divine will … but who shall help me to fight a continual battle against enemies such as those which make war on me? You, my God, have declared yourself my captain; you have raised the standard of the Cross, saying: ‘Take up the cross and follow in my footsteps.’ To correspond with this invitation, I promise to resist your love no longer; rather, I will follow you to Calvary without hesitation.
“I will follow you to Calvary without hesitation”…This thought is very close to the spirit of Fr Doyle and indeed of all the saints. On the other hand, our modern world, with all of its technology, seems designed to help us avoid as many discomforts and difficulties as possible. But the saints recognised the benefits that could come from hardships, unpleasant and all as they are.
We conclude today with 2 separate quotes from Fr Doyle’s diary from this day in 1911, in which he writes about his resolution to make a Holy Hour at night, and the difficulties he experienced in doing this, as well as mortification in the matter of food.
Last night while making the Holy Hour in my room, Jesus seemed to ask me to promise to make it every Thursday, even when away giving retreats, and when I cannot go to the chapel. He wants the greater part of the time to be spent prostrate on the ground, which I find very painful. I think He wants me to share in His agony during this hour, feeling a little of the sadness, desolation, and abandonment He experienced, the shame of sin, the uselessness of His sufferings to save souls. I begged Him to plunge my soul into the sea of bitterness which surrounded Him. It was an hour of pain, but I hope for more.
I feel a growing thirst for self-denial; it is a pleasure not to taste the delicacies provided for me. I wish I could give up the use of meat entirely. I long even ti live ion bread and water. My jesus, what marvellous graces You are giving me, who always have been so fond of eating and used to feel a small act of denial of my appetite a torture.