I believe that Our Lord is asking for victims who are willing to suffer much in reparation for sins, especially those of priests. I know some who go so far in their generosity as to do heroic penance, feeling asked it…I know the result has been wonderful grace and burning desire to suffer and always to suffer for Jesus’ love.
Towards the end of the retreat a light came to me that, now that I have given Jesus all the sacrifices I possibly can in the matter of food, he is now going to ask retrenchment in the quantity. So far I have not felt that He asked this, but grace now seems to urge me to it. I dread what this means, but Jesus will give me strength to do what He wants.
The great light of this retreat, clear and persistent, has been that God has chosen me, in His great love and through compassion for my weakness and misery, to be a victim of reparation for the sins of priests especially; that hence my life must be different in the matter of penance, self-denial and prayer, from the lives of others not given this special grace – they may meritoriously do what I cannot; that unless I constantly live up to the life of a willing victim, I shall not please our Lord nor ever become saint – it is the price of my sanctification; that Jesus asks from me always and in every lawful thing, so that I can sum up my life ‘sacrifice always and in all things’”.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these lines 103 years ago today, on 1 December 1914, during his retreat that year. They sum up a key aspect of his life and spirit – that he clearly felt that he was chosen to live a life of extra penance. He clearly saw this as his special mission, and he recognised that it was not something for others to copy. That is why he was always very tough with himself and very gentle with others. As he says – “they may meritoriously do what I cannot”.
Did Fr Doyle have an inflated ego in thinking that he had a special mission to asceticism? I don’t think so. His penances were shared with his confessor who approved of them with few changes. His penances were also private – nobody else was to know about them apart from his confessor, and we would know nothing of them today were it not decided to disobey Fr Doyle’s wishes and publish some of his personal notes. In several places in his diaries Fr Doyle mentions that he felt energised and strengthened by his penance, but on the other hand he felt sick and fatigued when he took it easier on himself. Finally, one can clearly see that the heroism of Fr Doyle in the trenches cannot really be separated from his asceticism – it is hard to imagine that one who is self-complacent and lazy could have done what Fr Doyle did during his years as a chaplain. His penances prepared him for these rigours. One cannot have the heroic Fr Doyle unless one also has the ascetical Fr Doyle – they are part of the same package.
Today we also celebrate the feast of one of the great Jesuits, St Edmund Campion. I am not aware that Fr Doyle ever wrote about him, but it is certain that he admired him. St Edmund’s dramatic life surely appealed to Fr Doyle’s own personality.
St Edmund, like so many others, was martyred for being a Catholic at Tyburn. Here is what he had to say on this matter.
And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league – all the Jesuits in the world – cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted; so it must be restored.
Do not try to run till you can walk well. Draw up a list of certain little sacrifices which you feel God is asking from you and which you know you will be able to give Him without very much difficulty: better be cowardly than too generous. Then, come what may, be faithful to your list and shake it in the face of the tempter when he suggests that you should give it up.
COMMENT: As always, Fr Doyle presents a sane and balanced spirituality to us. Constancy leads to success in all areas of life, whether it be in acquiring a new skill, in studying for exams or in the spiritual life. It was by constant effort that Fr Doyle grew spiritually to become the hero of the trenches.
His advice is also very relevant as we prepare to commence Advent which begins in just a few days. Often we forget that Advent is a time of penance and preparation. Here in Ireland – and elsewhere I am sure – there is great hype in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and as soon as we reach the 26th or 27th of December (when Christmas is just starting) – it is forgotten about and the focus becomes the New Year. This is not the way we should live as Christians – Advent is a time of preparation to allow us to live the spirit of Christmas with greater joy and intimacy with the Lord. Perhaps it would be good to take Fr Doyle’s advice, and prepare a short list of small, specific sacrifices that we wish to make in preparation for Christmas?
“My yoke is sweet” (Matthew 11. 30). The service of God, the whole-hearted generous service of God, is full of a sweetness hidden from the world. Beneath the rough garb of the monk or the holy nun’s coarse garment there is hidden more real happiness, more true peace and contentment than poor wordlings have ever known or dreamt of. Sweet is the yoke, light the burden of the Lord.
COMMENT: Of course, it’s not just the monk and the nun who know the delight and happiness of serving the Lord – many laypeople who have given “whole-hearted generous service of God” know the sweetness that this entails.
The obligation, then, lies on believing Christians to show this joy to the world around them. The early Christians were known for their joy, even in the midst of persecutions. Do we really have any excuse not to be joyful? For too long religious belief has been stereotyped as something negative or austere, especially in Ireland. Yes, a certain austerity is an element of the spiritual life, but we are to practice a balanced austerity with ourselves, and loving gentleness with others. And always we are to carry peace and joy in our hearts and always communicate this peace and joy to others.
Fr Doyle wrote the following notes in his diary on this day in 1914:
I…gave up aspirations and all penances, and indulged myself in every way. The result was great misery and unhappiness with the feeling that Jesus was very much pained, though I did not seem to care. I felt powerless to rise out of this state. This morning He came back to me during my Mass with such love and grace that I could not resist Him, and took up my former life again. Great peace and happiness since.
In many ways these words are remarkable to read. For Fr Doyle, to indulge himself (and this probably merely meant eating butter or warming himself at a fire…) was to be sad. And it is surely consoling for us to read about how he struggled to rouse himself to virtue and to prayer, until God’s grace aided him in a powerful manner and he was again filled with “great peace and happiness”. There is surely much for us all to console ourselves with in this.
St Francis de Sales said that one catches more flies with a spoon of honey than with a hundred barrels of vinegar. Fr Doyle himself had this gentle spirit in his dealings with others, despite his own personal austerity. He demonstrated this gentleness when he met what was curiously called a “lady of the unfortunate class” plying her trade on the street. Instead of condemning her, he looked lovingly at her and encouraged her to go home and not offend Jesus. Years later, when she faced execution for her role in a murder, this same prostitute asked for Fr Doyle to be found and brought to the prison to help her. She didn’t know his name and she knew nothing about Catholicism. It was the gentle sweetness of Fr Doyle that won her over, and she died in a state of grace and happiness having received the sacraments at the hands of Fr Doyle.
Your desire for penance is an excellent sign…But have a fixed amount to be done each day and do not be doing it in fits and starts. Anything like what you call “frenzy” ought to be suspected and resisted.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle’s life of penance has been a stumbling block for some people. It is true that he lived a life of great personal penance. It is also true that he lived a life of great personal heroism. This shone out in the trenches, but evidence for his selflessness and courage can be seen in many other aspects of his life. Are his life of penance, and his life of heroism, related to each other? Almost certainly they are.
But Fr Doyle was also very balanced. He NEVER encouraged others to follow his own example of penance. He felt that he was given a special calling and special graces, and that such a life of penance was not appropriate for one who did not receive these graces. In today’s quote, based on a letter of spiritual direction which he wrote to someone seeking his advice, he was clear that penance is important. But he was also clear that penance should be balanced – in one place he writes that the smaller the penance is, the better. In Fr Doyle’s life such balance and small penances can be seen in his reluctance to warm himself at the fire, his refusal to complain about little aches and pains (a favoured sport of many Irish people!), his refusal to give in to the desire to sleep during the day and, most famously, his battle to eat dry bread and to give up butter and jam.
Fr Doyle was a great tactician of the spiritual life. Once again he gives us an excellent example for us to follow.
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.