I have just returned from a mission. Before going I made up my mind to give up for the week my mortifications at meals, partly through self-indulgence, partly to avoid singularity. I was very unhappy the whole time, Jesus reproaching me constantly for abandoning my life of crucifixion.
During His Passion our Lord was bound and dragged from place to place. I have hourly opportunities of imitating Him by going cheerfully to the duty of the moment: recreation when I want to be quiet, a walk when I would rather stay in my room, some unpleasant duty I did not expect, a call of charity which means great inconvenience for myself.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle’s insight shows us a straightforward way in which we can imitate Jesus in His passion. Pretty much all of us have some duties that attach to our state of life – as priests or as parents or as children or as employees. No matter how enthusiastic we may be about our life, there will be times when we find our duties onerous and would rather do something else. Being faithful to our duty, doing things we do not actually want to do, is a great (but difficult!) way of offering up some small penance and imitating Christ who was “bound and dragged from place to place”.
Fr Doyle exemplified this approach throughout his entire life, but one specific example comes to mind today. Here is how Alfred O’Rahilly describes it:
Fr Doyle was once saying goodbye to his brother at Cork railway station, promising himself a feast of the breviary and some hours of quiet prayer during the journey to Dublin, when to his horror he saw a lady acquaintance coming towards him. “Are you going to Dublin, Father?” Won’t you come into my carriage? My sister is with me and we can travel up together”. Fr Doyle murmured “Damn!” under his breath – which fortunately for our consolation was distinctly audible to his brother; but the next instant he was all smiles and amiability, he put his baggage into the indicated compartment, and talked and joked as if he was having the pleasantest experience of his life.
Perhaps some might consider this reaction of Fr Doyle to have been insincere. This is a mistaken interpretation. In this instance Fr Doyle shows us an excellent spirit of mortification and of charity. He could have made some excuse to get away from the woman; he could have sulked when he felt trapped by having to travel with her. But by embracing this particular inconvenience, by showing kindness to his unwanted travelling companion, he exercised great charity and self-control. In contrast, how many of us are guilty of hiding to avoid someone we find inconvenient or distasteful? Perhaps we could have helped them in their problems, but we preferred our own convenience…
As St Josemaria Escriva said:
That joke, that witty remark held on the tip of your tongue; the cheerful smile for those who annoy you; that silence when you’re unjustly accused; your friendly conversation with people whom you find boring and tactless; the daily effort to overlook one irritating detail or another in the persons who live with you… this, with perseverance, is indeed solid interior mortification.
Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.’
In some cultures on Good Friday individuals have themselves nailed to a cross or walk through the streets flagellating themselves. Such public displays are not the normal path by which we are generally called.
By submitting ourselves to daily inconveniences, and by fulfilling the duty of the moment when we would rather do something else, we can imitate Jesus and acquire the virtue of patience. Best of all, by doing this we can be of help to others without drawing any attention to ourselves.
I know I can never be happy unless I am heroically generous with Him. This I have proved time after time. A sacrifice which costs much always brings great grace, joy and interior peace.
If I have resolved to nail myself to the cross, let me bear ever in mind that our Lord is on the other side of it. When I am tempted to come down, let me stir up my courage by recalling this scene of Calvary and resolve after the example of my Lord and Master to remain fastened to it unto death. I must beware of listening, or above all of yielding, to the universal chorus of voices which will cry out to me to come down. ” Come down or you will ruin your health.” ” Come down and be like the rest of us.” ” Come down or you will render yourself unfit for your work.” ” Come down and walk in the beaten track.” ” Come down, what you are doing is an innovation and cannot be tolerated.” Alas! human respect only too often does make us relax, and down we come. Or we say to our Lord, ” The agony is too long or too distressing, I must have some relief; only just take out one of the nails, Lord, and give me a little respite.” It is the spirit of the times to relax only a little bit, but nevertheless to relax. Ah no! I will imitate our Lord, I will live on the cross and with Him I will die on the cross.
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.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote this note in his diary in December 1914. He was 41 years of age and had less than 3 years to live. Of course, Fr Doyle fasted, like all religious of the time, but significant extra fasting above the norm does not seem to have been one of Fr Doyle’s primary penances until after this date. For instance, during the war years he does mention fasting from food entirely, although perhaps some of this was a glad acceptance of his circumstances rather than a deliberate renunciation. On the other hand, he often practiced penance relating to the type of food consumed, for instance sugarless tea, meat without salt, dry bread without butter. For those of us who struggle with even little penances, it is surely consoling to read the following admissions from Fr Doyle:
One thing I feel Jesus asks, which I have not the courage to give Him — the promise to give up butter entirely.
The thought of a breakfast of dry bread and tea without sugar in future seemed intolerable.
In contrast, his contemporary Venerable Fr John Sullivan SJ was well known for his tendency to fast, typically only ever eating a small portion of rice for dinner. There is a wonderful diversity of ways in which we can follow God!
Fasting and abstinence are normal parts of the Christian life. It is important to remember that fasting and abstinence are two different, albeit related, things. The only days in which we are strictly required to fast are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The most obvious form of mortification relating to food is to abstain from meat on Fridays. But there are many other things we can do which in no way would affect our health or wellbeing but would still fortify our spirit. Perhaps we can follow Fr Doyle’s example of giving up sugar in our tea or jam or butter on our bread or go without salt on our meals? Each individual can discern for themselves what the most appropriate penance would be for their own circumstance in life.
In this context let us consider these wise words from St Francis de Sales:
If the work that you are doing is necessary to you or very useful for God’s glory, I prefer you to suffer the burden of work than that of fasting. This is the view of the Church which dispenses even from the prescribed fasting those who are doing work useful for the service of God and the neighbour.
The tradition of Catholic spirituality allows great freedom and discretion in these matters. The important thing, especially during Lent, is not to abuse this freedom by copping out of penance altogether!
This morning during meditation I again felt that mysterious appeal from our Blessed Lord for a life of absolute, complete sacrifice of every comfort. I see and feel now, without a shadow of a doubt, as certainly if Jesus Himself appeared and spoke to me, that He wants me to give up now and for ever all self-indulgence, to look on myself as not being free in the matter. That being so how can I continue my present manner of life, of a certain amount of generosity, fervent one day and then the next day giving in to self in everything?
When a little unwell, or when I have a slight headache, I lie down, give up work, indulge myself in the refectory. I see that I lose immensdy by this, for that is the time of great merit, and Jesus sends me that pain to bear for Him.
During the winter I have done a penance which I shrink from and dread in a way which I cannot describe. I have had to drive myself by vow to perform it. I set my alarm for three o’clock when it is freezing, slip out of the house in my night-shirt and stand up to my neck in the pond, praying for sinners.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle lived a life of hard penance. While penance and self-denial are essential for spiritual growth, it is clear that most of us are not called to copy this aspect of his life. Fr Doyle clearly felt that he had a very specific call to live this hard life. His confessor seems to have also agreed with this, and to have suggested various small modifications to his penances which he gladly implemented.
Fr Doyle’s penances are controversial for some people. It is worth noting that most of the most popular and beloved saints also practiced lives of great austerity. In fact, St Ignatius himself practiced this very same penance of praying whilst standing in a cold lake. These penances have not reduced the popularity of either Ignatius or of the other saints who did similar mortifications. It is also worth bearing in mind that physical mortification was very much the norm during Fr Doyle’s time, and that whatever Fr Doyle did has to be seen in that context.
The example of Fr Doyle’s penance in the lake came to mind when reading an account of the Forth Martyrs of Sebaste in Armenia, whose feast it is today. Here is a description of their martyrdom from Butler’s Lives of the Saints, itself an important source of inspiration for Fr Doyle as a young man:
The forty martyrs were soldiers quartered at Sebaste in Armenia, about the year 320. When their legion was ordered to offer sacrifice they separated themselves from the rest and formed a company of martyrs. After they had been torn by scourges and iron hooks they were chained together and led to a lingering death.
It was a cruel winter, and they were condemned to lie naked on the icy surface of a pond in the open air till they were frozen to death. But they ran undismayed to the place of their combat, joyfully stripped off their garments, and with one voice besought God to keep their ranks unbroken. “Forty,” they cried, “we have come to combat: grant that forty may be crowned.” There were warm baths hard by, ready for any one amongst them who would deny Christ.
The soldiers who watched saw angels descending with thirty-nine crowns, and, while he wondered at the deficiency in the number, one of the confessors lost heart, renounced his faith, and, crawling to the fire, died body and soul at the spot where he expected relief. But the soldier was inspired to confess Christ and take his place, and again the number of forty was complete.
They remained steadfast while their limbs grew stiff and frozen, and died one by one. Among the Forty there was a young soldier who held nut longest against the cold, and when the officers came to cart away the dead bodies they found him still breathing. They were moved with pity, and wanted to leave him alive in the hope that he would still change his mind. But his mother stood by, and ‘this valiant woman could not bear to see her son separated from the band of martyrs. She exhorted him to persevere, and lifted his frozen body into the cart. He was just able to make a sign of recognition, and was borne away, to be thrown into the flames with the dead bodies of his brethren.
It is perhaps significant that these 40 martyrs were soldiers. Undoubtedly they received many graces to help them withstand these austerities for so long. But it is also likely that their physical training as soldiers toughened them up as well.
So too, then, with Fr Doyle. If we admire the hero of the trenches with his radiant cheerfulness and disregard of his own comfort in the service of others, we must also respect the spiritual and physical training he undertook in his earlier life. His penances were – unknown to him at the time – the training ground for the heroism of the war years. It seems impossible that we can have one without the other.
And this brings us back to ourselves, and our Lenten observance. If we wish to grow and overcome our weaknesses and vices, then we must train ourselves, and we do this by means of our Lenten resolutions and self-denial, moderated in a way suitable to our strength and capability. There can be a temptation to consider this idea of spiritual growth as quaint or old fashioned, as if we had somehow outgrown this. But who amongst us doesn’t need to improve? Don’t we want to be better parents and spouses? Wouldn’t our families or communities be more peaceful places if we all worked to perfect ourselves and overcome our faults? Wouldn’t our world be a better place if individuals had more self-control and patience and dedication to duty? Perhaps this idea of growing in virtue is not so out of date after all…