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 nit 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.
Today we start Fr Doyle’s reflections on the second week of the Spiritual Exercises. This part of the Exercises begins with a reflection on the call of Christ the King. Here is the text from St Ignatius:
First Point. The first Point is, to put before me a human king chosen by God our Lord, whom all Christian princes and men reverence and obey.
Second Point. The second, to look how this king speaks to all his people, saying: “It is my Will to conquer all the land of unbelievers. Therefore, whoever would like to come with me is to be content to eat as I, and also to drink and dress, etc., as I: likewise he is to labour like me in the day and watch in the night, etc., that so afterwards he may have part with me in the victory, as he has had it in the labours.”
Third Point. The third, to consider what the good subjects ought to answer to a King so liberal and so kind, and hence, if any one did not accept the appeal of such a king, how deserving he would be of being censured by all the world, and held for a mean-spirited knight.
IN PART 2
The second part of this Exercise consists in applying the above parable of the temporal King to Christ our Lord, conformably to the three Points mentioned.
First Point. And as to the first Point, if we consider such a call of the temporal King to his subjects, how much more worthy of consideration is it to see Christ our Lord, King eternal, and before Him all the entire world, which and each one in particular He calls, and says: “It is My will to conquer all the world and all enemies and so to enter into the glory of My Father; therefore, whoever would like to come with Me is to labour with Me, that following Me in the pain, he may also follow Me in the glory.”
Second Point. The second, to consider that all those who have judgment and reason will offer their entire selves to the labour.
Third Point. The third, those who will want to be more devoted and signalise themselves in all service of their King Eternal and universal Lord, not only will offer their persons to the labour, but even, acting against their own sensuality and against their carnal and worldly love, will make offerings of greater value and greater importance, saying:
“Eternal Lord of all things, I make my oblation with Thy favour and help, in presence of Thy infinite Goodness and in presence of Thy glorious Mother and of all the Saints of the heavenly Court; that I want and desire, and it is my deliberate determination, if only it be Thy greater service and praise, to imitate Thee in bearing all injuries and all abuse and all poverty of spirit, and actual poverty, too, if Thy most Holy Majesty wants to choose and receive me to such life and state.”
There is much of value here on which we may reflect. Here are Fr Doyle’s notes on this part of the retreat:
I seemed at prayer to hear Jesus asking me if I were willing to do all He would ask of me. I feel much less fear than in the first week, of what this may be, and greater courage and desire even for sacrifices.
This thought came to me: I am not to take the lives of others in the house as the standard of my own, what may be lawful for them is not for me; their life is most pleasing to God, such a life for me would not be so; God wants something higher, nobler, more generous from me, and for this will offer me special graces.
Meditating on the Kingdom of Christ, the thought suddenly came to me to make this offering : O eternal Lord . . . provided it be for Thy greater service and praise . . . and if Thy most Holy Majesty be pleased to choose and receive me for such a life and state, I offer myself to Thee for the Congo Mission. Thy will be done. Amen.
I feel that I could go through fire and water to serve such a man as Napoleon, that no sacrifice he could ask would be too hard. What would the army think of me if Napoleon said, “I want you to do so and so,” and I replied, “But, your Majesty, I am very sensitive to cold, I want to have a sleep in the afternoon, to rest when I am tired, and I really could not do without plenty of good things to eat!” Would I not deserve to have my uniform torn from me and be driven from the army, not even allowed to serve in the ranks? How do I serve Jesus my King? What kind of service? generous or making conditions? in easy things but not in hard ones? What have I done for Jesus? What am I doing for Jesus? What shall I do for Jesus?
COMMENT: The meditation on the Kingdom of Christ, and the meditation on the Two Standards which we will consider in a few days, has inspired many saints over the last four and a half centuries. It inspired Fr Doyle to offer himself for the Congo Mission, and, ultimately, to service in the blood soaked trenches of World War 1.
Christ wants to conquer the world and conquer His enemies, and He does so by saving souls and embracing them in His eternal love. This conquering of enemies is not something violent or aggressive, but is instead based on a campaign of love and service for others. Are we willing to play our part in this campaign? Or do we prefer an easy life; do we want “sleep in the afternoon and plenty of good things to eat?”
On October 19 we are fortunate to celebrate many saints who worked to win the world for Christ.
In the first instance, we have Fr Doyle’s spiritual confreres, the Jesuit martyrs of North America. Their story can easily be found online. It is a story of courage and heroism which is almost without equal. Ultimately it was the call of Christ, and the inspiration of the Spiritual Exercises, that drove these refined Frenchmen to travel to Canada and face cold, hunger, rancid food, hatred, violence, complete deprivation and loneliness and even cannibalism to bring the Gospel to the native tribes of North America. As heroic as that sounds, it pales into insignificance when one considers St Isaac Joques who, having escaped to France from the Mohawk Indians, minus some fingers which had been chewed off, promptly returned to the very same tribe, knowing that he faced almost certain death.
Today is also the feast of St Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists, whose penances rivalled, and exceeded, those of Fr Doyle. I intend to write a special post on this later today.
And if that wasn’t enough, it is also the feast of St Peter of Alcantara, one of the friends and advisors of St Teresa of Avila. How often sanctity is fostered in friendships! Teresa was not only advised by St Peter (who appeared to her after death), but by St John of the Cross and St Francis Borgia and was nursed on her deathbed by Blessed Anne of St Bartholomew, as well as being surrounded by many unknown, and unrecognised, saints in her convents. The examples of these holy friendships could be multiplied over and over in the lives of the saints. Fr Doyle himself was friendly with the Servant of God Fr John Sullivan SJ and was ordained at the same ceremony on 28 July 1907, and for a time was directed by Venerable Adolphe Petit.
St Peter of Alcantara was a remarkable Franciscan reformer. Here is St Teresa’s description of him from the book of her life:
And what a grand picture of it has God just taken from us in the blessed Fray Peter of Alcantara! The world is not yet in a fit state to bear such perfection. It is said that people’s health is feebler nowadays and that times are not what they were. But it was in these present times that this holy man lived; and yet his spirit was as robust as any in the days of old, so that he was able to keep the world beneath his feet. And, although everyone does not go about unshod or perform such severe penances as he did, there are many ways, as I have said on other occasions, of trampling on the world and these ways the Lord teaches to those in whom He sees courage. And what great courage His Majesty gave to this holy man to perform those severe penances, which are common knowledge, for forty-seven years! I will say something about this, for I know it is all true.
He told this to me, and to another person from whom he concealed little — the reason he told me was his love for me, for the Lord was pleased to give him this love so that he might stand up for me and encourage me at a time of great need, of which I have spoken and shall speak further. I think it was for forty years that he told me he had slept only for an hour and a half between each night and the next day, and that, when he began, the hardest part of his penance had been the conquering of sleep, for which reason he was always either on his knees or on his feet. What sleep he had he took sitting down, with his head resting against a piece of wood that he had fixed to the wall. Sleep lying down he could not, even if he had so wished, for his cell, as is well known, was only four and a half feet long. During all these years, how ever hot the sun or heavy the rain, he never wore his hood, or anything on his feet, and his only dress was a habit of sackcloth, with nothing between it and his flesh, and this he wore as tightly as he could bear, with a mantle of the same material above it. He told me that, when it was very cold, he would take off the mantle, and leave the door and window of his cell open, so that, when he put it on again and shut the door, he could derive some physical satisfaction from the increased protection. It was a very common thing for him to take food only once in three days. He asked me why I was so surprised at this and said that, when one got used to it, it was quite possible. A companion of his told me that sometimes he would go for a week without food. That must have been when he was engaged in prayer, for he used to have great raptures and violent impulses of love for God, of which I was myself once a witness.
His poverty was extreme, and so, even when he was quite young, was his mortification: he told me that he once spent three years in a house of his Order and could not have recognized a single friar there, except by his voice, for he never raised his eyes, and so, when he had to go to any part of the house, could only do so by following the other friars. It was the same thing out of doors. At women he never looked at all and this was his practice for many years. He told me that it was all the same to him now whether he saw anything or not; but he was very old when I made his acquaintance and so extremely weak that he seemed to be made of nothing butroots of trees. But with all this holiness he was very affable, though, except when answering questions, a man of few words. When he did speak it was a delight to listen to him, for he was extremely intelligent. There are many other things which I should like to say about him but I am afraid Your Reverence will ask why I am starting on this subject — indeed, I have been afraid of that even while writing. So I will stop here, adding that he died as he had lived, preaching to, and admonishing, his brethren. When he saw that his life was drawing to a close, he repeated the psalm “Laetatus sum in hic quae dicta sunt mihi”, and knelt down and died.
The life and spirit of St Peter, as well as that of St Paul of the Cross and the North American Martyrs, in many respects reflects the radical detachment, self-emptying and militant love of Christ which was so evident in the life of Fr Doyle. There is nothing in the life of Fr Doyle which is not also found in the life of the canonised saints. Their example humbles us as we enjoy our 21stCentury complacency. As St Ignatius asked:
What have I done for Jesus? What am I doing for Jesus? What shall I do for Jesus?
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 10 years ago today.
Here is a homily on the life and spirit of St Margaret Mary Alacoque.
The life of St. Teresa teaches us that we should never despair of becoming saints. As a child she was filled with a strange mysterious longing for martyrdom. But the early years of her religious life found her cold or tepid in the service of God, indifferent to the sacred duties of her state. The call came. Sweetly in her ear sounded that little voice which too often in other souls has been hushed and stifled. Teresa rose. The past was gone and no lamenting could recall its ill-spent days, but the present was hers, and the future lay before her. Ungenerous in the past, generosity would be her darling virtue; cold and careless, no one would now equal her burning love for her patient outraged Saviour.
COMMENT: We do not have notes from Fr Doyle’s 1907 retreat for today, which is really quite handy as it allows us to give some time to St Teresa of Avila, whose feast it is today, although it is not celebrated liturgically as it is a Sunday.
What a great feast this is! St Teresa is, without any doubt, one of the greatest female saints of all time. In fact, she is one of the greatest saints of all irrespective of gender, and is one of that elite group of Doctors of the Church.
Her personality was remarkable and communicates itself so readily through her writings. She had a wonderful biting wit and holy impatience that really got to the bottom of things, and sometimes it is hard not to laugh out loud when reading the psychologically astute observations in her writings.
Few saints have shown more courage, fortitude and leadership than she did.
Many saints had a great devotion to Teresa and Fr Doyle was no different. He regularly gave retreats to Carmelite convents, and he referred to her several times throughout his letters, and even fasted at meals on one occasions in her honour. Here is his record of this experience:
I felt urged in honour of St. Teresa to give myself absolutely no comfort at meals which I could possibly avoid. I found no difficulty in doing this for the nine days. I have begged very earnestly for the grace to continue this all my life and am determined to try to do so. For example, to take no butter, no sugar in coffee, no salt, etc. The wonderful mortified lives of these holy nuns have made me ashamed of my gratification of my appetite.
Anyone with an interest in St Teresa is advised to acquire the superb 7.5 hour long miniseries of her life produced in the 1980’s in Spain. Often films about saints fail to capture the spirit of the saint or are overly pious and sentimental; this one achieves the task admirably.
Today is the feast of St John XXIII. Just as many young Catholic have a great devotion to St John Paul as he was the pope of their formative years, so too there are many of an older generation who have a strong affection for Good 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 success of the Second Vatican Council. 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…
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 loom too large in their memory of him and 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.
Solid virtue is so called because it is formed by amassing together a facility in repeated acts. Hence the practice of any virtue is not the less meritorious because it is easy. Quite the contrary. The merit depends on the intention we had when we determined to practise the virtue, and not on the amount of pain it costs.
COMMENT: Here we see once again the tremendous balance of Fr Doyle. Solid virtue comes from practicing virtue time and time again, especially in little things. Big once-off actions, while they may be meritorious, are not the essence of well grounded virtue and holiness which comes from doing ordinary tasks with the right intention.
In this Fr Doyle was quite like St Francis de Sales who taught that even small, simple acts performed with love were of great merit.
Here is a description of St Francis’ view of the matter from his great friend and disciple Jean Pierre Camus, taken from the book The Spirit of St Francis de Sales:
He considered, as we have seen, that the degree of the supernatural in any virtue could not be decided by the greatness or smallness of the external act, since an act in itself altogether trivial, may be performed with much grace and charity, while a very brilliant and dazzling good work may be animated by but a very feeble spark of love of God, the intensity of which is, after all, the only rule by which to ascertain its true value in His sight.
Do I ever say, when an occasion of denying myself comes, “It’s too hard, I am no saint?” Might it not be asked of me in justice, “Why aren’t you? It is your business to be one, God intends you should be one, but you are too lazy, you won’t take the trouble.”
Let us remember that we must not drag Christ down to our own level, but rather we must let Christ lift us up to His level.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle’s words today hit where it hurts. We are not saints because we don’t take the trouble to become saints. Sanctity does not mean performing miracles or founding religious orders or even doing great things that will make us famous. It means loving God, conforming ourselves totally with His Will, and doing everything for love of Him. This is difficult, but God provides the grace we need to achieve it. But we ourselves must supply effort as well. Too often we “won’t take the trouble” to do so day after day on a consistent basis.
The liturgical calendar today presents numerous striking examples of holiness, including St Faustina, who receive the visions that are the basis of the Divine Mercy devotion and Blessed Raymond of Capua who was spiritual director to St Catherine of Siena, one of the greatest saints in all of history, and also served as Master General of the Dominicans. Both St Faustina and Blessed Raymond lead dramatic lives and are well known. However, today I want to focus on three less well known but very vivid examples of holiness who, in the words of Fr Doyle, took the trouble to strive for holiness in the very diverse and ordinary circumstances of their lives.
Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos was a German Redemptorist missionary in the United States who died in New Orleans in 1867. He was a renowned healer even during his life and his spirituality was very similar to that of Fr Doyle. His retreat notes and diaries reveal resolutions to sleep on the floor and engage in other ascetical practices to discipline the will. Like Fr Doyle, he was known for his good humour and cheerfulness. Here is a short excerpt from one of his letters:
Every offering has value only insofar as one snatches it away from one’s own benefit dedicates it to God through this self-conquest. One loves and gives precisely because one loves, and because one considers what is given as a good, as a treasure. Love of creatures must be subordinated to the love of God, whom one is pledged to love above all things. Time, in which we have found nothing to offer up to God, is lost for eternity. If it is only the duties of our vocation that we fulfil with dedication to the will of God; if it is the sweat of our faces that, in resignation, we wipe from our brow without murmuring; if it is suffering, temptations, difficulties with our fellow men – everything we can present to God as an offering and can, through them, become like Jesus his Son.
Blessed Alberto Marvelli was a remarkable Italian layman who was killed in an accident on this day in 1946. He modelled himself on Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, giving away his clothing, opening a soup kitchen and assisting the poor and homeless in the city of Rimini which had largely been destroyed by bombing raids in the Second World War. He was an engineer who used his professional competence to help rebuild the city. His intense works of charity were nourished by a deep spiritual life. He was also fully engaged in political life, was a local town councillor and was a renowned opponent of the communists. He was fighting an election against communists when he was killed in an accident, aged only 28. There are several books about him published in Italian, along with his spiritual diaries. Alas, I cannot speak the language – I would very much like to read them…
Our third example today is Blessed Bartolo Longo, who had a complete transformation in life. He got caught up in the occult when he was young and became a satanic priest. He experienced a conversion, and became a renowned apostle of the rosary, a Third Order Dominican, a founder of several charitable works and established the famous shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii. He died in 1926. His example shows that nobody is too far gone to be saved by God’s Divine Mercy.
A missionary priest, a young, politically engaged layman and a former satanic priest: the examples we find in today’s diverse feasts show us that anyone from any background can be a saint. As Fr Doyle says to us today:
Why aren’t you (a saint)? It is your business to be one, God intends you should be one, but you are too lazy, you won’t take the trouble.