It is scarcely necessary to state that deliberate sin in any shape or form utterly destroys the interior life and even gives a loathing and disgust for its practice. It is not so evident that deliberate imperfections, and for religious repeated violation of rule, have the same result. These are the “little foxes,” attractive and apparently harmless creatures, which must be hunted down and destroyed…if the vineyard is not to perish. A soul given to sin or consciously violating the rules to which it has freely bound itself for life, will sigh in vain for the secret loving embraces of its Beloved.
COMMENT: We have, in general, lost the sense of sin in the world today. For modern culture, it seems as if anything goes. It’s hard not to become influenced by this prevailing opinion, and as a result we can end up easily yielding to sin and temptation because we no longer think it’s a big deal anymore.
We must of course avoid the other extreme of scrupulosity and obsession with sin (an affliction that seems to have been very acute with previous generations). Fr Doyle was a very effective director for those afflicted with this problem.
We are all sinners, and we must start to fight against sin where we are at. For some that will mean a struggle against habitual mortal sin; for others it is the struggle against deliberate venial sin and for others it will be a struggle against imperfections and omissions with respect to certain virtues.
Wherever we are at, we all have these “foxes” of whatever type that we must chase out of our lives. There’s no better time to start the chase than Advent and our preparation for Christmas.
Vince teipsum (Conquer yourself). This is the secret of the Exercises. “I learnt no other lesson from my master Ignatius,” said St. Francis Xavier, referring to his first retreat at Paris. Here we all fail – good men, zealous men, holy men. Prayer is easy, works of zeal attractive; but going against self, till grace and perseverance give facility, is cruel work, a hard battle.
COMMENT: How important is this process of self-conquest. There is no holiness without it. The lives of the saints make this quite clear for all to see.
But we should take heart. Fr Doyle affirms that it is hard and that all fail in this battle to some degree or other. It is consoling that such a master tactician of the spiritual life recognises within himself the tendency to fail in this battle against self. But as Fr Doyle promises, if we persevere we will obtain the grace we need to make the way a little easier.
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 approach Advent. 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? The threat of lockdowns and further restrictions on public worship is no barrier to this – these trials provide an excellent opportunity for us all to grow more in the spirit of sacrifice.
I felt strongly urged to rise and make the Holy Hour every night. In the past twelve months I have gone down to the chapel about fifty times though often only for a few moments; this does not include the weekly Holy Hour on Thursday. Now I feel impelled to rise each night, when at home, at least for a quarter of an hour.
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 ascetical 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.
I am slowly learning the lesson Jesus brought me out here to teach me. The first and greatest is that I must have no will of my own, only His, and this in all things. It is hard to let everyone walk on you, even your own servant; But Jesus asks this and I try to let him arrange all as He pleases. Result: yesterday I got no dinner, though I foresaw this would be the consequences of this planning.
COMMENT: One of Fr Doyle’s defects was his strong self-will. A strong will is, of course, a strength and a positive advantage. It is hard to achieve success in any endeavour, including in the spiritual life, without it. But like every strength there can be a negative side to the coin – those with a strong will can tend towards impatience with others. Fr Doyle fought this personal impatience throughout his life, and we see here one tactic that he used – he allowed himself to become a “slave” of his own servant (as a chaplain Fr Doyle had the rank of captain in the army, and as a result he had a servant, or orderly, to assist him with his material needs). Fr Doyle suffered much at the hands of this orderly, but he did so with calm and patience despite much provocation.
Fr Doyle wrote the following in his diary on October 25 1916. It refers to the previous night, in other words, this evening and night 104 years ago. It is worth remembering that at this time Fr Doyle was at the Front. His prayer was conducted in a dug out, not in the relative comfort of a Jesuit house far from violence and death. He obviously found it hard, hence his use of the old strategy of making a vow not to give in to tiredness. We know that he spent at least one full night of prayer at the Front for the Poor Clares in Cork which he was instrumental in founding – they were experiencing some difficulties at the time. Perhaps this was the occasion on which he prayed through the night for this convent and its difficulties?
Jesus has long urged me to give Him a whole night of prayer and reparation. Last night I prayed in my dug-out at Kemmel from 9 till 5 (eight hours), most of the time on my knees. I bound myself beforehand to do so by vow in order not to let myself off. Though I had only two hours’ sleep, I am not very tired or weary today. Jesus wants more of these nights of prayer, adoration and atonement.
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.