This morning I lay awake powerless to over come myself and to make my promised visit to the chapel. Then I felt prompted to pray; I said five aspirations and rose without difficulty. How many victories I could win by this easy and powerful weapon!
COMMENT: Fr Doyle was tough. It’s a bit consoling to read about his difficulty getting out of bed. But in all of the things Fr Doyle did he relied on the grace of God to see him through. When we read about his heroics and austerities in the war it’s sometimes easy to forget that he came from a very comfortable and privileged background; that he suffered from poor health, that he had a constant digestive ailment of some sort, and that he had previously had a nervous breakdown from the shock of a fire in his novitiate. yet here he is, in his mid 40’s, a tower of strength and composure to whom the fighting men flocked for comfort. It was the grace of God that transformed Fr Doyle through many “small victories”.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle touches on a key point in today’s quote. He shows his keen understanding of the human mind, and of his own weakness. When Fr Doyle says he could suffer for years for Jesus he wasn’t speaking literally or showing off. Rather he was speaking figuratively and showing how we can so easily imagine ourselves to be heroic when heroic things come our way while really being soft and weak in our daily activities. Many of us can probably identify with this. Perhaps some momentary fervour in prayer makes us imagine that if we lived during a time of persecution like the early Christians experienced or like those that Catholics in Ireland and England experienced in the 16th and 17th centuries that we would be heroic and brave. And yet, how reluctant we are to deal with the minor inconveniences of every day. How fearful we can be of declaring ourselves to be Catholic in “polite” society or professional circles. As Jesus tells us in Luke Chapter 16, he who is faithful in little things will be faithful in big things, but he who is unfaithful in little things will be unfaithful in big things. We fool ourselves when we imagine we will be heroes in dramatic circumstances when we cannot discipline ourselves in day to day things.
In many ways we are like Peter. He declared his loyalty to Christ at the Last Supper, and just a few hours later he denied ever knowing him. As the Imitation of Christ says:
How great is human frailty which is always prone to vice. Today you confess your sins, and tomorrow you again commit what you have confessed. Now you resolve to take care, and an hour after you act as if you had never made a resolution. We have reason therefore to humble ourselves and never to think much of ourselves since we are so frail and inconstant.
Perhaps the solution to our own weakness is not to fall into the same mistakes that Peter fell into preceding his denial – he slept instead of staying awake to watch and pray; he followed Jesus “at a distance”, and just prior to denying Jesus he was warming himself at a fire. Lack of prayer, staying some distance from Jesus, and lack of mortification all preceded Peter’s denial. Almost certainly they precede our own denials and failures also. And, if we do fall in some way, let us at least avoid the mistake of Judas, who despaired of God’s endless mercy.
Almost the first thing which caught my eye at the grotto was our Lady’s words: “Penitence, penitence, penitence”. On leaving, I asked Jesus had He any message to give me. The same flashed suddenly into my mind and made a deep impression on me.
In addition to being the feast of St Benedict Joseph Labre, yesterday was also the feast of St Bernadette, but I decided to hold over discussion of St Bernadette until today.
Fr Doyle recorded the above reflections after a trip to Lourdes, the spot where Mary appeared to St Bernadette. The message Fr Doyle took away from Lourdes is the very same as the message he took away from Amettes, the birthplace of St Benedict Joseph Labre – penance and austerity.
If one knew nothing else of Fr Doyle, one could form a very erroneous impression of him. It would be easy to misperceive him as harsh and narrow minded. The opposite was the case – he was joyful and happy and full of practical jokes. Yet, underneath this joy, he lived a very harsh personal life. Paradoxically, this may be why he was so joyful. We see the same in so many other saints known for their happiness and joy. All of the saints were happy, but some were especially known for their jokes and happiness – St Francis and St Philip Neri in particular come to mind. Yet these saints all lived very austere personal lives.
St Francis de Sales says that:
To receive the grace of God into our own hearts, they must be void of our own glory.
Self-love and love of God do not happily live side by side. People who tire themselves out with exercise paradoxically end up with more energy. In the same way, people who live with a spirit of service, generosity and self-denial (so long as it is suited to their strength and station in life) are often more joyful than those who indulge their every whim.
I want you to stick to two things: the aspirations and the tiny acts of self-conquest. Count them and mark them daily. You need nothing else to make you a saint. The weekly total, growing bigger as you persevere, will show you how fast you are growing in perfection.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle reveals his Jesuit training in today’s quote. In the Spiritual Exercises St Ignatius recommends making lists and monitoring daily progress.
The claim that “you need nothing else to make you a saint” is a rather big claim! Yet there is certainly something in it. Love shows itself in actions. As St Josemaria Escriva wrote:
There is a story of a soul who, on saying to our Lord in prayer, ‘Jesus, I love you,’ heard this reply from heaven: ‘Love means deeds, not sweet words.’ Think if you also could deserve this gentle reproach.
The deeds we are called to do are normally not big deeds, but daily actions of fidelity and self-sacrifice, both in our dealings with God and in our dealings with each other. But unless we actively try to conquer ourselves and make these sacrifices we really won’t do them. We will not genuinely progress without a clear strategic objective to do so. It’s too easy for us to fail and give up if our aspirations to self-sacrifice are vague and uncommitted. Keeping a list and striving for progress can be a great help in this regard, and as we exercise our capacity for love and generosity we will inevitably love more and become progressively more generous, opening up ever more vistas for love, service and holiness. As St Benedict said in his Rule:
But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14). For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love.
But this approach of counting sacrifices or offerings made to God does not suit everybody’s temperament. Those who are scrupulous or anxious may not be helped by it. But it clearly suited Fr Doyle’s own militant temperament. In fact, he not only wrote down his sacrifices, he also carried a set of beads on which they would be counted. He was in good company in this practice – his contemporary St Therese (they were born 2 months apart) also used beads to count her sacrifices.
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…
I have gone through a great deal of desolation, discouragement, fear and dread of my proposed vow. When I make it — I am quite determined now to do so — it will be the result of calm conviction that I must do so, that God wants it from me, and not a burst of fervour. I shrink from this living death, but am quite happy in the thought that, since God has inspired me to do so, He will do all the work if once I submit my will. … I was consoled by seeing Fr. de la Colombiere’s repugnance to making his heroic vow. He spoke of the sadness which this constant fight against nature sometimes gave him. He overcame that temptation by remembering that it is sweet and easy to do what we know will please one we really love.
COMMENT: The vow Fr Doyle speaks of is that of refusing no sacrifice that he perceived Jesus was asking of him. Here is the text of that vow which he made in 1911:
I deliberately vow, and bind myself, under pain of mortal sin, to refuse Jesus no sacrifice, which I clearly see He is asking from me. Amen.
Fr Doyle attached various conditions and exceptions to this in order to avoid scruples. Such a vow represents a total abandonment to God’s will in all aspects of life and represents a very great level of spiritual perfection. Most of us are well-intentioned, but we still tend to reserve areas of our life that we want to control and where we may not want God to “trespass”. Such was not the way of the saints. As the Imitation of Christ says:
What more do I require of you, than that you try to submit yourself fully to me? Whatsoever you give me outside of yourself does not interest me; for I do not seek your gift, but I seek you.
Fr Doyle mentions Fr (now Saint) Claude de la Colombiere, a French Jesuit whose feast it is today. He died this day in 1682. St Claude made a similar vow as a young Jesuit. Here is his (somewhat pessimistic!) reflection on the implications of this vow:
It seems as if it would be easy to spend any other kind of life holily; and the more austere, solitary and obscure it might be and separated from all intercourse, the more pleasing it would appear to me to be. As to what usually terrifies nature, such as prisons, constant sickness and even death, all this seems easy compared with this everlasting war with self, this vigilance against the attacks of the world and of self-love, this living death in the midst of the world.
Whatever about St Claude’s fears of this vow and its “living death”, we know that Fr Doyle remained serene and cheerful, despite his constant war with self-love.
Fr Doyle and St Claude are not the only ones to have made such a vow – great saints like Therese of Liseux did likewise. And together, they inspired saints that came after them. Saint Teresa of Calcutta read the life of Fr Doyle while she was a young nun (perhaps when she lived in Ireland, very near the Jesuit house in Rathfarnham, where Fr Doyle had lived for a time). His life and spirit so inspired her that she herself took the same vow to refuse no sacrifice to Christ. We see here Fr Doyle’s influence on one of the best known and best loved saints of recent years.
Here is a description from the book “Come be my Light” written by Fr Brian Kolodiejchuk MC, the postulator for Mother Teresa’s canonisation cause.
It was this mysterious feature of love that moved Mother Teresa to seal the total offering of herself by means of a vow and thus tangibly express her longing to be fully united with her Beloved…Thus for Mother Teresa the vow was the means of strengthening the bond with the One she loved and so experiencing the true freedom that only love can give.
Mother Teresa would have read about the practice of making private vows in the spiritual literature of her time.
Irish Jesuit Fr William Doyle, made numerous private vows, as he found this practice a help in keeping his resolutions. One such vow, which he made in 1911 and renewed from day to day until he could obtain permission from his confessor to make it permanently, was “I deliberately vow, and bind myself, under pain of mortal sin, to refuse Jesus no sacrifice, which I clearly see He is asking from me”.
Returning now to St Claude and his vow…Fr Doyle had other reasons to be intrigued by the life of St Claude, for the latter was the spiritual director of St Margaret Mary Alacoque, the great mystic to whom Fr Doyle was much devoted. St Margaret Mary received many visions of the Sacred Heart and it is probably because of St Claude’s influence that the Jesuits have traditionally promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart. This devotion features prominently in the writings and spirituality of Fr Doyle. It is consoling for devotees of Fr Doyle to note that it took almost 250 years before the well known St Claude was beatified.
Today is also the feast of another great spiritual director. Blessed Michal Sopocko was the spiritual director of St Faustina, the great apostle of Divine Mercy. It is quite a coincidence that the spiritual directors of the two visionaries of the most prominent apparitions of Jesus of modern times have both been beatified or canonised and that they share the same anniversary of death and feast day. These spiritual directors were crucial supports for St Margaret Mary and St Faustina respectively, and they show us the importance of spiritual direction in our lives.
Fr Doyle obviously knew nothing of St Faustina who died in 1938 or of Blessed Michal who died in 1975. But we can well imagine that he would have been a great promoter of the Divine Mercy devotion which sits so well with his own Christocentric spirituality.
One final coincidence for today – Fr Doyle would have identified with Blessed Michal if he knew of him: Blessed Michal served as a military chaplain in the Polish army during World War 1.