St Paul of the Cross, Fr Doyle and penance

St Paul of the Cross

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.

Advertisements

15 October 1914

Last night I rose at one a.m. and walked two miles barefooted in reparation for the sins of priests to the chapel of Murrough (Co. Clare), where I made the Holy Hour. God made me realise the merit of each step, and I understood better how much I gain by not reading the paper; each picture, each sentence sacrificed mean additional merit. I felt a greater longing for self-inflicted suffering and a determination to do more “little things”.

This is possibly the chapel Fr Doyle prayed in this night in 1914. It is the chapel that seems to be closest to the location he mentions.

Thoughts for the Feast of St Teresa of Avila from Fr Willie Doyle

St Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church
A wooden block used as a pillow by St Teresa

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.

You may find a copy here.

Finally for today; here is an excellent homily on the life and spirit of St Teresa:

 

 

 

Fr Doyle’s struggle against his faults

Fr Doyle wrote the following in his diary on this day in 1916:

Lately the desire to be trampled on and become the slave of everybody has grown very strong. I have resolved to make myself secretly the slave of my servant and, as far as I can, to submit to his will e.g to wait till he comes to serve my Mass and not to send for him, never to complain of anything he does, to take my meals in the way he chooses to cook them and at the hours he suggests, to let him arrange my things as he thinks fit, in a word, humbly to let him trample on me as I deserve.

O’Rahilly notes that Fr Doyle took these steps as part of his Ignition spirit of taking the offensive against his faults, precisely because he was naturally inclined to want his own way with things. This was part of Fr Doyle’s dominant defect, and we see here his strategic and practical struggle to overcome it. Fr Doyle did not make a truce with his faults, but struggled right to the end to overcome them. 

St John XXIII and Fr Doyle

St John XXIII

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…

The entire document is well worth reading:
http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_xxiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_01071962_paenitentiam_en.html

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.

The night of September 26 1915

Fr Doyle wrote the following very private notes in his diary on 27 September 1915 about his prayer the previous night:

Last night I rose at twelve, tied my arms in the form of a cross and remained in the chapel till three a.m. I was fiercely tempted not to do so, the devil suggesting that, as I had a cough, it was madness and would unfit me for the coming mission. Though I shivered with cold, I am none the worse this morning, in fact, the cough is better, proving that Jesus is pleased with these ‘holy imprudences.’ At the end of an hour I was cold and weary, I felt I could not possibly continue; but I prayed and got wonderful strength to persevere till the end of the three hours. This has shown me what I might do and how, with a little determined effort, I could overcome the greatest repugnances and seeming impossibilities.

Clearly we are not called to copy Fr Doyle’s penitential and prayer practices. But it also seems clear that Fr Doyle had a special calling to prayer and penance of this nature. We are called not to judge others. We naturally interpret this to mean that we do not judge others harshly for their sins and failings. But it also means that we do not judge others harshly for their piety, their prayer and their penance. Fr Doyle’s nocturnal prayer and penance has a precedent in the lives of many saints, and it seems to have indeed brought about about both spiritual and even physical fruit in his life. 

As Fr Doyle said on another occasion:

How much is comprised in the little words agere contra! Therein is the real secret of sanctity, the hidden source from which the saints have drunk deep of the love of God and reached that height of glory they now enjoy.

The phrase agere contra refers to the practice of going against oneself, of denying oneself in various ways in order to overcome our defects and vices.

It is not in vogue today, but it has traditionally been an important part of the spiritual life and it is essential in understanding the spirituality of Fr Doyle. He practiced this in so many different ways. In the note above about this night in 1915 he practiced what might be termed a harsh penance. But he also practiced, and always advocated, small and insignificant penances that have the effect of showing love for God, of making one stronger and generally equipping one for better service of others.

Anybody can adopt this type of practice in little things if the will is there – getting up on time, going to bed on time, giving up sugar in our tea, giving up butter on bread or maybe just giving up jam but keeping the butter!! Many of us make such sacrifices for earthly and mundane reasons such as our health or career or our appearances. Surely our love of God, and desire for sanctification, should be of more importance and should be a greater motivation for going against ourselves? Venerable Fr Petit, who was Fr Doyle’s spiritual director in Belgium during his tertian year, immediately after ordination, said that we find self-denial difficult because we have such little love of Jesus.

Thoughts for September 25 from Fr Willie Doyle

I have noticed that every time I have indulged myself, my appetite especially, for no matter what reason, I have always had remorse and felt unhappy; but that each generous victory, every additional act of penance, has been followed by peace of soul and contentment.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words in his diary on this day in 1913 – 104 years ago today.

These words are probably counter-intuitive for us. Most of us in the modern world have bought into the idea that life is about maximising our pleasure and getting as much “stuff” as we possibly can. Yet, so often this approach to life leaves us unsatisfied. 

Fr Doyle – and indeed all of the saints – had a different philosophy. They believed that happiness and peace came from detachment, and from a radical love of God and neighbour. An essential part of developing this detachment is penance and mortification.

Perhaps our lesson today is that it wouldn’t hurt us much to say “no” to ourselves from time to time, and that it would probably make those around us a bit happier as well.