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.
What is it to be a saint? Does it mean that we must macerate this flesh of ours with cruel austerities, such as we read of in the life-story of some of God’s great heroes? Does it mean the bloody scourge, the painful vigil and sleepless night, that crucifying of the flesh in even its most innocent enjoyment? No, no, the hand of God does not lead us all by that stern path of awful heroism to our reward above. He does not ask from all of us the holy thirst for suffering, in its highest form, of a Teresa or a Catherine of Siena. But sweetly and gently would He lead us along the way of holiness by our constant unswerving faithfulness to our duty, duty accepted, duty done for His dear sake.
COMMENT: The holy season of Lent is upon us. Many cultural Catholics view it as a time to “give up” something. This is a good thing, but it does not necessarily get to the heart of what Lent is really about.
Lent is about growing in holiness and preparing ourselves for Holy Week and the celebration of Easter. It is about becoming a saint. Precisely how we go about this task will depend on where we are at in our spiritual lives. Giving things up can be a part of that, but there are other sacrifices and mortifications we can adopt that aren’t primarily aimed at giving things up. For instance we can deepen our prayer lives and adopt some extra spiritual practices. We can take on some extra charitable activities. We can get out of bed earlier in the morning. In a sense, each of these involves “giving something up” – time, freedom, sleep – but they are also more than that. Whatever we decide to do we have to avoid a situation where we “give something up” solely because we want to save money or because we want to go on a diet or because we want to go on a binge when Lent ends. If we are to fast or give something up, it should be a part of a well thought-out spiritual plan. There is a risk that we could fail to reap the spiritual benefits of our sacrifices in Lent. This risk may be especially prevalent in culturally Catholic countries (like Ireland) where giving things up is something of a social norm rather than a carefully considered weapon of spiritual combat.
The excellent Vultus Christi blog has an old post from some years ago with interesting suggestions on Lenten resolutions based on the Rule of St Benedict:http://vultus.stblogs.org/2011/03/for-my-oblates-and-others.html
Many books written about saints recount their bloody sacrifices and penances in great detail. Fr Doyle makes it clear today that heavy penance is not the road to sanctity for everyone. True, there were those who were called by God to live a life of hard penance. Fr Doyle was certainly one of these, and he makes it clear in his notes that it was a specific call – in one place he notes that others could commendably do things that he could not because of this special vocation of penance to which he was called. But he also shows his balance by assuring us that most people are not called by that path. This doesn’t mean that we are not called to holiness or that we are called to a lesser holiness or that we are called to a life of sloth and comfort. It just reflects the reality that God calls us all by different paths with different types of sacrifices.
But there is one path by which we can be sure that we are all called, and that is the path of faithfulness to our duties in life. It is impossible to grow in holiness without this adherence to duty. If we try to avoid our duty we will be like the unfaithful stewards that Christ warns us about in the Gospel.
Most of us reading this will struggle to some degree or other to do our work and other duties in life professionally, punctually and cheerfully. Some will be better than others, but there is almost always room for improvement. Perhaps we could follow Fr Doyle’s advice, and adopt a Lenten resolution that will help us grow in holiness by doing our duty well.
This may indeed involve giving something up – the TV, excessive use of the internet or social media, lying on in bed in the morning, idle gossip in the office, an extra long lunch break…
In any event, whatever our resolution is, it should be both achievable and challenging, and we should be prepared to instantly pick ourselves up and start again if (and when) we fail in sticking to it.
What I intended to imply was that I thought God had special designs on your soul and very great graces in store for you if only you will co-operate with Him in the work of your sanctification. With the record of much want of courage and generosity, there is running through your life an undercurrent of earnest desire to be a saint. Not that desires alone will do the work – barren desires are most dangerous to a soul, making one content with intentions only; yet without a big ardent desire nothing will be done. “If thou wilt be perfect,” our Lord once said, implying that sanctification is largely a question of good will. This, then, is the first grace you must pray for: the desire to be a saint.
COMMENT: The central theme of Fr Doyle’s quote today is the importance of the will. We must want to be saints. If we don’t want it, it won’t happen. The same principle applies in every aspect of life. If we don’t want to lose weight, it won’t happen. If we don’t want to work hard and progress in our career, it won’t happen. The Book of Ecclesiasticus tells us:
If you wish, you can keep the commandments; to behave faithfully is within your power. He has set fire and water before you; put out your hand to whichever you prefer. Man has life and death before him; whichever a man likes better will be given him.
Whichever we prefer will be given to us. Either holiness or apathy or sinfulness. Which is it to be?
Today is the anniversary of the death of Sr Lucia, one of the 3 visionaries at Fatima. These three children had a great desire for holiness and a great abhorrence for sin. Even as little children they offered great penances for sinners. We can learn much from their desire for holiness.
Fr Doyle himself occasionally felt a lack of desire for holiness. Referring to the Three Classes of men in the Spiritual Exercises, Fr Doyle wrote in 1907:
The example of men of the Third Class in the world should shame me. What determination, what prolonged effort, what deadly earnestness, in the man who has determined to succeed in his profession! No sacrifice is too great for him, he wants to succeed, he will succeed. My desire, so far, to be a saint is only the desire of the man of the First Class. It gratifies my pride, but I make no real progress in perfection — I do not really will it.
Fr Doyle’s response was to trust in God’s grace, and to take determined, small steps to overcome his weakness day by day. With God’s grace, we can follow in his footsteps.
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.
COMMENT: Today is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Fr Doyle visited the shrine in November 1912, and today’s quote summarises his spiritual experience there.
This reflection on Lourdes is utterly characteristic of Fr Doyle, who had such a horror for sin and combined this with a special vocation for reparation for sin.
In almost all approved Marian apparitions, Our Lady urges us to prayer and penance. Yes, she also comes to tell us of the love of God, and often reveals this love through miraculous healings and other graces. But just like in the Gospel, penance remains central to the message.
Christian abnegation is not composed merely of renunciation: it leads to something tangible and definite. We abandon what is false to cling to what is true. We empty our hearts of earthly things to make room for eternal. We lose ourselves to gain Christ.
COMMENT: Those who punish their bodies by lifting weights in a gym or by jogging in the bleak early hours, do not do so for its own sake – they push themselves to achieve something else such as fitness or weight loss or greater physical attractiveness. It is this same mentality that we need when considering the penances of Fr Doyle, and indeed of all the saints. These penitential lives were not an end in themselves, but were instead an attempt to remove self-will so that God could occupy a more central role in their lives. By losing themselves, they truly found Christ.
We see something similar in the life of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich whose feast it is today. She suffered greatly through illness, and was confined to bed for much of her life. But despite, or perhaps because of, her sufferings she attracted many who sought her counsel and spiritual support, including many priests and bishops. Blessed Pope John Paul said that “her special mystical vocation shows us the value of sacrifice and suffering with the crucified Lord”. She is one of those special victim souls whose complete self-abnegation allows them to be more completely filled with grace.
We do not have to confined to bed with illness for many years like Blessed Anne Catherine, and many others, were. By struggling to overcome our faults bit by bit we can remove obstacles to the more effective operation of grace in our souls. The more filled with grace we become, the more we will change the world.