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 ascetically 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.
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.
When it was not some infirmity or other than caused him to experience pain, it was he himself who inflicted discomfort and mortification on his own body. Aside from the prescribed fasting, which he followed with great rigour, especially during Lent, when he reduced his nourishment to one complete meal per day, he also abstained from food before ordaining priests and bishops. And it was not infrequent for him to spend nights lying on the bare floor. His housekeeper in Cracow realised it, even though the archbishop crumpled his bedclothes to conceal it. But he did more. As a number of members of his closest entourage heard with their own ears, in Poland and the Vatican, Karol Wojytla flagellated himself. In his bedroom closet, among his cassocks, hanging from a hook was an unusual trouser belt that he used as a whip and always brought to Castel Gandolfo.
Today is the feast of St John Paul. The above testimony is from Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the Postulator for the cause of canonisation of St John Paul II. This is the pope who attracted so many young people. Yet he lived a rigorous life of penance. So rigorous, in fact, that others heard him flagellating himself. And he used an unusual trouser belt. It’s not clear why it was unusual. Was it because it was modified in some way to make it more painful?
Fr Doyle’s life of penance is not be something we are called to imitate in its totality today, but it was entirely in conformity with the tradition of the Church, and is mirrored in the lives and teachings of the saints, including the joyful and phenomenally popular St John Paul II.
It would be bizarre for anybody to over-emphasise the role of physical penance in the life of St John Paul II, and to reduce his personality to one aspect of his spiritual life. So, too, those who think that Fr Doyle’s penance would turn people away from him do him a disservice, and foster an unbalanced image of a very human, very joyful and very self-sacrificing war hero.
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 not 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.
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”.
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.
Teresa’s 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.
Finally for today; here is an excellent homily on the life and spirit of St Teresa: