It is indeed easy to condemn oneself to death, to make a generous offering of self-immolation; but to carry out the execution daily is more than most can do. . . . Go on bravely, don’t expect too much from yourself, for God often leaves one powerless in acts of self-conquest in order to make one humble and to have more recourse to Him. Remember above all that even one small victory makes up for a hundred defects.
COMMENT: Well, perhaps it is not quite as easy for us to condemn ourselves to death as Fr Doyle suggests! Perhaps many of us can identify with the character in the Flannery O’Connor story: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick!”
More seriously, we can sometimes be willing to make great sacrifices, but keeping up the struggle against our selfishness day after day is what really presents the difficulty for us. And as Fr Doyle encouragingly says, we should not expect too much from ourselves: we are weak, and should accept our weakness with humility. But this doesn’t mean that we settle for mediocrity: as Fr Doyle points out, God is always with us and will sustain us. As St Pio, whose feast is today, says,
Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.
There is a temptation for the demanding message of hugely popular saints like Padre Pio to be overlooked. Too often the lives of such saints get swamped with tales of their miracles and extraordinary phenomena. Lest that happen, here is one final thought from St Pio which in many ways is very similar to the spirit and teaching of Fr Doyle:
The life of a Christian is nothing but a perpetual struggle against self.
A fierce temptation during Mass and thanksgiving to break my resolution and indulge my appetite at breakfast. The thought of a breakfast of dry bread and tea without sugar in future seemed intolerable. Jesus urged me to pray for strength though i could scarcely bring myself to do so. But the temptation left me in the refectory, and joy filled my heart with the victory. I see now that i need never yield if only I pray for strength.
Having again indulged my appetite, I made this resolution, that whenever I do so, no matter for what reason (health, feasts etc) I will enter it in the other book. I think this will be a check and a help to me to do what Jesus has asked so long – no indulgence whatever in food.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle was renowned for keeping “books” – little notebooks where he noted his spiritual victories, and his failures. Some people might find this strange. But in doing so he was merely following the advice of St Ignatius of Loyola and the example of many Jesuits across the centuries. Indeed, many people today keep a track of their exercise or their diets on their smartphones, and, unlike Fr Doyle who kept all of this as a secret to himself, many people broadcast their own “successes” and “failures” in their exercise regime with social media posts that draw attention to themselves.
So long as one doesn’t end up being scrupulous as a result, the practice of noting successes and failures each day can help us to see where we should make our stand and fight the next day. It helped Fr Doyle to steadily grow in virtue, and it can help us too if we are faithful to it.
To be indifferent does not mean to desire things which are hard to nature, but a readiness and determination to embrace them when once the will of God is known. In this sense I think I am indifferent about going to the Congo. But I must force myself to be willing to accept the way of life which God seems to be leading me to and wants me to adopt. My God, I dread it, but “not my will but Thine”.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle, as a Jesuit was well schooled in the spiritual exercises. Indifference plays a big role in the teaching of St Ignatius. As the saint says in the first week of the spiritual exercises:
For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honour rather than dishonour, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.
Fr Doyle did not personally want to live through the horrors of the Great War. He did not personally want to live a life of self-denial in both little and big things. But he gave himself to all of these things – with enthusiasm – because he thought it was the will of God and that it would lead him to sanctity.
It is somewhat consoling that Fr Doyle dreaded being open to God’s will, rather than his own personal will. Even those who were very holy have their fears.
Reasons why our Communions and Masses do not make us Saints.
1. Want of preparation, through sloth, carelessness, or absorption in other things; no thought of the greatness and immense dignity of the act, no stirring up of fervour.
2. No pains to examine our conscience carefully, to destroy affection to venial sin, and to root out faults often unrecognized for years. A soul filled with venial sin has no hunger for Christ. “Let a man prove himself and so let him eat this Bread” says St. Paul.
3. Routine. “Many there are who sleep,” forgetting that one good Communion could make them saints.
COMMENT: How many Holy Communions have we received in our lives? For many people who read this blog the figure is in the thousands; for some who are older and who attend Mass every day, the figure may be well over 10,000.
Does our life reflect the reality that we have received the Eucharist hundreds or thousands of times?
Many of the soldiers in the trenches received Holy Communion with great reverence, fearing it would be their last opportunity to receive. Perhaps there is a lesson here.
In fact, this is exactly what today’s saint, Teresa Margaret Redi, a Carmelite nun who died in 1770, did in her last days. She died at the young age of 22. She had been in perfect health, but two days before her death she received the Eucharist with the same dispositions as if it were her last time. From awebsitededicated to her:
On March 4th she asked Father Ildefonse to allow her to make a general confession, as though it were to be the last of her life, and to receive Communion the following morning in the same dispositions. Whether or not she had any presentiment that this was indeed to be her Viaticum one cannot know; but in fact it was. She was only twenty-two years old and in excellent health, yet it appears she was making preparations for her death.
On the evening of March 6th Teresa Margaret arrived late to dinner from her work in the infirmary. She ate the light Lenten meal alone. As she was returning to her room, she collapsed from violent abdominal spasms. She was put to bed and the doctor was called. He diagnosed a bout of colic, painful but not serious. Teresa Margaret did not sleep at all during the night, and she tried to lie still so as not to disturb those in the adjoining cells. The following morning she seemed to have taken a slight turn for the better.
But when the doctor returned he recognized that her internal organs were paralyzed and ordered a surgeon for a bleeding. Her foot was cut and a bit of congealed blood oozed out. The doctor was alarmed and recommended that she should receive the Last Sacraments right away. The infirmarian however, felt that this was not necessary, and was reluctant to send for a priest because of the patient’s continued vomiting. In addition, Sister Teresa Margaret’s pain appeared to have lessened. The priest was not called.
Teresa Margaret offered no comment, nor did she ask for the Last Sacraments. She seemed to have had a premonition of this when making her last Communion “as Viaticum”. She held her crucifix in her hands, from time to time pressing her lips to the five wounds, and invoking the names of Jesus and Mary, otherwise she continued to pray and suffer, as always, in silence.
By 3 p.m. her strength was almost exhausted, and her face had assumed an alarmingly livid hue. Finally a priest was called. He had time only to anoint her before she took her flight to God. She remained silent and uncomplaining to the end, with her crucifix pressed to her lips and her head slightly turned towards the Blessed Sacrament. The community was stunned. Less than twenty-four hours earlier she had been full of life and smiling serenely as she went about her usual duties.
One final quote from St Teresa Margaret Redi, very much in the line of Fr Doyle:
Since nature resists good, even though the spirit may be willing, I resolve to enter upon a continual warfare against self. The arms with which I shall do battle are prayer, the presence of God, silence; yet I am aware how little I am able to use these weapons. Nevertheless I shall arm myself with complete confidence in you, patience, humility and conformity with your divine will … but who shall help me to fight a continual battle against enemies such as those which make war on me? You, my God, have declared yourself my captain; you have raised the standard of the Cross, saying: ‘Take up the cross and follow in my footsteps.’ To correspond with this invitation, I promise to resist your love no longer; rather, I will follow you to Calvary without hesitation.
“I will follow you to Calvary without hesitation”…This thought is very close to the spirit of Fr Doyle and indeed of all the saints. On the other hand, our modern world, with all of its technology, seems designed to help us avoid as many discomforts and difficulties as possible. But the saints recognised the benefits that could come from hardships, unpleasant and all as they are.
We conclude today with 2 separate quotes from Fr Doyle’s diary from this day in 1911, in which he writes about his resolution to make a Holy Hour at night, and the difficulties he experienced in doing this, as well as mortification in the matter of food.
Last night while making the Holy Hour in my room, Jesus seemed to ask me to promise to make it every Thursday, even when away giving retreats, and when I cannot go to the chapel. He wants the greater part of the time to be spent prostrate on the ground, which I find very painful. I think He wants me to share in His agony during this hour, feeling a little of the sadness, desolation, and abandonment He experienced, the shame of sin, the uselessness of His sufferings to save souls. I begged Him to plunge my soul into the sea of bitterness which surrounded Him. It was an hour of pain, but I hope for more.
I feel a growing thirst for self-denial; it is a pleasure not to taste the delicacies provided for me. I wish I could give up the use of meat entirely. I long even ti live ion bread and water. My jesus, what marvellous graces You are giving me, who always have been so fond of eating and used to feel a small act of denial of my appetite a torture.
How many deceive themselves in thinking sanctity consists in the holy follies of the saints! How many look upon holiness as something beyond their reach or capability, and think that it is to be found only in the performance of extraordinary actions. Satisfied that they have not the strength for great austerities, the time for much prayer, or the courage for painful humiliations, they silence their conscience with the thought that great sanctity is not for them, that they have not been called to be saints. With their eyes fixed on the heroic deeds of the few, they miss the daily little sacrifices God asks them to make; and while waiting for something great to prove their love, they lose the countless little opportunities of sanctification each day bears with it in its bosom.
COMMENTS: Today is the feast of St Bernard. It seems as good a day as any to address some of the controversies that seem to surround Fr Doyle’s life of penance.
In today’s quotation, Fr Doyle is clear that sanctity does not necessitate severe penances. Yes, a few are called by that path, but we are all called along the path of embracing the tasks and challenges of each day. We are all called to some form of penance, but for the most part it will be moderate and focused on doing our duties well. This is not easy but it is ultimately within our reach, if we will it and if we rely on God’s grace.
Fr Doyle certainly embraced the mundane tasks of each day. But he also went much further and lived a life of austerity. This caused something of a scandal for a very small number of people when it was revealed in O’Rahilly’s biography (though it is noteworthy that in his later editions, O’Rahilly mentions a number of Protestant clerics who admired Fr Doyle’s example in this area).
It is clear that Fr Doyle lived a most vigorous life of action during the war and that his health was in no way compromised as a result of his penances; in fact he even reported that he felt more energetic and healthy following penance. If the test of prudence in penance is that it does not interfere with our daily duties and tasks, then he most certainly passed that test.
It is also clear, from today’s quotation and from many others, that he never advised others to adopt hard physical penances and in fact he often forbade others to do so. Everything Fr Doyle did had a precedent in the lives of the saints, including some of the most popular, modern saints. It also appears that he had, or at least he thought he had, a specific calling to austerity of this type. It is also worth noting that Fr Doyle seems to have given up the hard physical penances for the last years of his life in the trenches, instead cheerfully embracing the hardships of that most awful life as his penance.
Fr Doyle also acted with the approval of his superiors. From one of his letters:
The Provincial told me to make known my devotions, penances etc to Father X…and to do whatever he told me. My heart fell, for perhaps of all the Jesuits in Ireland he would be the last I should care to consult on these things, I knew it was not his line and I felt if I got permission for one discipline a month I would do well. He was just the opposite to what I expected, was most kind and encouraging and ended by telling me to do whatever I thought God wanted, so I had the reward of being obedient.
This would seem to be the definitive seal of approval on Fr Doyle’s spiritual life.
We must not forget the context in which Fr Doyle lived. It is also important to remember that people – even the very holy – are influenced by their surrounding culture. Corporal penance was the norm in religious life right up to a few decades ago. Some well known Jesuits destroyed their private notes before death precisely because of the way the secrets of Fr Doyle’s spiritual life became public following the discovery of his diaries. Perhaps Fr Doyle’s penances were more common than we imagine. It is also worth remembering that penance – moderate and appropriate for our condition – is a normal part of the Christian life, so much so that the ever popular St John XXIII wrote an entire encyclical on penance and urged Catholics to offer penances for the success of the Second Vatican Council. Penance is not something obscure or disturbing in the Christian life. Indeed, it is odd for anyone to consider penance to be an anachronism given that we now live in a culture where hard, pressured work is seen as the norm, and where many people punish their bodies in a gym – this work, and these workouts, are probably much harsher than the penances normally practiced in the past. Consider how many take part in Ironman competitions, for example. The competitors start with a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile cycle and concluding with a 26 mile running race. And we dare to look down our noses at the hardships that some people practiced a few decades ago???!!!
Yes, corporal penance was an aspect of Fr Doyle’s life, as with almost all canonised saints. But these hard penances were only one aspect of Fr Doyle’s spirituality. It would be a mistake to sum up a charming personality like that of St Pope John Paul II only by reference to the modified leather belt with which he scourged himself (it has never been made clear in what way the belt was modified – did it perhaps have something sharp or heavy embedded within it to make it a penitential item?) or St Therese of Lisieux only by reference to the hairshirt which she wore, or Blessed John Sullivan by the floor on which he slept and the chains which he wore. We can keep multiplying the examples – Venerable Matt Talbot, St Pio of Pietrelcina, St Francis of Assisi, St Dominic, St Ignatius, St Martin de Porres and on and on. There is so much more to the remarkable personalities of the saints than the physical penance they practiced. We should not ignore this aspect of the lives of the saints, but neither should we allow it to overshadow the rest of their lives and certainly we should not dismiss the saints because they practiced heroic penances.
And this brings us to today’s feast of St Bernard, who admitted that he ruined his health through imprudent penance, and repented of his folly. This revelation of his imprudence does not make St Bernard any less of a role model for the rest of us, nor did it ever prevent him from being canonised or declared a Doctor of the Church.
My poor orderly has nearly emptied the well, of course leaving the six dead Germans behind, in his efforts to make enough tea.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle suffered many inconveniences because of his orderly in the trenches. On this occasion, he is suggesting that the orderly made tea from water in which 6 dead Germans were to be found. He may have been exaggerating a little, but perhaps not too much. As he said on another occasion:
Don’t ask me where the water came from, for I am certainly not anxious to learn. The men hold that, if you boil water, you need not bother about its source or how many dead beasties is has washed on its journey. I have had tea of the most wonderful shades of brown and black; but, barring the taste at times, I am not a whit the worse for this mysterious beverage.
And at another time:
I hear Michael, my orderly, hard at work frying onions for my dinner, what a time we are going to have … I am hoping for great things and that he won’t wash my socks again in the water with which he makes the tea. After all as the farmer says ‘pigs is pigs and war is war’ and fresh water is scarce, so hurrah for the laundry tea!
But what was most interesting about Fr Doyle was how he joyfully accepted all of these inconveniences and distasteful experiences as mortifications. Consider the following testimony from his fellow chaplain Fr Frank Browne SJ:
I rode over one morning to see Fr Doyle. I found him writing letters, which he interrupted to tell me of Murphy’s latest. Pointing to his trench boots he asked me to smell them. They were awful. Murphy, in order to prepare them for polishing, had in the orthodox way washed them, but in an unorthodox manner he had chosen a cesspool! The result was almost too much for Fr Willie. When I told him to sack Murphy on the spot, saying that it was getting a bit too much of a good joke, he laughed and said: ‘Well, he’s a decent poor fellow and he means well; and – well, perhaps I can gain something too’.
Fr Doyle’s natural temperament was impatient and fiery. I suspect that this was probably his dominant defect. But by the end of his life it would appear that he had mastered it. This cheerful acceptance of inconveniences would seem to suggest that he had acquired a high degree of virtue. All of his mortifications and self-denial would seem to have been entirely justified and to have achieved their desired result.
During a visit our Lord seemed to urge me not to wait till the end of the war, but to begin my life of reparation at once, in some things at least. I have begun to keep a book of acts done with this intention. He asked me for these sacrifices, (1) To rise at night in reparation for priests who lie in bed instead of saying Mass. (2) At all costs to make the 50,000 aspirations. (3) To give up illustrated papers. (4) To kiss floor of churches (5) Breviary always kneeling. (6) Mass with intense devotion. The Blessed Cure d’ Ars used to kneel without support while saying the Office. Could not I?
COMMENT: Fr Doyle noted these resolutions in his diary on July 26, 1916, 104 years ago today.
As is often the case, Fr Doyle’s resolutions probably seem rather daunting to us. This is a reflection of the difference between his religious culture a century ago and our religious culture today. It is also a reflection of the fact that he had already progressed very far in the spiritual life. Just as professional athletes amaze us with their physical prowess, so too the saints – and those renowned for their sanctity – also amaze us with their generosity and detachment.
There are perhaps three closely related points to take from Fr Doyle’s resolutions from 100 years ago, and thankfully they don’t necessarily mean having to kiss floors or interrupting our sleep at night!
The first point is that Fr Doyle was generous with God. He made specific, challenging resolutions. We do not have to match Fr Doyle’s resolutions – in almost all cases that would be imprudent and impossible. But we still need to be generous with God in whatever He asks. God will not ask us for more than we are capable of giving, and He is never outdone in His generosity. What is generous for one would not be for another; God meets us where we are at (but He does not wish us to stay there, but rather to grow from that point). He has given us everything we have, and He will give us even more in response to our own generosity to Him.
The second point is that we should look for sanctity now. Fr Doyle felt he was not to wait for the end of the war, but to make extra reparation in the present moment, even though the circumstances were not ideal. The reality is that from a purely human perspective the circumstances are never really ideal! We are called to seek God today, in the midst of its specific challenges and problems. Few of us are facing the adverse conditions that Fr Doyle faced 100 years ago. It did not stop him from following God, and serving others, with generosity.
Finally, Fr Doyle refers to the practice of St John Vianney and wonders why he could not copy his example. In this Fr Doyle shows us that he is true son of St Ignatius. While he recuperated in bed from his war injuries, Ignatius read lives of the saints, and inflamed with zeal, he wondered why he could not also do the heroic things that these saints did. They too were human and were weak, but, with the help of God, they achieved great things for Christ. It’s not advisable for us to copy all aspects of the lives of the saints – for many of us doing so would be like trying to copy the actions of an Olympic swimmer before we have even learned to swim! But we are called to be generous and to leave aside the comfortable mediocrity that can be so tempting in today’s culture. If the saints could be generous and heroic, why can’t we do the same, in our own ordinary circumstances of life?
I do not want, in fact I forbid you, to be imprudent in the matter of corporal penances. But, my dear child, if you let a whole fortnight go by without any self-inflicted pain, can you honestly look Jesus in the face and say, “I am like to Him”?
COMMENT: Self-inflicted pain?? It sounds so…medieval, so exaggerated! It’s 2020, surely we’ve grown out of this by this stage?
Except we haven’t. We see more self-inflicted pain in this age than in any other. What of all the diets and self-imposed fasts people take on in order to look better? What about the self-imposed pain of body piercings or tattoos? Or the self-inflicted suffering of unnecessary cosmetic surgery to acquire the latest “look”? Or how about the pain and discipline of work people impose on themselves to get a promotion to the next rung of the corporate ladder, or to pass an exam or to write a thesis or a book? Consider all those people who jump out of bed to jog at the crack of dawn, no matter what the weather is like. And all those who faithfully push themselves at the gym several times a week or who undergo rigorous training to play in sporting competitions. What about those who take part in Ironman competitions? These involve a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile cycle followed by a full marathon (26.2 miles) one after the other, without a break. That is surely more punishing than corporal mortification…
But for some reason, people flinch at the mention of self-imposed pain in the spiritual life. The very idea of penance is shocking and strange to us today.
But we need to recall that penance is an absolutely indispensible part of a serious Christian life. It will be impossible to find the life of any saint who did not practice it, and impossible to find any classic book on the spiritual life that does not advocate it. As St Thomas More said: “We cannot go to Heaven in feather beds”. Pope Benedict also called our attention to the importance of penance in his excellent letter to the Catholics of Ireland, who are living through a time of crisis. In this letter he specifically mentioned the importance of penance in the reform of the Church in Ireland.
But this doesn’t mean that we need to wear hairshirts (like Thomas More himself) or scourge our flesh (like St Pope John Paul II did with his leather belt). There are other small penances that we can perform that are possibly even more difficult for some people than the momentary physical pain of corporal penance but that will still be very helpful.
Here is a link to an excellent pamphlet discussing Christian mortification by the saintly Belgian Cardinal Mercier..
Fr Doyle was severe with himself physically (although, one might add, no more severe than the most popular saints, and also always with the approval of his superiors) but he was always gentle with others, moderating and even restricting their use of physical penances. Here is some advice he gave to another correspondent:
I want you to give up all corporal penance and to take for your particular examen “self-denial in little things”. Make ten acts for each examen, and the more trivial they are the better.
His advice here is especially relevant to the modern age. This self-denial in little things makes our will stronger and probably makes us easier to live with. It can be very simple, such as cleaning up after ourselves, getting out of bed (or going to bed!) on time, not saying a sharp or impatient word etc etc. Each day presents numerous opportunities for following this path that will strengthen our will, build our character and make us easier to live with.
I gave way today to indulgence, with the usual result. Jesus seemed to reproach me bitterly, reminding me that He seeks a perpetual crucifixion from me.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words on 18 July 1914: 106 years ago today. It’s not clear what Fr Doyle had in mind by the word “indulgence”, nor is it clear what he means by the “usual result”. But an educated guess, based on all we know about him, would tell us that he went a little easier on himself by having butter on bread or perhaps a bit too much desert or even an afternoon nap. And the “usual result” of this was probably a sense of lethargy or tiredness or regret. According to the spirituality of the St Ignatius, this sadness is a sign of desolation, a sign perhaps that Fr Doyle did not do what God wanted of him in that moment. While he lay sick and wounded in his bed, St Ignatius read different kinds of books – some were chivalrous romance stories while others were books about saints and the life of Christ. While Ignatius enjoyed each kind of book, he was left with a feeling of emptiness or sadness after finishing the romance stories, while the books about Jesus and the saints left him full of peace and joy. It was this experience that lead St Ignatius to develop his rules for the discernment of spirits. Assuming he was not scrupulous (he wrote a booklet on how to tackle scruples, so we can assume that he wasn’t..) Fr Doyle’s sense of desolation after going a little easier on himself is, according to St Ignatius’ rules for the discernment of spirits, further proof that this personal austerity was truly God’s will for him.
Fr Doyle is one of those curious individuals who was energised by austerity. It made him stronger and fitter and healthier. Conversely, any type of indulgence left him feeling sad and dry.
Part of this may be due to his temperament, but also by his special calling to a life of “perpetual crucifixion”. There is something consoling for us in this – if Fr Doyle could yield occasionally, should we be surprised if we, too, sometimes slip up and fail to keep our resolutions? Such little falls can humble us, and allow us to see just how much we have to constantly rely on God’s grace for everything.
As for Fr Doyle’s life of “perpetual crucifixion”, as stated before here, if we admire his heroism in the war, we also have to admire (but perhaps not imitate!) his joyful life of strict discipline, for it was the training ground for his heroism in the war. We cannot have the Fr Doyle who was a hero of the trenches without also having the Fr Doyle who was a cheerful ascetic.