I know I can never be happy unless I am heroically generous with Him. This I have proved time after time. A sacrifice which costs much always brings great grace, joy and interior peace.
A. M. D. G. SOLEMN VOW. After much thought and prayer, feeling myself urged strongly by grace and the ceaseless pleading of Jesus, I have resolved to lead the life of absolute crucifixion which I know He wants and which alone will please Him.
I now promise and bind myself by vow (under mortal sin) ‘ to give Him everything until next Christmas Day, with the power of dispensing myself in case of necessity on any day.
Dear Jesus, I vow, with the help of Your grace, to give You all You ask for the future.
Good Friday, March 21st, 1913.
Towards the end of the retreat a light came to me that, now that I have given Jesus all the sacrifices I possibly can in the matter of food, He is now going to ask retrenchment in the quantity. So far I have not felt that He asked this, but grace now seems to urge me to it. I dread what this means, but Jesus will give me strength to do what He wants.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote this note in his diary in December 1914. He was 41 years of age and had less than 3 years to live. Of course, Fr Doyle fasted, like all religious of the time, but significant extra fasting above the norm does not seem to have been one of Fr Doyle’s primary penances until after this date. For instance, during the war years he does mention fasting from food entirely, although perhaps some of this was a glad acceptance of his circumstances rather than a deliberate renunciation. On the other hand, he often practiced penance relating to the type of food consumed, for instance sugarless tea, meat without salt, dry bread without butter. For those of us who struggle with even little penances, it is surely consoling to read the following admissions from Fr Doyle:
One thing I feel Jesus asks, which I have not the courage to give Him — the promise to give up butter entirely.
The thought of a breakfast of dry bread and tea without sugar in future seemed intolerable.
In contrast, his contemporary Blessed John Sullivan SJ was well known for his tendency to fast, typically only ever eating a small portion of rice for dinner. There is a wonderful diversity of ways in which we can follow God!
Fasting and abstinence are normal parts of the Christian life. The only days in which we are strictly required to fast are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The most obvious form of mortification relating to food is to abstain from meat on Fridays. But there are many other things we can do which in no way would affect our health or wellbeing but would still fortify our spirit. Perhaps we can follow Fr Doyle’s example of giving up sugar in our tea or jam or butter on our bread or go without salt on our meals? Each individual can discern for themselves what the most appropriate penance would be for their own circumstance in life.
In this context let us consider these wise words from St Francis de Sales:
If the work that you are doing is necessary to you or very useful for God’s glory, I prefer you to suffer the burden of work than that of fasting. This is the view of the Church which dispenses even from the prescribed fasting those who are doing work useful for the service of God and the neighbour.
The tradition of Catholic spirituality allows great freedom and discretion in these matters. The important thing, especially during Lent, is not to abuse this freedom by copping out of penance altogether!
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.
The mortification good for you may be measured by your peace of mind. If you find your should troubled by the penance you practice or feel urged to practice, you should suspect the spirit that is leading you. Give all you can, but let it be the ‘cheerful giver’ whom God loves. When the sacrifice is costing you too much and ruffles the spirit, go a little slower and all will be well.
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.
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.
It is also worth recalling that for some of people reading this, and perhaps for me writing it, this Lent could our last. Imagine if we had only one more Lent before we are called to render an account of our lives…
Death is perhaps not so far away for some of us as we might think. The spread of the Covid-19 corona virus poses a threat to all of us, no matter where we are in the world. It poses a threat not just to our lives, but also to our health, our freedom to move about and travel if our town or country is placed in a lockdown situation, our economic stability, our sense of security if law and order are threatened, and perhaps even our access to the sacraments in some cases, as has already happened in parts of Italy. These are not alarmist propositions, but real possibilities, at least in some countries or regions. This Lent may impose penances on us that are not of our own choosing, but penances foreseen by God and allowed by His permissive will nonetheless. Like any challenge, it provides us with opportunities practice the virtues, and perhaps even to a heroic degree. This is the spirit with which the saints would approach the corona virus pandemic, as we see from the lives of many saints who lived through even more aggressive plagues than this one.
Finally, some thoughts from St Leo the Great:
Relying, therefore, dearly-beloved, on these arms, let us enter actively and fearlessly on the contest set before us: so that in this fasting struggle we may not rest satisfied with only this end, that we should think abstinence from food alone desirable. For it is not enough that the substance of our flesh should be reduced, if the strength of the soul be not also developed. When the outer man is somewhat subdued, let the inner man be somewhat refreshed; and when bodily excess is denied to our flesh, let our mind be invigorated by spiritual delights. Let every Christian scrutinise himself, and search severely into his inmost heart: let him see that no discord cling there, no wrong desire be harboured. Let chasteness drive incontinence far away; let the light of truth dispel the shades of deception; let the swellings of pride subside; let wrath yield to reason; let the darts of ill-treatment be shattered, and the chidings of the tongue be bridled; let thoughts of revenge fall through, and injuries be given over to oblivion.
We should call a man a fool who wasted his wealth warming himself before a fire made of banknotes. Do we act less madly in seeking gratification by consuming our precious day in frivolities?
COMMENT: Fr Doyle often wrote about how each day is a precious opportunity to grow in holiness and today’s quote is no exception. We never stand still in the spiritual life – we either move forward towards sanctity, or we regress. How many of us live wasteful lives of frivolity? Even if we are basically “good” people, we can still be consumed with frivolous habits that distract us from our families or friends or our duties in life. Essentially these frivolities draw us away from the holiness and good works with which we should be busy. Of course, we need a balanced asceticism. We all need legitimate leisure pursuits and relaxation. Such activities are both good and necessary in a balanced life. Fr Doyle himself was noted for his robust enjoyment of sport. But even if we do try to live balanced lives, there will probably be some form of frivolity with which we are tempted. In today’s world it is likely to revolve around the internet or the new phenomenon of social media. These technologies are not inherently bad. But many of us may need to examine ourselves to see if we have acquired the habit of using these new technologies in a wasteful or frivolous manner.
When Venerable Matt Talbot died, his room contained many spiritual books and it was partly through these books that we have been able to get a glimpse into his spiritual life (with Fr Doyle this process is easier due to the copious notes he left behind). One of the books in Matt Talbot’s room was a book entitled “On Reading” by Bishop Hedley. The following passage was underlined for emphasis by Matt Talbot:
Even when the newspaper is free from objection, it is easy to lose a good deal of time over it. It may be necessary and convenient to know what is going on in the world. But there can be no need of our absorbing all the rumours, all the guesses and gossip, all the petty incidents, all the innumerable paragraphs in which the solid news appears half-drowned…This is idle and it is absolutely bad for brain and character. There is a kind of attraction towards petty and desultory reading of this kind which is sure to leave its mark on the present generation…Immoderate newspaper reading leads, therefore, to much loss of time, and does no good, either to the mind or the heart.
Perhaps these words could more aptly apply today to our contemporary love of gossip, and especially the modern fascination with celebrities and their intimate lives, as well as to the inordinate use of other distracting social media. And if we are not distracted with news and gossip, there is undoubtedly some other frivolity that may need to be cut out from our lives…