I have felt strongly urged again to give myself entirely to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and to follow His inspirations. For example, I sometimes feel urged to take the discipline during the day, and when I have been able to overcome the repugnance to the trouble of it, my soul has been filled with joy. Many other thoughts of this kind come into my mind – to rise when I wake, not to do this or that – I am certain they are from the Holy Spirit, but I resist His voice, and hence feel unhappy. In future I will say a little prayer for light and then do what I am impelled to. Just now I was sitting in an armchair fearfully tired. It cost me a big effort to undress and take the discipline, and put on chain round waist. But the result was a most marvellous increase of bodily vigour.
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. In fact, just yesterday there was a half Ironman competition in Dublin. The competitors started the morning with a 1.2 mile swim, followed by a 56 mile cycle and concluding with a 13.1 mile running race. And this is only a half Ironman, not the full thing. 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 allow it to influence us to copy their example imprudently.
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.
By the way, it is often said that St Bernard exerted more influence during his own life than any other saint in history. Some of this was probably due to his own magnetic personality and to the gifts God gave him, and some of it is almost certainly due to the era in which he lived – Christendom in the West was not yet divided and the Church was organised and very powerful.
Here is an interesting homily on St Bernard which elaborates on St Bernard’s incredible influence on those around him, and which also touches on the topic of his imprudent penance.
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 2018, 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? How many young women can be seen undergoing the self-imposed pain of wearing dangerously high heels to look taller, or who suffer the self-imposed pain of coldness as they wear scanty clothing in winter in order to attract attention? 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.
For Fr Doyle these little things included not complaining to others when he had a headache or even giving up butter on this bread.
In doing these little things we are merely following the command of Jesus that we take up our cross daily and follow Him.
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: 104 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.
But remember the devil will spoil the work if he can and by every means in his power turn you from your life of immolation.
COMMENT: In today’s snippet, Fr Doyle reminds us that we are contending not only against our own weakness in the spiritual life, but that the devil also wishes to distract us from closer intimacy with God, and that he will use “every means in his power” to turn us aside. Lucifer was the most brilliant of the angels and he has many means in his power. Perhaps most of all, he will use the defects in our own characters, which he knows so well, to turn us from the path of virtue.
When we are tempted, when the devil tries “by every means in his power” to turn us away from our good resolutions, we should proceed as we had planned, with generosity and trusting in God’s help.
Today it is somewhat unfashionable to refer to the Enemy, but if we wish to remove him from our life of faith, we shall be forced to erase a lot of the Gospel as well. True, perhaps previous generations were too focussed on the issues of evil influences, but perhaps we have allowed the pendulum to swing far too much in the other direction in recent decades. If we prefer to ignore the existence of our Enemy, we surely give a major advantage to him.
The efforts of the Enemy should spur us on to greater efforts, not cause us to shrink with fear. As Fr Doyle wrote in his diary 103 years ago today (12 July 1915):
Not feeling well, I gave up the intention of sleeping on boards, but overcame self and did so. I rose this morning, quite fresh and none the worse for it, proving once more how our Lord would help me if I was generous.
Fr Doyle, as a good disciple of St Ignatius, knew that a fundamental principle of our spiritual combat is to act against temptation, not to meekly yield when tempted. Consider the words of St Ignatius:
It is the way of the enemy to weaken and lose heart, his temptations taking flight, when the person who is exercising himself in spiritual things opposes a bold front against the temptations of the enemy, doing diametrically the opposite. And on the contrary, if the person who is exercising himself commences to have fear and lose heart in suffering the temptations, there is no beast so wild on the face of the earth as the enemy of human nature in following out his damnable intention with so great malice.
Finally, today is the feast (and wedding wedding anniversary) of the married couple Saints Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St Therese. Fr Doyle was an early and enthusiastic devotee of St Therese. I have recently read a remarkable book about the family of St Therese, which I cannot recommend highly enough. It is by St Stephane-Joseph Piat OFM, originally published in the 1940s under the title “The Story of a Family: The Home of the Little Flower”, but more recently published by Ignatius Press (https://www.amazon.com/Family-Saints-Martins-Lisieux-Saints-Thérèse-ebook/dp/B01H2ISD74/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1531391961&sr=8-1&keywords=family+of+saints) and by TAN (https://www.amazon.com/Story-Family-Home-Therese-Lisieux-ebook/dp/B015EPNGGA/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1531392032&sr=1-1) under slightly different titles. I must admit that, despite having read her autobiography and several other biographies of her, I have been in that (small?) number of Catholics who have an objective appreciation for St Therese, without having a personal, subjective devotion to her. But this book has given me a fresh perspective, and I was highly impressed at the holiness and devotion of the entire family, and especially her parents, both of whom are now rightfully recognised as saints. The bourgeois atmosphere of late 19th Century France may seem foreign to us now. But we can all identify with the Martin family at some level. They worked (both of them!), they had bills to pay, they knew loss and they knew suffering. But they trusted in God, and they put Him first. They were no strangers to criticism, or to being called Pharisees for their adherence to their religion. At a time when debates about marriage and the family are very central to the concerns of the Church, and at a time when the Church in Ireland prepares for the World Meeting of Families, the example of St Louis and St Zelie Martin should stand as a beacon of light and inspiration for all.
Today is the feast of St Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. Instead of a message from Fr Doyle, we have a message from a saint, ABOUT Fr Doyle. From point 205 of St Josemaria Escriva’s The Way:
We were reading — you and I — the heroically ordinary life of that man of God. And we saw him fight whole months and years (what ‘accounts’ he kept in his particular examination!) at breakfast time: today he won, tomorrow he was beaten… He noted: ‘Didn’t take butter…; did take butter!’
May you and I too live our ‘butter tragedy.
The heroically ordinary “man of God” was none other than Fr Willie Doyle.
Alfred O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle caused something of a stir on its release. Within a few years the book had been translated into German, Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch and Polish (and perhaps translations I don’t know about?). This heroically ordinary Jesuit priest from Dublin seemed to have quite an appeal for people from very different cultures.
St Josemaria read a Spanish copy of the book in 1933. He wrote in one of his notebooks:
I have read quickly the life of Fr Doyle: how well I understand the butter tragedy.
For St Josemaria, his personal butter tragedy consisted in his battle to regulate the reading of newspapers. His notes from his 1933 retreat which refer to reading newspapers reveal how difficult this was for him:
This last, not reading newspapers, is for me no small mortification. Nevertheless, with God’s grace, I stayed faithful to it…What battles these struggles of mine were! These epics can be understood only by those who have gone through similar ones. Sometimes conquering; more often, being conquered.
Of course, we must understand what St Josemaria and Fr Doyle were doing when they struggled to give up butter and newspapers. These things are not bad – far from it! But, as an act of love and reparation, saints have often denied themselves little things, even very good things. As well as making an offering of this sacrifice to God, such acts help to strengthen the will. This may all seem a little strange to our modern culture. But, just imagine the difference it makes to family life to live with someone who knows how to deny themselves, versus living with someone who has no control over their appetites, and must always have their way… We might all be better off if from time to time we struggled to give up butter, newspapers, TV, Facebook, sleeping in in the morning…
Such acts do not come easily, and it is consoling to see that St Josemaria and Fr Doyle both struggled with similar small distractions and temptations.
St Josemaria also wrote about Fr Doyle in a letter in 1938 to a member of Opus Dei:
I’m quite envious of those on the battlefronts, in spite of everything. It has occurred to me that, if my path were not so clearly marked out, it would be wonderful to outdo Father Doyle.
Over the years, many millions of copies of The Way have been sold, and it has been translated into dozens of languages. Even though he is only a very small part of the book, it’s a powerful anonymous influence on the part of Fr Doyle. How many people have copied his example of small mortifications, without ever knowing anything about him, thanks to this reference from St Josemaria?
Perhaps this is a fitting place to include some references from O’Rahilly’s book on the matter of Fr Doyle and his diet. In all of this it is very clear that Fr Doyle didn’t find these mortifications easy; they were, as St Josemaria said, a tragedy:
He was systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points; every day he did many things for no other reason than that he would rather not do them; so that, when the hour of need and big-scale heroism drew nigh, it did not find him unnerved and untrained to stand the test. For most assuredly he was a man who daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. “Other souls may travel by other roads,” he once wrote, “the road of pain is mine.” He developed a positive ingenuity in discovering possibilities of denying himself. Thus he was always striving to bear little sufferings and physical discomforts were it only the irritation of a gnat without seeking relief; he tried to imagine that his hands were nailed to the cross with Jesus. He gave up having a fire in his room and even avoided warming himself at one. Every day he wore a hair-shirt and one or two chains for some time; and he inflicted severe disciplines on himself. Moreover, between sugarless tea, butterless bread and saltless meat, he converted his meals into a continuous series of mortifications. Naturally he had, in fact, a very hearty appetite and a keen appreciation of sweets and delicacies; all of which he converted into an arena for self-denial…
We find him pencilling this resolution on the first page of the little private notebook he kept with him at the Front: “No blackberries. Give away all chocolates. Give away box of biscuits. No jam, breakfast, lunch, dinner.”
…Just after giving a retreat in a Carmelite convent, he records: “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.” That he by no means found this mortification easy we have many indications. Thus on 5th Jan., 1912, he writes: “During Exposition Jesus asked me if I would give up taking second course at dinner. This would be a very great sacrifice; but I promised Him at least to try to do so and begged for grace and generosity.”
“A fierce temptation during Mass and thanksgiving,” he records a year later (18th Sept., 1913), “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.”
On the subject of butter there are many resolutions in the diary. Materially the subject may seem trivial, but psychologically it represents a great struggle and victory…It is in such little acts that man rises above the beast and fosters his human heritage of a rational will. So Fr. Doyle’s butter-resolutions are not at all so unimportant or whimsical as they who have ever thoughtlessly eaten and drunk may be inclined to fancy. “God has been urging me strongly all during this retreat,” he writes in September 1913, “to give up butter entirely. I have done so at many meals without any serious inconvenience; but I am partly held back through human respect, fearing others may notice it. If they do, what harm? I have noticed that X takes none for lunch; that has helped me. Would not I help others if I did the same?” “One thing,” he continues, “I feel Jesus asks, which I have not the courage to give Him: the promise to give up butter entirely.” On 29th July, 1914, we find this resolution: “For the present I will take butter on two mouthfuls of bread at breakfast but none at other meals.” To this decision he seems to have adhered.
…This relentless concentration of will on matters of food must not lead us to suppose that Fr. Doyle was in any way morbidly absorbed or morosely affected thereby. For one less trained in will or less sure in spiritual perspective there might easily be danger of entanglement in minutiae and over-attention to what is secondary. All this apparatus of mortification is but a means to an end, it should not be made an end in itself…This persistent and systematic thwarting of appetite helped Fr. Doyle to strengthen his will and to fix it on God. He never lost himself in a maze of petty resolutions, he never became anxious or distracted.
Alfred O’Rahilly concludes his discussion of Fr Doyle’s eating habits with some wise advice for the reader:
The armour of Goliath would hamper David. There are those whom elaborate prescriptions and detailed regulations would only strain and worry. And these best find the peace of God in a childlike thankful acceptance of His gifts, without either careless indulgence or self-conscious artificiality.
As a humorous aside, Point 205 of The Way has been translated in the past to refer to a “marmalade” tragedy and a “sugar” tragedy because the translators could not understand the concept of giving up butter as a mortification. In any event, all three translations would be an accurate reflection of Fr Doyle’s life and asceticism.
Those who are unfamiliar with Alfred O’Rahilly’s definitive biography of Fr Doyle, from where the above quotations are taken, can find details of how to order a copy of the book here.
St Josemaria Escriva is,of course, not the only person renowned for their sanctity who had a devotion to Fr Doyle. Amongst those who admired Fr Doyle we can include Blessed John Sullivan SJ; the Servant of God Fr Bernard Quinn; the Venerable Adolf Petit SJ; Saint Teresa of Calcutta and St Alberto Hurtado SJ, as well as countless others: priests, religious and lay people, both anonymous and renowned, from Ireland and from overseas. Fr Doyle seems to have exerted a wide ranging appeal to many different types of people over the course of several decades.
Slept on the floor. No relief in small sufferings. Put on chain in bad humour. Violent temptations to eat cake and resisted several times. Two hours prayer when weary. Rose for visit at two. Unkind story kept back. Overcame desire to lie in bed.
COMMENT: This is the list of penances Fr Doyle records for this day in 1915. He kept these lists in order to monitor his progress – this organised and methodical approach to the spiritual life was typical of the Ignatian spirituality in which he was trained. Fr Doyle was not an original or expert scholar or theologian, but he was a master tactician of the spiritual life. His daily records show that he fought day after day, with God’s grace, to acquire the self-masery and detachment to which he perceived he had a special calling. We may not be called to imitate the actual penances that Fr Doyle practiced, but we can nonetheless learn from his dogged pursuit of perfection. It is a day by day battle, mostly based around small and seemingly insignificant things, in which those who stand still fall back. As Fr Doyle said elsewhere: “Life is too short for a truce”.