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.
In addition to being the feast of St Benedict Joseph Labre, yesterday was also the feast of St Bernadette, but I decided to hold over discussion of St Bernadette until today as there were so many other posts yesterday.
Fr Doyle recorded the above reflections after a trip to Lourdes, the spot where Mary appeared to St Bernadette. The message Fr Doyle took away from Lourdes is the very same as the message he took away from Amettes, the birthplace of St Benedict Joseph Labre – penance and austerity.
If one knew nothing else of Fr Doyle, one could form a very erroneous impression of him. It would be easy to misperceive him as harsh and narrow minded. The opposite was the case – he was joyful and happy and full of practical jokes. Yet, underneath this joy, he lived a very harsh personal life. Paradoxically, this may be why he was so joyful. We see the same in so many other saints known for their happiness and joy. All of the saints were happy, but some were especially known for their jokes and happiness – St Francis and St Philip Neri in particular come to mind. We see the same spirit in the life of Sr. Clare Crockett. Yet these saints all lived very austere personal lives.
St Francis de Sales says that:
To receive the grace of God into our own hearts, they must be void of our own glory.
Self-love and love of God do not happily live side by side. People who tire themselves out with exercise paradoxically end up with more energy. In the same way, people who live with a spirit of service, generosity and self-denial (so long as it is suited to their strength and station in life) are often more joyful than those who indulge their every whim.
I have just returned from a mission. Before going I made up my mind to give up for the week my mortifications at meals, partly through self-indulgence, partly to avoid singularity. I was very unhappy the whole time, Jesus reproaching me constantly for abandoning my life of crucifixion.
All my life my study has been to avoid suffering as much as possible, to make my life a comfortable one. How unlike my Jesus I have been, who sought to suffer on every occasion for me, for me. I should be glad when pain comes and welcome it, because it makes me more like Jesus.
COMMENT: How we can all identify with Fr Doyle’s words today. Our entire modern society is arranged in such a way as to maximise our comforts. Much of the technological advancement of recent decades has been oriented towards our comfort.
At one level this is not an inherently bad thing. Suffering is not good. But we must also remember that we serve a crucified Lord. If we buy into a consumerist mentality whereby the entire focus of our lives is our comfort, our appetite, our leisure and our whims, then can we really say that we are following the Master who had nowhere to lay His head? As in all areas of life, Christianity calls us to balance, and it is when we lose this balance that we run into problems.
As St Thomas More said, we cannot get to Heaven on a feather bed.
Whenever there is a question of choice, ask yourself, “Which would please God most?”, then, “Which will come hardest to my nature?”. It is this, then, that you will choose: and even though you may not always do so, keep your mind and will bent in the direction of doing always whatever goes against self. This is true holiness.
COMMENT: This is one of Fr Doyle’s hard sayings. Our human nature tends to values comfort, personal autonomy, the pursuit of pleasure and the easy life. To such a mindset, the idea of “going against self” seems to be bizarre.
Yet for all that, modern man does not mind going against himself when it suits him. How many today “go against themselves” in order to earn more money and gain a promotion? How many “go against themselves” by punishing themselves at the gym in pursuit of a more alluring body? It seems to suit the modern mentality to go against our easy going nature when the reward is worth it. And perhaps this indicates that, for many of us today, the love and glory of God is not a sufficient reward to make us go against our natural tendencies…
This is not how it was with the saints. St Thomas More deliberately chose the eldest sister of a family to marry, even though he found the younger sister to be more appealing to him – he felt that it would be dishonourable to leave the elder sister unmarried. This same saint wrote about how we cannot get to Heaven in a feather bed. The Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to destroy his lecture notes every year and start from scratch the following year, even though he was teaching the very same course again – he didn’t want to get lazy by regurgitating the same lecture. St John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church, wrote on the same theme as follows:
The soul should always be inclined: not to what is easiest, but to what is more difficult; not to what is more tasty but to what is more insipid; not to what is more pleasant but to what is less pleasant.
St Therese, one of the most beloved of all saints, was dedicated to the teaching of St John of the Cross, and she sought to concoct many ways of going against herself – including, for example, not leaning on back of her chair – so as to have some small discomfort as she sat.
The idea of acting against one’s inclinations is very characteristic of Fr Doyle. But as we have seen from just a few saints (and we could multiply the examples many times over…) it was not some oddity or personality quirk on his part. Apart from having a long tradition in ascetically theology, it is a fundamentally Ignatian notion, and we find many references to it in St Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. It was a concept very dear to the Jesuits of Fr Doyle’s time. Consider the following, written by Blessed John Sullivan SJ, a friend of Fr Doyle’s who was ordained on the same day:
We shall acquire personal love of our Lord by going against our own self-love, rooting it out of our hearts. The two cannot exist together. Anything that denies self is an act of love.
Fr Doyle helped many people throughout his life, especially during the war. How many people – and especially how many soldiers – benefitted precisely because Fr Doyle acted against his own inclinations?
And how much our families and our society would benefit if we acted against our natural inclinations more often…
During His Passion our Lord was bound and dragged from place to place. I have hourly opportunities of imitating Him by going cheerfully to the duty of the moment: recreation when I want to be quiet, a walk when I would rather stay in my room, some unpleasant duty I did not expect, a call of charity which means great inconvenience for myself.
COMMENT: For those of us in the Republic of Ireland, this will be an extraordinary Holy Week, for all the wrong reasons. We are prohibited, under pain of penal sanction, from attending public Mass, and from availing of the sacraments. Priests, too, are prohibited from leaving their houses to celebrate a public Mass. This is a painful experience this week, above all others.
God has foreseen all of this. Even if this is not all part of His active will, it is at least permitted by God. He is allowing us, this Holy Week, to be without the sacraments, without our freedoms, and facing serious social and economic upheavals. He has also allowed this strange virus, which is deadly to some and of little consequence to others, to circulate the globe and upend all our lives. St Francis de Sales tells us that the cross that God has prepared for us is always the best one for us. It may not be the one chosen by us, but it is the one chosen by Him to bring forth the most fruit for our souls. Our path has to be to accept these current difficulties with a spirit of faith and serenity, knowing that it is in fact a time of tremendous grace, because whenever there is suffering, there is enough grace to embrace it and to profit from it. We have to strive to emerge from this crisis spiritually stronger than when it started. In particular, we have to exercise ourselves in a spirit of charity, especially for those in our households that we are “confined” with, but also for those in our communities who are in need.
Fr Doyle’s quote today may help us with this. Jesus was bound and had His freedom denied to Him. So too with us this year.
Fr Doyle’s insight shows us a straightforward way in which we can imitate Jesus in His passion. Pretty much all of us have some duties that attach to our state of life – as priests or as parents or as children or as employees. No matter how enthusiastic we may be about our life, there will be times when we find our duties onerous and would rather do something else. Being faithful to our duty, doing things we do not actually want to do, is a great (but difficult!) way of offering up some small penance and imitating Christ who was “bound and dragged from place to place”.
Fr Doyle exemplified this approach throughout his entire life, but one specific example comes to mind today. Here is how Alfred O’Rahilly describes it:
Fr Doyle was once saying goodbye to his brother at Cork railway station, promising himself a feast of the breviary and some hours of quiet prayer during the journey to Dublin, when to his horror he saw a lady acquaintance coming towards him. “Are you going to Dublin, Father?” Won’t you come into my carriage? My sister is with me and we can travel up together”. Fr Doyle murmured “Damn!” under his breath – which fortunately for our consolation was distinctly audible to his brother; but the next instant he was all smiles and amiability, he put his baggage into the indicated compartment, and talked and joked as if he was having the pleasantest experience of his life.
Perhaps some might consider this reaction of Fr Doyle to have been insincere. This is a mistaken interpretation. In this instance Fr Doyle shows us an excellent spirit of mortification and of charity. He could have made some excuse to get away from the woman; he could have sulked when he felt trapped by having to travel with her. But by embracing this particular inconvenience, by showing kindness to his unwanted travelling companion, he exercised great charity and self-control. In contrast, how many of us are guilty of hiding to avoid someone we find inconvenient or distasteful? Perhaps we could have helped them in their problems, but we preferred our own convenience…
As St Josemaria Escriva said:
That joke, that witty remark held on the tip of your tongue; the cheerful smile for those who annoy you; that silence when you’re unjustly accused; your friendly conversation with people whom you find boring and tactless; the daily effort to overlook one irritating detail or another in the persons who live with you… this, with perseverance, is indeed solid interior mortification.
Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.’
In some cultures on Good Friday individuals have themselves nailed to a cross or walk through the streets flagellating themselves. Such public displays are not the normal path by which we are generally called.
By submitting ourselves to daily inconveniences, and by fulfilling the duty of the moment when we would rather do something else, we can imitate Jesus and acquire the virtue of patience. Best of all, by doing this we can be of help to others without drawing any attention to ourselves.
Vince teipsum – conquer yourself. This is the secret of the Spiritual Exercises. “I learnt no other lesson from my master Ignatius,” said St. Francis Xavier, referring to his first retreat at Paris. Here we all fail good men, zealous men, holy men. Prayer is easy, works of zeal attractive; but going against self, till grace and perseverance give facility, is cruel work, a hard battle.
COMMENT: It is appropriate for us to consider this quote from Fr Doyle today for two reasons.
Firstly, conquering ourselves is a crucial part of the Lenten experience. We aim to uproot our vices and become more like Christ during our 40 days of spiritual discipline.
The second reason relates to the person of St Francis Xavier, one of Ignatius’ first companions, one of the greatest Jesuit saints and the patron of the missions. Today is traditionally the last day of the Novena of Grace in honour of St Francis. In St Francis’ day, the mission field was far away; today it is in our own cities and towns, all so badly in need of the New Evangelisation. May he enkindle in us the same passion to save souls that compelled him to travel to the other side of the world. Let us conclude with the traditional novena prayer to St Francis Xavier.
Most amiable and most loving St. Francis Xavier, in union with thee I reverently adore the Divine Majesty. The remembrance of the favours with which God blessed thee during life, and of thy glory after death, fills me with joy. I implore thee to obtain for me, through thy powerful intercession, the inestimable blessing of living and dying in the state of grace. I also beseech thee to obtain the special favour I ask for (Make your request here…)
But, if what I ask is not for the glory of God, and the good of my soul, I pray and desire that which is the most conductive to both.
Surely, my child, you are not surprised to find that you have broken your resolution, or rather, that the devil has gained a victory over you. I am convinced from a pretty big experience that perfection, that is sanctity, is only to be won by repeated failures. If you rise again after a fall, sorry for the pain given to our Lord, humbled by it, since you see better your real weakness, and determined to make another start, far more is gained than if you had gone on without a stumble. Besides, to expect to keep any resolution, till repeated acts have made it solid in the soul, is like expecting to learn skating, for example, without ever falling. The more falls; the better (that is if you do not mind bumps), for every fall means that we have begun again, have made another effort and so have made progress. I mention this because I know that you like myself are given to discouragement and tempted to give up all when failure comes.
COMMENT: So the New Year of 2021 is not so new anymore. We are two months into it; 1/6th of the year is gone and will never return.
Have we stuck with our new year’s resolutions? Do we even remember what they were? And our Lenten resolutions – is our commitment wavering?
If we have failed, never mind. Fr Doyle reassures us today that the spiritual life is about always beginning again. It is consoling to read that one who was so hard on himself was so gentle on others. In today’s quote Fr Doyle once again reveals his own remarkable spiritual balance and gentleness.
I am convinced that generally we reach sanctity of life only through a long series of falls from which we get up.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle had a very realistic understanding of our human nature. He too struggled with temptations and with his own defects, but like the saints he realised that we do not battle alone, but rather with the help of our loving God, of our guardian angel and of the entire communion of saints.
Perhaps many of us have already forgotten what our new year’s resolutions were. Perhaps we have already failed in some of our Lenten resolutions. No matter, we can pick ourselves up and keep moving forward. The most important thing is never to give up.
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 Covid-19 crisis poses a challenge to all of us, no matter where we are in the world. It poses a threat to our lives and our health; it has lead to restrictions on our freedom to move about and travel; it has undermined our economic stability and jobs, and in some countries it has even been used as a reason to limit our access to the sacraments – in Ireland we have been without Mass and the sacraments for the best part of the past year. Who would ever have thought that such a scenario was possible?! 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 to practice the virtues, and perhaps even to a heroic degree. This is the spirit with which the saints would approach the reality in which we now live, as we see from the lives of many saints who lived through much more aggressive plagues – and restrictions on their freedoms – than we now face.
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.
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 became familiar with the life of Fr Doyle while she was a young nun, probably 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.