Last night I rose at one a.m. and walked two miles barefooted in reparation for the sins of priests to the chapel of Murrough (Co. Clare), where I made the Holy Hour. God made me realise the merit of each step, and I understood better how much I gain by not reading the paper; each picture, each sentence sacrificed mean additional merit. I felt a greater longing for self-inflicted suffering and a determination to do more “little things”.
Fr Doyle wrote the following in his diary on this day in 1916:
Lately the desire to be trampled on and become the slave of everybody has grown very strong. I have resolved to make myself secretly the slave of my servant and, as far as I can, to submit to his will e.g to wait till he comes to serve my Mass and not to send for him, never to complain of anything he does, to take my meals in the way he chooses to cook them and at the hours he suggests, to let him arrange my things as he thinks fit, in a word, humbly to let him trample on me as I deserve.
O’Rahilly notes that Fr Doyle took these steps as part of his Ignation spirit of taking the offensive against his faults, precisely because he was naturally inclined to want his own way with things. This was part of Fr Doyle’s dominant defect, and we see here his strategic and practical struggle to overcome it. Fr Doyle did not make a truce with his faults, but struggled right to the end to overcome them.
Today is the feast of St John XXIII. Just as many Generation X Catholic have an affection for St John Paul II as he was the pope of their formative years, so too there are many of an older generation who have a strong affection for Pope John.
At first glance there does not seem to be much in common between Fr Doyle and St John XXIII. But a closer examination shows many similarities. This is not surprising – Fr Doyle and St John were close in age – Fr Doyle was born in 1873 and St John in 1881. Both were nourished on the same piety and devotional practices typical of that era. Fr Doyle, as a Jesuit, was obviously a son of St Ignatius. But St John himself did the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises himself on a number of occasions.
We know much about the spiritual life from the diaries of both men. St John’s spiritual diaries have been published under the title Journal of a Soul. It is an extraordinary book, revealing the saint’s struggle to overcome his defects and his growth in holiness. When one studies the book, comparing them to Fr Doyle’s diaries, the similarities between the two men become very clear.
One of St John XXIII’s encyclicals was entitled Paenitentiam Agere – On the need for the practice of interior and exterior penance. We find in this encyclical a call for all the faithful to offer up penances for the Church. We also find this interesting paragraph:
It is right, too, to seek example and inspiration from the great saints of the Church. Pure as they were, they inflicted such mortifications upon themselves as to leave us almost aghast with admiration. And as we contemplate their saintly heroism, shall not we be moved by God’s grace to impose on ourselves some voluntary sufferings and deprivations, we whose consciences are perhaps weighed down by so heavy a burden of guilt?
St John XXIII speaks of inspiration, admiration and saintly heroism when considering the harsh penances of the saints…
The entire document is well worth reading:
Fr Doyle’s life of penance may not be something we are called to imitate in its totality. Indeed, on this day in 1914, Fr Doyle wrote one of his characteristic diary entries:
Jesus told me at Exposition, and I do not think I have mistaken His voice, that the way in which I must sanctify myself myself is by suffering, corporal penance, and denial in all things.
Clearly, in the absence of a special and very rare calling, we are not expected to copy Fr Doyle by denying ourselves in all things. But it is important to remember that Fr Doyle’s penitential spirit was entirely in conformity with the tradition of the Church, and is mirrored in the lives and teachings of the saints, including the ever popular St John XXIII.
It would be bizarre for anybody to over-emphasise the role of physical penance in the life of St John XXIII and to reduce his personality to this one aspect of his spiritual life. So, too, those who allow Fr Doyle’s penance to dampen their devotion to him do him a disservice, and foster an unbalanced image of a very human and very self-sacrificing war hero.
Kneeling at the grave of the Little Flower I gave myself into her hands to guide and to make me a saint. I promised her to make it the rule of my whole life, every day without exception, to seek in all things my greater mortification, to give all and to refuse nothing. I have made this resolution with great confidence because I realise how utterly it is beyond my strength; but I feel the Little Flower will get me grace to keep it perfectly.
COMMENT: As can be seen from this quote, Fr Doyle had a great devotion to St Therese, whose feast we celebrate today. This devotion may have been heightened by the fact that they were born in the same year, 1873. It can come as a shock to see others younger than us who, already having died, are plainly seen to have lived lives of great holiness. It is a reminder to us that holiness is not the preserve of the old or something that we should set our minds to some day in the future. It is the task we are to achieve today, now!
Modern piety has tended to greatly distort the image of St Therese, presenting her in a rather sentimental manner. Perhaps her own nickname, as the Little Flower, is partly to blame. The reality is that St Therese was a tough spiritual warrior who faced many problems and sufferings, including a dreadful spiritual blackness. Her Little Way is anything but simple or “little” – her way of abandonment and trust and simplicity and acceptance of daily crosses is open to all, but it takes much effort and holiness to persevere in this, even for one day!
There are many similarities between Therese and Fr Doyle, especially when it comes to embracing our daily duties, the life of spiritual childhood and the spirit of mortification.
Consider, for example, the following quotes from Therese:
Above all I endeavoured to practise little hidden acts of virtue; thus I took pleasure in folding the mantles forgotten by the Sisters, and I sought for every possible occasion of helping them. One of God’s gifts was a great attraction towards penance, but I was not permitted to satisfy it; the only mortification allowed me consisted in mortifying my self-love, and this did me far more good than bodily penance would have done.
When someone knocks at our door, or when we are rung for, we must practise mortification and refrain from doing even another stitch before answering. I have practised this myself, and I assure you that it is a source of peace.
And here are some comments from one of her sisters in Carmel on St Therese’s spirit of penance:
Thus in many pretty ways she hid her mortifications. One fast-day, however, when our Reverend Mother ordered her some special food, I found her seasoning it with wormwood because it was too much to her taste. On another occasion I saw her drinking very slowly a most unpleasant medicine. “Make haste,” I said, “drink it off at once!” “Oh, no!” she answered; “must I not profit of these small opportunities for penance since the greater ones are forbidden me?”
Toward the end of her life I learned that, during her noviciate, one of our Sisters, when fastening the scapular for her, ran the large pin through her shoulder, and for hours she bore the pain with joy. On another occasion she gave me proof of her interior mortification. I had received a most interesting letter which was read aloud at recreation, during her absence. In the evening she expressed the wish to read it, and I gave it to her. Later on, when she returned it, I begged her to tell me what she thought of one of the points of the letter which I knew ought to have charmed her. She seemed rather confused, and after a pause she answered: “God asked of me the sacrifice of this letter because of the eagerness I displayed the other day . . . so I have not read it.”
This spirit of simple daily penance is reflected in the life of Fr Doyle. Here is a quote from him on embracing our daily duties, followed by some commentary from O’Rahilly’s biography:
“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. How many alas! who might be saints are now leading lives of indifferent virtue, because they have deluded themselves with the thought that they have no strength to bear the holy follies of the saints. How many a fair flower of innocence, which God had destined to bloom in dazzling holiness, has faded and withered beneath the chill blast of a fear of suffering never asked from it.” (April, 1905.)
Words such as these, coming from the pen of one who was not unfamiliar with scourge and vigil and fast, are helpful and consoling. Not that they picture the path of holiness as other than the royal road of the cross. Fr. Doyle wished rather to remove the mirage of an unreal and impossible cross from the way of those of us whose true holiness is to be found in meeting the daily and hourly little crosses, humanly inglorious perhaps, but divinely destined for our sanctification. In the lives of canonised saints, and of him whose life we are recording, there are doubtless holy follies and grace-inspired imprudences. But these are not the essence of sanctity; they are its bloom, whereas its stem is self-conquest. Without these there can be great holiness – no terrifying penances marked the life of St. John Berchmans or of that winsome fragile nun who is known as the Little Flower. But without the slow secret mortification of doing ordinary and mostly trivial duties well, there can be no spiritual advance. Heroism is not a sudden romantic achievement; it is the fruit of years of humdrum faithfulness.
Today is also the anniversary of the death of Venerable Tomás Morales SJ who, as well as being a Jesuit, had a great affection for the Carmelites and for St Therese. Here is a quote from his writings which is relevant for our considerations today.
Fight always, even though you don’t feel like it, even though your mood may be different. Remember what St Therese said: “Where would our merit be if we only fought when we felt like it”.
Fr Doyle wrote the following very private notes in his diary on 27 September 1915 about his prayer the previous night:
Last night I rose at twelve, tied my arms in the form of a cross and remained in the chapel till three a.m. I was fiercely tempted not to do so, the devil suggesting that, as I had a cough, it was madness and would unfit me for the coming mission. Though I shivered with cold, I am none the worse this morning, in fact, the cough is better, proving that Jesus is pleased with these ‘holy imprudences.’ At the end of an hour I was cold and weary, I felt I could not possibly continue; but I prayed and got wonderful strength to persevere till the end of the three hours. This has shown me what I might do and how, with a little determined effort, I could overcome the greatest repugnances and seeming impossibilities.
Clearly we are not called to copy Fr Doyle’s penitential and prayer practices. But it also seems clear that Fr Doyle had a special calling to prayer and penance of this nature. We are called not to judge others. We naturally interpret this to mean that we do not judge others harshly for their sins and failings. But there is another equally valid meaning: we should not judge others harshly for their piety, their prayer and their penance. Fr Doyle’s nocturnal prayer and penance has a precedent in the lives of many saints, and it seems to have indeed brought about about both spiritual and even physical fruit in his life.
As Fr Doyle said on another occasion:
How much is comprised in the little words agere contra! Therein is the real secret of sanctity, the hidden source from which the saints have drunk deep of the love of God and reached that height of glory they now enjoy.
The phrase agere contra refers to the practice of going against oneself, of denying oneself in various ways in order to overcome our defects and vices.
It is not in vogue today, but it has traditionally been an important part of the spiritual life and it is essential in understanding the spirituality of Fr Doyle. He practiced this in so many different ways. In the note above about this night in 1915 he practiced what might be termed a harsh penance. But he also practiced, and always advocated, small and insignificant penances that have the effect of showing love for God, of making one stronger and generally equipping one for better service of others.
Anybody can adopt this type of practice in little things if the will is there – getting up on time, going to bed on time, giving up sugar in our tea, giving up butter on bread or maybe just giving up jam but keeping the butter!! Many of us make such sacrifices for earthly and mundane reasons such as our health or career or our appearances. Surely our love of God, and desire for sanctification, should be of more importance and should be a greater motivation for going against ourselves? Venerable Fr Petit, who was Fr Doyle’s spiritual director in Belgium during his tertian year, immediately after ordination, said that we find self-denial difficult because we have such little love of Jesus.
I was very much annoyed because because someone burnt the floor of my dug-out and also on finding my candles had been taken. On arriving at Locre I found a second bed in my room and heard that X was coming, This upset and worried me terribly till I realised that all these things were God’s doing and that He wished to annihilate my will, so that I should never feel even the smallest interior disturbance no matter what might happen. I have secretly given permission to everyone to treat me as he wishes and to trample on me; why then should I not try to live up to this life?
COMMENT: Fr Doyle had a strong will, and with a strong will often comes a quick temper. We see here various situations which interiorly annoyed Fr Doyle but which he also used as a way of growing in virtue. There is every indication from Fr Doyle’s private notes and the testimony of those who knew him that, with the help of God, he more than conquered his annoyances and temper. We, too, can do the same if we learn to see every moment as an opportunity to grow in virtue.
I have noticed that every time I have indulged myself, my appetite especially, for no matter what reason, I have always had remorse and felt unhappy; but that each generous victory, every additional act of penance, has been followed by peace of soul and contentment.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words in his diary on this day in 1913 – 108 years ago today.
These words are probably counter-intuitive for us. Most of us in the modern world have bought into the idea that life is about maximising our pleasure and getting as much “stuff” as we possibly can. Yet, so often this approach to life leaves us unsatisfied.
Fr Doyle – and indeed all of the saints – had a different philosophy. They believed that happiness and peace came from detachment, and from a radical love of God and neighbour. An essential part of developing this detachment is penance and mortification.
Perhaps our lesson today is that it wouldn’t hurt us much to say “no” to ourselves from time to time, and that it would probably make those around us a bit happier as well.
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.