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.
If I have resolved to nail myself to the cross, let me bear ever in mind that our Lord is on the other side of it. When I am tempted to come down, let me stir up my courage by recalling this scene of Calvary and resolve after the example of my Lord and Master to remain fastened to it unto death. I must beware of listening, or above all of yielding, to the universal chorus of voices which will cry out to me to come down. ” Come down or you will ruin your health.” ” Come down and be like the rest of us.” ” Come down or you will render yourself unfit for your work.” ” Come down and walk in the beaten track.” ” Come down, what you are doing is an innovation and cannot be tolerated.” Alas! human respect only too often does make us relax, and down we come. Or we say to our Lord, ” The agony is too long or too distressing, I must have some relief; only just take out one of the nails, Lord, and give me a little respite.” It is the spirit of the times to relax only a little bit, but nevertheless to relax. Ah no! I will imitate our Lord, I will live on the cross and with Him I will die on the cross.
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 Venerable Fr 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. It is important to remember that fasting and abstinence are two different, albeit related, things. 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.
During the winter I have done a penance which I shrink from and dread in a way which I cannot describe. I have had to drive myself by vow to perform it. I set my alarm for three o’clock when it is freezing, slip out of the house in my night-shirt and stand up to my neck in the pond, praying for sinners.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle lived a life of hard penance. While penance and self-denial are essential for spiritual growth, it is clear that most of us are not called to copy this aspect of his life. Fr Doyle clearly felt that he had a very specific call to live this hard life. His confessor seems to have also agreed with this, and to have suggested various small modifications to his penances which he gladly implemented.
Fr Doyle’s penances are controversial for some people. It is worth noting that most of the most popular and beloved saints also practiced lives of great austerity. In fact, St Ignatius himself practiced this very same penance of praying whilst standing in a cold lake. These penances have not reduced the popularity of either Ignatius or of the other saints who did similar mortifications. It is also worth bearing in mind that physical mortification was very much the norm during Fr Doyle’s time, and that whatever Fr Doyle did has to be seen in that context.
The example of Fr Doyle’s penance in the lake came to mind when reading an account of the Forth Martyrs of Sebaste in Armenia, whose feast it is today. Here is a description of their martyrdom from Butler’s Lives of the Saints, itself an important source of inspiration for Fr Doyle as a young man:
The forty martyrs were soldiers quartered at Sebaste in Armenia, about the year 320. When their legion was ordered to offer sacrifice they separated themselves from the rest and formed a company of martyrs. After they had been torn by scourges and iron hooks they were chained together and led to a lingering death.
It was a cruel winter, and they were condemned to lie naked on the icy surface of a pond in the open air till they were frozen to death. But they ran undismayed to the place of their combat, joyfully stripped off their garments, and with one voice besought God to keep their ranks unbroken. “Forty,” they cried, “we have come to combat: grant that forty may be crowned.” There were warm baths hard by, ready for any one amongst them who would deny Christ.
The soldiers who watched saw angels descending with thirty-nine crowns, and, while he wondered at the deficiency in the number, one of the confessors lost heart, renounced his faith, and, crawling to the fire, died body and soul at the spot where he expected relief. But the soldier was inspired to confess Christ and take his place, and again the number of forty was complete.
They remained steadfast while their limbs grew stiff and frozen, and died one by one. Among the Forty there was a young soldier who held nut longest against the cold, and when the officers came to cart away the dead bodies they found him still breathing. They were moved with pity, and wanted to leave him alive in the hope that he would still change his mind. But his mother stood by, and ‘this valiant woman could not bear to see her son separated from the band of martyrs. She exhorted him to persevere, and lifted his frozen body into the cart. He was just able to make a sign of recognition, and was borne away, to be thrown into the flames with the dead bodies of his brethren.
It is perhaps significant that these 40 martyrs were soldiers. Undoubtedly they received many graces to help them withstand these austerities for so long. But it is also likely that their physical training as soldiers toughened them up as well.
So too, then, with Fr Doyle. If we admire the hero of the trenches with his radiant cheerfulness and disregard of his own comfort in the service of others, we must also respect the spiritual and physical training he undertook in his earlier life. His penances were – unknown to him at the time – the training ground for the heroism of the war years. It seems impossible that we can have one without the other.
And this brings us back to ourselves, and our Lenten observance. If we wish to grow and overcome our weaknesses and vices, then we must train ourselves, and we do this by means of our Lenten resolutions and self-denial, moderated in a way suitable to our strength and capability. There can be a temptation to consider this idea of spiritual growth as quaint or old fashioned, as if we had somehow outgrown this. But who amongst us doesn’t need to improve? Don’t we want to be better parents and spouses? Wouldn’t our families or communities be more peaceful places if we all worked to perfect ourselves and overcome our faults? Wouldn’t our world be a better place if individuals had more self-control and patience and dedication to duty? Perhaps this idea of growing in virtue is not so out of date after all…
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.
A fierce temptation during Mass and thanksgiving to break my resolution and indulge my appetite at breakfast…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.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote this reflection in his diary in September 1913. It is most appropriate for us to consider these words today, the First Sunday of Lent, on which we read in the Gospel an account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert.
Jesus is like us in all things but sin. He has been tempted, and not just tempted like us, but with even greater ferocity and power. In today’s quote, and in many other places in his diaries and letters, Fr Doyle speaks of the absolute necessity of trusting in God and seeking his help in moments of temptation. We cannot succeed alone, but we have a God who fully understands the nature of temptation. If we are tempted to give up our Lenten resolutions already, or if we are tempted not to start again if we have already fallen, we should turn with confidence to Christ who understands our weakness and will assist us with his grace.
Let us conclude today with these words from Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen OCD, the author of Divine Intimacy, a classic text of Carmelite meditations.
Let us learn from Jesus how to conduct ourselves in temptations. Primarily, He teaches us to have a great confidence in God. Jesus would not satisfy His hunger, nor impress men by means of a brilliant miracle, nor accept kingdoms and wealth because, in a spirit of perfect filial confidence, He had entrusted everything to the Father’s care — His life, His mission, and His glory. Those who will fully trust in God and who rely on His divine Providence, will not be easily enticed by the vain flattery of the devil, the world, or the flesh, because they know that only God can give true blessings and real happiness.
We should extend the practice of this confidence to the moment of temptation. If God permits us to be tempted, He does not permit us to be tempted beyond our strength, and, accompanying every temptation, there is always a special actual grace sufficient to overcome it. Therefore, instead of being disturbed by the violence of the struggle, let us use faithfully the grace God always gives and turn to Him in humble, confident prayer.