Thoughts for November 24 from Fr Willie Doyle

Even as a child I longed and prayed to be a saint. But somehow it always seemed to me as if that longing could never be realised, for I felt there was some kind of a barrier like a high wall between myself and God. What it was, I cannot say even now. But recently this obstacle appears to me to have been removed, the way is open, and I feel I love Jesus now as I never did before, or even hoped to. With this comes the conviction, so strong and consoling with so much peace and happiness, that Jesus will grant my heart’s desire before I die. I dare not put on paper what I feel, even if I could; but at times Jesus seems to pour all the grace of His Sacred Heart upon me, until I am intoxicated almost with His love and could cry out with the pain of that sweet wounding.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle may be referring here to a mystical experience, though perhaps he is writing only in a symbolic fashion

Many saints have described mystical experiences involving spiritual delights and physical pain. Here is St Teresa of Avila describing one of her experiences:

It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful—his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call cherubim. Their names they never tell me; but I see very well that there is in heaven so great a difference between one angel and another, and between these and the others, that I cannot explain it. I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

The later editions of O’Rahilly’s biography contain a letter from an unnamed nun who knew Fr Doyle well. Perhaps it was his sister – we do not know. In any event, this nun knew something of the “sweet wounding” to which Fr Doyle referred and said that it was “a grace like to that received by St Teresa”. If this is correct, it is remarkable. But, alas, we cannot say for certain based on the information to hand…

St Teresa reached such mystical heights despite the fact that she only truly reformed her life at 40, having even given up prayer altogether for a whole year at one stage. We should have confidence that, if we continue to progress towards God, no matter what setbacks or diversions we encounter, the Lord will continue to give us all the graces we need to reach Heaven.

Thoughts for November 23 from Fr Willie Doyle

Do not try to run till you can walk well. Draw up a list of certain little sacrifices which you feel God is asking from you and which you know you will be able to give Him without very much difficulty: better be cowardly than too generous. Then, come what may, be faithful to your list and shake it in the face of the tempter when he suggests that you should give it up.

COMMENT: As always, Fr Doyle presents a sane and balanced spirituality to us. Constancy leads to success in all areas of life, whether it be in acquiring a new skill, in studying for exams or in the spiritual life. It was by constant effort that Fr Doyle grew spiritually to become the hero of the trenches.

His advice is also very relevant as we approach Advent. Often we forget that Advent is a time of penance and preparation. Here in Ireland – and elsewhere I am sure – there is great hype in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and as soon as we reach the 26th or 27th of December (when Christmas is just starting) – it is forgotten about and the focus becomes the New Year. This is not the way we should live as Christians – Advent is a time of preparation to allow us to live the spirit of Christmas with greater joy and intimacy with the Lord. Perhaps it would be good to take Fr Doyle’s advice, and prepare a short list of small, specific sacrifices that we wish to make in preparation for Christmas? The threat of lockdowns and further restrictions on public worship is no barrier to this – these trials provide an excellent opportunity for us all to grow more in the spirit of sacrifice. 

Thoughts for the Feast of Christ the King from Fr Willie Doyle

 

I have long had the feeling that, since the world is growing so rapidly worse and worse and God has lost His hold, as it were, upon the hearts of men, He is looking all the more earnestly and anxiously for big things from those who are faithful to Him still. He cannot, perhaps, gather a large army round His standard, but He wants every one in it to be a hero, absolutely and lovingly devoted to Him; if only we could get inside that magic circle of generous souls, I believe there is no grace He would not give us to help in the work He has so much at heart – our personal sanctification.

COMMENT: In the liturgical calendar of the Ordinary Form, today is the feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday in the liturgical year. Christ asks us to serve in His army, to follow His standard. It takes even greater commitment to follow Christ now than it did in other generations. But by the same token, even more grace is available to assist us.

Christ is the King Who ordains all things for our sanctification and who longs for our union with Him in Heaven. Such thoughts are deeply comforting in the midst of a confused and troubled world.

Thoughts for November 21 from Fr Willie Doyle

Remember the devil is a bad spiritual director, and you may always recognise his apparently good suggestions by the disturbances they cause in the soul. Our Lord would never urge you to turn away from a path which is leading you nearer to Himself, nor frighten you with the prospect of future unbearable trials. If they do come, grace will come also and make you abound with joy in all your tribulations.

COMMENT: Many spiritual writers echo the words of Fr Doyle in today’s quote. St Ignatius speaks of consolations and desolations; the former coming from God and the latter from the enemy. The devil wishes to disturb our soul, injecting fears and scruples and anxiety and a distaste for spiritual things. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, wishes to give us peace. It’s not for nothing that the risen Christ always spoke of peace when He appeared to His disciples.

Fr Doyle was not necessarily an innately heroic man. He suffered from ill health quite a lot in his life. At one stage during his seminary days he suffered what Alfred O’Rahilly describes as “a complete nervous breakdown”  and had to leave the novitiate for a while.  Some doctors even said that he was ill-equipped for the religious life. As one soldier said of him, he had all of the inherent characteristics of a coward. But Fr Doyle didn’t rely on himself and his own powers. He abounded with joy in all of his tribulations because he relied on God who never abandons His followers.

When Jesus ascended to Heaven, he promised to be with his disciples to the end of time. That was true almost two thousand years ago; it was true 100 years ago in the trenches and it remains true today.

Thoughts for November 20 from Fr Willie Doyle

“My yoke is sweet” (Matthew 11. 30). The service of God, the whole-hearted generous service of God, is full of a sweetness hidden from the world. Beneath the rough garb of the monk or the holy nun’s coarse garment there is hidden more real happiness, more true peace and contentment than poor wordlings have ever known or dreamt of. Sweet is the yoke, light the burden of the Lord.

COMMENT: Of course, it’s not just the monk and the nun who know the delight and happiness of serving the Lord – many laypeople who have given “whole-hearted generous service of God” know the sweetness that this entails.

The obligation, then, lies on believing Christians to show this joy to the world around them. The early Christians were known for their joy, even in the midst of persecutions. Do we really have any excuse not to be joyful? For too long religious belief has been stereotyped as something negative or austere, especially in Ireland. Yes, a certain austerity is an element of the spiritual life, but we are to practice a balanced austerity with ourselves, and loving gentleness with others. And always we are to carry peace and joy in our hearts and always communicate this peace and joy to others.

Fr Doyle wrote the following notes in his diary on this day in 1914:

I…gave up aspirations and all penances, and indulged myself in every way. The result was great misery and unhappiness with the feeling that Jesus was very much pained, though I did not seem to care. I felt powerless to rise out of this state. This morning He came back to me during my Mass with such love and grace that I could not resist Him, and took up my former life again. Great peace and happiness since.

In many ways these words are remarkable to read. For Fr Doyle, to indulge himself (and this probably merely meant eating butter or warming himself at a fire…) was to be sad. And it is surely consoling for us to read about how he struggled to rouse himself to virtue and to prayer, until God’s grace aided him in a powerful manner and he was again filled with “great peace and happiness”. There is surely much for us all to console ourselves with in this. 

St Francis de Sales said that one catches more flies with a spoon of honey than with a hundred barrels of vinegar. Fr Doyle himself had this gentle spirit in his dealings with others, despite his own personal austerity. He demonstrated this gentleness when he met what was curiously called a “lady of the unfortunate class” plying her trade on the street. Instead of condemning her, he looked lovingly at her and encouraged her to go home and not offend Jesus. Years later, when she faced execution for her role in a murder, this same prostitute asked for Fr Doyle to be found and brought to the prison to help her. She didn’t know his name and she knew nothing about Catholicism. It was the gentle sweetness of Fr Doyle that won her over, and she died in a state of grace and happiness having received the sacraments at the hands of Fr Doyle.

St Francis de Sales

18 November 1917: General Hickie’s praise for Fr Doyle

Sir William Bernard Hickie was Major General of the 16th Irish Division and knew Fr Doyle extremely well. He wrote the following in a letter to friend on 18 November 1917, 3 months after Fr Doyle’s death:

Fr Doyle was one of the best priests I have ever met, and one of the bravest men who have fought or worked out here.  He did his duty, and more than his duty, most nobly, and has left a memory and a name behind him that will never be forgotten. On the day of his death, 16th August, he had worked in the front line, and even in front of that line, and appeared to know no fatigue – he never knew fear.  He was killed by a shell towards the close of the day, and was buried on the Frezenberg Ridge… He was recommended for the Victoria Cross by his Commanding Officer, by his Brigadier, and by myself.  Superior Authority, however, has not granted it, and as no other posthumous reward is given, his name will, I believe, be mentioned in the Commander-in-Chief’s Despatch…I can say without boasting that this is a Division of brave men; and even among these, Fr Doyle stood out.

Major General Hickie

Thoughts for November 18 from Fr Willie Doyle

Fr Doyle struggled to give up butter on his bread at breakfast

Your desire for penance is an excellent sign…But have a fixed amount to be done each day and do not be doing it in fits and starts. Anything like what you call “frenzy” ought to be suspected and resisted.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle’s life of penance has been a stumbling block for some people. It is true that he lived a life of great personal penance. It is also true that he lived a life of great personal heroism. This shone out in the trenches, but evidence for his selflessness and courage can be seen in many other aspects of his life. Are his life of penance, and his life of heroism, related to each other? Almost certainly they are.

But Fr Doyle was also very balanced. He NEVER encouraged others to follow his own example of penance. He felt that he was given a special calling and special graces, and that such a life of penance was not appropriate for one who did not receive these graces.  In today’s quote, based on a letter of spiritual direction which he wrote to someone seeking his advice, he was clear that penance is important. But he was also clear that penance should be balanced – in one place he writes that the smaller the penance is, the better. In Fr Doyle’s life such balance and small penances can be seen in his reluctance to warm himself at the fire, his refusal to complain about little aches and pains (a favoured sport of many Irish people!), his refusal to give in to the desire to sleep during the day and, most famously, his battle to eat dry bread and to give up butter and jam.

Fr Doyle was a great tactician of the spiritual life. Once again he gives us an excellent example for us to follow.

 

 

Thoughts for 17 November from Fr Willie Doyle

 

Meditating on the Particular Judgement, God gave me great light. I realised that I should have to give an exact account of every action of my life and for every instant of time. To take only my seventeen years of religious life, what account could I give of the 6,000 hours of meditation, 7,000 Masses, 12,000 examinations of conscience, etc.? Then my time: how have I spent every moment? I resolved not to let a day more pass without seriously trying to reform my life in the manner in which I perform my ordinary daily duties. For years I have been “going to begin,” and from time to time made some slight efforts at improvement. But now, dear Jesus, let this change be the work of Thy right hand.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle was a practical and efficient man. In fact, if he hadn’t become a priest, he had the makings of a great businessman. He recognised that each day, each moment, should be directed towards our ultimate goal – union with God. He was constantly focused on this strategic aim.

But his method was also practical. Holiness is not some imaginary thing; it is not based on feelings and sentiment. There are a number of litmus tests of whether we are growing in holiness (none of them involve “feelings”!). One of the surest of these litmus tests is the faithful performance of our daily duties, relying as always on the grace that is always available to us.

Let us learn from the example of Fr Doyle to use our time well.

Thoughts for November 16 from Fr Willie Doyle

Holiness and perfection depend on yourself, not on the actions of others.

COMMENT: How easy it is for us to blame others, or the circumstances of our lives, for our own lack of holiness. Yes, we may live or work with annoying and frustrating people, but there is always a choice on our part to control our annoyance or frustration. We may have many distractions to our work and to fulfilling our duty, but we can choose whether or not we respond to those distractions. We face numerous temptations every day, and with every temptation we always have a choice whether to yield or not. Of course, the more often we yield to annoyances and distractions and temptations, the harder and harder it becomes to resist and to exercise our capacity to choose…

Fr Doyle’s life and example shows us one way of achieving sanctity in the midst of difficult circumstances. Few of us will ever face such challenging circumstances – bombs falling, no silence or solitude, no beauty to remind one of God, want and deprivation, and death in every direction. It would be easy for Fr Doyle to blame his circumstances for lukewarmness or a tendency to take shortcuts. But he didn’t.

What was his secret? In part it was living in the constant presence of God. But it must also surely be because of all of the years of preparation before that. Fr Doyle was faithful in little things and this prepared him for faithfulness when the big challenge came.

While we need God’s grace to become holy, the choice to pursue this rests on ourselves. We must build our capacity to choose holiness by making little efforts and sacrifices each day.

Today we also commemorate the feast of the great Benedictine mystic St Gertrude the Great. St Gertrude was especially devoted to the holy souls in Purgatory. We are now in the second half of the month of November, the month of the holy souls. Let us not slacken in our prayers for our deceased relatives and friends, and indeed for all those in Purgatory, who need our prayers.

Here is the text of an audience address of Pope Emeritus Benedict on St Gertrude. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20101006_en.html

St Gertrude the Great