Thoughts for the Feast of St Mary Magdalene from Fr Willie Doyle

Mary Magdalene meditating on the Crucifixion. Pedro de Mena (1664)

Jesus allowed her to wash His feet but knew well what those eyes had looked on. He allowed her lips to kiss His feet knowing what sinful words had fallen from them. He did not shrink from the touch of hands which had served Satan so long. He even welcomed the love of a heart so long filled with unholy desires. Mary, penitent as she is, could not fully know the depth of her guilt, she had forgotten many sins; but Jesus saw all… 

In those few moments Mary had learnt a precious lesson: that peace, contentment, holiness are to be found at the feet of Jesus and there alone, that the delights of contemplation far outweighs the empty joys which the world offers.

COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was of great significance in the early Church. There is some confusion as to some aspects of her exact identity; traditionally she is identified with the sinful adulteress or prostitute who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and dried them with her hair, although other scholars dispute that this was Mary Magdalene. We know that Jesus cast seven devils from her (Luke Chapter 8), and that she followed Him closely and loved Him dearly; that she stayed by the foot of the cross while many others (including almost all of the Apostles) abandoned Him. She prepared His sacred body for the tomb, and after the Sabbath, even before dawn, she rushed to the tomb to anoint the body. Jesus rewarded her love – she was the second person He appeared to after His resurrection (tradition tells us that He surely appeared first to His mother Mary, even though this is not described in the Gospels). Jesus had a special mission for Mary Magdalene – He told her to go and tell His Apostles about His resurrection! Here is a woman who had been possessed by seven devils (and who may or may not have been a prostitute) and Jesus gave her the job of telling His specially chosen ones about His resurrection! 

There is a profound message here. Jesus loves all of us, and everyone is given a special task, irrespective of our past sins, irrespective of whether we are male or female, irrespective of our position in the hierarchy of the Church and irrespective of whether we are ordained or not. The converted St Mary Magdalene, the model of penitents, was given a special mission to announce the resurrection to others. Significantly, she didn’t need to be ordained to do this…

Thoughts for July 21 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Lawrence of Brindisi in battle

“I will give thee hidden treasures.” Isaiah 45. 3. Jesus has treasures which He hides from those who love Him not and do not seek Him. To His favoured ones, His faithful servants, He opens wide the storehouse where they lie and pours His graces forth unmeasured. He is a hidden God. He dwells not with the proud and haughty. He lingers not amid the tumult of the world.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle didn’t write these sentences about St Lawrence of Brindisi, but they are entirely apt for this feast. I’m not aware that Fr Doyle ever wrote about St Lawrence, but I imagine that he had some affection for him, for St Lawrence was himself a military chaplain.  St Lawrence was a remarkable man with a stunning list of achievements. He was a first rate scholar with a command of numerous European and Biblical languages. He was a super-star preacher for who was surrounded by crowds eager to hear him preach (and snip off a piece of his beard or clothing as relics!). He was an advisor to Popes and was sent on delicate diplomatic missions on behalf of the papacy. He was an advisor to royalty throughout Europe. He was an inspirational military chaplain, largely responsible for military victories at a critical juncture in the history of Europe. He held, at one time or another, every office in the Capuchin order, including that of vicar-general (overall superior) and was the founder of several monasteries and convents. To top it all off, he was a renowned mystic and miracle worker. He is also one of the elite Doctors of the Church.  Fr Doyle tells us today that Jesus has a storehouse of graces which he will pour out on those who love Him and seek Him. We see this in an extraordinary way in the life of St Lawrence. We also see it, albeit in a more subtle way but no less real way, in the life of Fr Doyle. When we look at Fr Doyle, we see a man who was transformed over the course of his life. He was born into privilege, yet he was devoted to ordinary workers, and was loved by the ordinary working class soldiers he encountered in the war. He had a nervous breakdown as a young man over a fire that broke out in his building and he almost had to leave the Jesuits, yet during the war he was a rock of fortitude and calm in the midst of fear and turmoil. But we can also experience this transformation through grace in our own lives. The measure in which we open ourselves to grace is the measure in which we will receive it. As the Imitation of Christ says:

The more perfectly one renounces the things of the world, and the better he dies to himself by the contempt of himself, the more speedily will grace come to him, and the more abundantly will it enter in, elevating to greater heights the heart which it has found free and devoid of all.

Finally, returning to a consideration of St Lawrence of Brindisi, Pope Emeritus Benedict gave a very worthwhile catechesis on this Doctor of the Church here: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2011/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20110323_en.html

100 years ago today – Fr Doyle’s last practical joke

Fr Doyle had a tremendous joy and cheerfulness that easily communicated itself to others. He also retained this sense of fun despite the suffering of the war and his own personal austerity and mortification. The saints were always serene and joyful despite their sufferings. Fr Doyle seems to have been no different.

Fr Doyle was also known as a practical joker. It’s not known what others thought about his jokes, and whether they appreciated them or not! But there is little doubt that his jokes were well meaning and were an opportunity to relieve the tension of religious life or the tension of the war. 

Alfred O’Rahilly recounts what he calls Fr Doyle’s last practical joke, which he estimates took place on this day in 1917, less than a month before his death. Perhaps it is more accurate to describe it as Fr Doyle’s last recorded practical joke. Here is his description of it.

One day Fr Doyle chanced upon a fresh unsoiled copy of the “Daily Mail” for a Friday in October 1914, describing the German capture of Roulers. A glance at the scare headings on its front page suggested a hoax on the mess of the 2nd Dublins. Next day, which was a Friday (probably July 20) he managed to get into the mess before the others. He substituted the old copy and abstracted the new one, which he proceeded to read while waiting the turn of events. The first to come in was Major Smithwick who, seeing the heading, called out: “They’ve begun the big advance. Roulers is captured.” At once there was great excitement, and all crowded round to get a peep at the stirring news. But after some moments there were puzzled exclamations. “Why, it’s the Germans who have taken Roulers”. “It’s not Friday’s paper”; “yes it is”. Then the fraud was discovered, and its author was discovered behind the authentic paper. That was Fr Doyle’s last practical joke.

Thoughts for July 19 from Fr Willie Doyle

Believe me, I feel intensely for you, my child, for I know what you have suffered in the past and how violent the attacks of the tempter have been. But this very thing ought to be a big joy to you, since it shows how much the evil one fears what you are going to do for our Blessed Lord and poor perishing souls. If you were not a dangerous “enemy”, he would leave you alone, but he cannot help showing his hand. That being so, you can easily see how foolish it would be to yield to him now after so many heroic victories. Besides, I promise you this, that if you fight the temptations for a little while, great peace will soon come. Your only mistake has been to show the “white feather” even a little. Be brave and generous, my child, for the sake of our dear Lord, who loves you so much, as you know so well. If you have given in a little, don’t lose a moment, but start away again. I shall pray for you, but you must pray for yourself.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle was constantly sought out as a spiritual director and was known for his gentleness and understanding. His advice to the person he is writing to (probably a nun) is simple and loving: “don’t lose a moment, but start away again”. But despite his gentleness, he was still challenging – he calls the nun to “be brave and generous…for the sake of our dear Lord”. The Christian is called to be more than merely nice or polite, but rather to a courageous generosity “for our Blessed Lord and poor perishing souls”.

Fr Doyle’s advice applies just as much now as it did 100 years ago.

Thoughts for July 18 from Fr Willie Doyle

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: 103 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.