I depart on my holiday today and, given the lack of connectivity where I will be staying, I will be unable to add any new posts to this blog for the duration of the trip. I will, however, be able to access email.
Also, from July 4th to 9th I will be taking part in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius preached by the wonderful monks of St Joseph’s Abbey in Flavigny. As a result I will also be unable to add posts during that week (and of course unable to access email as well).
Normal service will resume from July 10th or 11th, so please make sure to check back then for daily snippets from, and about, Fr Doyle. I also hope to add more biographical material and links on my return.
In the meantime, I have added just a couple of advance posts below for July 1st and July 4th because the feasts on those days shed some light on different aspects of Fr Doyle’s character and life.
Apart from being the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, or the 6th Sunday after Pentecost (depending on which calendar you use) and Independence Day (if you are on the other side of the Atlantic), it is also the memorial of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati.
Amongst other things, Blessed Pier Giorgio was renowned, as a very young man, for his heroic charity towards the poor of Turin. Reading the life of Fr Doyle instantly reminds one of Blessed Pier Giorgio, for he too served the poor of Dalkey while he was himself a child. In both cases, very few knew of their hidden charity towards others.
From O’Rahilly’s Life of Fr Doyle:
For the poor people on Dalkey Hill Willie constituted himself into a Conference of St. Vincent de Paul. He raised funds by saving up his pocket-money, by numberless acts of economy and self-denial; he begged for his poor, he got the cook to make soup, he pleaded for delicacies to carry to the sick. Once he went to the family apothecary and ordered several large bottles of cod-liver oil for a poor consumptive woman, and then presented the bill to his father! He bought a store of tea with which under many pledges of secrecy he entrusted the parlourmaid. On this he used to draw when in the course of his wanderings he happened to come across some poor creature without the means of providing herself with the cup that cheers. He by no means confined himself merely to the bringing of relief. He worked for his poor, he served them, he sat down and talked familiarly with them, he read books for the sick, he helped to tidy the house, he provided snuff and tobacco for the aged. One of Willie s cases if such an impersonal word may be used was a desolate old woman whose children were far away. One day noticing that the house was dirty and neglected, he went off and purchased some lime and a brush, and then returned and whitewashed the whole house from top to bottom. He then went down on his knees and scrubbed the floors, amid the poor woman’s ejaculations of protest and gratitude. No one knew of this but the cook and parlour maid who lent him their aprons to save his clothes and kept dinner hot for him until he returned late in the evening. While thus aiding his poor friends temporally, he did not forget their souls. He contrived skilfully to remind them of their prayers and the sacraments; he also strongly advocated temperance. There was one old fellow on the Hill whom Willie had often unsuccessfully tried to reform. After years of hard drinking he lay dying, and could not be induced to see a priest. For eight hours Willie stayed praying by the bedside of the half-conscious dying sinner. Shortly before the end he came to himself, asked for the priest and made his peace with God. Only when he had breathed his last, did Willie return to Melrose. His first missionary victory!
As a matter of interest, the image at the top of the webpage is Dalkey Hill seen from the sea. Melrose, where Fr Doyle grew up, is on the other side of the hill. It is one of the most beautiful places in Dublin.
Another thing that both Blessed Pier Giorgio and Fr Doyle had in common was their love of good natured practical jokes. Perhaps more on this aspect of Fr Doyle on another day.
As a child I was convinced that one day God would give me the grace of martyrdom. When quite small I read and re-read every martyr’s life in the twelve volumes of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and longed and prayed to be a martyr, and I have often done so ever since. As years went on, the desire grew in intensity, and even now the sufferings of the martyrs, their pictures, and everything connected with their death, have a strange fascination for me and help me much.
COMMENT: St Oliver Plunkett was the last Catholic martyr of Tyburn and, incidentally, the last canonised Irishman. He was Archbishop of Armagh, and returned to Ireland from Rome at a difficult time for his country. He endured great trials in his attempts to organise and reform the Church in his diocese.
I can find no mention of St Oliver in Fr Doyle’s writings, but it is practically certain that he would have had great interest in his life, especially since his cause was nearing completion during Fr Doyle’s life.
On this day it might be worthwhile to pray for the Church in Ireland which suffers so much at this time.
For those who wish to see Fr Doyle recognised more formally by the Church, it also consoling to remember that St Oliver, a great martyr, died in 1681 and was only beatified in 1920 and canonised in 1975.
Jesus during His mortal life practised many virtues; but none is more conspicuous, none appeals more strongly to us, than His infinite mercy, His tender forgiveness of all injuries. A vile sinner is brought before Him, her very mien proclaims her crime. “Have none condemned thee? Neither shall I. Go, sin no more.” Magdalen, the bye-word of the city, Magdalen whose name was sin and shame, seeks His forgiveness and finds His mercy. Peter, the favoured one, denies his Master and turns his back on Him who loved him so; and Peter’s heart is won, even in his sin, by one loving look of mercy and compassion from the Saviour whose mercy is without end.
COMMENT: The denial of St Peter, and Christ’s subsequent forgiveness, was a frequent theme in Fr Doyle’s notes. The image of a favoured apostle denying his Master seemed to resonate with deeply with him.
As for St Paul, Fr Doyle doesn’t seem to write much about him directly, although he obviously quotes him frequently in his letters. Fr Doyle resembles St Paul in his great missionary zeal. Just as Paul underwent shipwreck and imprisonment and deprivation to bring the Gospel to others, Fr Doyle underwent life in the trenches, and all of its dangers, to bring the sacraments to others.
Peter, Paul and Fr Doyle could all have stayed at home and lived relatively comfortable, safe lives. But they sacrificed this comfort because of their love of Christ, offering their own lives in the process.
On this day we should remember in our prayers the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, who, as St Catherine of Siena reminds us, is the “sweet Christ on earth”.
If an aspiration, on the authority of the Blessed (now Saint) Cure d’Ars, often saved a soul, what must you not do each day you suffer so bravely! This thought certainly will help you and make the pain almost nothing, and will add to its merit, since the motive for bearing it will be all the higher.
COMMENT: Today’s quotation comes from a letter of spiritual direction Fr Doyle wrote to somebody who was sick. Like many other expert spiritual directors, Fr Doyle had a very heavy daily correspondence with people all across Ireland.
His advice today is clear – even when we are sick or incapacitated we can do much good by offering up our sufferings for others, especially for the salvation of souls.
This principle applies to us all, at all stages of life. We can offer up minor inconveniences, aches and pains, our work, in fact everything in our life for others. Seen in this light, every day presents a multitude of opportunities to offer small things with love for others, and to grow in holiness ourselves by virtue of these sacrifices.
From the Gospel of the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
As they were going along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But he said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
COMMENT: In this very tough passage, Jesus tells us of the high cost of discipleship. It involves a radical detachment from our comforts and from the things of this earth. This of course legitimately means different things for different people. For some detachment will mean that, while they have material things, and human relationships, they have to practice an interior detachment from them and always have a willingness to give them up if this is God’s will. For others, however, this detachment is literal – it demands a physical detachment from even the legitimately good things of this earth.
Fr Doyle lived this detachment in a very literal fashion.
Prior to going to war, he lived a great detachment in his life as a priest. He imitated Christ who had nowhere to lay his head by often sleeping on planks of wood. This is similar to many of those canonised saints who practised penance of this sort. Thus for instance, we find that the holy Doctor of the Church St Teresa of Avila used a block of wood for a pillow. And not just any block of wood – it was a great big lump of wood which, even if it were a soft cushion, would require sleeping at an awkward angle.
But it was in the trenches where Fr Doyle really got the opportunity to imitate his Master who had nowhere to sleep. Normally, Fr Doyle slept in a dug-out. This would have been a fairly penitential arrangement; his letters often describe how rats and other creatures would regularly walk over him at night in the dug-out.
But in early September 1916, as his men prepared for the Battle of the Somme, Fr Doyle had a literal experience of having nowhere to lay his head. According to O’Rahilly’s book:
The men’s resting place that night consisted of some open shell holes. “To make matters worse,” writes Fr. Doyle, “we were posted fifteen yards in front of two batteries of field guns, while on our right a little further off were half a dozen huge sixty-pounders; not once during the whole night did these guns cease firing.” This proximity not only contributed an ear-splitting din but added considerably to the men’s risk owing to the occasional premature bursting of the shells. In spite of these discomforts and the torrential downpour of rain, the men slept out of sheer weariness. “I could not help thinking,” says Fr. Doyle, “of Him who often had nowhere to lay His head, and it helped me to resemble Him a little.”
In fact, weather conditions were so bad that night that the men in the empty bomb craters were afraid that they would be flooded out of them. Thankfully those in the crater with Fr Doyle found some type of cover or tarpaulin with which to cover their crater and find some protection.
Fr Doyle wrote a letter to his father about the Battle of the Somme; it is worth quoting his reflections on the hardships endured:
I have been through the most terrible experience of my whole life, in comparison with which all that I have witnessed or suffered since my arrival in France seems of little consequence; a time of such awful horror that I believe if the good God had not helped me powerfully by His grace I could never have endured it. To sum up all in one word, for the past week I have been living literally in hell, amid sights and scenes and dangers enough to test the courage of the bravest; but through it all my confidence and trust in our Blessed Lord’s protection never wavered, for I felt that somehow, even if it needed a miracle, He would bring me safe through the furnace of tribulation.
June 26: The feast of St Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei
Today the Church celebrates the feast of St Josemaria Escriva. Instead of a message from Fr Doyle, we have a message from a saint, ABOUT Fr Doyle. From point 205 of St Josemaria’s The Way:
We were reading — you and I — the heroically ordinary life of that man of God. And we saw him fight whole months and years (what ‘accounts’ he kept in his particular examination!) at breakfast time: today he won, tomorrow he was beaten… He noted: ‘Didn’t take butter…; did take butter!’
May you and I too live our ‘butter tragedy’.
Yes, that’s right: the heroically ordinary “man of God” was none other than Fr Willie Doyle.
Alfred O’Rahilly’s biography caused something of a stir on its release, and all before the age of blogs and facebook and twitter and all the easy ways of manufacturing celebrity and hype that we have today. Within a few years the book had been translated into German, Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch and Polish (and perhaps translations I don’t know about?). This heroically ordinary Jesuit priest from Dublin seemed to have quite an appeal for people from very different cultures.
St Josemaria read a Spanish copy of the book and was obviously deeply impressed if he held up Fr Doyle as an example of holiness for members and friends of Opus Dei. St Josemaria’s The Way first appeared in 1934 under the title Consideraciones espirituales. Over the years, more than four and a half million copies have been sold, and it has been translated into 43 different languages. That’s an incredible level of popularity for this book, and, even though he is only a very small part of the book, it’s an incredibly powerful anonymous influence on the part of Fr Doyle. How many people have copied his example of small mortifications thanks to this reference from St Josemaria?
Perhaps this is a fitting place to include some references from O’Rahilly’s book on the matter of Fr Doyle and his diet. In all of this it is very clear that Fr Doyle didn’t find these mortifications easy; they were, as St Josemaria said, a tragedy:
He was systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points; every day he did many things for no other reason than that he would rather not do them; so that, when the hour of need and big-scale heroism drew nigh, it did not find him unnerved and untrained to stand the test. For most assuredly he was a man who daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. “Other souls may travel by other roads,” he once wrote, “the road of pain is mine.” He developed a positive ingenuity in discovering possibilities of denying himself. Thus he was always striving to bear little sufferings and physical discomforts were it only the irritation of a gnat without seeking relief; he tried to imagine that his hands were nailed to the cross with Jesus. He gave up having a fire in his room and even avoided warming himself at one. Every day he wore a hair-shirt and one or two chains for some time; and he inflicted severe disciplines on himself. Moreover, between sugarless tea, butterless bread and saltless meat, he converted his meals into a continuous series of mortifications. Naturally he had, in fact, a very hearty appetite and a keen appreciation of sweets and delicacies; all of which he converted into an arena for self-denial…
We find him pencilling this resolution on the first page of the little private notebook he kept with him at the Front: “No blackberries. Give away all chocolates. Give away box of biscuits. No jam, breakfast, lunch, dinner.”
…Just after giving a retreat in a Carmelite convent, he records: “I felt urged in honour of St. Teresa to give myself absolutely no comfort at meals which I could possibly avoid. I found no difficulty in doing this for the nine days. I have begged very earnestly for the grace to continue this all my life and am determined to try to do so. For example, to take no butter, no sugar in coffee, no salt, etc. The wonderful mortified lives of these holy nuns have made me ashamed of my gratification of my appetite.” That he by no means found this mortification easy we have many indications. Thus on 5th Jan., 1912, he writes: “During Exposition Jesus asked me if I would give up taking second course at dinner. This would be a very great sacrifice; but I promised Him at least to try to do so and begged for grace and generosity.”
“A fierce temptation during Mass and thanksgiving,” he records a year later (18th Sept., 1913), “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.”
On the subject of butter there are many resolutions in the diary. Materially the subject may seem trivial, but psychologically it represents a great struggle and victory…It is in such little acts that man rises above the beast and fosters his human heritage of a rational will. So Fr. Doyle’s butter-resolutions are not at all so unimportant or whimsical as they who have ever thoughtlessly eaten and drunk may be inclined to fancy. “God has been urging me strongly all during this retreat,” he writes in September 1913, “to give up butter entirely. I have done so at many meals without any serious inconvenience; but I am partly held back through human respect, fearing others may notice it. If they do, what harm? I have noticed that X takes none for lunch; that has helped me. Would not I help others if I did the same?” “One thing,” he continues, “I feel Jesus asks, which I have not the courage to give Him: the promise to give up butter entirely.” On 29th July, 1914, we find this resolution: “For the present I will take butter on two mouthfuls of bread at breakfast but none at other meals.” To this decision he seems to have adhered.
…This relentless concentration of will on matters of food must not lead us to suppose that Fr. Doyle was in any way morbidly absorbed or morosely affected thereby. For one less trained in will or less sure in spiritual perspective there might easily be danger of entanglement in minutiae and over-attention to what is secondary. All this apparatus of mortification is but a means to an end, it should not be made an end in itself…This persistent and systematic thwarting of appetite helped Fr. Doyle to strengthen his will and to fix it on God. He never lost himself in a maze of petty resolutions, he never became anxious or distracted.
Alfred O’Rahilly concludes his discussion of Fr Doyle’s eating habits with some wise advice for the reader:
The armour of Goliath would hamper David. There are those whom elaborate prescriptions and detailed regulations would only strain and worry. And these best find the peace of God in a childlike thankful acceptance of His gifts, without either careless indulgence or self-conscious artificiality.
One amusing concluding note: Some translations of The Way refer to sugar instead of butter because the original translator couldn’t understand how anyone would want to give up butter on their bread. It’s unclear whether he thought the matter too trivial or too hard. In any event both translations are correct – Fr Doyle fought, and won, his battle against both butter and sugar.
Those who are unfamiliar with Alfred O’Rahilly’s definitive biography of Fr Doyle, from where the above quotations are taken, can find details of how to order a reprint in the resources section of this site here
Do nothing without consulting Him in the Tabernacle. But then act fearlessly, if you see it is for His honour and glory, never minding what others may think or say. Above all, “cast your care upon the Lord and He shall sustain you”, (Psalm 54. 23). Peace and calm in your soul, prayer ever on your lips, and a big love in your heart for Him and His interests, will carry you very far.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle had a tremendous devotion to the Eucharist which sustained his austere life of hard work, both in and out of the trenches. His advice to us today reflects the story of Jesus telling the apostles to let down their nets for a catch even though the task seems pointless (Luke 5:4-7):
And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.
Do we act fearlessly today when the Holy Spirit inspires us? Or are we still too concerned about “what others may think or say”?
Today the Church celebrates the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist. Fr Doyle does not seem to have written about St John very much, but in one letter to his sister, a nun, written on 19th December 1916, alludes to the similarities between the harshness of his own life and that of St. John’s. The letter is qorth quoting in its totality. Two things come across very clearly in this letter – his own natural abhorrence at the nature of his life in the trenches and, secondly, his supernatural joy and acceptance of this cross.
I want to have a little chat with you but you must promise to keep to yourself what I write to you. Did I ever tell you that my present life was just the one I dreaded most, being from a natural point of view repugnant to me in every way? So when our Blessed Lord sent me to the Front I felt angry with Him for taking me away from a sphere of work where the possibilities, at least, of doing good were so enormous, and giving me a task others could perform much better. It was only after a time that I began to understand that “God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts”, and the meaning of it all began to dawn on me. In the first place my life, especially here in the trenches, has become a real hermit’s one, cave and all, a mixture of solitude with a touch of the hardships of a foreign mission. The result has been that God has come into my life in a way He never did before. He has put strange thoughts into my head and given me many lights which I feel have changed my whole outlook upon life. Then I feel, oh, so strongly, that I am going through a kind of noviceship, a sort of spiritual training, for some big work He wants me to do in the future. I feel every day as if spiritual strength and power were growing in my soul. This thought of being trained or fitted for God’s work (if I may use the comparison with all reverence) like St. John the Baptist, has filled me with extraordinary joy and made me delight in a life which could not well be much harder.
Here I am in a bit of a hole in the side of a ditch, so low that I cannot stand upright and have to bend my head and shoulders during Mass. I can tell you my back aches at the end. My only window is the door (without a door) through which the wind blows day and night; and a cold wind it is just now. I was offered a little stove but my “Novice Master” did not want that luxury, for it never came. My home would be fairly dry if I could keep out the damp mists and persuade the drops of water not to trickle from the roof. As a rule I sleep well, though one is often roused to attend some poor fellow who has been hit. Still it is rather reversing the order of things to be glad to get up in the morning to try and get warm; and it is certainly not pleasant to be wakened from sweet dreams by a huge rat burrowing under your pillow or scampering over your face! This has actually happened to me. There is no great luxury in the matter of food, as you may well guess. Recently, owing to someone’s carelessness, or possibly because the bag was made to pay toll on the way up to the trenches, my day’s rations consisted of half a pot of jam and a piece of cheese!
Through all this, and much in addition, the one thought ever in my mind is the goodness and love of God in choosing me to lead this life, and thus preparing me without a chance of refusal for the work He wants doing. No amount of reading or meditating could have proved to me so convincingly that a life of privation, suffering and sacrifice, accepted lovingly for the love of Jesus, is a life of great joy, and surely of great graces. You see, therefore, that I have reasons in abundance for being happy, and I am truly so. Hence you ought to be glad that I have been counted worthy to suffer something for our dear Lord, the better to be prepared to do His work. Ask Him, won’t you, that I may not lose this golden opportunity, but may profit to the full by the graces He is giving me. Every loving wish from my heart for a holy and happy Christmas. Let our gift to the divine Babe be the absolute sacrifice of even our desires, so that His Will alone may be done.
In the matter of suffering I think you are inclined to confound the act of the will with feeling. You do not really “draw back” when suffering comes, since you have the will to bear all things for the love of Jesus; but nature shrinks from pain and at times makes our “will to suffer” give way.
COMMENT: It is clear from the Fr Doyle’s notes that he had absolutely no natural desire for the penitential life that he lead. His diary is so refreshingly honest – he wanted to eat cakes, he wanted sugar in his tea, he wanted more sleep, he didn’t want to pray. He was often tired and sick. Yet he put aside his feelings, and exerted his will. Fr Doyle is an excellent role model for us when we don’t feel like doing what we know deep down we should do.