Thoughts for June 27 from Fr Willie Doyle

A soldier helping a casualty at the Battle of the Somme

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.

Block of wood used by St Teresa of Avila as a pillow