Thoughts for July 31 from Fr Willie Doyle

July 31st The feast of St Ignatius Loyola, Founder of the Jesuits.

We continue Fr Doyle’s account of July 31, 1917 directly after he left off yesterday. Again what is most noticeable is Fr Doyle’s good humour and cheerfulness, even in the midst of this awful war.

It was 1.30 a.m. when our first halting place was reached, and as we march again at three, little time was wasted getting to sleep. It was the morning of July 31st, the Feast of St. Ignatius, a day dear to every Jesuit, but doubly so to the soldier sons of the soldier saint. Was it to be Mass or sleep? Nature said sleep, but grace won the day, and while the weary soldiers slumbered the Adorable Sacrifice was offered for them, that God would bless them in the coming fight and, if it were His Holy Will, bring them safely through it. Mass and thanksgiving over, a few precious moments of rest on the floor of the hut, and we have fallen into line once more.

As we do, the dark clouds are lit up with red and golden flashes of light, the earth quivers with the simultaneous crash of thousands of guns and in imagination we can picture the miles of our trenches spring to life as the living stream of men pours over the top: the Fourth Battle of Ypres has begun.

Men’s hearts beat faster, and nerves seem to stretch and vibrate like harp strings as we march steadily on ever nearer and nearer towards the raging fight, on past battery after battery of huge guns and howitzers belching forth shells which ten men could scarcely lift, on past the growing streams of motor ambulances, each with its sad burden of broken bodies, the first drops of that torrent of wounded which will pour along the road. I fancy not a few were wondering how long would it be till they were carried past in the same way, or was this the last march they would ever make till the final Roll Call on the Great Review Day.

We were to be held in reserve for the opening stages of the battle, so we lay all that day (the 31st) in the open fields ready to march at a moment’s notice should things go badly at the Front. Bit by bit news of the fight came trickling in. The Jocks (15th Scottish Division) in front of us, had taken the first and second objective with little opposition, and were pushing on to their final goal. All was going well, and the steady stream of prisoners showed that for once Dame Rumour was not playing false. Our spirits rose rapidly in spite of the falling rain, for word reached us that we were to return to the camp for the night as our services would not be required. Then the sun of good news began to set, and ugly rumours to float about.

Whether it was the impetuous Celtic dash that won the ground, or part of German strategy, the enemy centre gave way while the wings held firm. This trick has been played so often and so successfully one would imagine we should not have been caught napping again, but the temptation for victorious troops to rush into an opening is almost too strong to be resisted, and probably the real state of affairs on the wings was not known. The Scotties reached their objective, only to find they were the centre of a murderous fire from three sides, and having beaten off repeated counter-attacks of the demoralized enemy were obliged to retire some distance. So far the Germans had not done too badly.

It was nearly eight o’clock, and our dinner was simmering  in the pot with a tempting odour, when the fatal telegram came: the battalion will move forward in support at once. I was quite prepared for this little change of plans having experienced such surprises before, and had taken the precaution of laying in a solid lunch early in the day. I did not hear a single growl from anyone, though it meant we had to set out for another march hungry and dinnerless, with the prospect of passing a second night without sleep. When I give my next nuns retreat I think I shall try the experiment of a few supperless and bedless nights on them, just to see what they would say, and compare notes with the soldiers. The only disadvantage would be that I should be inundated with applications to give similar retreats in other convents, everyone being so delighted with the experiment, especially the good Mother Bursar who would simply coin money!

On the road once more in strict fighting kit, the clothes we stood in, a rain coat, and a stout heart. A miserable night with a cold wind driving the drizzling rain into our faces and the ground underfoot being rapidly churned into a quagmire of slush and mud. I hope the Recording Angel will not be afraid of the weather and will not get as tired of counting the steps as I did: Ten thousand and one, ten thousand and two – a bit monotonous even with the memory of the old hermit to help one.

The road was a sight never to be forgotten. On one side marched our column in close formation, on the other galloped by an endless line of ammunition wagons, extra guns hurrying up to the Front, and motor lorries packed with stores of all kinds, while between the two flowed back the stream of empties and ambulance after ambulance filled with wounded and dying.

In silence, save for the never ceasing roar of the guns and the rumble of cart wheels, we marched on through the city of the dead, Ypres, not a little anxious, for a shower of shells might come at any minute. Ruin and desolation, desolation and ruin, is the only description I can give of a spot once the pride and glory of Belgium. The hand of war has fallen heavy on the city of Ypres; scarce a stone remains of the glorious Cathedral and equally famous Cloth Hall; the churches, a dozen of them, are piles of rubbish, gone are the convents, the hospitals and public buildings, and though many of the inhabitants are still there, their bodies lie buried in the ruins of their homes, and the smell of rotting corpses poisons the air. I have seen strange sights in the last two years, but this was the worst of all. Out again by the opposite gate of this stricken spot, which people say was not undeserving of God s chastisement, across the moat and along the road pitted all over with half filled in shell-holes. Broken carts and dead horses, with human bodies too if one looked, lie on all sides, but one is too weary to think of anything except how many more miles must be covered.

A welcome halt at last with, perhaps, an hour or more delay. The men were already stretched by the side of the road, and I was not slow to follow their example. I often used to wonder how anyone could sleep lying in mud or water, but at that moment the place for sleep, as far as I was concerned, did not matter two straws, a thorn bush, the bed of a stream, anywhere would do to satisfy the longing for even a few moments slumber after nearly two days and nights of marching without sleep. I picked out a soft spot on the ruins of a home, lay down with a sigh of relief, and then, for all I cared, all the King’s guns and the Kaiser’s combined might roar till they were hoarse, and all the rain in the heavens might fall, as it was falling then, I was too tired and happy to bother.

I was chuckling over the disappearance of the officer in front of me into a friendly trench from which he emerged if possible a little more muddy than he was, when I felt my two legs shoot from under me, and I vanished down the sides of a shell-hole which I had not noticed. As I am not making a confession of my whole life, I shall not tell you what I said, but it was something different from the exclamation of the pious old gentleman who used to mutter Tut, tut every time he missed the golf ball.

The Head Quarters Staff found shelter in an old mine- shaft, dark, foul-smelling, and dripping water which promised soon to flood us out. Still it was some protection from the down-pour outside, and I slept like a top for some hours in a dry corner sitting on a coil of wire.

Today is, of course, the feast of St Ignatius, the spiritual father of Fr Doyle. As a true Jesuit, Fr Doyle was moulded by Ignatius’s spirituality, especially by the spiritual exercises. Those who are interested in the life and spirit of St Ignatius may wish to read the following two presentations from the great Jesuit writer Fr John Hardon:

Ignatian Spirituality Today

St Ignatius: Jesuit Saint

St Ignatius

Thoughts for July 30 from Fr Willie Doyle

"When one has put in a long day of hard work...the prospect of a stiff march is not too pleasant".

From the last letter of Fr Doyle to his father describing the events of 93 years ago today:

For the past week we have been moving steadily up to the Front once more to face the hardships and horrors of another big push, which report says is to be the biggest effort since the War began. The blood-stained Ypres battle field is to be the centre of the fight, with our left wing running down to the Belgian coast from which it is hoped to drive the enemy and, perhaps, force him by a turning movement to fall back very far.

The preparations are on a colossal scale, the mass of men and guns enormous. Success is certain our Generals tell us, but I cannot help wondering what are the plans of the Great Leader, and what the result will be when He has issued His orders. This much is certain: the fight will be a desperate one, for our foe is not only brave, but clever and cunning, as we have learned to our cost.

Mass in the open this morning under a drizzling rain was a trying if edifying experience. Colonel, officers and men knelt on the wet grass with the water trickling off them, while a happy if somewhat damp chaplain moved from rank to rank giving every man Holy Communion. Poor fellows: with all their faults God must love them dearly for their simple faith and love of their religion, and for the confident way in which they turn to Him for help in the hour of trial.

One of my converts, received into the Church last night, made his First Holy Communion this morning under circumstances he will not easily forget. I see in the paper that 13,000 soldiers and officers have become Catholics since the War began, but I should say this number is much below the mark. Ireland’s missionaries, the light-hearted lads who shoulder a rifle and swing along the muddy roads, have taught many a man more religion, by their silent example, than he ever dreamed of before.

Many a time one’s heart grows sick to think how few will ever see home and country again, for their pluck and daring have marked them down for the positions which only the Celtic dash can take: a post of honour, no doubt, but it means slaughter as well.

We moved off at 10 p.m., a welcome hour in one way, as it means marching in the cool of the night instead of sweating under a blazing sun. Still when one has put in a long day of hard work, and legs and body are pretty well tired out already, the prospect of a stiff march is not too pleasant.

Perhaps we can all learn today from the ability of the Irish soldiers to be missionaries just by their example. In a world that thinks it knows it all and no longer wants to listen to the Church, it is our example of cheerfulness and charity that will win souls. It was true of the early Christians and it remains true for us today.

Thoughts for July 29 from Fr Willie Doyle

On August 12 1917 Fr Doyle sent his last letter home to his father. It was a long account of his involvement in the early stages of the Battle of Passchendaele. 5 days later he was hit by a German shell while rescuing a wounded soldier and was killed instantly.

His account of the battle commences on July 30 and we shall follow his account in his own words each day until the 12th (except of course for those few days on which he didn’t write).

But before we relive his experiences, it might be worthwhile to reproduce a short “parable” which he wrote out for his father in this very same letter. It is noteworthy that he took the time to write this long letter, and the time to retell this parable, with such cheerfulness and good humour in the midst of the hardship and work he had to endure. He could have taken his rest. He could have looked after himself. His father would surely understand if he wasn’t able to write long letters home. But no, he was still concerned for his father all those miles away at home. This simple act in itself is an example of his heroic sanctity.

In Fr Doyle’s own words:

Help comes to one in strange ways, and the remembrance of a quaint old story has lightened for me the weight of a heavy pair of boots over many a mile of muddy road. The story may interest you:

In the good old days of yore a holy hermit built him a cell in a spot a few miles from the well, so that he might have a little act of penance to offer to Almighty God each day by tramping across the hot sand and back again with his pitcher. All went gaily for a while, and if the holy man did lose many a drop of honest sweat he knew he was piling up sacks of treasure in Heaven, and his heart was light. But oh !  – that little but which spoils so many things – but though the spirit was willing, the sun was very warm, the sand most provokingly hot, the pitcher the devil and all of a weight, and the road seemingly longer each day. It is a bit too much of a good joke, thought the man of God, to tramp these miles day in and day out, with my old bones, clanking like a traction engine. Why not move the cell to the edge of the water, save time (and much bad language probably) and have cool water in abundance, and a dry hair shirt on my back?

Away home he faced for the last time with his brimming water jar, kicking the sand about in sheer delight, for the morrow would see him on the trek, and an end to his weary trudging, when suddenly he heard a voice, an angel’s voice he knew it to be, counting slowly One, two, three, four. The hermit stopped in wonder and so did the voice, but at the next steps he took the counting began again, Five, six, seven. Falling on his knees the old man prayed that he might know the meaning of this wonder. ‘I am the angel of God, came the answer, counting up each step which long ago you offered up to my Lord and Master, so that not a single one may lose its reward. Don’t be so foolish as to throw away the immense merit you are gaining, by moving your cell to the water’s edge, for know that in the eyes of the heavenly court nothing is small which is done or borne for the love of God.’

That very night down came the hermit’s hut, and before morning broke he had built it again five miles further from the well. For all I know he is merrily tramping still back wards and forwards across the burning sand, very hot and tired no doubt, but happy in the thought that the recording angel is busy counting each step.

I do not think I need point the moral. But I hope and pray that my own good angel is strong at arithmetic, and won’t get mixed when he starts his long tot

Alfred O’Rahilly comments on the story in the following fashion:

To understand this little parable is to understand much of Fr. Doyle’s life, his desire to emulate his angel guardian’s arithmetic as well as his inveterate habit of adding to, instead of subtracting from, the hard things of life.

Thoughts for July 28 from Fr Willie Doyle

"I am sorry to see you are hoisting the devil’s flag of discouragement"

I am sorry to see you are hoisting the devil’s flag of discouragement. It is a precious lesson of the spiritual world that there must be ups and downs even with the most earnest efforts and in the holiest lives. “Begin again” is the motto of success in the path of holiness. Remember, too, that faults and falls rightly used help to teach us our weakness and to make us humble, and so are really a stepping-stone to greater sanctity.

COMMENT: How consoling Fr Doyle’s advice is today. So often we can get discouraged with our failings. However, it is worth checking our consciences on this matter – are we discouraged because we have offended God, or are we discouraged because our failings prove to us, after all, that we are just weak humans, and not at all as holy and advanced as we might like to imagine?

Whatever the answer to that question, the point remains that we can profit by our faults by examining ourselves and discovering where our weak point lies, and resolving to defend ourselves against temptation in future.

As St Josemaria Escriva said:

The saints are those who struggle right to the end of their lives: those who always manage to get up each time they stumble, each time they fall, and courageously embark on their way once more with humility, love and hope.

Falls and imperfections are inevitable, we had might as well be determined to pick ourselves up and learn from the experience, rather than just giving up and “waving the devil’s flag”. We have to keep moving forward spiritually, even when confronted with setbacks.

In fact, even Rocky Balboa had some good advice on this very point:

Since we’ve had one Rocky clip we had might as well have a second to really ram the point home. Yes, it’s outrageously corny, but it is Rocky after all. Besides, I think that Fr Doyle, who was an avid and enthusiastic sportsman would probably have liked Rocky if he had lived to see him (and if somebody could have convinced him to spend the time watching a movie!)

Thoughts for July 27 from Fr Willie Doyle

Blessed Titus Brandsma

I assure you that you have my entire sympathy as well as my prayers in the trial you are going through. There are few things more painful than to long to know the Will of God and not be able to see it, though it may be quite clear to others. From all that has passed between us I have no doubt that you have a religious vocation. Look at it in this way. Our Lord makes known His willingness to receive anyone into religion by giving them the necessary qualifications and the wish to do this work there. If I have these qualifications – “aptitude,” it is called – and this wish, all I need is the will to take the step. What you have to do is to pray for strength to be brave. Then go ahead, trust in the Sacred Heart, and you will never regret it.

COMMENT: If there is anybody reading this who is contemplating a religious vocation I recommend reading the section of the site on Fr Doyle’s writings where there are two excellent pamphlets on the subject.

As for the rest of us, his point for today remains relevant. There are always extra steps that God is asking of us. Perhaps they are not as dramatic as entering a convent or becoming a priest. Perhaps it will mean getting involved in a charity or engaging in political campaigning for just causes. Maybe it will even involve joining one of the many movements within the Church that can help deepen our commitment to Christ. The lessen remains that we need the will, and the grace, to follow that path. If we follow God’s will, no matter what it is, with complete commitment and trust, then it is true that we will not regret it.

Today is also the feast of Blessed Titus Brandsma, a great Carmelite martyr of the Second World War. Blessed Titus remained faithful to his vocation to the end, opposing the Nazis even if it meant imprisonment and death. It was this faithfulness to his Carmelite vocation that encouraged him to live an ordered life of prayer and activity in the concentration camp at Dachau, spreading cheerfulness and encouragement to others in their sufferings. In many ways his ability to bring joy and to serve others in the midst of his own misery resembles the activities of Fr Doyle in the trenches.

Blessed Titus was eventually killed as a result of Nazi medical experiments in July 1942. A short biography can be found here: http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/TITUSLIF.HTM

Thoughts for July 26 from Fr Willie Doyle

Pope Benedict preparing to hear Confessions in St Peter's Basilica

I, too, used long ago to hate Confession, for no reason whatever, till as a priest I began to realize the fact that it is the biggest help and quickest means to holiness, since a Sacrament pours grace into the soul.

COMMENTS: Fr Doyle is of course correct in stating that there is no reason whatever for fearing Confession. But unfortunately the practice of frequent confession seems to have gone out of fashion somewhat in some parts of the world.

Fr Doyle, firstly as a mission preacher and secondly as a military chaplain was well aware of the importance, and power, of Confession. His notes and letters are full of stories of how his soldiers were relieved to be able to receive the sacrament before going into battle. From one of Fr Doyle’s letters:

When I finished breakfast, I found a big number of men waiting for Confession. I gave them Communion as well, though they were not fasting, as they were going to the trenches that evening and being in danger of death could receive the Blessed Sacrament as Viaticum. It was the last Communion for many poor fellows who, I trust, are praying for me in Heaven now.

Having polished off all who came to the Church, I made a raid on the men’s billets, and spent a few hours in stables, barns, in fact anywhere, shriving the remainder who gladly availed themselves of the chance of settling up accounts before they started for the front. The harvest, thank God, was good and consoling. Just before they marched at six in the evening, I gave the whole regiment – the Catholics, at least – a General Absolution. So the men went off in the best of spirits, light of heart with the joy of a good conscience. ‘Good-bye, Father’, one shouted, ‘we are ready to meet the devil himself now’.

In a certain sense this man was, probably unbeknownst to himself, onto something interesting. The sacrament confers grace which strengthens us to overcome temptations in the future. The fact that we probably don’t feel that grace doesn’t matter; it is still there and will help us in our struggles with temptation. As St Jean Marie Vianney, said:

When you have made a good Confession, you have chained up the devil

We shall end today with these beautiful words from Pope Benedict XVI from his letter announcing the opening of the year for priests:

Priests ought never to be resigned to empty confessionals or the apparent indifference of the faithful to this sacrament. In France, at the time of the Curé of Ars, confession was no more easy or frequent than in our own day, since the upheaval caused by the revolution had long inhibited the practice of religion.

Yet he sought in every way, by his preaching and his powers of persuasion, to help his parishioners to rediscover the meaning and beauty of the sacrament of Penance, presenting it as an inherent demand of the Eucharistic presence.

He thus created a virtuous circle. By spending long hours in church before the tabernacle, he inspired the faithful to imitate him by coming to visit Jesus with the knowledge that their parish priest would be there, ready to listen and offer forgiveness. Later, the growing numbers of penitents from all over France would keep him in the confessional for up to sixteen hours a day.

It was said that Ars had become ‘a great hospital of souls’. His first biographer relates that ‘the grace he obtained [for the conversion of sinners] was so powerful that it would pursue them, not leaving them a moment of peace!’.

The saintly Curé reflected something of the same idea when he said: ‘It is not the sinner who returns to God to beg his forgiveness, but God himself who runs after the sinner and makes him return to him’. ‘This good Saviour is so filled with love that he seeks us everywhere’.