Thoughts for Ash Wednesday from Fr Willie Doyle

What is it to be a saint? Does it mean that we must macerate this flesh of ours with cruel austerities, such as we read of in the life-story of some of God’s great heroes? Does it mean the bloody scourge, the painful vigil and sleepless night, that crucifying of the flesh in even its most innocent enjoyment? No, no, the hand of God does not lead us all by that stern path of awful heroism to our reward above. He does not ask from all of us the holy thirst for suffering, in its highest form, of a Teresa or a Catherine of Siena. But sweetly and gently would He lead us along the way of holiness by our constant unswerving faithfulness to our duty, duty accepted, duty done for His dear sake.

COMMENT: The holy season of Lent is upon us. Many Catholics view it as a time to “give up” something. This is a good thing, but it does not get to the heart of what Lent is really about.

Lent is about growing in holiness and preparing ourselves for Holy Week and the celebration of Easter. It is about becoming a saint. Precisely how we go about this task will depend on where we are at in our spiritual lives. Giving things up can be a part of that, but there are other sacrifices we can adopt that aren’t primarily aimed at giving things up. For instance we can deepen our prayer lives and adopt some extra spiritual practices. We can take on some extra charitable activities. We can get out of bed earlier in the morning. In a sense, each of these involves “giving something up” – time, freedom, sleep – but they are also more than that. Whatever we decide to do we have to avoid a situation where we “give something up” solely because we want to save money or because we want to go on a diet or because we want to go on a binge when Lent ends. If we are to fast or give something up, it should be a part of a well thought-out spiritual plan.  There is a risk that we could fail to reap the spiritual benefits of our sacrifices in Lent. This risk may be especially prevalent in culturally Catholic countries (like Ireland) where giving things up is something of a social norm rather than a carefully considered weapon of spiritual combat.

Many books written about saints recount their bloody sacrifices and penances in great detail. Fr Doyle makes it clear today that heavy penance is not the road to sanctity for everyone. True, there were those who were called by God to live a life of hard penance. Fr Doyle was certainly one of these, and he makes it clear in his notes that it was a specific call – in one place he notes that others could commendably do things that he could not because of this special vocation of penance to which he was called. But he also shows his balance by assuring us that most people are not called by that path. This doesn’t mean that we are not called to holiness or that we are called to a lesser holiness or that we are called to a life of sloth and comfort. It just reflects the reality that God calls us all by different paths with different types of sacrifices.

But there is one path by which we can be sure that we are all called, and that is the path of faithfulness to our duties in life. It is impossible to grow in holiness without this adherence to duty. If we try to avoid our duty we will be like the unfaithful stewards that Christ warns us about in the Gospel.

Most of us reading this will struggle to some degree or other to do our work and other duties in life professionally, punctually and cheerfully. Some will be better than others, but there is almost always room for improvement. Perhaps we could follow Fr Doyle’s advice, and adopt a Lenten resolution that will help us grow in holiness by doing our duty well.

This may indeed involve giving something up – the TV, the internet (except this site of course!), lying on in bed in the morning, idle gossip in the office, an extra long lunch break…

In any event, whatever our resolution is, it should be both achievable and challenging, and we should be prepared to instantly pick ourselves up and start again if we fail in sticking to it.

Spiritual reading for Lent

I have posted about this before, but now that Lent is upon us I am posting it again, simply because the book is so good.

I can think of no better book to read during the holy season of Lent than Professor Alfred O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle. It is a masterpiece on many levels – a psychologically astute review of Fr Doyle’s character, a wonderful history of World War I that reads like a novel and a remarkable overview of Catholic spirituality. Far from being a mere work of hagiography in the mode of the “Golden Legend”, O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle gives a rounded insight into one of the most incredible Irishmen of the twentieth century. If you have an interest in Fr Doyle, if you have an interest in Catholic spirituality, if you have an interest in military history you will love this book. And in loving this book, you will learn to love Fr Doyle.

O’Rahilly’s biography was translated in numerous European languages and has inspired many individuals (including canonised saints…) over the poast 90 years.

I know that some people have read the anonymous biography Merry in God (which was probably written by Fr Doyle’s brother). Merry in God is an excellent book, but it is really only a summary of O’Rahilly.

One of the great things about the biography is the access that O’Rahilly had to Fr Doyle’s private notes and diaries. Fr Doyle wasn’t born great, but he acquired greatness by slow, steady effort. O’Rahilly maps out this process through Fr Doyle’s own intimate thoughts and resolutions. That’s what makes this book so powerful. I do not know of anybody who has read this book without being deeply moved and spiritually enriched. Further, it deals at length with the topic of penance and reparation, very appropriate reading for the holy season of Lent.

High quality and newly typeset reprints of the 2nd edition of O’Rahilly can be purchased by clicking on the image below. (Please note: This website is not in any way connected with the sale of the book and does not profit in any way by it. My interest is only in promoting awareness of Fr Doyle).

For those who are not in a financial position to buy the book, it can be found online in a variety of formats here:

Thoughts for March 8 from Fr Willie Doyle

St John of God

Don’t be one of those who give God everything but one little corner of their heart on which they put up a notice board with the inscription: “Trespassers not allowed.”

COMMENT: Perhaps Fr Doyle’s lines today get to the heart of the difference between the saints and the rest of us. We may want to love God and we may try our best, albeit with many falls and weaknesses. Yet somewhere or other there is something that we want to hold onto and that we don’t want God interfering with. Perhaps it is our health or our financial security or perhaps some sin or even a little weakness or temptation that we enjoy flirting with. We may love God to a certain extent, but too many of us do not love Him enough to hand over everything, unconditionally.

Fr Doyle was different. Yes, he struggled, and he had failings. But what is very clear from his diaries is that he really did want to give everything to God; there were no warnings against Divine trespassers in his soul. This did not come about automatically but rather was the result of his constant striving to go against his self-will, even in small things and even in things that were not bad in and of themselves. We are all called to this battle against our love of comfort. Perhaps we are not all called to use the methods employed by Fr Doyle (who seems to have had a special calling to a hard life of penance) but we shall never be able to give ourselves entirely to God if we don’t make a start in disciplining ourselves even in little ways.

The saints were also fully open to God’s will in their lives. We see this in today’s saint, John of God, who was so totally overcome by love of God and neighbour that he became a shining beacon of charity for the poor and abandoned of Granada in Spain. He did not consider God a trespasser in his soul, and he placed no limits on his own charity.

There is also another similarity between Fr Doyle and Saint John of God. Fr Doyle died when trying to assist some fallen soldiers; St John died from an illness he contracted after he jumped into a river to save a drowning boy.

Today we can pray to both of these “martyrs of charity” for the generosity to which Christ calls us as we prepare for Lent.