I was greatly struck and helped yesterday by these words of the Imitation: “My child, let Me do with you what I will; I know what is good for you”. They gave me courage to place myself without reserve in God’s hands. How happy I feel now that I have done so and made my sacrifice.
COMMENT:Fr Doyle is of course referring here to the famous “Imitation of Christ”, a classic devotional manual of the early 15th Century which has been a staple part of the devotional and spiritual reading of devout Catholics (and indeed, of many Protestants) since that time.
Placing ourselves “without reserve in God’s hands” is the epitome of Ignatian indifference. But often, instead of giving without reserve, we can prefer to be like the Second Class of men, mentioned by Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises:
The second want to rid themselves of the attachment, but want so to rid themselves of it as to remain with the thing acquired, so that God should come where they want, and they do not decide to leave it in order to go to God, although it would be the best state for them
We more or less want God’s will, but we would embrace it a lot more quickly if His will happened to coincide with ours! Of course, this is a natural response. However, we should strive to overcome the natural response and try to acquire a supernatural one. It takes great detachment to move beyond the level of the second class of men.
Perhaps the following prayer of St Ignatius may help in following Fr Doyle’s example today:
Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me. I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.
The reformation of one’s life must be the work of every day. I should take each rule and duty, think how Jesus acted, or would have done, and contrast my conduct with His.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle’s words today are direct and relevant for us all.
The daily reformation Fr Doyle recommends must be immensely practical. We do not reform our lives in the abstract by imagining great things we would do for God in some hypothetical reality. We must reform our own lives in the practical circumstances in which we live. Fr Doyle gives us the recipe for doing this, by considering the “rule and duty” of each day.
Fr Doyle himself had to live this daily reformation in the dreadful, gritty reality in which he lived. Here is an excerpt from O’Rahilly’s biography, quoting extensively from Fr Doyle’s letters home, detailing how Fr Doyle fulfilled one of his duties – and also one of the corporal works of mercy – by burying the dead. Let us remember that holiness is in the duty of today, whatever its circumstances. It is not to be found in pleasant daydreams about some mythical day when everything goes along smoothly as we would like.
NOTE: Those who may be squeamish about death and gore may want to skip this particular quote.
It was not to be, however, for still another adventure awaited him. On returning, he found that a dead man had been brought in for burial. The cemetery, part of a field, was outside the town in the open country, so exposed to shell and rifle fire that it could not be approached by day. As soon as it was dark we carried the poor fellow out on a stretcher, just as he had fallen, and as quietly as we could began to dig the grave. It was weird. We were standing in front of the German trenches on two sides, though a fair distance away, and every now and then a star-shell went up which we felt certain would reveal our presence to the enemy. I put my ritual in the bottom of my hat and with the aid of an electric torch read the burial service, while the men screened the light with their caps, for a single flash would have turned the machine guns on us. I cannot say if we were seen or not, but all the time bullets came whizzing by, though more than likely stray ones and not aimed at us. Once I had to get the men to lie down as things were rather warm; but somehow I felt quite safe, as if the dead soldier’s guardian angel was sheltering us from all danger, till the poor dust was laid to rest. It was my first war burial though assuredly not my last. May God rest his soul and comfort those left to mourn him.”
The burials soon became more frequent, and Fr. Doyle had many gruesome experiences. Thus a few days later two bodies fell to bits when lifted off the stretcher and he had to shovel the remains of one poor fellow into the grave, a task which taxed his endurance. On 1st April he had a further vivid experience of the horrors of war:
“Taking a short cut across country to our lines I found myself on the first battle field of Loos, the place where the French had made their attack. For some reason or other this part of the ground has not been cleared, and it remains more or less as it was the morning after the fight. I had to pick my steps, for numbers of unexploded shells, bombs and grenades lay all round. The ground was littered with broken rifles, torn uniforms, packs, etc., just as the men had flung them aside, charging the German trenches. Almost the first thing I saw was a human head torn from the trunk, though there was no sign of the body. The soldiers had been buried on the spot they fell; that is, if you can call burial, hastily throwing a few shovelfuls of clay on the corpses: there was little time, I fancy, for digging graves, and in war time there is not much thought or sentiment for the slain. As I walked along, I wondered had they made certain each man was really dead. One poor fellow had been buried, surely, before the breath had left his body, for there was every sign of a last struggle and one arm was thrust out from its shroud of clay. A large mound caught my eye. Four pairs of feet were sticking out, one a German, judging by his boots, and three Frenchmen friend and foe are sleeping their long last sleep in peace together. They were decently covered compared with the next I saw; a handful of earth covered the wasted body, but the legs and arms and head were exposed to view. He seemed quite a young lad, with fair, almost golden, hair. An unknown soldier was all the rough wooden cross over him told me about him; but I thought of the sorrowing mother, far away, thinking of her boy who was missing, and hoping against hope that he might one day come back. Thank God, Heaven one day will reunite them both. I found a shovel near at hand, and after a couple of hours stiff work was able to cover the bodies decently, so that on earth at least they might rest in peace.”
The object of my life to be close union with and intense love of God. To acquire this I will (a) fly from the shadow of sin, never deliberately break a rule, custom or regulation; (b) do each little action purely for the love of Jesus, with exquisite exactness, fervour and devotedness; (c) beg constantly and earnestly for a great increase of love.
COMMENT: Today’s quote comes from some of the resolutions Fr Doyle made after the 30 days of spiritual exercises he did in 1907. As usual, there is much here that we can learn from.
Flying from the shadow of sin, or, put another way, avoiding occasions of sin, is an important element of the spiritual life. How often we can make compromises by going to places (real, online or imaginary), meeting with people or practicing those habits that we know will lead us into temptation or distraction. Unless we make concerted effort, relying on grace, we will never win the battle for greater virtue.
Today’s saint, Camillus de Lellis, was a dissipated, violent man who lived as a mercenary soldier with a propensity for gambling (and literally losing the shirt off his back in the process). His conversion necessitated that he avoid the company, and habits, that lead him into gambling and fighting. St Camillus used to teach that we should aim:
not to be satisfied with avoiding sin, but to avoid even the least shadow and risk of sin.
Even in the use of language he was at one with Fr Doyle.
The second part of Fr Doyle’s advice today is characteristic of him: do “each little action purely for the love of Jesus, with exquisite exactness, fervour and devotedness”. Dedication to duty, day after day, even when we don’t feel like it, requires great virtue. Faithfully doing our work on time, to the best of our abilities, will be for many people a great penance. But the key is doing this work for the love of God, not just to make more money or to win a promotion. Examining our faithfulness to duty can be a fruitful aspect of our daily examination of conscience.
The soft chimes of the angelus bell mark the fall of evening. Another day is gone. Another precious day, our measurement of God’s most precious gift, time, has passed away and is swallowed up in the vast gulf of the irrevocable past. Another day has passed! Another stage of our journey towards our final end is traversed. Nearer still than yesterday to that solemn moment of our lives, its end; nearer still to heaven with its joys unknown, untasted; nearer still to Him for Whom we labour now and strive to serve. How many more days are left? Too few alas! for all we have to do, but not so few that we cannot heap them high with noble deeds and victories bravely won.
COMMENT: Each day brings us closer to our death, and to our judgement…
This is a deeply sobering thought. Once again, these sobering thoughts can tempt us to downplay them or to scrub them from our minds. But death is the ONE thing we cannot ultimately ignore. The fact of our death, and that each day brings us closer to it, is an incontrovertible truth. Our last day on earth will come, perhaps sooner than we would like. Ignoring this fact does not make it any less true.
It has traditionally been a common feature of Catholic spirituality to meditate on the Four Last Things: death, judgement, Heaven and Hell. Many saints had the habit of keeping skulls with them in order to remind them of death.
This focus on death need not make us morose, and in fact can encourage us to joyfully make the most of the time that we do have on earth. And, as Christians, we must also remember that death is not the end, but, if we die in a state of grace, is the start of a joyful eternity. Fr Doyle lived with death every day for two years in the trenches. At any moment he could have been killed; practically every day he anointed men in the last minutes of their lives. Despite this he retained his constant joy and cheerfulness.
Remembering the fact of our death allows us to make the most of our lives. We are alive for a purpose; our human life is vitally important as it is the training ground for eternity. How easy it could be to waste days listlessly if we ignored the shortness of our time on earth.
Time is a great gift, the existence of which allows us to change and to grow closer to God. When we consider the sins of our lives, we should, as Fr Doyle says, use the opportunities of each day “to heap them high with noble deeds and victories bravely won”. These deeds will normally be composed of the ordinary activities of the moment and hidden faithfulness to our duty that is hardly discerned by any passer-by. But this faithfulness day by day can allow us to face the prospect of death with the cheerfulness that characterised Fr Doyle’s apostolate in the killing fields of World War I.
Perhaps it is worth concluding today with two lines from The Imitation of Christ:
Always remember your end and do not forget that lost time never returns.
If you have spent the day profitably, you will always be happy at eventide.
But remember the devil will spoil the work if he can and by every means in his power turn you from your life of immolation.
COMMENT: In today’s snippet, Fr Doyle reminds us that we are contending not only against our own weakness in the spiritual life, but that the devil also wishes to distract us from closer intimacy with God, and that he will use “every means in his power” to turn us aside. Lucifer was the most brilliant of the angels and he has many means in his power. Perhaps most of all, he will use the defects in our own characters, which he knows so well, to turn us from the path of virtue.
Today it is somewhat unfashionable to refer to the Enemy, but if we wish to remove him from our life of faith, we shall be forced to erase a lot of the Gospel as well. True, perhaps previous generations were too focussed on the issues of evil influences, but perhaps we have allowed the pendulum to swing far too much in the other direction in recent decades. If we prefer to ignore the existence of our Enemy, we surely give a major advantage to him.
The efforts of the Enemy should spur us on to greater efforts, not cause us to shrink with fear. In this regard, it may be worth quoting some lines from the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius:
It is the way of the enemy to weaken and lose heart, his temptations taking flight, when the person who is exercising himself in spiritual things opposes a bold front against the temptations of the enemy, doing diametrically the opposite. And on the contrary, if the person who is exercising himself commences to have fear and lose heart in suffering the temptations, there is no beast so wild on the face of the earth as the enemy of human nature in following out his damnable intention with so great malice.
Finally, today is the feast (and wedding wedding anniversary) of the married couple Blesseds Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St Therese. Fr Doyle was an early and enthusiastic devotee of St Therese. Let us pray today for married couples and families, particularly that they may stand firm against the many temptations that seek to undermine the family.
Avoid haste and want of control of bodily movements. The interior man, no matter how burdened with work or pressed for time, is never in a hurry. He is swift and expeditious in all he does, but never rushes; and by a jealous watchfulness over odd moments, “gathering up the fragments” of a full day “that none of them may be lost,” he finds time for all things. He knows that the Almighty is never in a hurry; that the great works of God in nature as in the soul are done silently and calmly, and that there is much wisdom in the old monastic saying, “The man who rushes will never run to perfection.”
COMMENT: In today’s quote, Fr Doyle speaks to us about the importance of balance and moderation. Even when busy we should not be in an excessive hurry, but always maintain our equilibrium. Perhaps this is one area where Fr Doyle had to struggle. He was naturally hot tempered and extraordinarily zealous. However, it is clear that by the end of his life he had mastered this aspect of his temperament. He was a source of peace and tranquillity for others. The famous photographic portrait of him in his military uniform was taken not long before his death. It shows a deeply tranquil and balanced man. His eyes are reservoirs of peace, despite the horrors he was living through.
Today is the feast of St Benedict, one of the patron saints of Europe and indeed the Father of the West. Monks following his rule were instrumental in saving western civilisation after the fall of the Roman empire. By preserving the heritage of classical learning, and indeed by preserving the faith itself within their monasteries, the Benedictine monks played a pivotal role in the development of Christendom and indeed of western civilisation itself. We owe many historical inventions and advances in learning, as well as practical developments in agriculture, engineering and even brewing to the dedication and application of the Benedictines.
The motto of the Benedictine order is Pax – Peace. The Rule of St Benedict is renowned for its balance and moderation, especially compared to the harsher rule of life adopted by the Eastern monks. St Benedict tells us that it is important that people in the house of God (and by extension in the Christian family) should not be vexed or anxious, for this destroys the peace which so readily assists in the growth of holiness. Commenting on the Rule of St Benedict, Pope Benedict tells us:
For its moderation, humanity and sober discernment between the essential and the secondary in spiritual life, his Rule has retained its illuminating power even to today.
We lived in an increasingly frenetic world. The technology that was supposed to alleviate our work has often only served to complicate our lives further. Let us pray that we may acquire the moderation and balance that both Fr Doyle and St Benedict speak of, and that this spiritual equilibrium will better equip us to serve God and our neighbour more effectively.
Lord, give me grace and strength of character to tear myself away promptly from what, if not bad, is less good, and to give myself earnestly, self-denyingly, perseveringly, to the better and the best.
COMMENT: Somebody recently sent me a Fr Doyle prayer card printed in 1923 which contained this prayer composed by Fr Doyle in 1915. I had never seen this particular prayer before and I was very glad to receive it. It is a further indication of the real interest in Fr Doyle that once existed.
Fr Doyle always wanted to choose the hard thing, he always wanted to do the best thing. Thus, his prayer doesn’t just refer to tearing himself promptly away from bad things, but even from things that are less good. This is what we must aspire to – an interior struggle between the good and the best! Most of us are probably not yet there; our battles are probably (at least some of the time) between good and evil, not between a higher and a lesser good. Even so, Fr Doyle’s prayer reveals a crucial tactic in our spiritual struggle – we must flee temptations promptly. This is the advice of all of the saints and spiritual writers. The spiritual hero is the “coward” who flees temptation as soon as it presents itself, not the one who enters into conversation with it.
In the Prologue to his Rule, St Benedict says that the one who is victorious in God’s service is the one who…
has foiled the evil one, the devil, at every turn, flinging both him and his promptings far from the sight of his heart. While these temptations were still young, he caught hold of them and dashed them against Christ.
Let us follow the advice of Fr Doyle and St Benedict, promptly fleeing temptations while they are still young and capable of being resisted.
A beatification cause similar to that of Fr Doyle’s is making excellent progress and the documentation has just been sent to Rome.
Fr Emil Kapaun was a chaplain in the Korean War. Like Fr Doyle, he risked his life to save wounded soldiers and to bring the sacraments to them. Just like Fr Doyle, this initiative cost him his life. As a result of his dedication he was captured by the Korean and Chinese Communists and died in a prison camp.
Two quotes stand out from this story. Fr John Hotze, the episcopal delegate looking after the cause expressed the tremendous gratitude he and others felt at the example of Fr Kapaun:
The fact that we, unlike any other diocese in the United States, in the world, have been blessed by the example of this saintly man, Father Emil Kapaun, boggles my mind. How can we do anything less than give praise to God for this gift and strive to follow the example of Father Kapaun’s selfless giving.
The writer of the story also comments:
The (postulator) said Kapaun’s candidacy is unique compared with the hundreds of other cases he has investigated because it is so full of action and detailed. While most cases involve “very holy” priests and nuns who have miracles attributed to them, Fr. Kapaun’s story involves far more deeds of heroism, sacrifice and action.
Both of these comments could also very easily apply to Fr Doyle.
We continue to pray that the day may come when Fr Doyle’s holiness and sacrifice are more widely recognised.
As a boy He gave me something of the kind, so that a passing glance at an immodest picture used to make me shudder; and until I began my theology at 31 I was quite ignorant of most sexual matters. That was His goodness, not mine.
COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Maria Goretti, the great champion of purity. She preferred death (at age 12) to committing a sexual sin, and as such her intercession is often sought by those with struggles in this area.
Fr Doyle seems to have had an unusual purity. In addition to the above quote, here is the testimony of a fellow Jesuit on the issue of Fr Doyle’s purity:
I knew from many talks with him on the subject that Willie found it hard to realise the difficulties of those struggling with impurity and the awful fascination of this sin, just as those who have never taken strong drink fail to appreciate the difficulties and temptations of the drunkard.
This does not mean that Fr Doyle was never subject to temptations, but rather that through God’s grace his major temptations related to others aspects of the moral life.
It is fascinating for us to consider that a normal, well adjusted young man 100 years ago could be largely unaware of sexual matters until his thirties. But then again, we live in an impure age, and we have largely lost the happy innocence of times past. Just as the fish does not know that it swims in water, so often we fail to realise how sexually corrupt our own age is. Of course, there has always been sexual corruption in the world, but rarely has it been so normalised and glamourised and publicised and rarely have people been urged to take pride in it as we are today. We also see the awful effects of this sexual corruption within the Church, and the dreadful legacy of wounded lives and shattered credibility left in its wake.
The words of St Josemaria Escriva on purity are relevant for us to consider today:
Never speak of impure things or events, not even to lament them. Remember that such matter is stickier than pitch. Change the subject or, if that is not possible, continue with it, speaking of the need and the beauty of purity — a virtue of men who know the value of their souls.
Let us pray today for a share in the purity and innocence of both St Maria Goretti and of Fr Doyle for ourselves and also especially for our priests.
This morning at Mass, our Blessed Lord gave me grace to see what a fool I am to let my life slip from me without really doing what he has asked and implored so long – the complete sacrifice of everything. Forty one years of my life have gone, very little more may yet remain; and still I go on living a life of much self-indulgence, always promising myself to do better in the future. O Jesus, there is no need to ask You what You want from me or what I ought to do. You ask for the sacrifice of all and always. Give me grace and strength and courage now at last to begin, and to lay at Your feet days of absolute sacrifice, in which I can honestly say that I have refused nothing. My Jesus, I do want to be generous, to suffer much for Your love; but I am so weak, I give in constantly to myself. You have tried long enough to show me my misery and how much I depend on You. O, help me now at last, in honour of Your Precious Blood, to lead that life of crucifixion which alone will please You.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words on July 5, 1914, which was also the feast of the Precious Blood in that year.
We can surely identify with Fr Doyle’s feeling that he was weak and that he gave in constantly to himself. Such is the human condition. Yet it is not enough for us to shrug our shoulders and just accept our limitations. God asks much from us, and He has the perfect right to do so because He has given us everything that we have. But we should not serve Him out of mere obligation or fear, but out of pure love.
Fr Doyle had a burning love of Christ which drove him to offer his life as a sacrifice to God in service to others. We too should pray for some share in this personal love of Christ.