Preparing for Fr Doyle’s anniversary – Day 4: The virtue of prudence in the life of Fr Doyle

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the following about the virtue of prudence:

1806 Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it; “the prudent man looks where he is going.” “Keep sane and sober for your prayers.” Prudence is “right reason in action,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. It is not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment. With the help of this virtue we apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid.  

Adolphe Tanquery, in his classic book The Spiritual Life, gives a more succinct description of the virtue of prudence:

Prudence is a supernatural, moral virtue which inclines our intellect to choose in every instance the best means for attaining our aims, by subordinating them to our ultimate end.

Hence, it is not prudence of the flesh, nor merely human prudence, but Christian prudence.

Tanquery goes on the distinguish Christian prudence from prudence of the flesh and human prudence by stating:

It is Christian prudence which, based upon the principles of Christian faith, refers all things to the supernatural end, that is to say, to God known and loved upon earth and possessed in heaven…Prudence therefore concerns itself with all the details of our life. It regulates our thoughts to prevent them from straying away from God. It regulates our motives to keep them aloof from whatever may affect their singleness of purpose. It regulates our affections, our sentiments and our choices, so as to centre them on God. It regulates even our exterior actions and execution of our good resolves so as to refer them to our ultimate end.

And further:

The rule of Christian prudence is not reason alone, but reason enlightened by faith…it draws inspiration from the examples of the saints, who lived according to the Gospel and from the teachings of the Church, our infallible guide. Thus we are sure of not going astray.

I have spent more time delving into the nature of the virtue of prudence because of our natural tendency to equate prudence with merely human prudence, which is very different from supernatural, Christian prudence as Tanquery makes clear. This distinction is important, because there are aspects of Fr Doyle’s life that do not make sense in terms of merely human prudence. After all, is it prudent for a priest, who is already very busy and leading a fruitful life, to volunteer as a military chaplain in the first place? The same can be said for many of the saints. In human terms, it was not prudent for the apostles to follow an unknown, itinerant preacher. It was not prudent for St Paul to embrace the new Christian sect and to face prison, shipwreck and death to spread its message. It was not prudent for the early Christians to prefer facing lions in an amphitheatre rather than to abandon their faith. It was not prudent for St Benedict to give up his patrician life of learning and go off into the wilderness. It was not prudent for St Francis of Assisi to give up his family wealth. It was not prudent for St Thomas More to abandon his power, his wealth and his head over a matter of conscience. It was not prudent for St Ignatius to give up his life of chivalry to go and live in a cave for months and then, as a grown man, to go back to school with little children. It was not prudent for St Lawrence of Brindisi to lead 18,000 soldiers against 80,000 Muslim soldiers, brandishing only a crucifix. It was not prudent for Blessed Franz Jägerstätter to become a conscientious objector in the Second World War and consequently lose his life. It was not prudent for Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to leave her order and to start a new order dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor. The list could go on and on – every saint has practiced the virtue of Christian prudence, but probably every single one of them has been guilty of imprudence in purely human terms.

Having thus established the distinction between supernatural prudence and human prudence, we can see much evidence for the virtue of Christian prudence in the life of Fr Doyle. He truly pointed his life towards Heaven, his ultimate end, and he was prudent in doing so. By following the classic Ignatian exercise of rigorous self-examination, aided by a constant habit of taking notes about his spiritual life, his successes and his sins, he came to know himself and his weaknesses, and thus to grow in all the virtues. This is important – Fr Doyle was naturally hot tempered and impetuous. Such characters can often be imprudent. It was something he had to struggle with throughout life, but the prudent habit of self-examination helped him in the task.

In his dealings with others he had to exercise prudence. Only a prudent man could win the souls of those hardened against faith, or touch the soul of Fanny Cranbush the street prostitute, or manage to win the love of the soldiers to whom he ministered. And only a prudent man would be so avidly sought out for spiritual direction as Fr Doyle was.

Fr Doyle also had to exercise prudence in his efforts to open a retreat house for workers. He even went so far as going on a fact-finding mission in England and in Europe to better understand how such houses worked elsewhere. A prudent man is always willing to learn from others who have more experience.

But having said all of this, there remains the question of Fr Doyle’s penances. There are critics who believe them to have been imprudent. Well, they were certainly imprudent in purely human terms. Were they imprudent in terms of the cardinal virtue of Christian prudence?

This is a big topic, and beyond the scope of the discussion today. But for now, five points will suffice:

1. Everything Fr Doyle did had a precedent in the lives of the saints. If we are to dismiss Fr Doyle for his penance, we must also dismiss many of the canonised saints, including St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits. Many canonised saints have publicly stated that they had been imprudent in the matter of penance in their early years.

2. Fr Doyle had permission for his penances, and modified them slightly in accordance with the wishes of his confessor (in fact, Fr Doyle was surprised at how little his confessor wished him to change).

3. He felt that he had a special calling to a life of penance, above and beyond that of those around him. His confessor evidently agreed.

4. Apart from one occasion of which he repented, his penances did not negatively affect his health.

5. He never allowed those he advised to adopt harsh physical penances. As he said on one occasion to someone to whom he was giving spiritual direction:

I do not want, in fact I forbid you, to be imprudent in the matter of corporal penances.

In the light of all of the above, and especially in terms of what he (and his confessor) perceived to be his special calling, it would seem that he was not generally imprudent in the matter of his penances.  

There remains, then, the matter of the war. Fr Doyle certainly took risks in saving others, but his willingness to lay down his life in service of others is certainly not imprudent in the supernatural sense.

The following quote from his letter home is significant:

I feel wonderful peace and confidence in leaving myself absolutely in God’s Hands. Only I know it would not be right, I would like never to take shelter from bursting shells; and up to a few days ago, till ordered by the Colonel, I never wore a steel helmet. I want to give myself absolutely to Him to do with me just as He pleases, to strike or kill me, as He wishes, trying to go along bravely and truthfully, looking up into His loving Face, for surely He knows best.

Crucially, Fr Doyle, who would prefer never to have to hide from shells, does so because he knows that doing so would not be right, and would be a failure of prudence, and he also obeyed the order to wear a steel helmet.

Despite his naturally hot temper, there is ample evidence of the virtue of prudence in Fr Doyle’s life.

Thoughts for the Feast of St Clare from Fr Willie Doyle

Unexploded shells from WW1

Today we have the last of Fr Doyle’s narratives from his letters home to his father in August 1917, less than a week before his death.

In this entry in his letter we see his close brush with death in the form of a shell landing very close to him.

Close beside us I had found the remains of a dug-out which had been blown in the previous day and three men killed. I made up my mind to offer up Mass there for the repose of their souls. In any case I did not know a better hole to go to, and to this little act of charity I attribute the saving of my life later on in the day. I had barely fitted up my altar when a couple of shells burst overhead, sending the clay tumbling down. For a moment I felt very tempted not to continue as the place was far from safe. But later I was glad I went on for the Holy Souls certainly came to my aid as I did to theirs.

I had finished breakfast and had ventured a bit down the trench to find a spot to bury some bodies left lying there. I had reached a sheltered corner, when I heard the scream of a shell coming towards me rapidly, and judging by the sound, straight for the spot where I stood. Instinctively I crouched down, and well I did so, for the shell whizzed past my head I felt my hair blown about by the hot air and burst in front of me with a deafening crash. It seemed to me as if a heavy wooden hammer had hit me on the top of the head, and I reeled like a drunken man, my ears ringing with the explosion. For a moment I stood wondering how many pieces of shrapnel had hit me, or how many legs and arms I had left, and then dashed through the thick smoke to save myself from being buried alive by the shower of falling clay which was rapidly covering me. I hardly know how I reached the dug-out for I was speechless and so badly shaken that it was only by a tremendous effort I was able to prevent myself from collapsing utterly as I had seen so many do from shell shock. Then a strange thing happened: something seemed to whisper in my ear, one of those sudden thoughts which flash through the mind: Did not that shell come from the hand of God? He willed it should be so. Is it not a proof that He can protect you no matter what the danger?

The thought that it was all God’s doing acted like a tonic; my nerves calmed down, and shortly after I was out again to see could I meet another iron friend. As a matter of fact I wanted to see exactly what had happened, for the report of a high explosive shell is so terrific that one is apt to exaggerate distances. An officer recently assured me he was only one foot from a bursting shell, when in reality he was a good 40 yards away. You may perhaps find it hard to believe, as I do myself, what I saw. I had been standing by a trellis work of thin sticks. By stretching out my hand I could touch the screen, and the shell fell smashing the woodwork! My escape last year at Loos was wonderful, but then I was some yards away, and partly protected by a bend in the trench. Here the shell fell, I might say, at my very feet; there was no bank, no protection except the wall of your good prayers and the protecting arm of God.

That night we were relieved, or rather it was early morning, 4.30 a.m., when the last company marched out. I went with them so that I might leave no casualties behind.

We hurried over the open as fast as we could, floundering in the thick mud, tripping over wires in the darkness, and, I hope, some of the lay members cursing the German gunners for disturbing us by an odd shot. We had nearly reached the road, not knowing it was a marked spot when like a hurricane a shower of shells came smashing down upon us. We were fairly caught and for once I almost lost hope of getting through in safety. For five minutes or more we pushed on in desperation; we could not stop to take shelter, for dawn was breaking and we should have been seen by the enemy. Right and left in front and behind, some far away, many very close, the shells kept falling Crash! One has pitched in the middle of the line, wounding five men, none of them seriously. Surely God is good to us, for it seems impossible a single man will escape unhurt, and then when the end seemed at hand, our batteries opened fire with a roar to support an attack that was beginning. The German guns ceased like magic, or turned their attention elsewhere, and we scrambled on to the road and reached home without further loss.

Today we also celebrate the feast of St Clare, the friend of St Francis of Assisi and the founder of the Poor Clares. We remember in a special way Fr Doyle’s dedication to this order and in particular the fact that he was instrumental in founding the Poor Clare convent in Cork City, and we remember this particular monastery in our prayers in a special way today.                

St Clare