Today is the feast of St Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. Instead of a message from Fr Doyle, we have a message from a saint, ABOUT Fr Doyle. From point 205 of St Josemaria Escriva’s The Way:
We were reading — you and I — the heroically ordinary life of that man of God. And we saw him fight whole months and years (what ‘accounts’ he kept in his particular examination!) at breakfast time: today he won, tomorrow he was beaten… He noted: ‘Didn’t take butter…; did take butter!’
May you and I too live our ‘butter tragedy.
Yes, that’s right: the heroically ordinary “man of God” was none other than Fr Willie Doyle.
Alfred O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle caused something of a stir on its release. Within a few years the book had been translated into German, Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch and Polish (and perhaps translations I don’t know about?). This heroically ordinary Jesuit priest from Dublin seemed to have quite an appeal for people from very different cultures.
St Josemaria read a Spanish copy of the book in 1933. He wrote in one of his notebooks:
I have read quickly the life of Fr Doyle: how well I understand the butter tragedy.
For St Josemaria, his personal butter tragedy consisted in his battle to regulate the reading of newspapers. His notes from his 1933 retreat which refer to reading newspapers reveal how difficult this was for him:
This last, not reading newspapers, is for me no small mortification. Nevertheless, with God’s grace, I stayed faithful to it…What battles these struggles of mine were! These epics can be understood only by those who have gone through similar ones. Sometimes conquering; more often, being conquered.
Of course, we must understand what St Josemaria and Fr Doyle were doing when they struggled to give up butter and newspapers. These things are not bad – far from it! But, as an act of love and reparation, saints have often denied themselves little things, even very good things. As well as making an offering of this sacrifice to God, such acts help to strengthen the will. This may all seem a little strange to our modern culture. But, just imagine the difference it makes to family life to live with someone who knows how to deny themselves, versus living with someone who has no control over their appetites, and must always have their way… We might all be better off if from time to time we struggled to give up butter, newspapers, TV, Facebook, sleeping in in the morning…
Of course, such acts do not come easily, and it is consoling to see that St Josemaria and Fr Doyle both struggled with similar small distractions and temptations.
St Josemaria also wrote about Fr Doyle in a letter in 1938 to a member of Opus Dei:
I’m quite envious of those on the battlefronts, in spite of everything. It has occurred to me that, if my path were not so clearly marked out, it would be wonderful to outdo Father Doyle.
Over the years, many millions of copies of The Way have been sold, and it has been translated into dozens of languages. Even though he is only a very small part of the book, it’s an incredibly powerful anonymous influence on the part of Fr Doyle. How many people have copied his example of small mortifications, without ever knowing anything about him, thanks to this reference from St Josemaria?
Perhaps this is a fitting place to include some references from O’Rahilly’s book on the matter of Fr Doyle and his diet. In all of this it is very clear that Fr Doyle didn’t find these mortifications easy; they were, as St Josemaria said, a tragedy:
He was systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points; every day he did many things for no other reason than that he would rather not do them; so that, when the hour of need and big-scale heroism drew nigh, it did not find him unnerved and untrained to stand the test. For most assuredly he was a man who daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. “Other souls may travel by other roads,” he once wrote, “the road of pain is mine.” He developed a positive ingenuity in discovering possibilities of denying himself. Thus he was always striving to bear little sufferings and physical discomforts were it only the irritation of a gnat without seeking relief; he tried to imagine that his hands were nailed to the cross with Jesus. He gave up having a fire in his room and even avoided warming himself at one. Every day he wore a hair-shirt and one or two chains for some time; and he inflicted severe disciplines on himself. Moreover, between sugarless tea, butterless bread and saltless meat, he converted his meals into a continuous series of mortifications. Naturally he had, in fact, a very hearty appetite and a keen appreciation of sweets and delicacies; all of which he converted into an arena for self-denial…
We find him pencilling this resolution on the first page of the little private notebook he kept with him at the Front: “No blackberries. Give away all chocolates. Give away box of biscuits. No jam, breakfast, lunch, dinner.”
…Just after giving a retreat in a Carmelite convent, he records: “I felt urged in honour of St. Teresa to give myself absolutely no comfort at meals which I could possibly avoid. I found no difficulty in doing this for the nine days. I have begged very earnestly for the grace to continue this all my life and am determined to try to do so. For example, to take no butter, no sugar in coffee, no salt, etc. The wonderful mortified lives of these holy nuns have made me ashamed of my gratification of my appetite.” That he by no means found this mortification easy we have many indications. Thus on 5th Jan., 1912, he writes: “During Exposition Jesus asked me if I would give up taking second course at dinner. This would be a very great sacrifice; but I promised Him at least to try to do so and begged for grace and generosity.”
“A fierce temptation during Mass and thanksgiving,” he records a year later (18th Sept., 1913), “to break my resolution and indulge my appetite at breakfast. The thought of a breakfast of dry bread and tea without sugar in future seemed intolerable. Jesus urged me to pray for strength though I could scarcely bring myself to do so. But the temptation left me in the refectory, and joy filled my heart with the victory. I see now that I need never yield if only I pray for strength.”
On the subject of butter there are many resolutions in the diary. Materially the subject may seem trivial, but psychologically it represents a great struggle and victory…It is in such little acts that man rises above the beast and fosters his human heritage of a rational will. So Fr. Doyle’s butter-resolutions are not at all so unimportant or whimsical as they who have ever thoughtlessly eaten and drunk may be inclined to fancy. “God has been urging me strongly all during this retreat,” he writes in September 1913, “to give up butter entirely. I have done so at many meals without any serious inconvenience; but I am partly held back through human respect, fearing others may notice it. If they do, what harm? I have noticed that X takes none for lunch; that has helped me. Would not I help others if I did the same?” “One thing,” he continues, “I feel Jesus asks, which I have not the courage to give Him: the promise to give up butter entirely.” On 29th July, 1914, we find this resolution: “For the present I will take butter on two mouthfuls of bread at breakfast but none at other meals.” To this decision he seems to have adhered.
…This relentless concentration of will on matters of food must not lead us to suppose that Fr. Doyle was in any way morbidly absorbed or morosely affected thereby. For one less trained in will or less sure in spiritual perspective there might easily be danger of entanglement in minutiae and over-attention to what is secondary. All this apparatus of mortification is but a means to an end, it should not be made an end in itself…This persistent and systematic thwarting of appetite helped Fr. Doyle to strengthen his will and to fix it on God. He never lost himself in a maze of petty resolutions, he never became anxious or distracted.
Alfred O’Rahilly concludes his discussion of Fr Doyle’s eating habits with some wise advice for the reader:
The armour of Goliath would hamper David. There are those whom elaborate prescriptions and detailed regulations would only strain and worry. And these best find the peace of God in a childlike thankful acceptance of His gifts, without either careless indulgence or self-conscious artificiality.
As a humorous aside, Point 205 of The Way has been translated in the past to refer to a “marmalade” tragedy and a “sugar” tragedy because the translators could not understand the concept of giving up butter as a mortification. In any event, all three translations would be an accurate reflection of Fr Doyle’s life and asceticism.
Those who are unfamiliar with Alfred O’Rahilly’s definitive biography of Fr Doyle, from where the above quotations are taken, can find details of how to order a copy of the book here.