Fr Doyle recorded the following incident relating to this day 100 years ago. It was his first night sleeping in a dug out.
I had rather an amusing experience the first night I spent in the trenches. On arriving here I found two officers in the dug-out, which was intended for me, but as they were leaving the next day, I did not care to evict them. After some search I came across an unoccupied, glorified rabbit hole (any port in a storm.) It was not too inviting looking, and rather damp, but I got a trench- board which made a capital foundation for a bed and spread my sleeping bag over it. Let me say here that I do not recommend ‘trench-boards’ for beds. It is simply a kind of ladder with flat steps, which is laid at the bottom of the trench, but being rather narrow requires great skill to prevent yourself from rolling off during the night. In addition, the sharp edges of the steps have a trick of cutting into your back and ribs making you feel in the morning as if you had been at Donnybrook Fair the night before.
In spite of it all I slept soundly till I was awakened by feeling a huge rat sitting on my sheet. The rats round here beat anything I have ever seen. If I told you they were as big as sheep you would scarcely believe me, so let me say a lamb: in any case this fellow was a whopper, weighing fully 7 pounds as I proved afterwards. I thought first of all that ‘I had them again’, but as I was gradually awoke more fully I felt his weight and could dimly see the black outline. Before I quite realised what was happening, a warm soft tongue began to lick my face, and I recognised my old friend – the dog.
Today also marks an important anniversary in Fr Doyle’s life – he entered the Jesuit novitiate 125 years ago today.
He loves your soul dearly, cling to Him, and trust Him, He so longs to be trusted.
COMMENT: There is something of an unfortunate stereotype about the Catholicism of 100 years ago in Ireland. It suggests that God’s love was ignored or downplayed and that there was an excessive emphasis on morality and on Catholicism as a set of rules rather than as a relationship with Jesus.
There is some truth in this stereotype. I was once struck by something Fr Doyle once wrote (disapprovingly) in his diary:
People say it is very hard to love God.
What an odd idea that is for us today, who have grown up with the idea of a God of love. There was certainly something amiss with a vision of Catholicism in which love did not play the central role.
But this negative view of the past is very far from the whole picture. There is absolutely no evidence that Fr Doyle overemphasised sin and downplayed love – his letters of spiritual direction and his private notes reveal very clearly his own passionate love for God. This love overflowed into a life of zealous service for others.
Most of us have a very weak trust in God. The saints were not like us. Their faith and trust in God’s Providence was simple and profound and it was this reliance on God that allowed them to achieve so much.
Mother Angelica, founder of EWTN, died just a few days ago on Easter Sunday, after several years of debilitating illness. Mother Angelica was the living embodiment of trust in God’s providence; it was one of her characteristic virtues. What she achieved in religious broadcasting, with no experience or money, is almost a standing miracle. Again and again EWTN faced financial crises in its early days and a person of lesser faith would have given up in despair. But Mother Angelica put her trust in her Heavenly Father, and the necessary money was always found, sometimes at the last moment and in unexpected ways. This is one of the reasons the saints achieved so much in their lives – they had radical trust in the Lord.
You will be glad to know, as I was, that the ninth edition (90,000 copies) of my little book Vocations is rapidly being exhausted. After my ordination, when I began to be consulted on this important subject, I was struck by the fact that there was nothing one could put into the hands of boys and girls to help them to a decision, except ponderous volumes, which they would scarcely read. Even the little treatise by St. Liguori which Fr. Charles gave me during my first visit to Tullabeg, and which changed the whole current of my thoughts, was out of print. I realized the want for some time; but one evening as I walked back to the train after dining with you, the thought of the absolute necessity for such a book seized me so strongly, (I could almost point out the exact spot on the road), that there and then I made up my mind to persuade someone to write it, for I never dreamt of even attempting the task myself.
I soon found out that the shortest way to get a thing done is to do it yourself, or rather God in His goodness had determined to make use of me, because I was lacking in the necessary qualifications to get His work done…
I remember well when the MSS. — which does not stand for ‘ Mrs ‘ as Brother Frank Hegarty read out once in Clongowes: ‘St. Jerome went off to Palestine carrying his Missus’ — had passed the censors to my great surprise, the venerable manager of the Messenger Office began shaking his head over the prospect of its selling, for as he said with truth, “It is a subject which appeals to a limited few.” He decided to print 5,000, and hinted I might buy them all myself!
Then when the pamphlet began to sell and orders to come in fast, I began to entertain the wild hope that by the time I reached the stage of two crutches and a long white beard, I might possibly see the 100,000 mark reached. We are nearly at that now without any pushing or advertising, and I hope the crutches and flowing beard are still a long way off. God is good, is He not? As the second edition came out only in the beginning of 1914 the sale has been extra ordinarily rapid. It is consoling from time to time to receive letters from convents or religious houses, saying that some novice had come to them chiefly through reading Vocations; for undoubtedly there are many splendid soldiers lost to Christ’s army for the want of a little help and encouragement. . . . A welcome gift from a benefactor, not a benefactress this time, has just reached me in the shape of a donation of £3 to distribute a thousand free copies of Vocations. The donor believes that if one cannot oneself volunteer for the war, the next best thing is to try to get someone else to do so.
One never can tell into what generous heart the good seed may fall, or the number of souls that possibly may be saved by this distribution. May God bless him and send along a thousand more imitators, for “the harvest is great and the labourers few” said our Blessed Lord, and He ought to know!
COMMENT: This is the text of the second last letter Fr Doyle ever wrote. It was written from the trenches on 25 July, 1917, about 3 weeks before his death. It was written to Fr Doyle’s father and the title “Bits and scraps for an old man’s breakfast” was written on top.
I chose this letter for today’s quote as Fr Doyle’s father’s anniversary is this week (in fact it was yesterday, March 28). Hugh Doyle died on this day in 1924 at the ripe old age of 92.
Fr Doyle clearly had a close relationship with his father. It is due to this relationship that we know so much about his experiences in the war as he wrote many letters home to his father. He clearly missed his father and wanted to reassure him that all was well.
One of the striking characteristics of his letters to his father was their remarkable cheerfulness. Here he is, surrounded by death and squalor, including in his letter the charming story of St Jerome’s missus! We see this tendency in many of Fr Doyle’s letters to his father. It illustrates Fr Doyle’s own virtue and concern for others, as well as his filial love.
There is one further charming story about Hugh Doyle. One night in 1922 (he would have been 89 or 90) he was disturbed by a burglar who made him get up and open all of the drawers. As he was ransacking the drawers he came across a photo of Fr Doyle who had been dead for 5 years at this stage. The burglar became excited and asked who it was. Fr Doyle said that it was his son who had given his life for the soldiers in Flanders. The robber responded by saying “That was a holy priest, he saved many souls”. He then took the card, kissed it, put it in his pocket, and left the house!
If my resurrection is to be a real one and is to produce fruit, it must be external, so that all may see I am not the same man, that my life is changed in Christ.
COMMENT: Just as Christ rose from the dead, in a sense we too much continuously rise from sin, from spiritual death. Fr Doyle makes an extremely important point in today’s quote – if the reformation of our lives is real, it should manifest itself in virtuous external acts.
St Josemaria Escriva also touches on this point:
How I wish your bearing and conversation were such that, on seeing or hearing you, people would say: This man reads the life of Jesus Christ.
Have our days of penance in Lent, our commemoration of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection, produced any external fruit that enriches the lives of those around us?
May every Easter blessing be yours, and may our crucified Jesus, Who has certainly drawn you to Him on the cross, raise you up now in the glory of His Resurrection.
COMMENT: Christ is risen! Let us celebrate with great joy!
Fr Doyle has left us some notes which reveal to us something of his experiences on some Easter Sundays during his life. They reveal his missionary zeal and also his good cheer, even in the midst of sufferings. I have chosen just two – his first Easter Sunday as a priest and the last Easter Sunday of his life.
Easter Sunday 1908, on a mission in Yarmouth:
I had a strange experience which seemed providential. In my wanderings through the slums I came across by accident an old woman over ninety who had not entered a church for long, long years. ‘I have led a wicked life,’ she said, ‘but every day I asked God to send me a good friend before I died and I feel now my prayer is heard.’ The next day I came back and heard her Confession, and brought her Holy Communion on Easter Sunday. As the tears streamed down her old withered face she said, ‘Oh, Father this is the first happy day of my life, for I have never known what happiness is since I was a child.’ I could not help feeling that the opening of heaven to that poor sinner was a reward more than enough for all the long years of preparation now passed.
This second quote comes from Easter Sunday 1917, just 4 months before his death. His touching, and respectful, comments about the local French girls shows his good humour and naturalness, even in the midst of much suffering in the war.
Easter Sunday was quite a red letter day in the annals of the town (Pas de Calais, France). The regiment turned out in full strength, headed by the pipers, and crowded the sanctuary, every inch of the church, and out beyond. I had eight stalwart sergeants standing guard with fixed bayonets round the altar. At the Consecration and also at the Communion of the Mass the buglers sounded the Royal Salute which is only given to Monarchs. The guard at the word of command presented arms, and in our poor humble way we tried to do honour to the Almighty King of Kings on the day of His glorious triumph. I must not forget to add that the lassies and maidens did us the honour of coming to sing during Mass, casting many an envious glance (so rumour says) down on the handsome Irish lads praying so devoutly below.
Let us go and meet the risen Lord, sounding the Royal Salute within our own souls.
The final scene of the awful tragedy is drawing to a close. Reverently the faithful few bear the dead Christ down the hill of shame, that body from which all the care of loving hands cannot remove the marks of the cruel scourge, the rending nails, the lance’s gaping thrust. Into the tomb they bear Him, the burial place of a stranger, best suited to Him Who during His life had not where to lay His head. Reverently they lay Him down; one last, fond embrace of His own Mother before they lead her hence, and then in silence and in sorrow they leave Him, their dearest Master, to the watchful care of God’s own angels. Sin has done its work! Sin has triumphed, but its very triumph will prove its own undoing.
The greatest thirst of Jesus on the Cross was His thirst for souls. He saw then the graces and inspirations He would give me to save souls for Him. In what way shall I correspond and console my Saviour?
COMMENT: Once again, there are so many things that one could meditate on today. The Passion is a rich and inexhaustible source of meditation for us. It has converted many souls and formed great saints. St Teresa of Avila, for instance, lead a relatively mediocre religious life until one day she reflected on an image of Jesus being scourged at the pillar and was deeply transformed by the experience.
Today’s quote from Fr Doyle focuses on the thirst of Jesus on the cross. Reflecting on this thirst has had a powerful effect on many saints, and specifically on the life and spirituality of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. As St John Paul II said at her beatification:
The cry of Jesus on the Cross, “I thirst” (Jn 19: 28), expressing the depth of God’s longing for man, penetrated Mother Teresa’s soul and found fertile soil in her heart. Satiating Jesus’ thirst for love and for souls in union with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, had become the sole aim of Mother Teresa’s existence and the inner force that drew her out of herself and made her “run in haste” across the globe to labour for the salvation and the sanctification of the poorest of the poor.
Certainly it was a physical thirst, after all of the exertions and torture and loss of blood of the preceding several hours. But the thirst was also spiritual in nature. St Josemaria Escriva tells us:
He thirsts for us, for our love, for our souls and for all the souls we ought to be bringing to him, along the way of the Cross which is the way to immortality and heavenly glory.
From the 19th century book “The School of Jesus Crucified” by Fr Ignatius, an Italian Passionist priest, we find the following reflections on the thirst of Jesus:
Besides this corporal thirst, Jesus suffers from another spiritual species of thirst, which cannot be so easily assuaged.
Jesus thirsts for our eternal salvation, He thirsts for souls. This is the thirst of which he complains, and which is consuming His very life’s Blood. Jesus most passionately desires that the Blood He has shed should benefit mankind by saving them from Hell; and yet He foreknows that there will be many eternally lost, notwithstanding all His love and all His sufferings. Oh, truly does this thirst consume the loving Heart of Jesus, and its sacred heat slowly but surely deprives Him of life!
If thou hadst been present on Mount Calvary, and hadst heard our Redeemer saying ‘I thirst’ wouldst thou not have relieved His sufferings by giving Him a little water? Know that even at the present moment it is in thy power to relieve His burning thirst. He says to thee from the Cross, ‘My son, I thirst for thy soul.’
We will conclude today with the following private reflection from Fr Doyle’s notes. This very personal record was not meant to be seen by others, and it is all the more significant because of the tinge of Jansenism affecting the Church, including the Church in Ireland, at that time. One of the effects of the Jansenist heresy is to diminish our love for God, to make us feel unworthy of His love, and to make us overly austere and focussed on rules. This heretical spirit worked itself out in very damaging ways as the 20th Century progressed. Of course, it is also possible for the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction as an excessive reaction against Jansenism… In any event, it is clear from this reflection that Fr Doyle was not affected by this heresy of Jansenism.
I…once more had an opportunity of a quiet prayer before the life-size crucifix in the church which I love so much. I could not remain at His feet but climbed up until both arms were around His neck. The Figure seemed almost to live, and I think I loved Him then, for it was borne in upon me how abandoned and suffering and broken-hearted He was. It seemed to console Him when I kissed His eyes and pallid cheeks and swollen lips, and as I clung to Him, I knew He had won the victory, and I gave Him all He asked.
Perhaps today we may find this outpouring of love to be a bit excessive. But then again, Fr Doyle was called to an excessive love; to that greatest of loves which involves laying down one’s life for others. In this, he imitated his Master to the very end.
Pain and privation are only momentary, they quickly pass and become even delightfully sweet, if only borne in the spirit with which many of my grand boys take these things: ‘Sure, Father, it’s not worth talking about; after all, is it not well to have some little thing to suffer for God and His Blessed Mother?’ But the craven fear which at times clutches the heart, the involuntary shrinking and dread of human nature at danger and even death, are things which cannot be expressed in words. An officer, who had gone through a good deal himself, said to me recently: ‘I never realized before what our Lord must have suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane when He began to fear and grow sorrowful.’ Yet His grace is always there to help one when most needed.
COMMENT: There are so many scenes one could meditate on during Holy Thursday: The Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist and priesthood; the washing of the feet; the betrayal and despair of Judas; the denial of Peter and the abandonment of the apostles; the laziness of the apostles sleeping in the Garden; the arrest of Jesus; His ill treatment and mock-trial; His night spent in prison; the anguish of Mary…
Yet the fear of our Lord in the Garden is one of the richest sources of meditation precisely because almost everyone can identify somewhat with Jesus’ acute mental anguish, especially in these uncertain and stressed times.
Yet we can only really guess at the full weight of Jesus’ agony. His soul was sorrowful even unto death – His anguish was so great that it almost killed Him. He even shed drops of blood. As Fr Doyle tells us, sometimes fear and dread are so great that it cannot be fully expressed in words. In fact, sometimes fear is so devastating that it is even worse than the very thing (pain, loneliness, death…) that made us frightened in the first place..
Fr Doyle tells us that when we experience such fear Jesus is there by our side to help us. Fr Doyle should know – his diaries reveal the many times when he had to hide in a hole and shook with fear under heavy shelling during his years as a military chaplain. Yet, with God’s grace, he always overcame his deeply felt fear, and went on to encourage the soldiers who were faltering.
Jesus understands our anguish and has experienced it Himself. As St Thomas More tells us:
It seems that Christ is making use of His own agony to speak to those who find themselves in such a situation. Be brave, He seems to say…Do not give up hope…You are terrified and depressed, worn down by exhaustion and the dread of torture. Be confident, I have overcome the world and yet I was much more afraid and appalled…Look how I go before you along this path that is beset with so many fears. Take hold of the edge of my cloak and you will feel flowing from it the power that will not allow your heart’s blood to be contaminated with useless fears and anxiety.
The Jesuit spiritual writer Archbishop Alban Goodier also comments on the transformation that overcomes Our Lord after His agony in the garden.
What a transformation takes place after this third prayer! To the end of the Passion, no matter what men may do to Him, we shall never see Him falter or broken anymore. Always henceforth He is Master. He has strength for Himself, except such as many depend on His poor worn body, and He has strength for everyone about Him…We look on amazed; we wonder whether we have understood aright; and yet around us we see the same illustrated in those who seek their own support in prayer.
May we too, through prayer, transform our anxieties and worries into confidence and strength.
On Spy Wednesday evening after Benediction, I told the men I wanted nine volunteers to watch an hour during the following night before the Altar of Repose. I had barely finished speaking when the whole church made a rush up to the altar rails and were keenly disappointed when I could only take the first nine, though I could have had thirty an hour if I wanted them. I was touched by the poor fellows’ generosity, for they had just finished a long, hard day’s work with more before them. I got the nine men to bring their blankets into the little sacristy, and while one watched, the others slept. Surely our Lord must have been pleased with His Guard if Honour, and will bless them as only he can.
I think He would like you to pay more attention to little things, looking on nothing as small, if connected with His service and worship. Also try to remember that nothing is too small to offer to Him — that is, the tiniest act of self-conquest is of immense value in His eyes, and even lifting one’s eyes as an act of love brings great grace.
COMMENT: Despite the fact that Fr Doyle lived a very dramatic life that involved many big sacrifices, he consistently preached that holiness is normally to be found in little things. In fact, without having strived for holiness in little things, it is doubtful that Fr Doyle would have been capable of his heroism in the trenches.
At first glance, it seems that reflecting on little things during this most momentous Holy Week is a bit a strange. But today’s Gospel contains a subtle reference to the value of little sacrifices and offerings. Given the drama of the Passion, it is easy to miss it.
Go ye into the city to a certain man and say to him: The master says, My time is near at hand. With thee I make the pasch with my disciples. And the disciples did as Jesus appointed to them: and they prepared the pasch.
Who was this “certain man” who provided the room for the Last Supper? We do not know. He is not named. But what is clear is that he did an important service for our Lord by providing the room for the Last Supper. What an honour it would be to have provided the room for the Last Supper! This unknown man, humble and hidden, served Jesus in a most special way. He obviously knew Jesus and was ready to serve Him however he was asked. Yet he remains unknown to us. This is the secret of holiness in little things – providing humble and unknown service, without seeking any attention or fame.
As Fr Doyle tells us, nothing is too small to offer to Him.
In conclusion it might be appropriate today to include Fr Doyle’s “parable” of the hermit and the “recording angel”. He included this little parable in one of his very last letters home to his father, and it tells us of the value of little things by way of an amusing story.
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 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 backwards 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.