The night of September 26 1915 from Fr Willie Doyle

Fr Doyle wrote the following very private notes in his diary on 27 September 1915 about his prayer the previous night:

Last night I rose at twelve, tied my arms in the form of a cross and remained in the chapel till three a.m. I was fiercely tempted not to do so, the devil suggesting that, as I had a cough, it was madness and would unfit me for the coming mission. Though I shivered with cold, I am none the worse this morning, in fact, the cough is better, proving that Jesus is pleased with these ‘holy imprudences.’ At the end of an hour I was cold and weary, I felt I could not possibly continue; but I prayed and got wonderful strength to persevere till the end of the three hours. This has shown me what I might do and how, with a little determined effort, I could overcome the greatest repugnances and seeming impossibilities.

Clearly we are not called to copy Fr Doyle’s penitential and prayer practices. But it also seems clear that Fr Doyle had a special calling to prayer and penance of this nature. We are called not to judge others. We naturally interpret this to mean that we do not judge others harshly for their sins and failings. But it also means that we do not judge others harshly for their piety, their prayer and their penance. Fr Doyle’s nocturnal prayer and penance has a precedent in the lives of many saints, and it seems to have indeed brought about about both spiritual and even physical fruit in his life. 

As Fr Doyle said on another occasion:

How much is comprised in the little words agere contra! Therein is the real secret of sanctity, the hidden source from which the saints have drunk deep of the love of God and reached that height of glory they now enjoy.

The phrase agere contra refers to the practice of going against oneself, of denying oneself in various ways in order to overcome our defects and vices.

It is not in vogue today, but it has traditionally been an important part of the spiritual life and it is essential in understanding the spirituality of Fr Doyle. He practiced this in so many different ways. In the note above about this night in 1915 he practiced what might be termed a harsh penance. But he also practiced, and always advocated, small and insignificant penances that have the effect of showing love for God, of making one stronger and generally equipping one for better service of others.

Anybody can adopt this type of practice in little things if the will is there – getting up on time, going to bed on time, giving up sugar in our tea, giving up butter on bread or maybe just giving up jam but keeping the butter!! Many of us make such sacrifices for earthly and mundane reasons such as our health or career or our appearances. Surely our love of God, and desire for sanctification, should be of more importance and should be a greater motivation for going against ourselves? Venerable Fr Petit, who was Fr Doyle’s spiritual director in Belgium during his tertian year, immediately after ordination, said that we find self-denial difficult because we have such little love of Jesus.

4 thoughts on “The night of September 26 1915 from Fr Willie Doyle

  1. Why do you say ” Clearly we are not called to copy Fr Doyle’s penitential and prayer practices.”? If you want to sell yourself short, do so, but leave heroic virtue open to the rest of us.

    • Dear Brigid St. Clare:

      Thank you for your comment.

      As a general rule, no, we are not called to follow Fr Doyle’s more robust ascetical practices. He had a specific calling for this type of penance. As he said himself, things that were legitimate for others were not legitimate for him, and thus by extension, practices that were appropriate for him were not appropriate for others. To take a specific quote from him:

      “How many deceive themselves in thinking sanctity consists in the holy follies of the saints! How many look upon holiness as something beyond their reach or capability, and think that it is to be found only in the performance of extraordinary actions. Satisfied that they have not the strength for great austerities, the time for much prayer, or the courage for painful humiliations, they silence their conscience with the thought that great sanctity is not for them, that they have not been called to be saints. With their eyes fixed on the heroic deeds of the few, they miss the daily little sacrifices God asks them to make; and while waiting for something great to prove their love, they lose the countless little opportunities of sanctification each day bears with it in its bosom.”

      Heroic sanctity does not, of necessity, consist of great austerities. Of course, many of the saints did indeed practice such austerities. It was the right path for them. And in many cases they expressly forbade others from following in their footsteps. Fr Doyle was clear on this point. Another quote from a letter to one of his spiritual daughters:

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

      There is, of course, a tendency today to utterly downplay the need for penance and mortification. This is alien to the spirit of the Gospel, and is absolutely not what I meant. Nor have I argued that physical mortification is inherently reserved for some elite and is out of bounds for everyone. But by the same token we also have to be careful of the other tendency to over-emphasise the extreme (but legitimate!) penances practiced by some.

      The ordinary path for the vast majority of Christians, and by definition, of readers of this site, is sanctification in one’s daily duties, and by offering small, but deliberate, mortifications throughout the day. Two further quotes from Fr Doyle on this:

      “Try and remember that sanctification means daily, hourly, hard work, and this unflinchingly, when weariness comes.”

      “I am truly glad you are looking to the perfection of your daily actions; it is the simplest, yet perhaps hardest, way of sanctification, with little fear of deception. It is the certain following of Christ: “He hath done all things well.” (Mark 7:37)”

      The pursuit of holiness in this ordinary pathway is most certainly not selling oneself short and it is indeed a pathway to heroic virtue. Again from Fr Doyle:

      “It is indeed easy to condemn oneself to death, to make a generous offering of self-immolation; but to carry out the execution daily is more than most can do”.

      A more complete discussion is beyond the scope here, and beyond my time (and competence). We would have to consider the different roles of mortification in the purgative, illuminative and unitive stages of the spiritual life. Sadly these are concepts that are rarely (if ever?) preached about. In the absence of an understanding of these stages of the spiritual life, the practice of great austerities could be spiritually unsettling (and I am talking here of the great austerities, not relatively simple physical mortifications).

      However I will admit that I was too definitive in the statement I made. Instead of saying “Clearly we are not called” I should have said “In general, most are not called…”. Part of my intention was also not to discourage the majority who are not called to such austerities (see Fr Doyle’s quote above). And I also had in mind Fr Doyle’s real “holy follies”, – the example today is a mild example compared to many others in his life. So for that slip up and lack of clarity I certainly apologise. I will edit the post to make this clearer. However I still argue that heroic sanctity is indeed open to those who are not in a position to practice such austerities. In fact I’d go further and say that such heroic sanctity is expected of us all, and the path we are to follow in living it out will depend on our capacity and individual vocations and stage in the spiritual life. Most people are called to a more ordinary, but no less challenging path.

      In conclusion, some interesting links:

      Cardinal Mercier:

      St Josemaria Escriva:

      St Francis de Sales:

  2. Thank you!

    There may have been so misunderstanding in our statements. You obviously have a better understanding of His over all practices. I was going merely by the articles one example of spending 3 hours one night before the blessed sacrament. While I agree not everyone is called to more heroic practices I do think in our society we cater too much to the flesh and are afraid to do the slightest penance that “might” lead to some physical “push back”. Obviously, a pregnant woman or a mother of 3 children cant be up 1 night every week in prayer but I think we do all over look those times when we are called to a “one time” more heroic discipline because we are afraid of maybe getting sick or it costing our finances. This is where the loss of being able to find a good spiritual director in many places can leave people in limbo as to what is too strenuous and where their just being babies. Sometimes our flesh will have to suffer for our penances. God bless.

    • Ah yes, that would explain it. The example above was only a moderately robust mortification from Fr Doyle. But he performed penances that were SIGNIFICANTLY tougher than this. It was these so-called “extreme” penances that I had in mind when I said that we were not necessarily called to copy them!

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