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.