Devotion to the Sacred Heart cannot exist without self-denial; the flames and thorns around that Heart, the cross that crowns It, point to a love of, and call for, suffering.
Peter, the favoured one, denies his Master and turns his back on Him who loved him so; and Peter’s heart is won, even in his sin, by one loving look of mercy and compassion from the Saviour whose mercy is without end.
COMMENT: The denial of St Peter, and Christ’s subsequent forgiveness, was a frequent theme in Fr Doyle’s notes. The image of a favoured apostle denying his Master seemed to resonate deeply with him.
As for St Paul, Fr Doyle doesn’t seem to write much about him directly, although he obviously quotes him frequently in his letters. Fr Doyle resembles St Paul in his great missionary zeal. Just as Paul underwent shipwreck and imprisonment and deprivation to bring the Gospel to others, Fr Doyle underwent life in the trenches, and all of its dangers, to bring the sacraments to others.
Peter, Paul and Fr Doyle could all have stayed at home and lived relatively comfortable, safe lives. But they sacrificed this comfort because of their love of Christ, offering their own lives in the process.
If an aspiration, on the authority of the Blessed Cure d’Ars, often saved a soul, what must you not do each day you suffer so bravely! This thought certainly will help you and make the pain almost nothing, and will add to its merit, since the motive for bearing it will be all the higher.
COMMENT: Today’s quotation comes from a letter of spiritual direction Fr Doyle wrote to somebody who was sick. Like many popular spiritual directors of his era, Fr Doyle had a very heavy daily correspondence with many people, especially nuns. In fact, he found this work difficult as it placed a heavy burden on him – he was known to receive a couple of dozen letters seeking spiritual direction in a single day. However, despite the burden, he persevered, and indeed it seems that he took his own advice – he offered up his work and inconveniences and sufferings for others, especially for the salvation of souls.
This principle applies to us all, irrespective of our role in life. We can offer up minor inconveniences, aches and pains, our work, in fact everything in our life for others. Seen in this light, every day presents a multitude of opportunities to help others, to merit grace and to grow in holiness.
“Come in before His presence with exceeding great joy” (Ps 100:2). Yes, come before Jesus in the Blessed Eucharist with a joyous heart, for He, the bounteous giver of all good gifts, will fill it with His grace. Make haste and tarry not. He waits for your coming, as the tender mother yearns for the absent child she loves so dearly, that He may load you with His heavenly treasures, and send you away with “joy exceeding great”.
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.
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…
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 a 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.
St Josemaria Escriva is,of course, not the only person renowned for their sanctity who had a devotion to Fr Doyle. Amongst those who admired Fr Doyle we can include Blessed John Sullivan SJ; the Servant of God Fr Bernard Quinn; the Venerable Adolf Petit SJ; Saint Teresa of Calcutta and St Alberto Hurtado SJ, as well as countless others: priests, religious and lay people, both anonymous and renowned, from Ireland and from overseas. Fr Doyle seems to have exerted a wide ranging appeal to many different types of people over the course of several decades.
Do nothing without consulting Him in the Tabernacle. But then act fearlessly, if you see it is for His honour and glory, never minding what others may think or say. Above all, “cast your care upon the Lord and He shall sustain you”, (Psalm 54. 23). Peace and calm in your soul, prayer ever on your lips, and a big love in your heart for Him and His interests, will carry you very far.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle had a tremendous devotion to the Eucharist which sustained his austere life of hard work, both in and out of the trenches. His advice to us today reflects the story of Jesus telling the apostles to let down their nets for a catch even though the task seems pointless (Luke 5:4-7):
And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.
Do we act fearlessly today when the Holy Spirit inspires us? Or are we still too concerned about “what others may think or say”?
Today the Church celebrates the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist. The Church only celebrates the birth of Jesus, Mary and St John the Baptist. It is a great testament to the sanctity and importance of St John that he is in this elite group and that he has two feasts – his birthday and his beheading.
Fr Doyle does not seem to have written about St John very much, but in one letter to his sister, a nun, written on 19th December 1916, he alludes to the similarities between the harshness of his own life and that of St. John’s. The letter is worth quoting in its totality. Two things come across very clearly in this letter – his own natural abhorrence at the nature of his life in the trenches and, secondly, his supernatural joy and acceptance of this cross.
I want to have a little chat with you. But you must promise to keep to yourself what I write to you. Did I ever tell you that my present life was just the one I dreaded most, being from a natural point of view repugnant to me in every way? So when our Blessed Lord sent me to the Front I felt angry with Him for taking me away from a sphere of work where the possibilities, at least, of doing good were so enormous, and giving me a task others could perform much better. It was only after a time that I began to understand that ‘God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts’ and the meaning of it all began to dawn on me. In the first place my life, especially here in the trenches, has become a real hermit’s one, cave and all, a mixture of solitude with a touch of the hardships of a foreign mission. The result has been that God has come into my life in a way He never did before. He has put strange thoughts into my head and given me many lights which I feel have changed my whole outlook upon life. Then I feel, oh, so strongly, that I am going through a kind of noviceship, a sort of spiritual training, for some big work He wants me to do in the future. I feel every day as if spiritual strength and power were growing in my soul.
This thought of being trained or fitted for God’s work (if I may use the comparison with all reverence) like St. John the Baptist, has filled me with extraordinary joy and made me delight in a life which could not well be much harder.
Here I am in a bit of a hole in the side of a ditch, so low that I cannot stand upright and have to bend my head and shoulders during Mass — I can tell you my back aches at the end. My only window is the door (without a door) through which the wind blows day and night; and a cold wind it is just now. I was offered a little stove but my ‘Novice Master’ did not want that luxury, for it never came. My home would be fairly dry if I could keep out the damp mists and persuade the drops of water not to trickle from the roof. As a rule I sleep well, though one is often roused to attend some poor fellow who has been hit. Still it is rather reversing the order of things to be glad to get up in the morning to try and get warm; and it is certainly not pleasant to be wakened from sweet dreams by a huge rat burrowing under your pillow or scampering over your face! This has actually happened to me. There is no great luxury in the matter of food, as you may well guess. Recently, owing to someone’s carelessness, or possibly because the bag was made to pay toll on the way up to the trenches, my day’s rations consisted of half a pot of jam and a piece of cheese!
Through all this, and much in addition, the one thought ever in my mind is the goodness and love of God in choosing me to lead this life, and thus preparing me without a chance of refusal for the work He wants doing. No amount of reading or meditating could have proved to me so convincingly that a life of privation, suffering and sacrifice, accepted lovingly for the love of Jesus, is a life of great joy, and surely of great graces You see, therefore, that I have reasons in abundance for being happy, and I am truly so. Hence you ought to be glad that I have been counted worthy to suffer something for our dear Lord, the better to be prepared to do His work. Ask Him, won’t you, that I may not lose this golden opportunity, but may profit to the full by the graces He is giving me. Every loving wish from my heart for a holy and happy Christmas. Let our gift to the divine Babe be the absolute sacrifice of even our desires, so that His Will alone may be done.