Thoughts for July 19 from Fr Willie Doyle

Believe me, I feel intensely for you, my child, for I know what you have suffered in the past and how violent the attacks of the tempter have been. But this very thing ought to be a big joy to you, since it shows how much the evil one fears what you are going to do for our Blessed Lord and poor perishing souls. If you were not a dangerous “enemy”, he would leave you alone, but he cannot help showing his hand. That being so, you can easily see how foolish it would be to yield to him now after so many heroic victories. Besides, I promise you this, that if you fight the temptations for a little while, great peace will soon come. Your only mistake has been to show the “white feather” even a little. Be brave and generous, my child, for the sake of our dear Lord, who loves you so much, as you know so well. If you have given in a little, don’t lose a moment, but start away again. I shall pray for you, but you must pray for yourself.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle was constantly sought out as a spiritual director and was known for his gentleness and understanding. His advice to the person he is writing to (probably a nun) is simple and loving: “don’t lose a moment, but start away again”. But despite his gentleness, he was still challenging – he calls the nun to “be brave and generous…for the sake of our dear Lord”. The Christian is called to be more than merely nice or polite, but rather to a courageous generosity “for our Blessed Lord and poor perishing souls”.

Fr Doyle’s advice applies just as much now as it did 100 years ago.

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Thoughts for July 18 from Fr Willie Doyle

I gave way today to indulgence, with the usual result. Jesus seemed to reproach me bitterly, reminding me that He seeks a perpetual crucifixion from me.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words on 18 July 1914: 104 years ago today. It’s not clear what Fr Doyle had in mind by the word “indulgence”, nor is it clear what he means by the “usual result”. But an educated guess, based on all we know about him, would tell us that he went a little easier on himself by having butter on bread or perhaps a bit too much desert or even an afternoon nap. And the “usual result” of this was probably a sense of lethargy or tiredness or regret. According to the spirituality of the St Ignatius, this sadness is a sign of desolation, a sign perhaps that Fr Doyle did not do what God wanted of him in that moment. While he lay sick and wounded in his bed, St Ignatius read different kinds of books – some were chivalrous romance stories while others were books about saints and the life of Christ. While Ignatius enjoyed each kind of book, he was left with a feeling of emptiness or sadness after finishing the romance stories, while the books about Jesus and the saints left him full of peace and joy. It was this experience that lead St Ignatius to develop his rules for the discernment of spirits. Assuming he was not scrupulous (he wrote a booklet on how to tackle scruples, so we can assume that he wasn’t..) Fr Doyle’s sense of desolation after going a little easier on himself is, according to St Ignatius’ rules for the discernment of spirits, further proof that this personal austerity was truly God’s will for him.

Fr Doyle is one of those curious individuals who was energised by austerity. It made him stronger and fitter and healthier. Conversely, any type of indulgence left him feeling sad and dry. 

Part of this may be due to his temperament, but also by his special calling to a life of “perpetual crucifixion”. There is something consoling for us in this – if Fr Doyle could yield occasionally, should we be surprised if we, too, sometimes slip up and fail to keep our resolutions? Such little falls can humble us, and allow us to see just how much we have to constantly rely on God’s grace for everything. 

As for Fr Doyle’s life of “perpetual crucifixion”, as stated before here, if we admire his heroism in the war, we also have to admire (but perhaps not imitate!) his joyful life of strict discipline, for it was the training ground for his heroism in the war. We cannot have the Fr Doyle who was a hero of the trenches without also having the Fr Doyle who was a cheerful ascetic.

Thoughts for July 17 from Fr Willie Doyle

The reformation of one’s life must be the work of every day. I should take each rule and duty, think how Jesus acted, or would have done, and contrast my conduct with His.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle’s words today are direct and relevant for us all. 

The daily reformation Fr Doyle recommends must be immensely practical. We do not reform our lives in the abstract by imagining great things we would do for God in some hypothetical reality. We must reform our own lives in the practical circumstances in which we live. Fr Doyle gives us the recipe for doing this, by considering the “rule and duty” of each day. 

Fr Doyle himself had to live this daily reformation in the dreadful, gritty reality in which he lived. Here is an excerpt from O’Rahilly’s biography, quoting extensively from Fr Doyle’s letters home, detailing how Fr Doyle fulfilled one of his duties – and also one of the corporal works of mercy – by burying the dead. Let us remember that holiness is in the duty of today, whatever its circumstances. It is not to be found in pleasant daydreams about some mythical day when everything goes along smoothly as we would like.

NOTE: Those who may be squeamish about death and gore may want to skip this particular quote.

It was not to be, however, for still another adventure awaited him. On returning, he found that a dead man had been brought in for burial. The cemetery, part of a field, was outside the town in the open country, so exposed to shell and rifle fire that it could not be approached by day. As soon as it was dark we carried the poor fellow out on a stretcher, just as he had fallen, and as quietly as we could began to dig the grave. It was weird. We were standing in front of the German trenches on two sides, though a fair distance away, and every now and then a star-shell went up which we felt certain would reveal our presence to the enemy. I put my ritual in the bottom of my hat and with the aid of an electric torch read the burial service, while the men screened the light with their caps, for a single flash would have turned the machine guns on us. I cannot say if we were seen or not, but all the time bullets came whizzing by, though more than likely stray ones and not aimed at us. Once I had to get the men to lie down as things were rather warm; but somehow I felt quite safe, as if the dead soldier’s guardian angel was sheltering us from all danger, till the poor dust was laid to rest. It was my first war burial though assuredly not my last. May God rest his soul and comfort those left to mourn him.” 

The burials soon became more frequent, and Fr. Doyle had many gruesome experiences. Thus a few days later two bodies fell to bits when lifted off the stretcher and he had to shovel the remains of one poor fellow into the grave, a task which taxed his endurance. On 1st April he had a further vivid experience of the horrors of war: 

“Taking a short cut across country to our lines I found myself on the first battle field of Loos, the place where the French had made their attack. For some reason or other this part of the ground has not been cleared, and it remains more or less as it was the morning after the fight. I had to pick my steps, for numbers of unexploded shells, bombs and grenades lay all round. The ground was littered with broken rifles, torn uniforms, packs, etc., just as the men had flung them aside, charging the German trenches. Almost the first thing I saw was a human head torn from the trunk, though there was no sign of the body. The soldiers had been buried on the spot they fell; that is, if you can call burial, hastily throwing a few shovelfuls of clay on the corpses: there was little time, I fancy, for digging graves, and in war time there is not much thought or sentiment for the slain. As I walked along, I wondered had they made certain each man was really dead. One poor fellow had been buried, surely, before the breath had left his body, for there was every sign of a last struggle and one arm was thrust out from its shroud of clay. A large mound caught my eye. Four pairs of feet were sticking out, one a German, judging by his boots, and three Frenchmen friend and foe are sleeping their long last sleep in peace together. They were decently covered compared with the next I saw; a handful of earth covered the wasted body, but the legs and arms and head were exposed to view. He seemed quite a young lad, with fair, almost golden, hair. An unknown soldier was all the rough wooden cross over him told me about him; but I thought of the sorrowing mother, far away, thinking of her boy who was missing, and hoping against hope that he might one day come back. Thank God, Heaven one day will reunite them both. I found a shovel near at hand, and after a couple of hours stiff work was able to cover the bodies decently, so that on earth at least they might rest in peace.”

Thoughts for July 16 from Fr Willie Doyle

I have come back from the missions with feelings of joy and gratitude, for these last three missions have been blessed in a wonderful way. God seems to take a special delight in seconding my efforts, just because I have hurt Him so much in the past and have been so really ungrateful. It is one of the big humiliations of my life and makes me thoroughly ashamed of myself that our Blessed Lord for His own wise ends conceals my shortcomings from others and allows me to do a little good. But He does not hide the wretched state of my soul from myself. I am not speaking in a false humble strain, but serious truth. If you, or anyone else, could only see the way I have acted towards Jesus all my life, you would turn away from me in disgust. 

I have had much consolation in my work recently. The last mission was the hardest I have given, yet it seems to have been singularly blessed. All this love and goodness on the part of Jesus only fills me with a deep sorrow that I can do so little for Him. I am getting afraid of Him, just because He is so generous to me and blesses all I do. I feel ashamed when people praise me for my work, the sort of shame a piano might feel if someone complimented it on the beautiful melody that came from its keys. I am realizing more and more that all success is entirely God’s work, and that self does not count at all. I have this strange feeling that when I get to heaven I shall have little merit for anything I have done for God’s glory, since all has been the work of His Hands.

COMMENT: One of the very hardest things that we must accept in our life of faith is our own inability to do good apart from God’s grace. So often we start out with grand plans of what we will do for God. But time, and many failings, teach us that really the spiritual life is largely about what God will do for us. Without Him we are nothing. 

Fr Doyle recognised that he was just the tool in God’s hands and was always aware of his own sinfulness and likelihood to fail. 

But this reliance on God should not lead us into some form of apathy or quietism. We rely on grace, so we must want that grace and we must strive to obtain that grace in order that we may more fully imitate, and serve, the Lord. 

How? Through prayer, mortification, sacrifices, the struggle to acquire virtue and detachment from the things of this world. As St Paul says: “Train yourselves in godliness”. 

And when we receive the grace, we must use it, relying on it to perform good works. The work and service we undertake may still be hard, but with God’s grace we can accomplish it. 

This was the secret of the saints. This was the secret of Fr Doyle. The heroism of the trenches is simply inexplicable apart from God’s grace, and lots of it. 

We shall finish today with a quote from Scuploi’s Spiritual Combat:

Think first upon thine own weakness, next turn, full of self-distrust, to the wisdom, the power and the goodness of God; and in reliance on these, resolve to fight generously.

Finally, today is the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Fr Doyle was very devoted to the Carmelites and gave many retreats to Carmelite nuns around the country. Let us pray for the Carmelite order today.

101 years ago today: Fr Doyle’s last homily

Fr Doyle in the pulpit during his last homily, July 1917

Fr Doyle gave his last homily 101 years ago today. Here is Alfred  O’Rahilly’s account of this last sermon, complete with valuable first hand testimony from the famous Fr Frank Browne SJ:

The 48th Brigade was at rest or rather down for a rifle shooting course near St. Omer. The 2nd and 8th Dublins were in and around the little village of St. Martin au Laert about a mile and a half from St. Omer, the 9th Dublins about a mile distant in a country camp, and the R. I. Rifles a little further away. The new Bishop of Arras, Boulogne and St. Omer, Mgr. Julien, was to make his formal entry into Arras on Saturday, 20th July, and to be present next day at the conclusion of the Novena to our Lady of Miracles. Through the instrumentality of Fr. Browne, with the ready compliance of General Hickie, it was arranged that there should be a church parade in honour of the Bishop on Sunday, 15th. About 2,500 men came down. Fr. Browne said Mass and Fr. Doyle preached. The ceremony, which was most impressive and successful, has fortunately been described in a letter of Fr. Browne, which we are allowed to reproduce:

“I arrived at the Cathedral about 11o’clock (says Fr. Browne), and was in despair to find that the Pontifical High Mass was not yet finished. Our people are so punctual and the French so regardless of time-tables that I was sure there would be confusion and delay when our 2,000 Catholics would begin to arrive. But it was not to be. Quietly and wonderfully quickly the Mass ended, and the people went out to watch the Bishop go back in procession to his house close by. I was relieved to see that neither he nor any of the priests unvested. Then Fr. Doyle and I had to try to clear away the hundred or so people who remained and the other hundred or so people who came wandering in for the last Mass which for the day was to be ours. “Make room, please, for the soldiers who are coming” I went round saying to everyone. They moved from the great aisle and got into the side-chapels, leaving the transepts and aisles free. Many refused to do this when with pious exaggeration I said, About 3,000 Irish soldiers are just coming. And lo ! they were coming. Through all the various doors they came, the 9th Dubs, marching in by the great western door, the 8th Dubs, through the beautiful southern door, through which St. Louis was the first to pass just 700 years ago, the 2nd Dubs, coming into the northern aisle and making their way up to the northern transept. Rank after rank the men poured in until the vast nave was one solid mass of khaki with the red caps of General Hickie and his staff and the Brigadiers in front. Then up the long nave at a quick clanking march came the Guard of Honour. Every button of its men, every badge, shone and shone again; their belts were scrubbed till not even the strictest inspection could reveal the slightest stain, and their fixed bayonets only wanted the sun to show how they could flash. Up they came, and with magnificent precision took their places on either side of the altar. I was just leaving the sacristy to begin Mass when I saw the Bishop’s procession arriving. He had promised to come only after the sermon, but here he was at the beginning of the ceremony, making everything complete. Of course, I saw nothing, being engaged in saying Mass, but those who did said it was a wonderful sight. The beautiful altar, standing at the crossing of the transepts and backed by the long arches of the apse and choir, was for the feast surrounded by a lofty throne bearing the statue of our Lady of Miracles. The sides were banked up high with palms; then the Guard of Honour standing rigidly in two lines on either side; lastly the Bishop in his beautiful purple robes on his throne. From the pulpit Fr. Doyle directed the singing of the hymns, and then, after the Gospel, he preached. I knew he could preach, but I had hardly expected that anyone could speak as he spoke then. First of all he referred to the Bishop’s coming, and very, very tactfully spoke of the terrible circumstances of the time. Next he went on to speak of our Lady and the Shrine to which we had come. Gradually the story was unfolded; he spoke wonderfully of the coming of the Old Irish Brigade in their wanderings over the Low Countries. It was here that he touched daringly, but ever so cleverly, on Ireland’s part in the war. Fighting for Ireland and not fighting for Ireland, or rather fighting for Ireland through another. Then he passed on to Daniel O Connell’s time as a schoolboy at St. Omer and his visit to the Shrine. It certainly was very eloquent. Everyone spoke most highly of it afterwards, the men particularly, they were delighted.

“After the sermon Mass went on. At the Sanctus I heard the subdued order, Guard of Honour, shun! There was a click as rifles and feet came to position together. Then as the Bishop came from his throne to kneel before the altar, twelve little boys in scarlet soutanes, with scarlet sashes over their lace surplices, appeared with lighted torches and knelt behind his Lordship. At the second bell came the command, Guard of Honour, slope rifles ! And then as I bent over the Host, I heard, Present arms! There was the quick click, click, click, and silence, till, as I genuflected, from the organ-gallery rang out the loud clear notes of the buglers sounding the General’s Salute.”

At the end of the Mass the Bishop in a neat little speech thanked the men for the great honour they had paid him. He was especially struck, he said, by the fact that most of them had marched a long way (some nearly ten kilometres) to attend, and he asked those of his flock who were present to learn a lesson from the grand spirit and deep faith of the Irish soldiers. The ceremony concluded by a march past, with bands playing, in front of the Episcopal Palace. The Bishop stood on the steps of his house, beaming as he replied to the eyes right of each company as it passed him.

This last sermon of Fr. Doyle will serve as a final proof if such be needed that the man, whose inner life has been portrayed in previous chapters, was no awkward recluse or unpractical pietist. He was full of lovable human qualities; especially conspicuous was his unselfish thoughtfulness which always seemed so natural, so intertwined with playful spontaneity, that one came to take it for granted. He had a wonderful influence over others and knew how to win the human heart because he had learnt the Master’s secret of drawing all to himself. He could, as we have just seen, preach persuasively when occasion demanded; but his real sermon was his own life. And from this pulpit he spoke alike to Protestants and Catholics. “For fifteen months,” writes Dr. C. Buchanan (8th Sept., 1917), ” Fr. Doyle and I worked together out here, generally sharing the same dug-outs and billets, so we became fast friends, I acting as medical officer to his first Battalion. Often I envied him his coolness and courage in the face of danger: for this alone his men would have loved him, but he had other sterling qualities, which we all recognised only too well. He was beloved and respected, not only by those of his own Faith, but equally by Protestants, to which denomination I belong. To illustrate this Poor Captain Eaton, before going into action last September, asked Fr. Doyle to do what was needful for him if anything happened to him, as he should feel happier if he had a friend to bury him. Capt. Eaton was one of many whom Fr. Doyle and I placed in their last resting place with a few simple prayers. For his broad-mindedness we loved him. He seldom if ever preached, but he set us a shining example of a Christian life.”

O’Rahilly makes the following remarkable point in a footnote in relation to Fr Doyle’s kindness towards this same Dr Buchanan:

Once when Dr. Buchanan was unwell and there were no blankets to lie upon in the damp dug-out, Fr. Doyle lay flat, face downwards, on the ground, and made the doctor lie upon him.

Modern photo of the Cathedral of St Omer

 

Thoughts for July 14 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Camillus de Lellis

The object of my life to be close union with and intense love of God. To acquire this I will (a) fly from the shadow of sin, never deliberately break a rule, custom or regulation; (b) do each little action purely for the love of Jesus, with exquisite exactness, fervour and devotedness; (c) beg constantly and earnestly for a great increase of love.

COMMENT: Today’s quote comes from some of the resolutions Fr Doyle made after the 30 days of spiritual exercises he did in 1907. As usual, there is much here that we can learn from. 

Flying from the shadow of sin, or, put another way, avoiding occasions of sin, is an important element of the spiritual life. How often we can make compromises by going to places (real, online or imaginary), meeting with people or practicing those habits that we know will lead us into temptation or distraction. Unless we make concerted effort, relying on grace, we will never win the battle for greater virtue. 

Today’s saint, Camillus de Lellis, was a dissipated, violent man who lived as a mercenary soldier with a propensity for gambling (and literally losing the shirt off his back in the process). His conversion necessitated that he avoid the company, and habits, that lead him into gambling and fighting. St Camillus used to teach that we should aim: 

not to be satisfied with avoiding sin, but to avoid even the least shadow and risk of sin.

Even in the use of language he was at one with Fr Doyle. 

This flight from temptation is very typical of saints. We see traps set for saints like Thomas Aquinas and Philip Neri. In both cases, others sought to tempt them by laying traps whereby they encountered prostitutes who tried to seduce them. Both saints fled the scene – they didn’t pause to think about the temptation. Similarly, Venerable Matt Talbot, following his conversion from a life of alcoholism, would avoid walking past a pub, and even refused to carry money on him, lest he be tempted to spend it on drink.

The second part of Fr Doyle’s advice today is characteristic of him: do “each little action purely for the love of Jesus, with exquisite exactness, fervour and devotedness”. Dedication to duty, day after day, even when we don’t feel like it, requires great virtue. Faithfully doing our work on time, to the best of our abilities, will be for many people a great penance. But the key is doing this work for the love of God, not just to make more money or to win a promotion. Examining our faithfulness to duty can be a fruitful aspect of our daily examination of conscience.

 

Thoughts for July 13 from Fr Willie Doyle

“Another day is gone”. This is a summer sunset in Dun Laoghaire, very close to where Fr Doyle grew up.

The soft chimes of the angelus bell mark the fall of evening. Another day is gone. Another precious day, our measurement of God’s most precious gift, time, has passed away and is swallowed up in the vast gulf of the irrevocable past. Another day has passed! Another stage of our journey towards our final end is traversed. Nearer still than yesterday to that solemn moment of our lives, its end; nearer still to heaven with its joys unknown, untasted; nearer still to Him for Whom we labour now and strive to serve. How many more days are left? Too few alas! for all we have to do, but not so few that we cannot heap them high with noble deeds and victories bravely won.

COMMENT: Each day brings us closer to our death, and to our judgement. In fact, none of us have ever been as close to our deaths than we are at this present moment… 

This is a deeply sobering thought. The stark nature of these thoughts can tempt us to downplay them or to scrub them from our minds simply because they are uncomfortable. But death is the ONE thing we cannot ultimately ignore. The fact of our death, and that each day brings us closer to it, is an incontrovertible truth. Our last day on earth will come, perhaps sooner than we would like. Ignoring this fact does not make it any less true. 

It has traditionally been a common feature of Catholic spirituality to meditate on the Four Last Things: death, judgement, Heaven and Hell. Many saints had the habit of keeping skulls with them in order to remind them of death. 

This focus on death need not necessarily make us morose, and in fact can encourage us to joyfully make the most of the time that we do have on earth. And, as Christians, we must also remember that death is not the end, but, if we die in a state of grace, ultimately leads to a joyful eternity. Fr Doyle lived with death for almost two years during the Great War. Despite being surrounded with death, and facing the real possibility of his own demise, he retained his constant joy and cheerfulness. 

Remembering the fact of our death allows us to make the most of our lives. We are alive for a purpose; our human life is vitally important as it is the training ground for eternity. How easy it could be to waste days listlessly if we ignored the shortness of our time on earth. 

Time is a great gift, the existence of which allows us to change and to grow closer to God. When we consider the sins of our lives, we should, as Fr Doyle says, use the opportunities of each day “to heap them high with noble deeds and victories bravely won”. These deeds will normally be composed of the ordinary activities of the moment and hidden faithfulness to our duty that is hardly discerned by any passer-by. But this faithfulness day by day can allow us to face the prospect of death with the cheerfulness that characterised Fr Doyle’s apostolate in the killing fields of World War I. 

Perhaps it is worth concluding today with two lines from The Imitation of Christ:

Always remember your end and do not forget that lost time never returns. 

If you have spent the day profitably, you will always be happy at eventide.