Thoughts for January 21 (St Agnes) from Fr Willie Doyle

St Agnes

Even as a child I was convinced that one day God would give me the grace of martyrdom. When quite small I read and re-read every martyr’s life in the twelve volumes of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and longed and prayed to be a martyr, and I have often done so ever since. As years went on, the desire grew in intensity, and even now the sufferings of the martyrs, their pictures, and everything connected with their death, have a strange fascination for me and help me much.

COMMENT: In today’s quote, Fr Doyle tells us that he – just like St Teresa of Avila and St Catherine of Siena – was deeply influenced by the lives of the saints as a child. We should encourage devotion to the saints amongst our children; even toddlers can learn important lessons and virtues from the lives of the saints.

Undoubtedly one of the martyrs that Fr Doyle read about in Butler’s Lives of the Saints was St Agnes, whose feast it is today. St Agnes, who was just 12 or 13, reminds us that even the young can have an ardent love of God and a willingness to die rather than offend Him.

Here is the text for the feast of St Agnes from Butler’s Lives of the Saints. The writing style is somewhat old fashioned, and perhaps some aspects of the story may owe more to the hagiographical golden legends of the saints than to historical facts (we simply do not know whether absolutely every aspect of such stories are completely historically accurate, but this does not permit us to completely dismiss them out of hand). In any event, it provides some insight into the martyrdom of St Agnes and the tales of heroism and love that inspired the young Willie Doyle.

ST JEROME says that the tongues and pens of all nations are employed in the praises of this saint, who overcame both the cruelty of the tyrant and the tenderness of her age, and crowned the glory of chastity with that of martyrdom. St. Austin observes that her name signifies chaste in Greek, and a lamb in Latin. She has always been looked upon in the church as a special patroness of purity, with the Immaculate Mother of God and St. Thecla. Rome was the theatre of the triumph of St. Agnes; and Prudentius says that her tomb was shown within sight of that city. She suffered not long after the beginning of the persecution of Diocletian, whose bloody edicts appeared in March, in the year of our Lord 303.

We learn from St. Ambrose and St. Austin that she was only thirteen years of age at the time of her glorious death. Her riches and beauty excited the young noblemen of the first families in Rome to vie with one another in their addresses who should gain her in marriage. Agnes answered them all that she had consecrated her virginity to a heavenly spouse, who could not be beheld by mortal eyes. Her suitors, finding her resolution impregnable to all their arts and importunities, accused her to the governor as a Christian, not doubting but threats and torments would overcome her tender mind, on which allurements could make no impression. The judge at first employed the mildest expression and most inviting promises, to which Agnes paid no regard, repeating always that she could have no other spouse than Jesus Christ. He then made use of threats, but found her soul endowed with a masculine courage, and even desirous of racks and death. At last terrible fires were made, and iron hooks, racks, and other instruments of torture, displayed before her, with threats of immediate execution. The young virgin surveyed them all with an undaunted eye, and with a cheerful countenance beheld the fierce and cruel executioners surrounding her, and ready to dispatch her at the word of command. She was so far from betraying the least symptom of fear that she even expressed her joy at the sight, and offered herself to the rack. She was then dragged before the idols and commanded to offer incense, “but could by no means be compelled to move her hand, except to make the sign of the cross,” says St. Ambrose.

The governor seeing his measures ineffectual, said he would send her to a house of prostitution, where what she prized so highly should be exposed to the insults of the debauchees. Agnes answered that Jesus Christ was too jealous of the purity of his spouses to suffer it to be violated in such a manner, for he was their defender and protector. “You may,” said she, “stain your sword with my blood, but will never be able to profane my body, consecrated to Christ.” The governor was so incensed at this that he ordered her to be immediately led to the public brothel, with liberty to all persons to abuse her person at pleasure. Many young profligates ran thither, full of the wicked desire of gratifying their lust, but were seized with such awe at the sight of the saint that they durst not approach her-one only excepted, who, attempting to be rude to her, was that very instant, by a flash’ as it were, of lightning from heaven, struck blind, and fell trembling to the ground. His companions, terrified, took him up and carried him to Agnes, who was at a distance, singing hymns of praise to Christ, her protector. The virgin by prayer restored him to his sight and health.

The chief prosecutor of the saint, who at first sought to gratify- his lust and avarice, now laboured to satiate his revenge by incensing the judge against her, his passionate fondness being changed into anger and rage. The governor wanted not others to spur him on, for he was highly exasperated to see himself baffled and set at defiance by one of her tender age and sex. Therefore, resolved upon her death, he condemned her to be beheaded. Agnes, transported with joy on hearing this sentence, and still more at the sight of the executioner, “went to the place of execution more cheerfully,” says St. Ambrose, “than others go to their wedding.” The executioner had secret instructions to use all means to induce her to a compliance, but Agnes always answered she could never offer so great an injury to her heavenly spouse, and, having made a short prayer, bowed down her neck to adore God, and received the stroke of death. The spectators wept to see so beautiful and tender a virgin loaded with fetters, and to behold her fearless under the very sword of the executioner, who with a trembling hand cut off her head at one stroke. Her body was buried at a small distance from Rome, near the Nomentan Road. A church was built on the spot in the time of Constantine the Great, and was repaired by Pope Honorius in the seventh century. It is now in the hands of Canon-Regulars, standing without the walls of Rome, and is honoured with her relics in a-very rich silver shrine, the gift of Pope Paul V, in whose-time they were found in this church, together with those of St. Emerentiana. The other beautiful rich church of St. Agnes, within the city, built by Pope Innocent X (the right of patronage being vested in the family of Pamphili), stands on the place where her chastity was exposed. The feast of St. Agnes is mentioned in all Martyrologies, both of the East and West, though on different days. It was formerly a holyday for the women in England, as appears from the Council of Worcester, held in the year 1240. St. Ambrose, St. Austin, and other fathers have wrote her panegyric. St. Martin of Tours was singularly devout to her. Thomas a Kempis honoured her as his special patroness, as his works declare in many places. He relates many miracles wrought and graces received through her intercession.

 

 

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Thoughts for January 20 from Fr Willie Doyle

Blessed Angelo Paoli

 

For the poor people on Dalkey Hill Willie constituted himself into a Conference of St. Vincent de Paul. He raised funds by saving up his pocket-money, by numberless acts of economy and self-denial; he begged for his poor, he got the cook to make soup, he pleaded for delicacies to carry to the sick. Once he went to the family apothecary and ordered several large bottles of cod-liver oil for a poor consumptive woman, and then presented the bill to his father! He bought a store of tea with which under many pledges of secrecy he entrusted the parlourmaid. On this he used to draw when in the course of his wanderings he happened to come across some poor creature without the means of providing herself with the cup that cheers. He by no means confined himself merely to the bringing of relief. He worked for his poor, he served them, he sat down and talked familiarly with them, he read books for the sick, he helped to tidy the house, he provided snuff and tobacco for the aged. One of Willie’s cases — if such an impersonal word may be used — was a desolate old woman whose children were far away. One day noticing that the house was dirty and neglected, he went off and purchased some lime and a brush, and then returned and whitewashed the whole house from top to bottom. He then went down on his knees and scrubbed the floors, amid the poor woman’s ejaculations of protest and gratitude. No one knew of this but the cook and parlourmaid who lent him their aprons to save his clothes and kept dinner hot for him until he returned late in the evening. While thus aiding his poor friends temporally, he did not forget their souls. He contrived skilfully to remind them of their prayers and the sacraments; he also strongly advocated temperance. There was one old fellow on the Hill whom Willie had often unsuccessfully tried to reform. After years of hard drinking he lay dying, and could not be induced to see a priest. For eight hours Willie stayed praying by the bedside of the half-conscious dying sinner. Shortly before the end he came to himself, asked for the priest and made his peace with God. Only when he had breathed his last, did Willie return to Melrose. His first missionary victory!

COMMENT: These lines come from O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle, and they describe his charitable activities as a young boy while living in Dalkey. It is not clear what age he started this kind of work, but given that he went to school in England at the age of 11, it must have been before this age (or else during school holidays). What a marvellous example for us! Fr Doyle’s later life shows the same charity and concern for others, even to the point of offering his own life to serve wounded soldiers.

Today is the feast of the Carmelite Blessed Angelo Paoli. He lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in Rome. He was known as the father of the poor, and established hospitals and hostels to care for the poor of Rome. His motto was “Whoever loves God must go to find Him among the poor”.

In the lives of both Blessed Angelo and of Fr Doyle we find genuine Christian love. In effect, they followed the advice of St Francis of Assisi – to preach always, and when necessary to use words.

In a hostile climate where Catholics are viewed with such jaundiced eyes, the only way to touch people’s hearts is through love. After all, God is Love! This is the same recipe that made Catholicism so compelling 2,000 years ago. There was something about the early Christians that attracted so many converts, even at the risk of death and torture. Ultimately, this attraction was Jesus Christ, but surely it was the love that Christians had for all people that first opened the door to grace and conversion. Just as the world was evangelised through love 2,000 years ago, it can only be re-evangelised through love today.

G.K Chesterton, when asked to write an essay on what was wrong with the world, simply wrote “I am”. There is a real truth here. I am what is wrong with the Church. I am the reason why there are so may empty seats at Mass on Sunday. I am the reason that so many of my contemporaries are unaware that the Church is first and foremost about love…

Let us follow the example of Blessed Angelo and of Fr Doyle, by finding Christ in those around us, by loving them, and thus changing the world.

Thoughts for January 19 from Fr Willie Doyle

Each morning at Holy Communion invite Jesus, with all the love and fervour you can, to enter into your heart and dwell there during the day as in a tabernacle, making of your heart a living tabernacle which will be very dear to Him.

COMMENT: All of the saints and great spiritual writers have been devoted to the Eucharist. We see this devotion also in the life of Fr Doyle – some of the most moving scenes of his life are those where he offers the Mass in the trenches. Here is his description of one such Mass:

By cutting a piece out of the side of the trench, I was just able to stand in front of my tiny altar, a biscuit tin supported by two German bayonets. God’s angels, no doubt, were hovering overhead, but so were the shells, hundreds of them, and I was a little afraid that when the earth shook with the crash of the guns, the chalice might be overturned. Round about me on every side was the biggest congregation I ever had: behind the altar, on either side, and in front, row after row, sometimes crowding one upon the other, but all quiet and silent, as if they were straining their ears to catch every syllable of that tremendous act of Sacrifice – but every man was dead! Some had lain there for a week and were foul and horrible to look at, with faces black and green. Others had only just fallen, and seemed rather sleeping than dead, but there they lay, for none had time to bury them, brave fellows, every one, friend and foe alike, while I held in my unworthy hands the God of Battles, their Creator and their Judge, and prayed to Him to give rest to their souls. Surely that Mass for the Dead, in the midst of, and surrounded by the dead, was an experience not easily to be forgotten.

Most of the readers of this blog are fortunate to live in a time and place in which it is relatively easy to attend Mass. It was not always so in our history. During penal times in Ireland, during Elizabethan times in England and at various times during the last century in different parts of Europe, it was impossible to attend Mass and impossible for Christians to nourish themselves on the Bread of Life. Even today, in parts of the Middle East and in China, that freedom and privilege is not available to persecuted Christians. And what of tomorrow? Just because Christ can now readily enter our hearts “and dwell there during the day as in a tabernacle” doesn’t mean that it will always be so. Will we always have the priests necessary for this Sacrifice? Will religious freedom always be ours in the country in which we live?

Christ promises us that the Church will prevail. But He never promised that it would prevail everywhere. We only have to look at the Middle East, North Africa and indeed many parts of north-central Europe to see what the future could hold.

Many saints have written beautifully on the Eucharist. Here is a quote from St Francis de Sales on why we should regularly receive the Eucharist. May we follow his advice, and receive the strength and nourishment we need from the worthy reception of the Lord.

If men of the world ask why you communicate so often, tell them that it is that you may learn to love God; that you may be cleansed from imperfections, set free from trouble, comforted in affliction, strengthened in weakness. Tell them that there are two manner of men who need frequent Communion — those who are perfect, since being ready they were much to blame did they not come to the Source and Fountain of all perfection; and the imperfect, that they may learn how to become perfect; the strong, lest they become weak, and the weak, that they may become strong; the sick that they may be healed, and the sound lest they sicken. Tell them that you, imperfect, weak and ailing, need frequently to communicate with your Perfection, your Strength, your Physician. Tell them that those who are but little engaged in worldly affairs should communicate often, because they have leisure; and those who are heavily pressed with business, because they stand so much in need of help; and he who is hard worked needs frequent and substantial food. Tell them that you receive the Blessed Sacrament that you may learn to receive it better; one rarely does that well which one seldom does. Therefore, my child, communicate frequently,–as often as you can, subject to the advice of your spiritual Father.

St Francis de Sales

18 January 1912

I felt Jesus asking me to make a long visit and wishing to speak to me. His message was:

  1. To note down the big sacrifices of each day as this helps me to generosity.
  2. To make a spiritual Communion with each person receiving.
  3. Greater abandonment still of all comfort – ‘absolute nakedness’.
  4. To make a half-hour’s visit during the day when I am able

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words in his private diary on this day in 1912. He was not only an ascetic, but also a mystic, and this quote represents what he understood Jesus to be saying to him in prayer on this day. Fr Doyle was no fool. He was a well-formed Jesuit and an expert spiritual director, especially of others in religious life, and so we must assume that this words were indeed something akin to a locution. As such they form a private inspiration for Fr Doyle rather than some form of revelation for the use of others. 

Nonetheless, there is surely one lesson we can take from this message, and it is a message that one finds again and again in the writings of Fr Doyle – a call to greater generosity with God, and by extension, with others. This is something applicable to us all. The precise implementation of this generosity will surely suffer from person to person, but the fact that we are all called to an ever increasing generosity is surely a basic element of the Christian spiritual life.

17 January 1912

Our Lord wants me to give Him all I can give cheerfully, not repining or regretting any sacrifice; not saying, ‘I wish I had not to do this or suffer this cold or pain, etc’, but rather, “I wish I could do more for You Jesus, I wish it were colder’.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle was a true Jesuit. In these comments, written on this day in 1912, he shows his desire to follow the Third Degree of Humility in St Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. Here is what St Ignatius says about this:

The third is most perfect Humility; namely, when — including the first and second, and the praise and glory of the Divine Majesty being equal — in order to imitate and be more actually like Christ our Lord, I want and choose poverty with Christ poor rather than riches, opprobrium with Christ replete with it rather than honors; and to desire to be rated as worthless and a fool for Christ, Who first was held as such, rather than wise or prudent in this world.

For the worldly this may seem extreme. But many saints not only were open to suffering, they sometimes actively wanted it. They wanted suffering not only to perform penance for their sins, but also to expiate for the sins of the world; to console Jesus for the coldness, indifference and, indeed, hatred, of others.

We are obviously not all called to this. But it appears Fr Doyle was, and specifically that he was called to make reparation for the sins of priests, and it was for this very intention that he offered up his life.

Thoughts for January 17 from Fr Willie Doyle

The temptation of St Anthony the Abbot

 

Are you not foolish in wishing to be free from these attacks of impatience, etc.? I know how violent they can be, since they sweep down on me at all hours without any provocation. You forget the many victories they furnish you with, the hours perhaps of hard fighting, and only fix your eyes on the little tiny word of anger, or the small fault, which is gone with one “Jesus forgive me.”

COMMENT: We cannot totally avoid temptation. It is true that we should seek to avoid occasions of sin and not place ourselves in the path of temptation. But temptation will come to us nonetheless. Today’s quote is somewhat consoling for us, for it reveals that Fr Doyle, just like the rest of us, suffered from temptations. But temptations, despite the distress the may cause, are an occasion for demonstrating our love of God by the efforts we make to overcome them. Fr Doyle himself struggled with impatience, but he brought the same methodological efficiency to bear in eradicting it that he brought to all aspects of his spiritual life.

Today is the feast of St Anthony the Abbot. St Athanasius, Doctor of the Church, was one of his disciples and tells us that Anthony was sorely tempted on numerous occasions throughout his time of solitude as a hermit in the desert. We may turn with confidence to him in our trials and temptations.

Many great spiritual writers have outlined ways in which temptation should be faced and how we can profit from them. The following is from the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis:

So long as we live in this world we cannot escape suffering and temptation. Whence it is written in Job: “The life of man upon earth is a warfare.” Everyone, therefore, must guard against temptation and must watch in prayer lest the devil, who never sleeps but goes about seeking whom he may devour, find occasion to deceive him. No one is so perfect or so holy but he is sometimes tempted; man cannot be altogether free from temptation.

Yet temptations, though troublesome and severe, are often useful to a man, for in them he is humbled, purified, and instructed. The saints all passed through many temptations and trials to profit by them, while those who could not resist became reprobate and fell away. There is no state so holy, no place so secret that temptations and trials will not come. Man is never safe from them as long as he lives, for they come from within us — in sin we were born. When one temptation or trial passes, another comes; we shall always have something to suffer because we have lost the state of original blessedness…

When a man is not troubled it is not hard for him to be fervent and devout, but if he bears up patiently in time of adversity, there is hope for great progress.

16 January 1917

‘Pork & Beans’ is quite a standing joke, though not a pleasant one, at the Front.

A committee of food experts, having discovered that lentil beans contain one and a half times more nourishment and flesh forming properties, than a corresponding weight of meat, promptly decided that, from time to time, Tommy should be fed on this delicious product of Mother Earth, and thereupon, I am sure, promptly sat themselves down to a roast leg of mutton, to show that if they were experts they were no means faddists.

The method of procedure is this: fill a can with a pound of small beans; on top place a piece of fat, not larger than a shilling; seal up carefully and wrap in a coloured label on which is printed (and so must be true) the startling intelligence that ‘five beans are of more value than a piece of meat.’ Then allow a pig to rub his sides against the packing case, and vóila, you have a sustaining dinner ration of ‘Pork & Beans.’

The first time you sit down to this repast you experience the most frightful temptation to vain-glory and pride as being the equals of the ancient hermits, and then you feel ‘orrible empty, so that even granting that a tin of beans is of greater value than a rib of beef, we are all ready to vote, and vote solid every time, for the old fashioned steak.