31 March 1891: Young Willie enters the Jesuit novitiate

Fr Doyle entered on his career as Jesuit on this day 130 years ago. The following is as letter he wrote from Stonyhurst to his parents on the 31 March 1901, reflecting on the 10th anniversary of his entrance to the Society of Jesus.

10 years ago today I went to Tullabeg and entered on my career as a novice in the Society. Looking back on it all now, it seems hard to realise that 10 long years have gone by since that eventful day on which I took a step which has meant so much for me, and which, thank God, during all this time I have never for a moment regretted. Our Lord was very good to me at that time, smoothing away many difficulties and making that day, which, to human nature at least, was full of sorrow, one of the happiest of all my life.

I remember well my arrival at Tullabeg and the way I astonished the Father Socius (as he told me afterwards) by running up to the hall door three steps at a time. He was not accustomed, he said, to see novices coming in such a merry mood, evidently enjoying the whole thing; and, though I did not know it then, it was the best of signs of a real vocation.

Since then I’ve gone on from day to day and year to year, with the same cheerful spirits, making the best of difficulties and always trying to look at the bright side of things. True, from time to time, there have been trials and hard things to face – even a Jesuit’s life it is not all roses – but through it all I can honestly say, I have never lost that deep interior peace and contentment which sweetens the bitter things and makes rough paths smooth.

I think this would be a consolation to you, dearest father and mother, for I’ve often pictured you to myself as wondering if I were really happy and content. I could not be more so, and were I to look upon religious life from the soul aspect of what makes for the greatest happiness, I would not exchange it for all the pleasures the world could offer. Thank God for all his goodness, and after him, many grateful thanks to you both, dearest father and mother, for that good example and loving care to which we all owe so much

 

31 March 1917

We left Belgium  a glorious morning, dry under foot, with brilliant sunshine. The Brigade of four regiments made a gallant show, each headed by its band of pipers, and followed by the transport. We were the first to move off, and so came in for an extra share of greetings from the villagers who turned out to see us pass, as fine a lot of sturdy chaps as you could wish to gaze on, not to mention the gallant chaplain.

Our march for the first day was not a very long one, something about 20 miles, but, as every pace took us further and further from the trenches, the march was a labour of love. At midday a halt was called for dinner, which had been cooking slowly into traveling kitchens which accompanied us, and, in a few minutes, every man was sitting by the roadside, negotiating a big supply of hot meat and potatoes with a substantial chunk of bread. We, poor officers, were left to hunt for ourselves, a hunt which did not promise well at first, as the people in the (cafes) were anything but friendly, and said they had nothing to give us to eat. The reason, I discovered later, was that some British officers that gone away without paying their bill, a not uncommon thing, I am sorry to say. Eventually, with the help of a little palaver and my bad French, our party secured some excellent bread and butter, coffee, and a basket of fresh eggs. On again after an hours rest .

Marching with a heavy rifle and full kit is no joke, hence our pace is slow. I often wonder how the poor men stick it, and stick it they do, most of them at least, till I have seen them drop senseless by the road from sheer exhaustion. As a rule they are left there to follow the as best they can, for is they knew that falling out meant a lift, not many of the regiment would reach their destination on foot. To make matters worse we had to trump along over unpaved roads, which must be an invention of the Old Boy to torture people

At last the town we were bound for came insight and hopes of a good rest were high when word came along we were not to stay in that haven of peace and plenty, but trudge on another three miles. The camel is supposed to be a patient animal, but Tommy can give him points any day. Our lodging was a mutilated country farmhouse, dirty uncomfortable, and the less said about it the better, but everyone was too tired to care much, even though we officers snoring on the floor felt inclined to envy the sardines in their comfortable box.

31 March 1916 – Fr Doyle’s first night in the trenches

I had rather an amusing experience the first night I spent in the trenches. On arriving here I found two officers in the dugout which was intended for me; but as they were leaving next day I did not care to evict them. After some search I came across an unoccupied glorified rabbit hole – any port in a storm. It was not too inviting, looking rather damp; but I got a trench board which made a capital foundation for a bed, and spread my sleeping bag over it. Let me say here that I do not recommend a trench board for a bed. It is simply a kind of ladder with flat steps which is laid at the bottom of the trench; but being very narrow it requires great skill to prevent yourself from rolling off during the night. In addition, the sharp edges of the steps have a trick of cutting into your back and ribs making you feel in the morning as if you had been at Donnybrook fair the night before. In spite of it all I slept soundly till I was awakened by feeling a huge rat sitting on my chest. The rats round here beat anything I’ve ever seen. If I told you they were as big as sheep you would scarcely believe me, so let me say a lamb; in any case this fellow was a whopper. But as I gradually woke more fully I felt his weight and could dimly see the black outline. Before I quite realized what was happening a warm soft tongue began to lick my face, and I recognized my old friend- the dog.

Spy Wednesday 1917

On Spy Wednesday evening after Benediction, I told the men I wanted nine volunteers to watch an hour during the following night before the Altar of Repose. I had barely finished speaking when the whole church made a rush up to the altar rails and were keenly disappointed when I could only take the first nine, though I could have had thirty an hour if I wanted them. I was touched by the poor fellows’ generosity, for they had just finished a long, hard day’s work with more before them. I got the nine men to bring their blankets into the little sacristy, and while one watched, the others slept. Surely our Lord must have been pleased with His Guard if Honour, and will bless them as only he can.

Thoughts for Spy Wednesday from Fr Willie Doyle

 

I think He would like you to pay more attention to little things, looking on nothing as small, if connected with His service and worship. Also try to remember that nothing is too small to offer to Him — that is, the tiniest act of self-conquest is of immense value in His eyes, and even lifting one’s eyes as an act of love brings great grace.

COMMENT: Despite the fact that Fr Doyle lived a very dramatic life that involved many big sacrifices, he consistently preached that holiness is normally to be found in little things. In fact, without having strived for holiness in little things, it is doubtful that Fr Doyle would have been capable of his heroism in the trenches.

At first glance, it seems that reflecting on little things during this most momentous Holy Week is a bit a strange. But today’s Gospel in the Ordinary Form calendar contains a subtle reference to the value of little sacrifices and offerings. Given the drama of the Passion, it is easy to miss it.

Go ye into the city to a certain man and say to him: The master says, My time is near at hand. With thee I make the pasch with my disciples. And the disciples did as Jesus appointed to them: and they prepared the pasch.

Who was this “certain man” who provided the room for the Last Supper? We do not know. He is not named. An old tradition suggests that the room was owned by the family of St Mark. In any event, the owner did an important service for our Lord by providing the room for the Last Supper. What an honour it would be to have provided the room for the Last Supper! This unknown owner of the room provided a humble service to Jesus. He obviously knew Jesus and was ready to serve Him however he was asked. Yet he remains unknown to us. This is the secret of holiness in little things – providing humble and unknown service, without seeking any attention or fame.

As Fr Doyle tells us, nothing is too small to offer to Him.

In conclusion it might be appropriate today to include Fr Doyle’s “parable” of the hermit and the “recording angel”. He included this little parable in one of his very last letters home to his father, and it tells us of the value of little things by way of an amusing story.

In the good old days of yore a holy hermit built him a cell in a spot a few miles from the well, so that he might have a little act of penance to offer to Almighty God each day by tramping across the hot sand and back again with his pitcher. All went gaily for a while, and if the holy man did lose many a drop of honest sweat he knew he was piling up sacks of treasure in Heaven, and his heart was light. But though the spirit was willing, the sun was very warm, the sand most provokingly hot, the pitcher the devil and all of a weight, and the road seemingly longer each day. It is a bit too much of a good joke, thought the man of God, to tramp these miles day in and day out, with my old bones, clanking like a traction engine. Why not move the cell to the edge of the water, save time (and much bad language probably) and have cool water in abundance, and a dry hair shirt on my back?

Away home he faced for the last time with his brimming water jar, kicking the sand about in sheer delight, for the morrow would see him on the trek, and an end to his weary trudging, when suddenly he heard a voice, an angel’s voice he knew it to be, counting slowly One, two, three, four. The hermit stopped in wonder and so did the voice, but at the next steps he took the counting began again, Five, six, seven. Falling on his knees the old man prayed that he might know the meaning of this wonder. ‘I am the angel of God’, came the answer, ‘counting up each step which long ago you offered up to my Lord and Master, so that not a single one may lose its reward. Don’t be so foolish as to throw away the immense merit you are gaining, by moving your cell to the water’s edge, for know that in the eyes of the heavenly court nothing is small which is done or borne for the love of God.’

That very night down came the hermit’s hut, and before morning broke he had built it again five miles further from the well. For all I know he is merrily tramping still backwards and forwards across the burning sand, very hot and tired no doubt, but happy in the thought that the recording angel is busy counting each step.

Thoughts for the Tuesday of Holy Week from Fr Willie Doyle

 

My denial of Jesus has been baser than that of Peter, for I have refused to listen to His voice calling me back for fifteen years. But Jesus has won my heart in this retreat by His patient look of love. God grant my repentance may in some degree be like St Peter’s. I could indeed weep bitterly for the wasted sinful past in the Society. The time I have squandered, the little good done, and the amount of harm done by my bad example in every house in which I have been. What might I not have done for Jesus! Dear Jesus, You forgave St Peter, forgive me also, for I will serve you now.

COMMENT: The denial of our Lord by St Peter contains many powerful lessons for us. St Peter was an intimate friend of Jesus. He witnessed the miracles. He saw the dead rise to life, the blind see, the deaf hear and the dumb speak. He saw devils cast out and the paralysed get up and walk. He saw Jesus calm a storm and walk on water. He was there are the Transfiguration. Jesus taught him how to pray. He had left everything and followed the Master. He urged Jesus not to go to Jerusalem and risk death. He didn’t feel worthy to have Jesus wash his feet, and promised him that he would die for him. When the guards came to arrest Jesus, he pulled out his sword to defend him. Peter was the Rock, the leader of the Apostles and the first pope. He had just been at the Last Supper, and was ordained a priest in the process of that event.

And then he failed. The man who would die for Jesus denied him when a maid and some other random bystanders said that he was a friend of Jesus. And all on the night of his “ordination”.

Then Jesus looked at him. How low he must have felt. 

We may not have physically lived in Jesus’ presence the same way Peter did, but we have received His grace and we have seen the effects of that grace in our own lives and in the lives of others. We have received many gifts from Him. We have the examples of countless holy lives over the past two thousand years to give us an example of how we should live. We have received the sacraments. Depending on our age, we may well have received the Lord in the Eucharist thousands of times. And still we deny Him by our unfaithfulness. Perhaps we even deny Him by joining in with criticism of His Church, by undermining the teaching of the Gospels, or by staying silent when we could defend it.

Like Fr Doyle, we may feel that we have gone on for years denying Jesus. Well, let us then learn some lessons from St Peter who was so contrite after his fall that he thought it nothing to suffer imprisonment and death for the One he had denied. St Peter repented. He did not despair like Judas did. Judas, too, could have repented. Jesus would have forgiven him. We would today know him as St Judas, perhaps the greatest convert in history. He could have been an extraordinary witness to the mercy of Christ. But alas…

There are other important lessons we can take from this episode. We are told that Peter was warming himself at a fire when he denied Jesus. Was it the lack of a spirit of mortification that weakened his will and lead to his fall? We are told that he followed Jesus “from afar”. Was it his lack of closeness with Jesus that undermined his resolve and fortitude? We are told that his first denial came after a maid asked him if he knew Jesus. Was he more fearful of the judgement of the maid (the judgement of the world?) than the judgement of God? Did he fall because of what is termed “human respect” – a fear of the opinion of others? We are also told that instead of watching and praying with Jesus in the Garden, Peter slept. Not only once, but three times. Perhaps he failed because he did not watch and pray that he would not be put to the test.

And Peter was not alone. Apart from the newly ordained Judas betraying Jesus for silver coins and then committing suicide and probably losing his soul, the other Apostles ran away and abandoned Him, with only John eventually returning to the foot of the Cross, with those women who had enough love and devotion to remain faithful.

But not everyone was asleep that night. The enemies of Jesus were wide awake and coming in the night to take Him by force, all while his friends slept and abandoned Him. How little has changed in the last 2,000 years…  

Thoughts for Monday of Holy Week from Fr Willie Doyle

 

During His Passion our Lord was bound and dragged from place to place. I have hourly opportunities of imitating Him by going cheerfully to the duty of the moment: recreation when I want to be quiet, a walk when I would rather stay in my room, some unpleasant duty I did not expect, a call of charity which means great inconvenience for myself. 

COMMENT: For those of us in the Republic of Ireland, this will be an extraordinary Holy Week, for all the wrong reasons. We are prohibited, under pain of penal sanction, from attending public Mass, and from availing of the sacraments. Priests, too, are prohibited from leaving their houses to celebrate a public Mass. This is a painful experience this week, above all others. 

God has foreseen all of this. Even if this is not all part of His active will, it is at least permitted by God. He is allowing us, this Holy Week, to be without the sacraments, without our freedoms, and facing serious social and economic upheavals. He has also allowed this strange virus, which is deadly to some and of little consequence to others, to circulate the globe and upend all our lives. St Francis de Sales tells us that the cross that God has prepared for us is always the best one for us. It may not be the one chosen by us, but it is the one chosen by Him to bring forth the most fruit for our souls. Our path has to be to accept these current difficulties with a spirit of faith and serenity, knowing that it is in fact a time of tremendous grace, because whenever there is suffering, there is enough grace to embrace it and to profit from it. We have to strive to emerge from this crisis spiritually stronger than when it started. In particular, we have to exercise ourselves in a spirit of charity, especially for those in our households that we are “confined” with, but also for those in our communities who are in need. 

Fr Doyle’s quote today may help us with this. Jesus was bound and had His freedom denied to Him. So too with us this year.  

Fr Doyle’s insight shows us a straightforward way in which we can imitate Jesus in His passion. Pretty much all of us have some duties that attach to our state of life – as priests or as parents or as children or as employees. No matter how enthusiastic we may be about our life, there will be times when we find our duties onerous and would rather do something else. Being faithful to our duty, doing things we do not actually want to do, is a great (but difficult!) way of offering up some small penance and imitating Christ who was “bound and dragged from place to place”.

Fr Doyle exemplified this approach throughout his entire life, but one specific example comes to mind today. Here is how Alfred O’Rahilly describes it:

Fr Doyle was once saying goodbye to his brother at Cork railway station, promising himself a feast of the breviary and some hours of quiet prayer during the journey to Dublin, when to his horror he saw a lady acquaintance coming towards him. “Are you going to Dublin, Father?” Won’t you come into my carriage? My sister is with me and we can travel up together”. Fr Doyle murmured “Damn!” under his breath – which fortunately for our consolation was distinctly audible to his brother; but the next instant he was all smiles and amiability, he put his baggage into the indicated compartment, and talked and joked as if he was having the pleasantest experience of his life.

Perhaps some might consider this reaction of Fr Doyle to have been insincere. This is a mistaken interpretation. In this instance Fr Doyle shows us an excellent spirit of mortification and of charity. He could have made some excuse to get away from the woman; he could have sulked when he felt trapped by having to travel with her. But by embracing this particular inconvenience, by showing kindness to his unwanted travelling companion, he exercised great charity and self-control. In contrast, how many of us are guilty of hiding to avoid someone we find inconvenient or distasteful? Perhaps we could have helped them in their problems, but we preferred our own convenience…

As St Josemaria Escriva said:

That joke, that witty remark held on the tip of your tongue; the cheerful smile for those who annoy you; that silence when you’re unjustly accused; your friendly conversation with people whom you find boring and tactless; the daily effort to overlook one irritating detail or another in the persons who live with you… this, with perseverance, is indeed solid interior mortification.

And also:

Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.’

In some cultures on Good Friday individuals have themselves nailed to a cross or walk through the streets flagellating themselves. Such public displays are not the normal path by which we are generally called. 

By submitting ourselves to daily inconveniences, and by fulfilling the duty of the moment when we would rather do something else, we can imitate Jesus and acquire the virtue of patience. Best of all, by doing this we can be of help to others without drawing any attention to ourselves.

Thoughts for Palm Sunday from Fr Willie Doyle

 

In the Passion the light which overshadows all is the thought that our Lord, in spite of His infinite love for His Father, yet as a sinner is compelled to give Him pain, having for our sakes taken upon Himself the sins of the world. Perhaps you can see better what I mean if you picture the agony it would cause to see that all one’s efforts to show love were taken as so many marks of hatred. I can understand how Jesus seems so anxious for someone “to grieve together with Him.” Compassion really means “suffering with.” Hence the further He leads you into the Garden of Gethsemane, the dearer will you be to Him, and the greater graces you will win for others.

Meditation on the fourteenth Station of the Cross by Fr Willie Doyle

The fourteenth station: Jesus is laid in the tomb

 

The final scene of the awful tragedy is drawing to a close. Reverently the faithful few bear the dead Christ down the hill of shame, that body from which all the care of loving hands cannot remove the marks of the cruel scourge, the rending nails, the lance’s gaping thrust. Into the tomb they bear Him, the burial place of a stranger, best suited to Him Who during His life had not where to lay His head. Reverently they lay Him down; one last, fond embrace of His own Mother before they lead her hence, and then in silence and in sorrow they leave Him, their dearest Master, to the watchful care of God’s own angels. Sin has done its work! Sin has triumphed, but its very triumph will prove its own undoing.

I have prepared a document with the text of Fr Doyle’s meditations on the Stations of the Cross. The file can be downloaded from here:

Stations of the Cross

If you like Fr Doyle’s writings, please send this file to friends and contacts, and maybe even to your local priest! If you have a blog yourself, please feel free to post it there as well. Perhaps in this way other people can come to know and love Fr Doyle. May Fr Doyle’s meditations enrich your experience in Holy Week!

Meditation on the thirteenth Station of the Cross by Fr Willie Doyle

The thirteenth station: Jesus is taken down from the cross

Mary stands at the foot of the cross to receive in her arms the lifeless body of her Son. Once more His head is resting on her bosom as it used to do long years ago when a little child He nestled to His Mother#s breast. But now that sacred head is bruised and swollen, stamped with the cruel mark of the mocking diadem; His hair all clotted with the oozing blood, tangled and in disorder. Even she, upon whose heart is stamped every lineament of her Son’s dear face, can scarcely recognise His features now. On every line is marked the anguish of long drawn agony, of torture and agonizing pain, of woe, unutterable woe, of sorrow, suffering and abandonment.