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.