The chief thing God wants from me at present is an extraordinary and exquisite perfection in every little thing I do, even the odd Hail Marys of the day; that each day there must be some improvement in the fervour, the purity of intention, the exactness with which I do things, that in this will chiefly lie my sanctification as it sanctified St John Berchmans. I see here a vast field for work and an endless service of mortification. To keep faithfully to this resolve will require heroism, so that day after day I may not flag in the fervour of my service of the good God.
COMMENT: Today is the feast of St John Berchmans. he was a young Jesuit scholastic from Belgium who died in 1621 at the age of 22. Fr Doyle was only 15 years old when St John Berchmans was canonised – their common Jesuit vocation as well as Fr Doyle’s impressionable age at the time of the canonisation of such a young saint are most probably the reasons for Fr Doyle’s devotion to him.
The striking characteristic of St John Berchmans’ spirituality is its simplicity and emphasis on the ordinary. And for all of us that is the realistic, solid road to sanctity. As Teresa of Avila said, we will find God amongst the pots and pans of the kitchen, or we will not find him at all. Despite the heroism and real drama of Fr Doyle’s life, its bedrock foundation was the faithful fulfilment of ordinary simple duties. It was this that he preached and recommended to his spiritual children, and without this daily faithfulness the drama of the trenches would be impossible – as the Lord says, he who is faithful in little things will be faithful in greater things. It doesn’t work the other way around! If we are not faithful in ordinary activities not only will we be unfaithful when really big things come, but we are probably unlikely to be given even the grace to fulfil a more elaborate mission in the Lord’s service.
Other Jesuits also saw this spirit of St John Berchmans in Fr Doyle. Here is the testimony of a Jesuit who lived with him while he was a Jesuit scholastic on the staff of Clongowes Wood College:
I can safely say he was a perfect Jesuit and often reminded me of St John Berchmans. His was a combination of real solid piety with a truly human character. Bright and joyous himself, he always made others happy and was evidently happy to be able to do so.
Vince teipsum (Conquer yourself). This is the secret of the Exercises. “I learnt no other lesson from my master Ignatius,” said St. Francis Xavier, referring to his first retreat at Paris. Here we all fail – good men, zealous men, holy men. Prayer is easy, works of zeal attractive; but going against self, till grace and perseverance give facility, is cruel work, a hard battle.
COMMENT: How important is this process of self-conquest. There is no holiness without it. The lives of the saints make this quite clear for all to see.
But we should take heart. Fr Doyle affirms that it is hard and that all fail in this battle to some degree or other. It is consoling that such a master tactician of the spiritual life recognises within himself the tendency to fail in this battle against self. But as Fr Doyle promises, if we persevere we will obtain the grace we need to make the way a little easier.
At the close of the retreat my soul is full of many emotions. God has been more than good to me, has given me great lights and wonderful graces. During the whole month my eyes have been opening more and more to the disorder of my past life. I have been simply amazed and astounded how I could possibly have lived the life I did, especially my years in college, such abuse of grace, such awful waste of time, neglect of opportunities of learning, of becoming holy, and above all the harm this careless tepid life has done others. I have realised how little I thought about committing sin and far less, of deliberate breaches of rule. Now, through God’s great mercy, I feel an intense hatred of such a life, and as if it would be impossible ever again to live so. I feel that indeed the retreat has worked a marvellous change in me. I feel I am not the same in my views, sentiments, and way of looking at things, that I am a different man. I have never felt as I do now after any other retreat before God must indeed have poured His grace abundantly into my soul, for it seems to me that a deep lasting impression has been made, which I trust will ever remain. My soul is in great peace. I feel as if at last I have given God all He wanted from me during so many years by making the resolutions which I have made; that I could now die content, for at last I have really begun to try and serve the good God with all my heart. I feel also a great longing to love Jesus very, very much, to draw very close to His Sacred Heart, and to be ever united to Him, always thinking of Him and praying. I long ardently to do something now to make up for my neglect in the past — to give myself heart and soul to the service of Cod, to toil for Him, to wear myself out for Him. I wish to be able never to seek rest or amusement outside of what obedience imposes, so that every moment may be spent for Jesus. I have not a moment to lose, I cannot afford to refuse Him a single sacrifice if I wish to do anything for Jesus and become a saint before I die. If I go to the Congo, I certainly shall not live long. In any case can I promise myself even one day more? I must try to look upon this day as my last on earth and do all I can and surfer all I can for these few hours. It is not a question of keeping up full steam for years, but only for to-day.
If I am faithful to the resolution of “doing all things perfectly,” I shall effectually cut away the numerous faults in all my actions. By working hard at the Third Degree I shall best correct those things to which my attention has been drawn. I know all this is going to cost me much, that I shall have a fierce battle to fight with the devil and myself. But I begin with great hope and confidence, for since Jesus has inspired me to make these resolutions and urged me on till I did so, His grace will not be anting to aid me at every step.
In the name of God, then, I enter upon the Narrow Path which leads to sanctity, walking bravely on in imitation of my Jesus Who is by my side carrying His cross. To imitate Him and make my life resemble His in some small degree, will be my life’s work, that so I may be worthy to die for Him.
Thank You, O my God, for all the graces of this retreat, above all for bringing me at last to Your sacred feet. Grant me grace to keep these resolutions and never to forget my determination to strive might and main to become a saint.
13 Nov., 1907.
COMMENT: The retreat of 1907 had a profound effect on Fr Doyle. In this passage he summarises his reflections as the retreat came to an end 113 years ago today. Despite the impression given in his personal notes, Fr Doyle did not live a bad life prior to this retreat, although the experience of the retreat did highlight for him the areas of his life where he lacked fervour and dedication.
Many people have radically reformed their lives following the experience of a retreat, and especially after the experience of the Spiritual Exercises. In the case of Fr Doyle it is clear that a radical deepening of his commitment to Christ took place.
Perhaps this is a good occasion to make a resolution to attend a retreat at some stage this year.
Today is also the feast of all the saints of the Benedictine Order, or more specifically, the feast of all the saints who lived under the Rule of St Benedict. This is an extremely extensive list. I think it is probably the case that there are more Benedictine saints than from any other order, although perhaps that is not too surprising since the order has been around for many centuries longer than others have! Let us be thankful today for all of those saints who, inspired by St Benedict, evangelised the West and preserved learning and culture in a dark period of history, not too unlike our own in some respects. May we follow their example, especially by incorporating Fr Doyle’s methodology of faithfulness in the little things of life.
Lord, You know I love You less than any others, but I long and desire to love You more than all the rest. Take my heart, dear Lord, and hide it in Your own, so that I may only love what You love and desire what You desire. May I find no pleasure in the things of this world, its pleasures and amusement; but may my one delight be in thinking of You, working for You, loving You and staying in Your sweet presence before the Tabernacle. Why do You want my love, dear Jesus, and why have You left me no rest all these years till I gave You at last my poor heart to love You, and You alone? This ceaseless pleading for my love fills me with hope and confidence that, sinful as my life has been in the past, You have forgiven and forgotten it all.
Thanks a million times, dearest Jesus, for all Your goodness. I will love and serve You now till death. Amen.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote this prayer in his notes as he reached the end of his long retreat in 1907. It’s simple and direct sentiments require no elaboration.
From the Tabernacle Jesus seems to say, “Stay with Me for it is towards evening and the day is now far spent”. This should urge me to come to visit Him often.
If my resurrection is a real one and is to produce fruit, it must be external, so that all may see I am not the same man, that my life is changed in Christ.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these notes while contemplating the scene in which the disciples encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus during the 4th week of the Spiritual Exercises in 1907. He poses a question that we may fruitfully ask ourselves – can people perceive that my life has been changed in Christ? Or, as St Josemaria Escriva once put it:
How I wish your bearing and conversation were such that, on seeing or hearing you, people would say: This man reads the life of Jesus Christ.
The reason I find it so hard to love God, why I have so little affection for Him, is because of my attachment to venial sin and my constant deliberate imperfections. I have, as it were, been trying to run with an immense weight round my feet; I have tried to reach the unitive way without passing through the purgative, to jump to the top of the ladder without climbing up the steps; so that after all these years I am still as barren of real love of God as when first I entered religion. No, I must work earnestly now to remove the very shadow of sin from my life, then to imitate the humble suffering life of Jesus and thus win His love.
I look upon it as a great grace that in spite of my tepid life Jesus has given me an ardent desire to love Him. I long eagerly to love my Jesus passionately, with an intense ardent love such as the saints had; and yet I remain cold and indifferent with little zeal for His glory.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words 113 years ago today, during the Fourth Week of the Spiritual Exercises.
Back then, reasonably educated Catholics would have understood what Fr Doyle referred to when he wrote about the unitive and purgative way; we hear much less about this idea today than in the past, but it remains a fundamentally important aspect of Catholic spirituality. The idea is that we are called to union with God, not just in heaven, but also in a sense in this life as well. However, we cannot “jump to the top of the ladder without climbing up the steps”; thus we must pass through the purgative and illuminative way first. The first stage involves the fight against mortal and deliberate venial sin, and necessitates the development of personal discipline. This is precisely why Fr Doyle is such a great example for us. His personal notes and reflections, detailed so well in Alfred O’Rahilly’s biography (which is available by clicking on the link in the right hand column) provide a tremendously detailed tactical guide for the spiritual life. Certainly there are aspects of Fr Doyle’s life that should not be copied by others – he received many great graces and much was asked of him. But in many other respects his life and teaching is of very great relevance for us today, especially with respect to performing our duties with love and making small penitential sacrifices.
Fr Doyle’s simple spiritual tactics are an excellent guide to help us climb the ladder of the spiritual life.
My God, I promise You, kneeling before the image of Your Sacred Heart, that I will do my best to lead a martyr’s life by constantly denying my will and doing all that I think will please You, if You in return will grant me the grace of martyrdom.
A life of martyrdom is to be the price of a martyr’s crown.
COMMENT: In this way Fr Doyle brought an end to his notes on the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises during these days in 1907.
We should we seek martyrdom carelessly or indiscriminately, although we should be open to this if it be God’s will. But we should attempt to live with a spirit of martyrdom – a spirit of detachment – in everyday life. We can most readily do this in our everyday tasks by being faithful to them, especially when we don’t want to be.
Today is also the feast of all of the Saints of the Dominican Order, many of whom were martyrs. What an amazing list of saints there are attached to this blessed Order! They include 3 Doctors of the Church, one of whom is one of the greatest theologians in the history of the Church (St Thomas Aquinas), one of whom is the patron of science and scientists (St Albert the Great) and one of whom is one of the very greatest women in history and a co-patron saint of Europe (St Catherine of Siena). Included in the extensive list of Dominican saints are many martyrs, including two Irish martyrs who have been beatified (Terence O’Brien and Peter O’Higgins) as well as over 90 other Irish Dominican martyrs who will hopefully be canonised one day.
The greatest thirst of Jesus on the Cross was his thirst for souls. He saw then the graces and inspirations He would give me to save souls for Him. In what way shall I correspond and console my Saviour?
The thought has been very much in my mind during this week that Jesus asks from me the sacrifice of all the pleasures of the world — such as summer vacation, plays, concerts, football-matches, cinematograph, etc,; that I am to seek my recreation and find my pleasure in Him alone. Life is indeed too short now for me to waste a moment in such things. May God give me a great disgust for all these things in which formerly I took such delight!
This morning I had a great struggle not to sleep. Then God rewarded me with much light and generous resolve. I was meditating on my desire to die a martyr’s death for Jesus, and then asked myself if I was really in earnest, why did I not begin to die to myself, to die to my own will, the inclinations and desires of my lower nature. I wish to die a martyr’s death — but am I willing to live a martyr’s life? To live a crucified life “seeking in all things my constant mortification”.
COMMENT: Jesus died for souls. He died for my soul, and would have done so were I the only person in existence. He also died for all of those who never heard of Him, and for those who, having being brought up in faith, have abandoned Him in favour of sensuality, pleasure, comfort, human respect…
Today is also the day on which the Church in Ireland commemorates the feast of All the Saints of Ireland. How many of them spent their entire lives to satisfy Jesus’ thirst for souls? We don’t really appreciate the saints enough in Ireland today, despite being called the land of saints and scholars. There are so many worthy causes for canonisation out there, both those that have been formally introduced and those that should be introduced. Yet, it remains an astonishing fact that only 1 Irish person (St Oliver Plunkett) has been canonised since the Council of Trent over 400 years ago. If we want to boost our statistics we can add in St Charles of Mount Argus who, although Dutch, lived in Ireland for many years. But even still, it must be admitted that we punch well below our weight when it comes to recognising and celebrating the sanctity within our own heritage. We will return to this topic on another occasion…
St Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland, came back to the land where he had been a slave to bring the Faith to the country that had enslaved him. Over the centuries, many Irish missionaries brought the faith all over the Europe, and indeed the world, with this one same desire to quench Christ’s thirst for souls. Fr Doyle himself offered to go to the Congo as a missionary. He spent many years travelling as a preacher and missionary in Ireland to satisfy that thirst. He shed his own blood on the field of battle to win souls and ease Jesus’ thirst. If he had survived, it was his intention to spend the rest of his life ministering to lepers in a leper colony.
Jesus still thirsts for souls today. What are we doing to help him?
During all these long years Jesus has been standing bound at the pillar, while I have cruelly scourged Him by my ingratitude and neglect of my vocation. Each action carelessly done, the hours spent in sleep, each moment wasted, have been so many stripes on my Saviour’s bleeding body. He has been bearing all this to save me from His Father’s just anger. And all the while I have heard His gentle voice, “My child, will you not love Me? I want your heart. I want you to strive and become a saint, to be generous with Me and refuse Me nothing.” Can I now turn away again as before and refuse to listen?
With Jesus naked and shivering with bitter cold at the pillar, I will try joyfully to bear the effects of cold. With Jesus covered with wounds, I, too, will try to endure little sufferings without relief.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle continued his 1907 retreat with this reflection on the scourging at the pillar. His words are so direct that they do not need any further comment or elaboration.
Today is also the feast of all of the Jesuits saints. Not only do we celebrate All Saints day on November 1st, but throughout the month of November, each religious order, and indeed each country, celebrates its saints in a special way. Today it is the turn of the Jesuits. We thank God for the graces given to St Ignatius Loyola, and through him to the Jesuit order, and, ultimately, to the world. We also pray that more Jesuit saints will be formally recognised through canonisation, and that Fr Doyle, and his friend Blessed John Sullivan, will soon be counted in their number.
All my life my study has been to avoid suffering as much as possible, to make my life a comfortable one How unlike my Jesus I have been, who sought to suffer on every occasion for me, for me. I should be glad when pain comes and welcome it, because it makes me more like Jesus.
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.
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 awful amount of harm by my bad example in every house in which I have been. What might I not have done for Jesus! What a saint I might have been now! Dear Jesus, You forgave St. Peter, forgive me also for I will serve You now.
At the community Mass this morning I again felt an over-powering desire to become a saint. It came suddenly filling my soul with consolation. Surely God has an object in inspiring me so often with this desire and has great graces for me if I will only cooperate with Him.
Reflecting on this inspiration afterwards, I saw more clearly that the chief thing God wants from me at present is an extraordinary and exquisite perfection in every little thing I do, even the odd Hail Marys of the day; that each day there must be some improvement in the fervour, the purity of intention, the exactness with which I do things, that in this will chiefly lie my sanctification as it sanctified St. John Berchmans. I see here a vast field for work and an endless service of mortification. To keep faithfully to this resolve will require heroism, so that day after day I may not flag in the fervour of my service of the good God.
The fruit of the Third Week, says Fr. Petit, is great compassion and increase of fortitude. To suffer with Jesus, to long for sufferings, must be my aim and prayer.
Since my “Promise” I have been doing ten acts of self-denial — why not try to make it thirty a day? I have so much to atone for, so much time wasted in the past, so little of life left. Ceaseless war on your comfort, no rest now, eternity is long enough.
COMMENT: With these thoughts, Fr Doyle began the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises during his long retreat in 1907.
There is something here in these piercing thoughts that is of immediate relevance to every one of us no matter who we are. God wants us to perform our duties well, no matter what they are. We are all part of the body of Christ and we all have a specific task entrusted to us. The health of a body depends on the health of each organ, each cell, doing what it is meant to do. Even if our task is very small and humble (in reality, almost everyone’s task is ultimately small and humble) it is still of immense value to the Church and in particular to the souls that God has placed on our path in life. Perhaps there are people who, through God’s providence, will only ever be able encounter Christ through us and through the performance of our duty. Much may depend upon our faithfulness. Indeed, we have only to look at the Church in the English speaking world, and very especially in Ireland, to see the damage wrought by those who were not faithful in their specific duty to protect children from those who would damage them.
May we all learn this lesson in our own lives!
Today is also the feast of St Charles Borromeo, the great 16th century reformer. St Charles was a hard and tough man with a great zeal for the reform of the Church. But St Charles knew that reform always starts with ourselves – we cannot give what we do not have. The death of his brother in the prime of his life had a strong impact upon him, and as a young cardinal in his 20’s he caused something of a stir in the Roman Curia with his personal austerity and single minded pursuit of holiness. In all of this he was utterly devoted to his duties in life, which were indeed very significant for a young man – he was Papal Secretary of State in his early and mid twenties, and had a decisive role in overseeing the Council of Trent and publishing its decrees. He was also involved in all aspects of papal diplomacy. All of this involved a massive amount of work – thousands of important, handwritten letters over the space of a few years. On his return to Milan as archbishop he was utterly dedicated to his duties as bishop, and regularly visited the outlying parts of his diocese which had not seen a bishop in many generations. But he was not only an austere reformer – he also exhibited heroic charity and courage in tending to the sick and dying during an outbreak of plague which ravaged Milan for over an entire year during 1576/1577. He went days and nights without food and sleep as he sought out the dying and by the end of the plague he had emptied the bishop’s palace of all its valuables in order to provide food for the poor. He even took down all of the wall hangings and curtains and had them made into clothes to help his flock. Like all saints, he was balanced, combining action with contemplation and fiery zeal with gentleness and compassion.
May St Charles intercede for us in our imitation of Christ as we cheerfully go to the duty of the present moment, and may he pray for our personal reform and for the reform of the Church at every level.