Last night I rose at one a.m. and walked two miles barefooted in reparation for the sins of priests to the chapel of Murrough (Co. Clare), where I made the Holy Hour. God made me realise the merit of each step, and I understood better how much I gain by not reading the paper; each picture, each sentence sacrificed mean additional merit. I felt a greater longing for self-inflicted suffering and a determination to do more “little things”.
Pray for all, but especially for sinners, and in particular for those whose sins are most painful to His Sacred Heart. With great earnestness recommend to His mercy the poor souls who are in their agony. What a dreadful hour, an hour tremendously decisive, is the hour of our death! Surround with your love these souls going to appear before God, and defend them by your prayers.
COMMENT: It’s almost paradoxical – the most important moment of our lives is the very last moment. In this moment our eternity is decided. Someone who has lived a life of vice may convert and be saved, but similarly someone who lived a good life, if they freely and consciously commit a mortal sin at the moment of death and do not repent, cannot see God.
This is why the grace of final perseverance is so important, and why the saints constantly prayed for this grace. Even though we attempt to live a virtuous life, we should never presume that we will persevere. It is also one of the reasons why we must flee mortal sins with all our might, for we may die unexpectedly in the act of rebellion against God. (Of course, the more perfect reason to avoid mortal sin is because it offends God…).
In the Hail Mary we ask our Mother to “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death”. How causally we can overlook the importance of these words.
Fr Doyle was acutely aware of the importance of those last final moments, and he risked his own life, and abandoned his own comforts, in order to provide the sacraments to soldiers during their last moments. Here is one small snippet out of many in his letters describing the gratitude of those soldiers who had the grace of a priest to bless them at the hour of death. May we all be similarly blessed with this grace!
A sad morning as casualties were heavy and many men came in dreadfully wounded. One man was the bravest I ever met. He was in dreadful agony, for both legs had been blown off at the knee But never a complaint fell from his lips, even while they dressed his wounds, and he tried to make light of his injuries. “Thank God, Father”, he said, “I am able to stick it out to the end. Is it not all for little Belgium?” The Extreme Unction, as I have noticed time and again, eased his bodily pain. “I am much better now and easier, God bless you”, he said, as I left him to attend a dying man. He opened his eyes as I knelt beside him: “Ah! Fr. Doyle, Fr. Doyle”, he whispered faintly, and then motioned me to bend lower as if he had some message to give. As I did so, he put his two arms round my neck and kissed me. It was all the poor fellow could do to show his gratitude that he had not been left to die alone and that he would have the consolation of receiving the Last Sacraments before he went to God. Sitting a little way off I saw a hideous bleeding object, a man with his face smashed by a shell, with one if not both eyes torn out. He raised his head as I spoke. “Is that the priest? Thank God, I am all right now.” I took his blood-covered hands in mine as I searched his face for some whole spot on which to anoint him. I think I know better now why Pilate said “Behold the Man” when he showed our Lord to the people.
Today is the feast of St Michael, St Gabriel and St Raphael, the archangels.
This feast was significant in Fr Doyle’s spiritual life, for he made a vow to the Sacred Heart on this very day 107 years ago during one of his late night vigils Here is the text of the vow:
“Most loving Jesus, kneeling before You in the Blessed Sacrament, I solemnly consecrate myself to Your Sacred Heart by vow. I vow always to be Your faithful lover and to strive every day to grow in Your love. In imitation of the oblation which B. Margaret Mary made of herself, I now wish to give myself up absolutely and entirely, without any reserve whatever, to Your most Sacred Heart, that You may be free to do with me, to treat me, as You wish, to send me whatever suffering or humiliation You wish. I desire to put no obstacle to the action of grace upon my soul, to be a perfect instrument in Your divine hands, to be Your victim should You so desire. I want to make this oblation and immolation of myself to Your Sacred Heart as completely as possible, and in the manner which You wish me to make it, O my Jesus. Therefore, again, by this vow, I make a complete surrender of myself and all I have to You. Do with me as You will, for from this hour I am wholly Yours. Amen.
Feast of St. Michael, Friday, Sept. 29th, 1910.
Made at Midnight. Signed W. J. DOYLE, S J.”
One year later, while on retreat, he added to this vow as follows:
I deliberately vow, and bind myself, under pain of mortal sin, to refuse Jesus no sacrifice, which I clearly see He is asking from me. Amen.
(1) Until I get permission to make it permanently, this will only bind from day to day, to be renewed each morning at Mass.
(2) To avoid scrupulosity, I am quite free unless I honestly believe the sacrifice is asked.
(3) Any confessor may dispense me from the vow at any time.
Feast of St. Michael, Tullabeg. September 29th, 1911.
Though not coming under the matter of the vow, my aim will be :
(a) Never to avoid suffering e.g. heat or cold, unpleasant people etc.
(b) Of two alternatives, to choose the harder e.g. ordinary or arm chair.
(c) To try and let absolutely no occasion of self-denial pass: they are too precious.
(d) As far as possible, not to omit my ordinary penances when a little unwell.
(e) My constant question to be: What other sacrifice can I make? What more can I ive up for Jesus? How can I do this action more perfectly ?
REASONS FOR MAKING VOW.
(1) The immense help it will be to become fervent.
(2) Additional great merit from doing the acts under vow.
(3) I see now what was the strange want which I have felt so often in my life. I have been urged by grace for years to take some such step, but only recently clearly saw what I should do.
(4) My sanctification depends on doing this.
(5) I wish to do my utmost to please my dear Jesus.
(6) I feel simply I must make this vow as if I had no power to refuse, which shows me that all this is the work of grace, and not my doing in the least.
(7) Since Jesus, out of pure love for me, has always lived this life, and since I have promised to imitate Him, how can I now refuse to do so?
(8) I shall gain immensely by this vow, my work for others will be blessed, more souls will be saved and greater glory given to God.
(9) What shall I lose? A little gratification which brings no real pleasure but always leaves me unhappy, for I feel I am resisting grace.
I make this vow with immense distrust of myself and my power to keep it, but place all my confidence and trust in Thee, O most loving Heart of Jesus.”
By the time Fr Doyle made this second vow 106 years ago today, he had advanced far in the spiritual life and was actively seeking daily sacrifices to offer to the Lord for others. We can learn a lot from his spirit of generosity, even if the way we live this generosity is different from the ways open to Fr Doyle.
Also today we honour the archangels. In a particular way in our own time we pray for the protection and help of St Michael, protector of the Church, and of all Christians, against the attacks the enemy. How sad when people think that angels are merely nice imaginary friends for children, and how sad when they are co-opted into a New Age fad. Scripture is very clear about the existence and role of angels, and also very explicit about the role of St Michael in the battle against Satan. Consider the words of St John Paul II from some addresses in 1987:
The continuous struggle against the devil that characterises Michael the Archangel is still going on since the devil who seeks to take advantage of every situation is still living and operative in the world.
There are periods in which the existence of evil among men becomes singularly apparent. We have the impression today that people do not want to see the problem. Everything possible is done to remove from public awareness the existence of the “cunning attacks of the devil” who “holds dominion over the underworld…Nevertheless there are historical periods when the profound truth of this revelation of faith is expressed with greater force and is almost tangibly perceived.
We are surely in one of those times now. As Blessed Paul VI famously stated in a homily in 1972:
From some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.
And Sr. Lucia, one of the Fatima seers, spoke on several occasions of a contemporary “diabolical disorientation”.
We conclude with a prayer from Lauds:
Send Michael, the prince of the heavenly hosts, to the aid of your people. May he defend them against Satan and his angels on the day of battle.
Fr Doyle wrote the following very private notes in his diary on 27 September 1915 about his prayer the previous night:
Last night I rose at twelve, tied my arms in the form of a cross and remained in the chapel till three a.m. I was fiercely tempted not to do so, the devil suggesting that, as I had a cough, it was madness and would unfit me for the coming mission. Though I shivered with cold, I am none the worse this morning, in fact, the cough is better, proving that Jesus is pleased with these ‘holy imprudences.’ At the end of an hour I was cold and weary, I felt I could not possibly continue; but I prayed and got wonderful strength to persevere till the end of the three hours. This has shown me what I might do and how, with a little determined effort, I could overcome the greatest repugnances and seeming impossibilities.
Clearly we are not called to copy Fr Doyle’s penitential and prayer practices. But it also seems clear that Fr Doyle had a special calling to prayer and penance of this nature. We are called not to judge others. We naturally interpret this to mean that we do not judge others harshly for their sins and failings. But it also means that we do not judge others harshly for their piety, their prayer and their penance. Fr Doyle’s nocturnal prayer and penance has a precedent in the lives of many saints, and it seems to have indeed brought about about both spiritual and even physical fruit in his life.
As Fr Doyle said on another occasion:
How much is comprised in the little words agere contra! Therein is the real secret of sanctity, the hidden source from which the saints have drunk deep of the love of God and reached that height of glory they now enjoy.
The phrase agere contra refers to the practice of going against oneself, of denying oneself in various ways in order to overcome our defects and vices.
It is not in vogue today, but it has traditionally been an important part of the spiritual life and it is essential in understanding the spirituality of Fr Doyle. He practiced this in so many different ways. In the note above about this night in 1915 he practiced what might be termed a harsh penance. But he also practiced, and always advocated, small and insignificant penances that have the effect of showing love for God, of making one stronger and generally equipping one for better service of others.
Anybody can adopt this type of practice in little things if the will is there – getting up on time, going to bed on time, giving up sugar in our tea, giving up butter on bread or maybe just giving up jam but keeping the butter!! Many of us make such sacrifices for earthly and mundane reasons such as our health or career or our appearances. Surely our love of God, and desire for sanctification, should be of more importance and should be a greater motivation for going against ourselves? Venerable Fr Petit, who was Fr Doyle’s spiritual director in Belgium during his tertian year, immediately after ordination, said that we find self-denial difficult because we have such little love of Jesus.
COMMENT: When Fr Doyle refers to a “sweet wounding”, is he referring to a specific mystical experience? Perhaps he is writing in a symbolic fashion, but there is a possibility that he is describing an extraordinary mystical phenomenon that we find in the lives of some of the greatest saints.
Here is an excerpt from another one of Fr Doyle’s letters in which he speaks about a kind of spiritual wounding:
What you say is indeed true. Jesus has been “hunting” me during these past days, trying to wound my heart with His arrows of love. He has been so gentle, so patient, tender, loving, I do not know at times where to turn, and yet I somehow feel that much of this grace is given me for others, I know it has helped souls and lifted them close to Jesus.
I long to get back to my little room at night, to calm and quiet, and yet I dread it, for He is often so loving there. I feel He is near because I cannot go to Him in the Tabernacle. It is such a helpless feeling to be tossed about as it were on the waves of love, to feel the ardent, burning love of His Heart, to know He asks for love, and then to realise one human heart is so tiny.
Many saints have described mystical experiences involving both spiritual delights and physical pain, especially a kind of mystical wounding of the heart. Saints such as Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, Pio of Pietrelcina and Philip Neri come to mind, including many others. The most famous of all is St Teresa of Avila, and today Carmelites celebrate the feast of the Transverberation of the Heart of St Teresa. Here is St Teresa’s description of her experience:
It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this way. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful—his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call cherubim. Their names they never tell me; but I see very well that there is in heaven so great a difference between one angel and another, and between these and the others, that I cannot explain it. I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.
Are Fr Doyle and St Teresa speaking of the same mystical experience, albeit using different terminology?
It seems far fetched and unlikely. And yet, in the later editions of his biography, Alfred O’Rahilly included some information not found in the earlier editions. Fr Doyle gave spiritual direction to an unnamed nun who O’Rahilly described as a “privileged penitent”. By this he presumably means that she received many graces herself from God. It seems that as well as directing her, Fr Doyle also spoke to her of his own spiritual life. This nun sent the following in a letter to O’Rahilly, presumably in an attempt to explain Fr Doyle’s “wounding”.
In response to inspirations received directly and indirectly from Jesus, he strove, notably for seven or eight years before he died, to ‘put on Jesus Christ’, to model his life on the Priest-Christ, to be, as far as it was humanly possible, ‘another Christ’. This was the secret spring of his holiness. It was not a simple attraction, not a mere fad, but a forming of a life of priestly holiness, distinctly asked for and expressed by Christ. He heard with attention the first invitation: ‘Model your life on Mine, lead a perfect life’. And as if to secure a faithful response, Jesus seemed in the year 1910 to have planted in his heart a spark of divine love. This was the ‘sweet wounding’, a grace like to that received by St Teresa, of which he complained…Jesus infused into his souls some of his own passionate love for souls; and it was this passion that made him seem to do rash things. It was the ‘charity of Christ’ that urged him, and he did nothing through mere caprice or impulse.
Such lofty heights in the spiritual life are hard for most of us to appreciate and understand. There may be extraordinary phenomena in the advanced stages of the spiritual life, and it is surely difficult for our ordinary language to explain them and even more difficult for us to begin to understand them. And perhaps, in this age of doubt and confusion, it may even sometimes be difficult to believe them.
What we can at least say about Fr Doyle is that he received many graces from God (how else could he do what he did?) and that there is evidence which suggests that some of these were very great graces. Anything beyond that is, as far as I am aware, speculation to a greater or lesser extent. But if those great graces did actually involve a mystical wounding of his heart, then he is in good company with many of the greatest saints and mystics in the history of the Church. But we may never actually know the truth of the matter. Such a determination is of course not mine to make – it rests with the Church.
Some final, consoling thoughts for those of us who plod along as best we can: St Teresa reached incredible mystical heights despite the fact that she only truly reformed her life at 40, having even given up prayer altogether for a whole year at one stage. Special mystical experiences are not necessary for holiness; just think of the darkness that St Teresa of Calcutta lived in for decades. We should have confidence that, if we continue to progress towards God, no matter what setbacks or diversions we encounter, He will continue to give us all the graces we need to reach Heaven.
Two wings by which we can fly to God and become saints: the habit of little tiny acts of self-denial and the habit of making a definite fixed number of aspirations every day.
COMMENT: The use of aspirations was an important part of Fr Doyle’s spiritual life. Those under a certain age may be unfamiliar with aspirations and may even be unaware of what they mean. Aspirations are simple, short prayers of just a sentence or even a few words. They can be repeated in times of trial or temptation, or like many of the saints, on a regular or indeed constant basis in order to deepen our union with Christ.
In his diary Fr Doyle writes that constantly repeating aspirations was the penance of his life. Those who know something about Fr Doyle’s inner life will realise what a big claim that is!
Amazingly his diary records him saying tens of thousands of aspirations each day. It’s not quite clear how he managed this; in practice it probably means that his mind was always continually focused on God and that he lived St Paul’s recommendation that we pray without ceasing. He also records how saying some aspirations helped him in moments of temptation and weakness; he also used to pray aspirations to give him the strength to get out of bed on time. Perhaps we can all learn from that!
While we hear much less about the use of aspirations than in previous generations, the practice was very important to the saints.
St Josemaria Escriva writes:
There will be other occasions on which all we’ll need will be two or three words, said with the quickness of a dart — ejaculatory prayers, aspirations that we learn from a careful reading of Christ’s life: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” ”Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you.” ”Lord, I do believe, but help my unbelief,” strengthen my faith. “Lord, I am not worthy.” ”My Lord and my God!”… or other short phrases, full of affection, that spring from the soul’s intimate fervour and correspond to the different circumstances of each day.
Today’s saint, John Eudes, was also much devoted to the use of aspirations. Writing about himself in the third person, he says that he knows a person
…who by the frequent use of (aspirations) has arrived at such a stage that it is easy for him, even when taking his meals, to make actually almost as many acts of love for Jesus as he places morsels in his mouth. This he does not only without strain or trouble of inconvenience, but he is not thereby prevented from talking and taking recreation. I say this, not that you should do the same, for there would immediately be an outcry that I was asking things too difficult, but that you may know how much power there is in a holy habit, and how wrong the world is in imagining so much difficulty and bitterness where there is merely every kind of sweetness and delight.
I long to get back to my little room at night, to calm and quiet, and yet I dread it, for He is often so loving there. I feel He is near because I cannot go to Him in the Tabernacle. It is such a helpless feeling to be tossed about as it were on the waves of love, to feel the ardent, burning love of His heart, to know He asks for love, and then to realise one human heart is so tiny.