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.
1 . Dissipation: There, it is over; amuse yourself.
2. Toning Down: Too much, too many, too hard, too often, too etc.
3. Putting Off: Wait a little, rest yourself, take your time.
4. Cowardice: You’ll never do it; you’re no good; it will be the same old story.
And Four Remedies:
1. Presence of God: No, it is not over, it is only just begun.
2. Exactness: No such thing; I’ll do all I have resolved; nothing too much for God.
3. Promptitude: No, at once; here goes; I may die to-day.
4. Determination: We’ll see; I am no good, but Someone good and powerful is with me.
COMMENT: Developing resolutions for the reform of our life is an important part of a good retreat. But Fr Doyle, the expert retreat giver who himself experienced such a deep reform of his own life through his own 30 day retreat just after ordination, knew full well the traps that await people after retreats.
A retreat can be a time of great graces and generosity. But when we return to our normal life we can start to get lazy, to lose our focus and our previous generosity.
St Ignatius, in the Spiritual Exercises, gives some advice on this point. When faced with dissipation and desolation, we must never change course, we must stick with our resolutions more firmly than ever, especially if they were developed during a retreat when we experienced consolation and God’s grace in our prayer. If, at some subsequent time when we experience consolation once more, we may be free to adapt our resolutions, but never when facing difficulties and dissipations.
It is well to remember that, as Fr Doyle tells us, we are never alone in trying to live our resolutions – Someone who is all-powerful, and who desperately wills our sanctification, is ready to help us…
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.
You ask how to pray well. The answer is, Pray often, in season and out of season, against yourself, in spite of yourself. There is no other way. What a man of prayer St. James, the Apostle must have been since his knees became like those of a camel! When shall we religious realize the power for good that prayer, constant, unflagging prayer, puts into our hands Did it ever strike you that when our Lord pointed out the ”fields white for the harvest”, He did not urge His Apostle to go and reap it, but to pray?
COMMENT: One thing really jumps out from Fr Doyle’s comment today – “there is no other way” for us than to pray. This doesn’t mean that we don’t work, or use our human talents, but that there is no other way for us to be successful in the use of these gifts than to pray and beg for God’s grace. If we are not united to God, no matter what activism we may be engaged in, we will achieve little or nothing.
The reference Fr Doyle makes to St James is of note as today is his feast day, and it is an especially important day in Spain, so greetings to the Spanish visitors to the site.
St James’ knees are reputed to have become as hard as camel’s from his many hours of kneeling in prayer. Whether they did in fact become calloused in this way is of course not hugely important, what matters is the example of this great Apostle in relying on God’s grace in prayer for his work.
Today also marks the date of Fr Doyle’s second last letter home from the Front before his death just a few weeks later. In this letter he tells his father:
We shall have desperate fighting soon but I have not the least fear, on the contrary a great joy in the thought that I shall be able to make a real offering of my life to God, even if He does not think that poor life worth taking.
Over the coming couple of weeks, as we approach the 102nd anniversary of that date on which God accepted the offering of Fr Doyle’s life, we will recount details of that “desperate fighting” and remember Fr Doyle’s steadfastness and dedication to duty under fire.
Do not give up prayer on any account, no matter how dry or rotten you feel; every moment, especially before Him in the Tabernacle, is a certain, positive gain; the effect will be there though you may not feel it.
COMMENT: We live in a very sentimental world. So much of the modern psyche is driven by feelings and by emotion. It is so pervasive that we can end up using feelings as the yardstick of our actions, and this can be a hard habit to break. This is especially true in prayer.
God often provides consolations to beginners in the spiritual life precisely in order to reward and attract them to the life of the spirit. But sooner or later they will be taken away, either because of our own unfaithfulness and lack of attention, or because God wants to see if we really love Him, or if we are mere mercenaries who desire feelings in their own right.
There can always be a temptation to abandon acts of piety in the face of this dryness and lack of feeling. This, of course, is precisely the wrong thing to do. Often it is precisely when we are dry and when we find prayer distasteful that we can gain most from it.
Fr Doyle himself struggled with this temptation, and he occasionally tied himself to his pre dieu in order to overcome the temptation to abandon prayer when he experienced aridity.
We perhaps can learn today from St Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church:
But if, after all this, you are still unrelieved, do not be disturbed at your dryness, however great it be, but continue striving after a devout attitude in God’s Sight. What numbers of courtiers appear a hundred times at court without any hope of a word from their king, but merely to pay their homage and be seen of him. Just so, my daughter, we ought to enter upon mental prayer purely to fulfil our duty and testify our loyalty. If it pleases God’s Divine Majesty to speak to us, and discourse in our hearts by His Holy Inspirations and inward consolations, it is doubtless a great honour, and very sweet to our soul; but if He does not vouchsafe such favours, but makes as though He saw us not,–as though we were not in His Presence,–nevertheless we must not quit it, but on the contrary we must remain calmly and devoutly before Him, and He is certain to accept our patient waiting, and give heed to our assiduity and perseverance; so that another time He will impart to us His consolations, and let us taste all the sweetness of holy meditation. But even were it not so, let us, my child, be satisfied with the privilege of being in His Presence and seen of Him.
I awoke in the middle of the night with the feeling that Jesus wanted me. I resisted, but at last got out of bed. At the foot of the altar I was thinking of something else, when suddenly He seemed to remind me of my prayer, ‘Jesus come and dwell within my heart as in a tabernacle’. I felt Him urging me to this close union and He seemed to promise me that He would remain with me ‘from Communion to Communion’ if only I was recollected, but that I would easily drive Him away by unfaithfulness especially in want of guard over my eyes.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these very personal and intimate reflections in his diary 107 years ago today, on 10 July 1912. Two days later, he described the same incident in a letter, and recounted that he struggled against what he perceived to be the call to go to the chapel because “I did not want the trouble of walking down to the chapel in the early hours of the morning”. Sometimes we can imagine that Fr Doyle was not quite like us, given the austerities that he voluntarily endured and embraced throughout his life, and it is consoling to see that he too struggled, just as we all do.
Interestingly, exactly one year later, on 10 July 1913, Fr Doyle had another call to nocturnal prayer, and what seemed to be another mystical experience:
Last night I rose at two o’clock, very much against my will, and went down to the domestic chapel. Jesus seemed to want me to come before Him as a victim of His divine anger on behalf of sinners … Then He spoke in my soul clearly and forcibly: ‘You must be your own executioner. I want you to sacrifice all, which you have never done yet though you often promised. From this hour you must never give yourself one grain of human comfort or self-indulgence even at the times you have been accustomed to do so, e.g. when very tired, not well, travelling, etc. I want from you a suffering love always, always, always. The feasts and relaxations of others are not for you. Give Me this courageously and I will grant the desires of your heart.’
Jesus seemed to ask the following: (i) perfect denial of the eyes, (2) the bearing of little pains, (3) much prayer for strength, (4) a review of each half day at examen to see if this resolution has been kept.
My whole soul shrank from this life—‘no human comfort ever’. But with His grace, for I know my own weakness too well, I promised to do all He asked, and lying on the ground, I asked Him to nail me to my cross and never again permit me to come down from it.
Fr Doyle was a mystic. His diary – never intended for public consumption – reveals this mystical side of him. He often felt that God was speaking directly to him. This does not seem to have been the result of visions or apparitions, but rather from internal inspirations and perhaps locutions. Fr Doyle was a well trained Jesuit who spent 16 years in preparation for his ordination. He was no sentimental or gullible fool, and on the balance of probability we must trust that he discerned these matters correctly.
In any event, we cannot fully know what happened on those nights more than a century ago, and we have to take what Fr Doyle says on face value. But what we can do is to focus on the last line of today’s first quote, which is very applicable for all of us living in the nitty gritty of the daily grind: I would easily drive Him away by unfaithfulness especially in want of guard over my eyes.
Fr Doyle was concerned that he might drive God away through unfaithfulness, especially by not maintaining custody of his eyes. This could sound very pietistic or simplistic. But Fr Doyle is correct – we do drive away the spirit of recollection if we are too greedy with our eyes, always looking at things, feeding our imagination and curiosity. We must guard our eyes, our heart, and our imagination. St Teresa of Avila described the imagination as the “mad woman of the house” who will upset everything and destroy the order of the house. St Josemaria Escriva wrote:
Custody of the heart. That priest used to pray: “Jesus, may my poor heart be an enclosed garden; may my poor heart be a paradise where you live; may my Guardian Angel watch over it with a sword of fire and use it to purify every affection before it comes into me. Jesus, with the divine seal of your Cross, seal my poor heart.”
St John tells us that the other enemy is the lust of the eyes, a deep-seated avariciousness that leads us to appreciate only what we can touch. Such eyes are glued to earthly things and, consequently, they are blind to supernatural realities. We can, then, use this expression of sacred Scripture to indicate that disordered desire for material things, as well as that deformation which views everything around us — other people, the circumstances of our life and of our age — with just human vision.
Then the eyes of our soul grow dull. Reason proclaims itself sufficient to understand everything, without the aid of God. This is a subtle temptation, which hides behind the power of our intellect, given by our Father God to man so that he might know and love him freely. Seduced by this temptation, the human mind appoints itself the centre of the universe, being thrilled with the prospect that “you shall be like gods.” So filled with love for itself, it turns its back on the love of God.
We all probably recognise this from ordinary human experience. When trying to study, if we give way to curiosity on the internet, on the radio etc, then we lose our recollection and focus. In conversations with others, if we spend our time looking around or at our phone and not focusing on those we are speaking with, we can easily lose focus on the conversation, and in the process display a lack of respect to others.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we always have to go around with our eyes downcast, ignoring the beauty of creation around us, but rather that we always try to avoid seeing things that may be sinful to watch, and secondly, that we focus on what we are meant to be doing and not lose our focus and recollection by looking around at distractions too much.
This, of course, is easier said than done, especially in an era with smartphones and social media, when many of us have become accustomed to always consume information and have shortened our concentration spans. Even Fr Doyle struggled, and this is a consolation for us. But who can doubt that the world would be a better place if we all focused on what we are meant to be doing at the time we are doing it, and fostered a greater spirit of recollection and internal peace?
The conviction has been growing that nocturnal adoration will be established only if I spend much time myself before the Blessed Sacrament at night. I know well that Jesus not only wants me to sacrifice much of my sleep, but also to rise sometimes during the night to adore and console Him in the Tabernacle. The repugnance (and yet attraction) to this is extraordinary.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words on July 2, 1917, just 6 weeks before his death. The circumstances in which he was living at that time are almost incomprehensible to us who live in such relative comfort in this era of peace. Yet, despite the inherent discomfort of life in the thick of war, he felt called to reduce his sleep even more and to rise in the night to adore Christ in the Eucharist. It is interesting to note how he combined a great attraction with a great repugnance. This can often be the case in the spiritual life – we see the same paradox in the lives of many saints. In fact, Fr Doyle occasionally tied himself to his pre dieu in the morning in order to stick to his resolution not to cut his time of prayer short.
Throughout his life, Fr Doyle was a great advocate of nocturnal adoration, a very fitting way to combine prayer and penance. For most of us, our personal circumstances do not allow us to emulate Fr Doyle’s adherence to this devotion. If this is the case we should strive to live our life of prayer and penance in a way that fits with our ordinary life and obligations, being generous with God while also being balanced; always remembering the primacy of the obligations that attach to our own state in life.