The effect of fervour may be likened to that of fire on water. When cold, water is motionless and chills all that comes in contact with it, but as soon as heat is applied to it, it becomes transformed, grows active, gives off warmth and steam, is capable of doing immense work.
COMMENT: Are our souls cold and motionless? Do we fail to provide warmth to those around us? If so, we need to move closer to the source of heat. We need to know Christ in prayer, by spending time with Him, to enkindle in our souls the fire of His love.
If, in some countries or parishes, the Church seems insipid, lifeless, and in decline, is it merely because of “social trends”? Or is it because we have allowed our souls to grow cold and motionless?
Christ tells us that:
I came to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled!
St Catherine of Siena develops that theme:
Be who God meant to be, and you will set the world on fire.
This is what the saints did, every single one of them. Some of them achieved extraordinary things through this flame of God’s love burning in their hearts. Catherine herself is a great example: despite being a young, uneducated woman she had a remarkable impact on the world of her day, all because her soul was a blazing furnace of love for God. Priests had to accompany her on her travels to hear the confessions of those who converted merely through having contact with her. Her letters – whether to popes or princes or ordinary men – are full of ardent love and faith and fortitude. She tended to that flame of love and grace that drove her through her prayer and mortification, the only fuel that can kindle the fire of God’s love in our heart.
If we are not what we are meant to be, if we are cold and motionless, it is because we have allowed the flame of God’s love to grow dim in our souls.
You seem to be a little troubled at finding yourself cold at prayer and as if our Lord had abandoned you. Were it otherwise I should feel uneasy; for this is one of the best signs that you are really pleasing to God, since He puts your fidelity to the test by sending desolation. There is no happiness to be compared to the sweets one tastes at times in prayer; but this, the greatest of all sacrifices, He will ask from you at times.
Hence in darkness and dryness, when weariness and disgust come on you, when the thousand petty worries of every day crowd upon you, raise your eyes with a glad smile to the face of Jesus, for all is well and He is sanctifying you.
COMMENT: Context is important, and Fr Doyle’s words for today take on entirely different meanings depending on their context. Fr Doyle was presumably writing to somebody who was faithfully living their spiritual life and who was undergoing a period of spiritual darkness. Sometimes God does indeed test us in these situations. We have to show that we love the God of consolations, not the consolations of God.
But there are times when we go through coldness and repugnance for spiritual things, and it is entirely our own fault. Our negligence and laziness and sinfulness bring about this coldness. It is not God who has abandoned us, but we who have abandoned Him. But the remedy is always near – contrition, the sacraments and a more ardent renewal and fidelity are the medicine we need to rekindle the love of God in our hearts.
As to any practice of piety there is a double danger: recommending it as infallible, or condemning it as useless. I always make a point of saying that all things are not for all people. Characters differ so much.
COMMENT: Here we see the wonderful balance of Fr Doyle. He was a man of very definite personal devotion, but he was equally convinced that his way was not the only way, and that there are many other spiritual paths along which people are called. It is true that there are those who are not attracted by Fr Doyle’s acts of mortification (even though everything Fr Doyle did can be found in the lives of the most popular and beloved of saints). But it is perfectly normal not to feel called to follow in Fr Doyle’s personal footsteps in this regard; as he himself says, characters differ so much. But even if our characters are different, we can still marvel at, and admire, Fr Doyle’s own unique character.
The same extraordinary balance is found in the life and writings of today’s saint, Thomas Aquinas. To take just one example relating to the life of prayer, he tells us in the Summa:
The quantity of anything should be proportioned to the end in view, as the quantity of drink should be proportioned to health. Hence it is fitting that prayer should continue only for so long as is useful to excite the fervour of interior desire. But when prayer goes beyond this measure so that it cannot be continued without weariness, then it should not be further prolonged.
St Thomas was one of the most extraordinary men who ever lived. His learning was vast. He once declared that he never read anything that he didn’t understand – what a great gift this is for any scholar to possess! St Thomas’ learning was aided by his own deep life of prayer and especially his own purity of life. Jesus tells us that the pure of heart shall see God. St Thomas certainly possessed this purity of heart. When he announced that he wanted to become a Dominican (at that time a new Order of beggar friars) his powerful family were very unimpressed. They arranged for him to be locked up in a castle in order to force him to change his mind. When this wasn’t working his brother arranged for an immodestly dressed prostitute to visit him in the hope that he would fall into sin and give up his vocation. However, Thomas had a different idea – he grabbed a burning firebrand and chased the prostitute from the room. In this episode St Thomas, known as the Angelic Doctor, shows us how to handle temptations against purity – we don’t dialogue with them or entertain them, but instead flee from the temptation immediately. Towards the end of his life St Thomas was granted a vision, after which he declared that all his writing was but straw compared to what God had shown him.
Many people live in ignorance regarding the work of St Thomas. In part this may be due to what might be called chronological snobbery – there is a certain attitude that thinks that only recent thinkers are enlightened and that no intellectual work from other eras is of any value, and especially not if it is Medieval in origin! This attitude is especially acute in Ireland. It is frustrating to hear recent university graduates (most of whom have spent over a decade in Catholic schooling) dismiss the existence of God as a mere fairy tale for weak sentimentalists. For the most part they are completely oblivious to the great intellects within the Church.
St Thomas is rightly renowned for his learning. But he was also obviously a man of great holiness. He was especially devoted to the Eucharist, and wrote many hymns and prayers to honour our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. To conclude our commentary on today’s feast, here are St Thomas’ prayers for before and after Mass.
Prayer before Mass.
Almighty and ever-lasting God, I approach the sacrament of Thy only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
I come sick to the doctor of life, unclean to the fountain of mercy, blind to the radiance of eternal light, and poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth.
Therefore, I implore Thee in Thy great generosity, to heal my sickness, to wash away my defilement, enlighten my blindness, to enrich my poverty, and to clothe my nakedness, so that I may receive the bread of angels, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords with reverence and humility, with contrition and devotion, with purity and faith, and with such purpose and determination that will be expedient to the salvation of my soul.
Grant me, I beseech Thee, that I may not only receive the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord, but also the reality and power of the Sacrament.
O most kind God, grant that I may receive the Body of Thine only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, and so received that I may be worthy to be incorporated into His mystical body, and numbered among His members.
O most loving Father, grant me Thy beloved Son, which I now receive under the veil of a sacrament, that I may one day behold Him face to face in glory, Who lives and reigns with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever. Amen.
Prayer after Mass.
Lord, Father all-powerful, and ever-living God, I thank Thee, for even though I am a sinner, Thy unprofitable servant, not because of my worth, but in the kindness of Thy mercy, Thou hast fed me with the precious Body and Blood of Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. I pray that this holy communion may not bring me condemnation and punishment but forgiveness and salvation. May it be a helmet of faith and a shield of good will. May it purify me from evil ways and put an end to my evil passions. May it bring me charity and patience, humility and obedience, and growth in power to do good. May it be my strong defense against all my enemies, visible and invisible, and the perfect calming of all my evil impulses, bodily and spiritual. May it unite me more closely to Thee, the one true God and lead me safely through death to everlasting happiness with Thee. And I pray that Thou willest lead me, a sinner to the banquet where Thou with Thy Son and Holy Spirit, art true and perfect light, total fulfillment, everlasting joy, gladness without end, and perfect happiness to Thy saints. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Last night I rose at 1am and went down to the church, renewing before the crucifix my desire and promise absolutely to surrender all human comfort and embrace instead every possible pain and discomfort. With my arms round the cross, I begged Jesus to give me His courage and strength to do what He asks from me. I realised that if I prayed when tempted to give in, grace would come to my help.
Each look of love to the Tabernacle causes a beat of grace-laden love in the Sacred Heart.
COMMENT: The Lord awaits us in the Tabernacle. Fr Doyle drew much strength from regular prayer before the Lord – often he could be found in prayer right through the night, especially when he was busy preaching a retreat. It seems that the busier he was, the more he approached the Lord in the Tabernacle and the more strength he gained for his work.
Fr Doyle also urged others to adore the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. He was one of the first to introduce Eucharistic holy hours in Ireland and he also one of the first in Ireland to advocate night vigils every Thursday in honour of the Agony in the Garden. Even during the war he spent entire nights in prayer, and often carried the Blessed Sacrament with him.
There is nothing better than the practice of aspirations, steadily growing in number. Keep a little book and enter them once a day. . . . I would like you to keep count of these little acts like the aspirations, but don’t go too fast; build up and do not pull down.
COMMENT: The use of spiritual aspirations – short heartfelt prayers which remind us that we are in the presence of God – were an extremely important part of Fr Doyle’s spiritual life. His diaries record how, at certain points in his life, he repeated tens of thousands of aspirations each day. Nobody quite knows how he managed to say (and count!) so many.
Today is the feast of St Francis de Sales, Doctor of the Church. St Francis is one of the most efficacious guides to the spiritual life. His advice is eminently practical, especially for lay people, and one doesn’t need to be a great mystic to follow it. One of the key elements of St Francis’ teaching was that we do not need to do great tings to be holy, we just need to do out own work, even if it is very little, but do it with great love. We find the same theme in the advice Fr Doyle gave to others.
Fr Doyle referred to St Francis quite a few times in his letters of spiritual direction. Incidentally, like Fr Doyle, St Francis was naturally very hot tempered and impatient, and he knew that he needed to conquer this particular vice in order to reach holiness. He was so successful at this that everyone who knew him viewed him as the sweetest, most gentle and patient man they knew. This practice of deliberately targeting one’s dominant defect and focusing one’s spiritual energies on this specific point is a central part of the Spiritual Exercises which of course formed such an important part of the spiritual formation of Fr Doyle himself.
Back to the issue of aspirations… The following is a quote from St Francis’ classic book Introduction to the Devout Life on the issue of aspirations. As we can see, Fr Doyle was not alone in his devotion to the practice. St Francis’ analogy of how lovers constantly think of their beloved is especially apt in explaining this practice.
Do you then, my daughter, aspire continually to God, by brief, ardent upliftings of heart; praise His Excellence, invoke His Aid, cast yourself in spirit at the Foot of His Cross, adore His Goodness, offer your whole soul a thousand times a day to Him, fix your inward gaze upon Him, stretch out your hands to be led by Him, as a little child to its father, clasp Him to your breast as a fragrant nosegay, upraise Him in your soul as a standard. In short, kindle by every possible act your love for God, your tender, passionate desire for the Heavenly Bridegroom of souls. Such is ejaculatory prayer, as it was so earnestly inculcated by St. Augustine upon the devout Proba; and be sure, my daughter, that if you seek such nearness and intimacy with God your whole soul will imbibe the perfume of His Perfections. Neither is this a difficult practice,–it may be interwoven with all our duties and occupations, without hindering any; for neither the spiritual retreat of which I have spoken, nor these inward upliftings of the heart, cause more than a very brief distraction, which, so far from being any hindrance, will rather promote whatever you have in hand. When a pilgrim pauses an instant to take a draught of wine, which refreshes his lips and revives his heart, his onward journey is nowise hindered by the brief delay, but rather it is shortened and lightened, and he brings it all the sooner to a happy end, pausing but to advance the better.
Sundry collections of ejaculatory prayer have been put forth, which are doubtless very useful, but I should advise you not to tie yourself to any formal words, but rather to speak with heart or mouth whatever springs forth from the love within you, which is sure to supply you with all abundance. There are certain utterances which have special force, such as the ejaculatory prayers of which the Psalms are so full, and the numerous loving invocations of Jesus which we find in the Song of Songs. Many hymns too may be used with the like intention, provided they are sung attentively. In short, just as those who are full of some earthly, natural love are ever turning in thought to the beloved one, their hearts overflowing with tenderness, and their lips ever ready to praise that beloved object; comforting themselves in absence by letters, carving the treasured name on every tree;–so those who love God cannot cease thinking of Him, living for Him, longing after Him, speaking of Him, and fain would they grave the Holy Name of Jesus in the hearts of every living creature they behold. And to such an outpour of love all creation bids us–nothing that He has made but is filled with the praise of God, and, as says St. Augustine, everything in the world speaks silently but clearly to the lovers of God of their love, exciting them to holy desires, whence gush forth aspirations and loving cries to God.