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.
My dear loving Jesus, what do you want from me? You never seem to leave me alone – thank you ever so much for that – but keep on asking, asking, asking. I have tried to do a good deal lately for you and have made many little sacrifices which have cost me a good deal, but you do not seem to be satisfied with me yet and want more.
The same thought is ever haunting me, coming back again and again; fight as I will, I cannot get away from it or conceal from myself what it is you really want. I realise it more and more every day. But, my sweet Jesus, I am so afraid, I am so cowardly, so fond of myself and my own comfort, that I keep hesitating and refusing to give in to you and to do what you want.
Let me tell you what I think this is. You want me to immolate myself to your pleasure; to become your victim by self-inflicted suffering; to crucify myself in every way I can think of; never if possible to be without some pain or discomfort; to die to myself and to my love of ease and comfort; to give myself the necessaries of life but no more (and I think these could be largely reduced without injury to my health); to crucify my body in every way I can think of, bearing heat, cold, little sufferings, without relief, constantly, if possible always, wearing some instrument of penance; to crucify my appetite by trying to take as little delicacies as possible; to crucify my eyes by a vigilant guard over them; to crucify my will by submitting it to others; to give up all comfort, all self-indulgence; to sacrifice my love of ease, love for sleep at unusual times; to work, to toil for souls, to suffer, to pray always. My Jesus, am I not right, is not this what you want from me and have asked so long?
For the thought of such a life, so naturally terrifying, fills me with joy, for I know I could not do one bit of it myself but that it will all be the work of your grace and love. I have found, too, that the more I give, the more I do, the more I suffer, the greater becomes this longing.
Jesus, you know my longing to become a saint. You know how much I thirst to die a martyr. Help me to prove that I am really in earnest by living this life of martyrdom.
O loving Jesus, help me now not to fight any longer against you. I really long to do what you want, but I know my weakness so well and my inconstancy. I have made so many generous resolutions which I have never kept that I feel it is almost a mockery to promise more. This record of my feelings and desire at this moment will be a spur to my generosity; and if I cannot live up to the perfection of what you want, at least I am now determined to do more than I have ever done before. Help me, Jesus!
As regards prayer, you should try to follow the attraction of the Holy Spirit, for all souls are not led by the same path. It would not be well to spend all the time in vocal prayer, there should be some meditation, thought or contemplation. Try “basking in the sun of God’s love,” that is, quietly kneeling before the Tabernacle, as you would sit enjoying the warm sunshine, not trying to do anything, except love Him; but realizing that, during all the time you are at His feet, more especially when dry and cold, grace is dropping down upon your soul and you are growing fast in holiness.
COMMENT: In today’s quote, Fr Doyle teaches us something very important about prayer – we are all lead by a different path. There are many spiritualities in the Church. Of course, this doesn’t mean that any and all spiritualities are advisable, but nonetheless it is a broad Church and the Holy Spirit will lead us along the right path if we are sufficiently well disposed to follow. Sometimes people can form a negative image of Fr Doyle if they think too much about his own purely personal austerity. Today we see Fr Doyle in all of his gentleness and liberality and balance. This gentleness and balance was always a key characteristic of his advice to others.
Today’s quote also reminds me of a story about St John Vianney. I cannot remember whether the story is told about his own prayer, or whether he is meant to have told this story about somebody else’s prayer and I cannot find a definitive version of the story online. In any event, the story is that a holy person who spent much time in the church before the Tabernacle (as I say, the holy person was either the saint himself or one of his parishioners) was asked what he did during this time. The response was “I just look at Him, and He just looks at me”.
Such a simple (and exalted) prayer will not be suitable for everyone, but the point is that there is a lot more to prayer than vocal prayer. If we receive the correct spiritual direction and formation and are well disposed, the Holy Spirit will lead us along the right path.