The object of my life to be close union with and intense love of God. To acquire this I will (a) fly from the shadow of sin, never deliberately break a rule, custom or regulation; (b) do each little action purely for the love of Jesus, with exquisite exactness, fervour and devotedness; (c) beg constantly and earnestly for a great increase of love.
COMMENT: Today’s quote comes from some of the resolutions Fr Doyle made after the 30 days of spiritual exercises he did in 1907. As usual, there is much here that we can learn from.
Flying from the shadow of sin, or, put another way, avoiding occasions of sin, is an important element of the spiritual life. How often we can make compromises by going to places (real, online or imaginary), meeting with people or practicing those habits that we know will lead us into temptation or distraction. Unless we make concerted effort, relying on grace, we will never win the battle for greater virtue.
Today’s saint, Camillus de Lellis, was a dissipated, violent man who lived as a mercenary soldier with a propensity for gambling (and literally losing the shirt off his back in the process). His conversion necessitated that he avoid the company, and habits, that lead him into gambling and fighting. St Camillus used to teach that we should aim:
not to be satisfied with avoiding sin, but to avoid even the least shadow and risk of sin.
Even in the use of language he was at one with Fr Doyle.
This flight from temptation is very typical of saints. We see traps set for saints like Thomas Aquinas and Philip Neri. In both cases, others sought to tempt them by laying traps whereby they encountered prostitutes who tried to seduce them. Both saints fled the scene – they didn’t pause to think about the temptation. Similarly, Venerable Matt Talbot, following his conversion from a life of alcoholism, would avoid walking past a pub, and even refused to carry money on him, lest he be tempted to spend it on drink.
The second part of Fr Doyle’s advice today is characteristic of him: do “each little action purely for the love of Jesus, with exquisite exactness, fervour and devotedness”. Dedication to duty, day after day, even when we don’t feel like it, requires great virtue. Faithfully doing our work on time, to the best of our abilities, will be for many people a great penance. But the key is doing this work for the love of God, not just to make more money or to win a promotion. Examining our faithfulness to duty can be a fruitful aspect of our daily examination of conscience.
But remember the devil will spoil the work if he can and by every means in his power turn you from your life of immolation.
COMMENT: In today’s snippet, Fr Doyle reminds us that we are contending not only against our own weakness in the spiritual life, but that the devil also wishes to distract us from closer intimacy with God, and that he will use “every means in his power” to turn us aside. Lucifer was the most brilliant of the angels and he has many means in his power. Perhaps most of all, he will use the defects in our own characters, which he knows so well, to turn us from the path of virtue.
When we are tempted, when the devil tries “by every means in his power” to turn us away from our good resolutions, we should proceed as we had planned, with generosity and trusting in God’s help.
Today it is somewhat unfashionable to refer to the Enemy, but if we wish to remove him from our life of faith, we shall be forced to erase a lot of the Gospel as well. True, perhaps previous generations were too focussed on the issues of evil influences, but perhaps we have allowed the pendulum to swing far too much in the other direction in recent decades. If we prefer to ignore the existence of our Enemy, we surely give a major advantage to him.
The efforts of the Enemy should spur us on to greater efforts, not cause us to shrink with fear. As Fr Doyle wrote in his diary 103 years ago today (12 July 1915):
Not feeling well, I gave up the intention of sleeping on boards, but overcame self and did so. I rose this morning, quite fresh and none the worse for it, proving once more how our Lord would help me if I was generous.
Fr Doyle, as a good disciple of St Ignatius, knew that a fundamental principle of our spiritual combat is to act against temptation, not to meekly yield when tempted. Consider the words of St Ignatius:
It is the way of the enemy to weaken and lose heart, his temptations taking flight, when the person who is exercising himself in spiritual things opposes a bold front against the temptations of the enemy, doing diametrically the opposite. And on the contrary, if the person who is exercising himself commences to have fear and lose heart in suffering the temptations, there is no beast so wild on the face of the earth as the enemy of human nature in following out his damnable intention with so great malice.
Finally, today is the feast (and wedding wedding anniversary) of the married couple Saints Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St Therese. Fr Doyle was an early and enthusiastic devotee of St Therese. I have recently read a remarkable book about the family of St Therese, which I cannot recommend highly enough. It is by St Stephane-Joseph Piat OFM, originally published in the 1940s under the title “The Story of a Family: The Home of the Little Flower”, but more recently published by Ignatius Press (https://www.amazon.com/Family-Saints-Martins-Lisieux-Saints-Thérèse-ebook/dp/B01H2ISD74/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1531391961&sr=8-1&keywords=family+of+saints) and by TAN (https://www.amazon.com/Story-Family-Home-Therese-Lisieux-ebook/dp/B015EPNGGA/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1531392032&sr=1-1) under slightly different titles. I must admit that, despite having read her autobiography and several other biographies of her, I have been in that (small?) number of Catholics who have an objective appreciation for St Therese, without having a personal, subjective devotion to her. But this book has given me a fresh perspective, and I was highly impressed at the holiness and devotion of the entire family, and especially her parents, both of whom are now rightfully recognised as saints. The bourgeois atmosphere of late 19th Century France may seem foreign to us now. But we can all identify with the Martin family at some level. They worked (both of them!), they had bills to pay, they knew loss and they knew suffering. But they trusted in God, and they put Him first. They were no strangers to criticism, or to being called Pharisees for their adherence to their religion. At a time when debates about marriage and the family are very central to the concerns of the Church, and at a time when the Church in Ireland prepares for the World Meeting of Families, the example of St Louis and St Zelie Martin should stand as a beacon of light and inspiration for all.
Avoid haste and want of control of bodily movements. The interior man, no matter how burdened with work or pressed for time, is never in a hurry. He is swift and expeditious in all he does, but never rushes; and by a jealous watchfulness over odd moments, “gathering up the fragments” of a full day “that none of them may be lost,” he finds time for all things. He knows that the Almighty is never in a hurry; that the great works of God in nature as in the soul are done silently and calmly, and that there is much wisdom in the old monastic saying, “The man who rushes will never run to perfection.”
COMMENT: In today’s quote, Fr Doyle speaks to us about the importance of balance and moderation. Even when busy we should not be in an excessive hurry, but always maintain our equilibrium. Perhaps this is one area where Fr Doyle had to struggle. He was naturally hot tempered and extraordinarily zealous. However, it is clear that by the end of his life he had mastered this aspect of his temperament. He was a source of peace and tranquillity for others. Consider the image of Fr Doyle below. Consider the purity and serenity in his eyes – they display a deeply tranquil and balanced man. His eyes are reservoirs of peace. He had just volunteered as a military chaplain, and was just about to head to the war. He knew what he was facing, yet he retained his calmness. By all accounts, he remained serene and peaceful right to the very end. This man, who had a nervous breakdown slightly more than 20 years before, was now a rock of strength and peace for others.
Today is the feast of St Benedict, one of the patron saints of Europe and indeed the Father of the West. Monks following his rule were instrumental in saving western civilisation after the fall of the Roman empire. By preserving the heritage of classical learning, and indeed by preserving the faith itself within their monasteries, the Benedictine monks played a pivotal role in the development of Christendom and indeed of western civilisation itself. We owe many historical inventions and advances in learning, as well as practical developments in agriculture, engineering and even brewing to the dedication and application of the Benedictines.
The motto of the Benedictine order is Pax – Peace. The Rule of St Benedict is renowned for its balance and moderation, especially compared to the harsher rule of life adopted by the Eastern monks. St Benedict tells us that it is important that people in the house of God (and by extension in the Christian family) should not be vexed or anxious, for this destroys the peace which so readily assists in the growth of holiness. Commenting on the Rule of St Benedict, Pope Emeritus Benedict tells us:
For its moderation, humanity and sober discernment between the essential and the secondary in spiritual life, his Rule has retained its illuminating power even to today.
We live in an increasingly frenetic world. The technology that was supposed to alleviate our work has often only served to complicate our lives further. Let us pray that we may acquire the moderation and balance that both Fr Doyle and St Benedict speak of, and that this spiritual equilibrium will better equip us to serve God and our neighbour more effectively.
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 106 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?
Peter, the favoured one, denies his Master and turns his back on Him who loved him so; and Peter’s heart is won, even in his sin, by one loving look of mercy and compassion from the Saviour whose mercy is without end.
COMMENT: The denial of St Peter, and Christ’s subsequent forgiveness, was a frequent theme in Fr Doyle’s notes. The image of a favoured apostle denying his Master seemed to resonate deeply with him.
As for St Paul, Fr Doyle doesn’t seem to write much about him directly, although he obviously quotes him frequently in his letters. Fr Doyle resembles St Paul in his great missionary zeal. Just as Paul underwent shipwreck and imprisonment and deprivation to bring the Gospel to others, Fr Doyle underwent life in the trenches, and all of its dangers, to bring the sacraments to others.
Peter, Paul and Fr Doyle could all have stayed at home and lived relatively comfortable, safe lives. But they sacrificed this comfort because of their love of Christ, offering their own lives in the process.
If an aspiration, on the authority of the Blessed Cure d’Ars, often saved a soul, what must you not do each day you suffer so bravely! This thought certainly will help you and make the pain almost nothing, and will add to its merit, since the motive for bearing it will be all the higher.
COMMENT: Today’s quotation comes from a letter of spiritual direction Fr Doyle wrote to somebody who was sick. Like many popular spiritual directors of his era, Fr Doyle had a very heavy daily correspondence with many people, especially nuns. In fact, he found this work difficult as it placed a heavy burden on him – he was known to receive a couple of dozen letters seeking spiritual direction in a single day. However, despite the burden, he persevered, and indeed it seems that he took his own advice – he offered up his work and inconveniences and sufferings for others, especially for the salvation of souls.
This principle applies to us all, irrespective of our role in life. We can offer up minor inconveniences, aches and pains, our work, in fact everything in our life for others. Seen in this light, every day presents a multitude of opportunities to help others, to merit grace and to grow in holiness.
Today is the feast of St Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. Instead of a message from Fr Doyle, we have a message from a saint, ABOUT Fr Doyle. From point 205 of St Josemaria Escriva’s The Way:
We were reading — you and I — the heroically ordinary life of that man of God. And we saw him fight whole months and years (what ‘accounts’ he kept in his particular examination!) at breakfast time: today he won, tomorrow he was beaten… He noted: ‘Didn’t take butter…; did take butter!’
May you and I too live our ‘butter tragedy.
The heroically ordinary “man of God” was none other than Fr Willie Doyle.
Alfred O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle caused something of a stir on its release. Within a few years the book had been translated into German, Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch and Polish (and perhaps translations I don’t know about?). This heroically ordinary Jesuit priest from Dublin seemed to have quite an appeal for people from very different cultures.
St Josemaria read a Spanish copy of the book in 1933. He wrote in one of his notebooks:
I have read quickly the life of Fr Doyle: how well I understand the butter tragedy.
For St Josemaria, his personal butter tragedy consisted in his battle to regulate the reading of newspapers. His notes from his 1933 retreat which refer to reading newspapers reveal how difficult this was for him:
This last, not reading newspapers, is for me no small mortification. Nevertheless, with God’s grace, I stayed faithful to it…What battles these struggles of mine were! These epics can be understood only by those who have gone through similar ones. Sometimes conquering; more often, being conquered.
Of course, we must understand what St Josemaria and Fr Doyle were doing when they struggled to give up butter and newspapers. These things are not bad – far from it! But, as an act of love and reparation, saints have often denied themselves little things, even very good things. As well as making an offering of this sacrifice to God, such acts help to strengthen the will. This may all seem a little strange to our modern culture. But, just imagine the difference it makes to family life to live with someone who knows how to deny themselves, versus living with someone who has no control over their appetites, and must always have their way… We might all be better off if from time to time we struggled to give up butter, newspapers, TV, Facebook, sleeping in in the morning…
Such acts do not come easily, and it is consoling to see that St Josemaria and Fr Doyle both struggled with similar small distractions and temptations.
St Josemaria also wrote about Fr Doyle in a letter in 1938 to a member of Opus Dei:
I’m quite envious of those on the battlefronts, in spite of everything. It has occurred to me that, if my path were not so clearly marked out, it would be wonderful to outdo Father Doyle.
Over the years, many millions of copies of The Way have been sold, and it has been translated into dozens of languages. Even though he is only a very small part of the book, it’s a powerful anonymous influence on the part of Fr Doyle. How many people have copied his example of small mortifications, without ever knowing anything about him, thanks to this reference from St Josemaria?
Perhaps this is a fitting place to include some references from O’Rahilly’s book on the matter of Fr Doyle and his diet. In all of this it is very clear that Fr Doyle didn’t find these mortifications easy; they were, as St Josemaria said, a tragedy:
He was systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points; every day he did many things for no other reason than that he would rather not do them; so that, when the hour of need and big-scale heroism drew nigh, it did not find him unnerved and untrained to stand the test. For most assuredly he was a man who daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. “Other souls may travel by other roads,” he once wrote, “the road of pain is mine.” He developed a positive ingenuity in discovering possibilities of denying himself. Thus he was always striving to bear little sufferings and physical discomforts were it only the irritation of a gnat without seeking relief; he tried to imagine that his hands were nailed to the cross with Jesus. He gave up having a fire in his room and even avoided warming himself at one. Every day he wore a hair-shirt and one or two chains for some time; and he inflicted severe disciplines on himself. Moreover, between sugarless tea, butterless bread and saltless meat, he converted his meals into a continuous series of mortifications. Naturally he had, in fact, a very hearty appetite and a keen appreciation of sweets and delicacies; all of which he converted into an arena for self-denial…
We find him pencilling this resolution on the first page of the little private notebook he kept with him at the Front: “No blackberries. Give away all chocolates. Give away box of biscuits. No jam, breakfast, lunch, dinner.”
…Just after giving a retreat in a Carmelite convent, he records: “I felt urged in honour of St. Teresa to give myself absolutely no comfort at meals which I could possibly avoid. I found no difficulty in doing this for the nine days. I have begged very earnestly for the grace to continue this all my life and am determined to try to do so. For example, to take no butter, no sugar in coffee, no salt, etc. The wonderful mortified lives of these holy nuns have made me ashamed of my gratification of my appetite.” That he by no means found this mortification easy we have many indications. Thus on 5th Jan., 1912, he writes: “During Exposition Jesus asked me if I would give up taking second course at dinner. This would be a very great sacrifice; but I promised Him at least to try to do so and begged for grace and generosity.”
“A fierce temptation during Mass and thanksgiving,” he records a year later (18th Sept., 1913), “to break my resolution and indulge my appetite at breakfast. The thought of a breakfast of dry bread and tea without sugar in future seemed intolerable. Jesus urged me to pray for strength though I could scarcely bring myself to do so. But the temptation left me in the refectory, and joy filled my heart with the victory. I see now that I need never yield if only I pray for strength.”
On the subject of butter there are many resolutions in the diary. Materially the subject may seem trivial, but psychologically it represents a great struggle and victory…It is in such little acts that man rises above the beast and fosters his human heritage of a rational will. So Fr. Doyle’s butter-resolutions are not at all so unimportant or whimsical as they who have ever thoughtlessly eaten and drunk may be inclined to fancy. “God has been urging me strongly all during this retreat,” he writes in September 1913, “to give up butter entirely. I have done so at many meals without any serious inconvenience; but I am partly held back through human respect, fearing others may notice it. If they do, what harm? I have noticed that X takes none for lunch; that has helped me. Would not I help others if I did the same?” “One thing,” he continues, “I feel Jesus asks, which I have not the courage to give Him: the promise to give up butter entirely.” On 29th July, 1914, we find this resolution: “For the present I will take butter on two mouthfuls of bread at breakfast but none at other meals.” To this decision he seems to have adhered.
…This relentless concentration of will on matters of food must not lead us to suppose that Fr. Doyle was in any way morbidly absorbed or morosely affected thereby. For one less trained in will or less sure in spiritual perspective there might easily be danger of entanglement in minutiae and over-attention to what is secondary. All this apparatus of mortification is but a means to an end, it should not be made an end in itself…This persistent and systematic thwarting of appetite helped Fr. Doyle to strengthen his will and to fix it on God. He never lost himself in a maze of petty resolutions, he never became anxious or distracted.
Alfred O’Rahilly concludes his discussion of Fr Doyle’s eating habits with some wise advice for the reader:
The armour of Goliath would hamper David. There are those whom elaborate prescriptions and detailed regulations would only strain and worry. And these best find the peace of God in a childlike thankful acceptance of His gifts, without either careless indulgence or self-conscious artificiality.
As a humorous aside, Point 205 of The Way has been translated in the past to refer to a “marmalade” tragedy and a “sugar” tragedy because the translators could not understand the concept of giving up butter as a mortification. In any event, all three translations would be an accurate reflection of Fr Doyle’s life and asceticism.
Those who are unfamiliar with Alfred O’Rahilly’s definitive biography of Fr Doyle, from where the above quotations are taken, can find details of how to order a copy of the bookhere.
St Josemaria Escriva is,of course, not the only person renowned for their sanctity who had a devotion to Fr Doyle. Amongst those who admired Fr Doyle we can include Blessed John Sullivan SJ; the Servant of God Fr Bernard Quinn; the Venerable Adolf Petit SJ; Saint Teresa of Calcutta and St Alberto Hurtado SJ, as well as countless others: priests, religious and lay people, both anonymous and renowned, from Ireland and from overseas. Fr Doyle seems to have exerted a wide ranging appeal to many different types of people over the course of several decades.