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 104 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
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 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 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?
Lord, give me grace and strength of character to tear myself away promptly from what, if not bad, is less good, and to give myself earnestly, self-denyingly, perseveringly, to the better and the best.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle always wanted to choose the hard thing, he always wanted to do the best thing. Thus, his prayer doesn’t just refer to tearing himself promptly away from bad things, but even from things that are less good. This is what we must aspire to – an interior struggle between the good and the best! Most of us are probably not yet there; our battles are probably (at least some of the time) between good and evil, not between a higher and a lesser good. Even so, Fr Doyle’s prayer reveals a crucial tactic in our spiritual struggle – we must flee temptations promptly. This is the advice of all of the saints and spiritual writers. The spiritual hero is the “coward” who flees temptation as soon as it presents itself, not the one who enters into conversation with it.
As St Benedict says in the Prologue to his Rule, the one who is victorious in God’s service is the one who…
has foiled the evil one, the devil, at every turn, flinging both him and his promptings far from the sight of his heart. While these temptations were still young, he caught hold of them and dashed them against Christ.
As a boy He gave me something of the kind, so that a passing glance at an immodest picture used to make me shudder; and until I began my theology at 31 I was quite ignorant of most sexual matters. That was His goodness, not mine.
COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Maria Goretti, the great champion of purity. She preferred death (at age 12) to committing a sexual sin, and as such her intercession is often sought by those with struggles in this area.
Fr Doyle seems to have had an unusual purity. In addition to the above quote, here is the testimony of a fellow Jesuit on the issue of Fr Doyle’s purity:
I knew from many talks with him on the subject that Willie found it hard to realise the difficulties of those struggling with impurity and the awful fascination of this sin, just as those who have never taken strong drink fail to appreciate the difficulties and temptations of the drunkard.
This does not mean that Fr Doyle was never subject to temptations, but rather that through God’s grace his major temptations related to others aspects of the moral life, mostly relating to his temper and tendency towards impetuousness.
It is fascinating for us to consider that a normal, well adjusted young man 100 years ago could be largely unaware of sexual matters until his thirties. But then again, we live in an age which has lost the innocence of times past. Just as the fish does not know that it swims in water – the water is all it knows and it can’t imagine any other reality – we often fail to realise the errors of our own age. Of course, there has always been corruption in the world, but rarely has it been so normalised and glamourised and publicised and rarely have people been urged to take pride in it as we are today. We also see the awful effects of this corruption within the Church, and the dreadful legacy of wounded lives and shattered credibility left in its wake.
The words of St Josemaria Escriva on purity are relevant for us to consider today:
Never speak of impure things or events, not even to lament them. Remember that such matter is stickier than pitch. Change the subject or, if that is not possible, continue with it, speaking of the need and the beauty of purity — a virtue of men who know the value of their souls.
Having said all of that, we do not want to fall into a Jansenistic trap of obsessing about sin and about impurity. Sadly, some strains of Catholicism, especially in Ireland, seem to have fallen into this trap in the past. Such an approach was far from that of Fr Doyle. We must resist the temptation, but if we fail, we pick ourselves up and go forward, without scruples, nostalgia or curiosity.
Today is the memorial of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. Amongst other things, Blessed Pier Giorgio was renowned, as a very young man, for his heroic charity towards the poor of Turin. Reading the life of Fr Doyle instantly reminds one of Blessed Pier Giorgio, for he too served the poor of Dalkey while he was himself was just a child. In both cases, very few knew of their hidden charity towards others.
From O’Rahilly’s Life of Fr Doyle:
For the poor people on Dalkey Hill Willie constituted himself into a Conference of St. Vincent de Paul. He raised funds by saving up his pocket-money, by numberless acts of economy and self-denial; he begged for his poor, he got the cook to make soup, he pleaded for delicacies to carry to the sick. Once he went to the family apothecary and ordered several large bottles of cod-liver oil for a poor consumptive woman, and then presented the bill to his father! He bought a store of tea with which under many pledges of secrecy he entrusted the parlourmaid. On this he used to draw when in the course of his wanderings he happened to come across some poor creature without the means of providing herself with the cup that cheers. He by no means confined himself merely to the bringing of relief. He worked for his poor, he served them, he sat down and talked familiarly with them, he read books for the sick, he helped to tidy the house, he provided snuff and tobacco for the aged. One of Willie’s cases if such an impersonal word may be used was a desolate old woman whose children were far away. One day noticing that the house was dirty and neglected, he went off and purchased some lime and a brush, and then returned and whitewashed the whole house from top to bottom. He then went down on his knees and scrubbed the floors, amid the poor woman’s ejaculations of protest and gratitude. No one knew of this but the cook and parlour maid who lent him their aprons to save his clothes and kept dinner hot for him until he returned late in the evening. While thus aiding his poor friends temporally, he did not forget their souls. He contrived skilfully to remind them of their prayers and the sacraments; he also strongly advocated temperance. There was one old fellow on the Hill whom Willie had often unsuccessfully tried to reform. After years of hard drinking he lay dying, and could not be induced to see a priest. For eight hours Willie stayed praying by the bedside of the half-conscious dying sinner. Shortly before the end he came to himself, asked for the priest and made his peace with God. Only when he had breathed his last, did Willie return to Melrose. His first missionary victory!
Two further commonalities between Blessed Pier Giorgio and Fr Doyle were their love of practical jokes and an intense interest in sport and physical activity. Pier Giorgio was a very keen mountain climber, while Fr Doyle was a very competitive team sport player – sometimes his aggressiveness on the field shocked other clerical students who expected more reserve from young Jesuits. So, while both Blessed Pier Giorgio and Fr Doyle exhibited unusual charity and goodness as young men, neither of them were sickly sentimentalists. Both were well adjusted and balanced and exhibited simple manly piety.