Thoughts for July 7 from Fr Willie Doyle

I have often wondered what Jesus meant by the ‘work’, but I could never bring myself to ask you what you thought it was, for I knew if this message really came from Him, He would make clear what he wanted done in His own good time. Yesterday I was writing in my room a thought which had come to my mind: ‘Is there not something wrong with a priest who constantly feels the need of amusement and distraction? Has such a one tasted the sweetness of Jesus in the Tabernacle?’ I suppose it was only putting in words the grace He has given me; worldly amusements are nearly always now a torture to me, while it is a perfect joy, a comfort and recreation, to spend an hour with Him. As I was writing that sentence quoted above, without a thought of you or anything in particular, suddenly it flashed into my mind as clearly as if someone had spoken the words at my elbow, ‘The work I want you to do is the sanctification of My priests through retreats’.

Now, my dear child, I know well that one must not attach too much importance to what may be only a passing thought, due to many causes, still I must not conceal from you that the peace and consolation which came with this inspiration was very great, and the longing for great holiness most intense. Somehow I seemed to realise too that the retreat I have in mind, and the standard of perfection I hope, with God’s grace, to set before His priests will bring down on me much ridicule, but that, at the same time, the seed will fall on the good soil of many hearts He is now preparing, and will mean a new life of great sanctity to many. I know from experience that the material to work on is magnificent, but the standard of perfection is deplorably low. Surely there cannot be a grander work than this, but if it is to be done as Jesus wishes, it calls for a state of perfection which, without any exaggeration, I know well I am far from having reached.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these extraordinary words 106 years ago today (7 July 1914) to what O’Rahilly describes as a “privileged penitent” who was apparently in receipt of alleged private “supernatural illuminations” that Fr Doyle was inclined to believe in.

This penitent (probably a nun), told Fr Doyle that she has received some form of message that Fr Doyle had some special ‘work’ to do in his life, and this letter from a century ago is Fr Doyle’s assessment of what he discerned this work to be. As ever, he recognised that all work for God starts with our own growth in holiness.

Perhaps even more extraordinary are the words that this “privileged penitent” wrote about Fr Doyle (they are published in the later editions of the O’Rahilly biography):

In response to inspirations received directly or indirectly from Jesus, he strove, notably for seven or eight years before he died, to ‘put on Jesus Christ’, to model his life on the Priest-Christ, to be, as far as it was humanly possible, ‘another Christ’. This was the secret spring of his holiness. It was not a simple attraction, not a mere fad, but a forming of a life of priestly holiness, distinctly asked for and expressed by Christ. He heard with attention the first invitation: ‘Model your life on Mine, lead a perfect life’. And as if to secure a faithful response, Jesus seemed in the year 1910 to have planted in his heart a spark of divine love. This was the ‘sweet wounding’, a grace like to that received by St Teresa, of which he complained. It made him understand Christ’s love for His priests and His – almost helpless – dependence on them for the sanctification of souls. Jesus infused into his soul some of His own passionate love for souls; and it was this passion that made him at times seem to do rash things. It was the ‘charity of Christ’ that urged him, and he did nothing through mere caprice or impulse. As a matter of fact, he hated penance as being opposed to his natural gaiety of disposition; his sensitiveness to pain made him shrink from even a pin-prick. But there was no choice. He promised to be a friend of the Great Friend, to be as far as possible a priest like the Great Priest, to live as He lived and die as He died – for the priesthood and for souls. The padre offered his life for the sanctification of the priesthood as Christ offered his life for the Church. ‘When you hear of my death’, he wrote, ‘you will know that I died for them.’ Christ asked penance and death in reparation; but He asked personal priestly holiness to serve as an example to other priests – attachment to the person of Jesus – so that as he had loved, others too would learn to love, not as the ordinary good Christian loves, but as intimate friends should love their Friend and Master.

This letter contains some truly astounding suggestions, perhaps the most remarkable of which is the claim that Fr Doyle experienced something akin to the transverberation of the heart that great saints like Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Philip Neri, Pio of Pietrelcina and others encountered. It is true that Fr Doyle’s own private diary records a painful, sweet wounding of his heart:

I dare not put on paper what I feel, even if I could; but at times Jesus seems to pour all the grace of His Sacred Heart upon me until I am intoxicated almost with His love and could cry out with the pain of that sweet wounding.

Ultimately we cannot know at this distance, and based on the material in the public domain, whether this truly was the same experience of the saints.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter very much and we should not be too curious about it. The extraordinary mystical experiences of the saints (just like their extraordinary penances) are not really very essential for us. What matters is the message of their lives. In today’s quote, written 106 years ago today, we see the importance Fr Doyle placed on the holiness of priests. This wasn’t just what we might today term as “clericalism” – it is true to say that the Church will be holy if there are holy priests. And the contrary is true – sinful priests will breed a lukewarm and sinful Church. Let us therefore pray for our priests as Fr Doyle asked. Even to this day, Fr Doyle’s example and writings remain a source of inspiration for many priests (and lay people) around the world – his special work continues, even after his death.

Thoughts for July 5 from Fr Willie Doyle

This morning at Mass, our Blessed Lord gave me grace to see what a fool I am to let my life slip from me without really doing what he has asked and implored so long – the complete sacrifice of everything. Forty one years of my life have gone, very little more may yet remain; and still I go on living a life of much self-indulgence, always promising myself to do better in the future. O Jesus, there is no need to ask You what You want from me or what I ought to do. You ask for the sacrifice of all and always. Give me grace and strength and courage now at last to begin, and to lay at Your feet days of absolute sacrifice, in which I can honestly say that I have refused nothing. My Jesus, I do want to be generous, to suffer much for Your love; but I am so weak, I give in constantly to myself. You have tried long enough to show me my misery and how much I depend on You. O, help me now at last, in honour of Your Precious Blood, to lead that life of crucifixion which alone will please You.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words 106 years ago today on July 5, 1914. 

We can surely identify with Fr Doyle’s feeling that he was weak and that he gave in constantly to himself. Such is the human condition. Yet it is not enough for us to shrug our shoulders and just accept our limitations. God asks much from us, and He has the perfect right to do so because He has given us everything that we have. But we should not serve Him out of mere obligation or fear, but out of pure love. 

Fr Doyle had a burning love of Christ which drove him to offer his life as a sacrifice to God in service to others. We too should pray for some share in this personal love of Christ.

 

27 June 1915

The misery of the past few days has proved to me that I can be happy only by doing what Jesus wants, letting not a single sacrifice escape me.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle felt called to a hard life. He discerned, along with his superiors, that he had a calling to a specific pathway – a calling to a hard life of continual sacrifice, specifically offered in reparation for the sins of priests. 

Fr Doyle knew that most people are not called to the same hard path. Nonetheless, his advice to everyone was to live each day, with its ordinary activities and ups and downs, with a spirit of sacrifice in simple, little things. 

Thoughts about Fr Willie Doyle from St Josemaria Escriva

St Josemaria Escriva

 

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 book here.

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. Recently I have learned that St Rafael Arnaiz Baron, the young Spanish Cistercian who died in 1938 at the age of 27, also had a devotion to him, as did the Servant of God Mother Adele Garnier, the Foundress of the Tyburn Benedictines. The Servant of God Frank Duff quotes Fr Doyle and references the O’Rahilly biography at least three times in the Legion of Mary handbook. To these we can add 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.

Thoughts for the Feast of the Sacred Heart from Fr Willie Doyle

 

“Most loving Jesus, kneeling before You in the Blessed Sacrament, I solemnly consecrate myself to Your Sacred Heart by vow. I vow always to be Your faithful lover and to strive every day to grow in Your love. In imitation of the oblation which B. Margaret Mary made of herself, I now wish to give myself up absolutely and entirely, without any reserve whatever, to Your most Sacred Heart, that You may be free to do with me, to treat me, as You wish, to send me whatever suffering or humiliation You wish. I desire to put no obstacle to the action of grace upon my soul, to be a perfect instrument in Your divine hands, to be Your victim should You so desire. I want to make this oblation and immolation of myself to Your Sacred Heart as completely as possible, and in the manner which You wish me to make it, O my Jesus. Therefore, again, by this vow, I make a complete surrender of myself and all I have to You. Do with me as You will, for from this hour I am wholly Yours”.

Amen.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle, like many of the Jesuits of his day, was greatly devoted to the Sacred Heart. He wrote this consecration to the Sacred Heart during one of his midnight vigils, lit only by the glimmer of the red tabernacle light, on 29 September 1910. 

Fr Doyle truly abandoned himself completely to the Sacred Heart, even to the extent of shedding his own blood for his “poor brave boys” in the trenches. The 7 years of life that remained to him were really the unfolding of his self-surrender to Christ.

Thoughts for June 17 from Fr Willie Doyle

I feel also a great longing to love Jesus very, very much, to draw very close to His Sacred Heart, and to be ever united to Him, always thinking of Him and praying. I long ardently to do something now to make up for my neglect in the past to give myself heart and soul to the service of God, to toil for Him, to wear myself out for Him. I wish to be able never to seek rest or amusement outside of what obedience imposes, so that every moment may be spent for Jesus. I have not a moment to lose, I cannot afford to refuse Him a single sacrifice if I wish to do anything for Jesus and become a saint before I die. If I go to the Congo, I certainly shall not live long. In any case can I promise myself even one day more? I must try to look upon this day as my last on earth and do all I can and suffer all I can for these few hours. It is not a question of keeping up full steam for years, but only for to-day. 

If I am faithful to the resolution of “doing all things perfectly”, I shall effectually cut away the numerous faults in all my actions. By working hard at the Third Degree I shall best correct those things to which my attention has been drawn. I know all this is going to cost me much, that I shall have a fierce battle to fight with the devil and myself. But I begin with great hope and confidence, for since Jesus has inspired me to make these resolutions and urged me on till I did so, His grace will not be wanting to aid me at every step. 

In the name of God, then, I enter upon the Narrow Path which leads to sanctity, walking bravely on in imitation of my Jesus who is by my side carrying His cross. To imitate Him and make my life resemble His in some small degree will be all my life’s work, so that I may be worthy to die for Him.

COMMENT: There is much that one could reflect about in these retreat notes from Fr Doyle. Three points, out of many possibilities, suffice. 

It is not a question of keeping up full steam for years, but only for to-day. This idea is a recurring one in the thought of Fr Doyle. All we have to offer God is the present moment. Living in that present moment, and sanctifying it, is the essence of sanctity. This is especially important if we suffer or are offering up some penance. We don’t know if we will have to suffer tomorrow, or next month or next year. But even if we do, we don’t have to bear those sufferings right now. We have only the sufferings or duties or work of this moment. When this moment is over, we will never have to bear its sufferings again. Elsewhere in his notes, Fr Doyle relates this principle to dryness in prayer. If we struggle in prayer, well we needn’t worry about the fact that we have to stay still and pray for an hour. All we have to do is to pray for this one minute. After that, we pray for another minute, and so on, step by step. 

Faithful to the resolution of “doing all things perfectly”. We will never succeed in doing all things perfectly, but we must at least try, and keep beginning again and again when we fail. Faithfulness in little duties sounds easy, but is incredibly hard in practice, and it is the ordinary path to sanctity for all of us. 

In the name of God, then, I enter upon the Narrow Path which leads to sanctity.Matthew 7:13-14:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.

The choice of the narrow path is not a once off decision but rather one to be made each moment of each day. It is the decision to adhere to our duty when we would rather ignore it. It was this constant, moment by moment adherence to the narrow path in little things that created the selfless hero of the trenches.

Thoughts for June 16 from Fr Willie Doyle

I felt the presence of Jesus very near to me while praying in the chapel at Ramsgrange. He seemed to want me to write down what He said: ‘I want you, my child, to abandon every gratification, generously, absolutely, for the love of Me. Each time you give in to yourself you suffer an enormous loss. Do not deceive yourself by thinking that certain relaxations are necessary or will help your work. My grace is sufficient for you. Give Me all at all times; never come down from the cross to which I have nailed you. Be generous, go on blindly, accepting all, denying yourself all. Trust in Me, I will sustain you, but only if you are really generous. Begin this moment and mortify every look, action, desire. No gratification, no relaxation, no yielding to self. Surrender yourself to Me as My victim and let Me make you a saint.’

COMMENT: Fr Doyle recorded this message 108 years ago today, on June 16, 1912. 

Fr Doyle was something of a mystic; the later editions of O’Rahilly’s biography make this much clearer than the earlier editions do. Fr Doyle seems to have received several messages similar to this one around this particular period of his life. Perhaps these messages or inspirations continued right to the end of his life, we do not know. 

What are we to make of such inspirations? Well, ultimately they matter little. While various kinds of inspirations and messages are not uncommon in the lives of saints and other holy people, they are neither necessary for sanctity nor are they are a guarantee that the person practiced heroic sanctity. In general, this website has tended to avoid discussion of the mystical graces that Fr Doyle seems to have received. There is a good reason for this – they are unnecessary for our own progress and, 100 years removed from the event, we cannot be sure whether they were truly divinely inspired. Indeed, we should avoid too much curiosity about such mystical phenomena in general, especially when they have not been approved by the Church. Even St Pio, surely one of the saints most closely associated with extraordinary mystical phenomena in recent centuries, used to become impatient with those who were too curious about such things, insisting that it is better to live by faith alone without seeking “proof” of the supernatural in this way. 

Clearly the core of this message – that of denying oneself always and in everything – is not of immediate, universal application. This was a particular call that Fr Doyle felt within himself, and it seems to have been approved by his confessor. It is not the road that most people are expected to follow. 

Nonetheless, there are three particular messages that we may take from today’s quote and apply to our own lives. 

Firstly, the idea that every time we yield, we suffer a loss. Obviously this is true of mortal sin. We suffer an incalculable loss whenever we freely consent to such sin. We lose the life of grace in our soul, we lose all of the merit we have accumulated in our life to date and we would end up losing eternal life if we were to die without repenting. However, we also lose even by giving in to venial sin. We may not lose the state of grace, but we also lose out on acquiring extra graces as a result of our struggle against sin. The same also applies to our purely temporal affairs. Every time we yield to the desire to eat chocolate we lose in our battle to stick to a diet; every time we yield to the temptation to stay in bed longer we lose in our battle to be more effective in our working day. The principle has many applications which we can easily apply to our own lives. 

Secondly, we see in today’s quote the importance of trusting in Jesus. According to Fr Doyle’s perception, Jesus indicated that His grace was sufficient for him. This echoes the famous prayer of St Teresa of Avila:

Let nothing disturb thee, let nothing dismay thee, all things pass. 

God never changes, patience attains all that it strives for. He who has God finds he lacks nothing. 

God alone suffices.

Finally, Fr Doyle felt that Jesus said to him: “Let Me make you a saint”. We have to make serious efforts ourselves through various acts of piety and asceticism, but ultimately these are never enough on their own and they always require the addition of grace. If we do what we are meant to do, we can be assured that Jesus will provide the grace that we need to reach the sanctity He has in mind for us.

Ramsgrange Church in County Wexford. Completed in 1843. This is presumably the chapel Fr Doyle referred to.

13 June 1915

Slept on the floor. No relief in small sufferings. Put on chain in bad humour. Violent temptations to eat cake and resisted several times. Two hours prayer when weary. Rose for visit at two. Unkind story kept back. Overcame desire to lie in bed. 

COMMENT: This is the list of penances Fr Doyle records for this day in 1915. He kept these lists in order to monitor his progress – this organised and methodical approach to the spiritual life was typical of the Ignatian spirituality in which he was trained. Fr Doyle was not an original or expert scholar or theologian, but he was a master tactician of the spiritual life. His daily records show that he fought day after day, with God’s grace, to acquire the self-masery and detachment to which he perceived he had a special calling. We may not be called to imitate the actual penances that Fr Doyle practiced, but we can nonetheless learn from his dogged pursuit of perfection. It is a day by day battle, mostly based around small and seemingly insignificant things, in which those who stand still fall back. As Fr Doyle said elsewhere: “Life is too short for a truce”.

7 June – the anniversary of Venerable Matt Talbot (Post 2 of 3 today)

Venerable Matt Talbot

 

I do not want, in fact I forbid you, to be imprudent in the matter of corporal penances. But, my dear child, if you let a whole fortnight go by without any self-inflicted pain, can you honestly look Jesus in the face and say, “I am like to Him”?

COMMENT: The idea of self-inflicted pain is not popular in contemporary spirituality. Oddly enough though, it seems wildly popular in modern secular culture with its fad for physical fitness and punishing bodies in the gym in order to make them ever more attractive… 

Physical mortification was the norm in Fr Doyle’s day – there was nothing unusual in it all. People were perhaps tougher then, without all of the modern comforts we have gotten used to. While Fr Doyle was quite severe on himself on occasion, he always urged caution on the part of others. However, despite his caution, he issues an interesting challenge today – do we really imitate the crucified Christ if we do not do penance ourselves, even in some small fashion? The self inflicted “pain” Fr Doyle speaks of need not be something very big or burdensome. Getting up a little earlier, going to bed on time, reducing time wasted on television, starting work on time, biting our tongue when we want to criticise someone… There are many ways that we can practice a measured asceticism that is discreet, balanced, humble and will improve both our spiritual and temporal lives, as well as the lives of those around us…

Today is the anniversary of the death of Venerable Matt Talbot – he died on this day in 1925. He was close to the Jesuits and attended the Jesuit Church in Gardiner Street almost every day for many years. Fr Doyle was based in Belvedere School (about 200m from this church) for about a year around 1909. It is probable that he lived in the community in Gardiner Street. It seems more than likely that Fr Doyle crossed paths with Matt Talbot at some stage. However, we have no record of such an event, so we can only speculate. Similarly, we have no record of Matt having read O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle. Yet, Matt – despite being an unschooled labourer – was a voracious reader of spiritual literature and especially of spiritual biographies. It would be most strange if he never read this wildly popular book about a heroic local Jesuit. We know that he used to give books away or lend them to others, so perhaps he had it and passed it on. We shall never know… 

Matt Talbot is a great model for lay people today. An alcoholic at an early age, he had a profound and unexpected conversion, and he suddenly “took the pledge” and gave up alcohol forever at the age of 28. This was against all expectation, and shows us that nobody is beyond help or hope. His example is important for a culture in which many people are addicted to one thing or another. If it is not alcohol or drugs, it may be food or sex or work or even the internet and social media. 

Matt is also a great model because he did his work well, and lived an ordinary life in the middle of the world. He was an ascetic and a mystic and an ordinary man who looked after others and defended the rights of workers and of the poor. He kept his feet on the ground. 

Matt became a Third Order Franciscan, regularly attending several Masses each day. As is well known, Matt dropped dead on the street while on the way to Mass. It was this sudden death that allowed his penitential chains to be found on his body. There is a tendency now to downplay the ascetical significance of these chains, with the suggestion that they were simple, light and non-penitential chains that signified his consecration to Mary as her slave. But in the popular imagining, the chains were most definitely penitential in nature. I remember being told, as a schoolboy in the 1980s, that the chains were so tightly wound around Matt that they were embedded in his flesh. Again, whether or not this is completely accurate is beside the point – many people believed that the chains were indeed embedded in Matt’s flesh. Matt is held in very high esteem all around the world, but especially in Dublin. His harsh penances did not repel people – on the contrary his asceticism is fundamentally part of his charm for many. His chains are important relics and an important part of his story and spirituality. And there was a lot more to Matt’s asceticism than chains. He lived in strict poverty, giving away most of his money. He fasted very strictly, and rose at 2am each night to pray for several hours before commencing his work as a labourer. He slept on a plank of wood and had a wooden pillow. Matt is not alone in this – many of the most popular saints lived deeply penitential lives, and it has not diminished their popularity one bit.

Matt’s example also teaches us a profound lesson in avoiding sin. After his conversion, he was determined not to fall back into alcoholism. He prayed hard, but he also took action – he organised his life in such a way that he would not face temptations. He kept himself busy and away from pubs and he even made it something of a rule never to carry money with him in case he was tempted to buy a drink. There is a suggestion that Matt cut the pockets out of his trousers so he would not be able to carry money around with him. Do we avoid temptations with the same determination and single-mindedness that Matt had? 

Matt’s heroic virtues have been formally recognised by the Church; now a miracle is required for his beatification. Ireland needs saints! We need beatifications and canonisations! Let us remember to pray through the intercession of Matt Talbot when we are in need of help.

Prayer for the beatification of Venerable Matt Talbot. 

Lord, in your servant, Matt Talbot you have given us a wonderful example of triumph over addiction, of devotion to duty, and of lifelong reverence for the Most Holy Sacrament. 

May his life of prayer and penance give us courage to take up our crosses and follow in the footsteps of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. 

Father, if it be your will that your beloved servant should be glorified by your Church, make known by your heavenly favours the power he enjoys in your sight. We ask this through the same Jesus Christ Our Lord. 

Amen.