Thoughts for August 21 (St Pius X) from Fr Willie Doyle

St Pius X

There are two patron saints to whom I have a tremendous devotion: a sheet of paper and a lead pencil. Mark down at least once a day everything you do and every time you do it. It will not make you proud to see all you do; but it will humble you by showing you all you don’t do.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle was extremely methodological in his spiritual life. He kept very specific diaries and accounts of what he did and of what he failed to do, and it is largely these books that allow us to get a glimpse at his inner life.

For some people this process of meticulously recording victories over self, and also of weaknesses and sins, could seem too pedestrian and too banal (and perhaps for some it could lead to scruples…). However, it is this fighting spirit that really makes Fr Doyle very endearing for in this we see how an ordinary man fought, with God’s grace, to overcome himself and to become an inspiring hero who saved so many in the trenches. The lead pencil and the sheet of paper were essential in this process of Fr Doyle’s spiritual blossoming. While care might be needed lest we become too self-absorbed or scrupulous, we should not imagine ourselves to be above this process of self-examination.

Today is the feast of St Pius X, pope from 1903-1914; pope for most of Fr Doyle’s priesthood. He had something to say on this matter himself:

It would indeed be shameful if in this matter Christ’s saying should be verified, that ‘the children of this world are wiser than the children of light’ (Luke 16:8). We can observe with what diligence they look after their affairs; how often they balance their credit and debit; how accurately they make up their accounts; how they deplore their losses and so eagerly excite themselves to repair them.

Today we are not limited to a sheet of paper or a lead pencil – there are many new forms of technology, including smartphone apps, that will allow us to keep track of our use of time and to keep track of our sins. This technology makes the battle against our weakness even easier than it was for Fr Doyle.

St Pius X was a great pope and saint who was greatly loved in his own day. He was a deeply humble man with a special place in his heart for children. It was of course St Pius who lowered the age at which children can receive Holy Communion, from about 12-14 down to 7. In fact, it was a little Irish girl, Ellen Organ, affectionately known as Little Nellie of Holy God, who was instrumental in this. Little Nellie ended up living with some nuns after her mother died. She was diagnosed with TB, but had a great longing to receive Holy Communion, so her local bishop in County Cork gave extraordinary permission for her to receive the Eucharist at just four and a half years of age. She received the Eucharist 32 times before her death in February 1908. She was a remarkable mystic, spending hours in thanksgiving after receiving Communion.

St Pius was deeply edified by this story, and on hearing about it he declared that this was the sign he was waiting for. It was after this event that he allowed younger children to receive Communion. St Pius even asked for a relic of Little Nellie after her death. Imagine – the great Pontiff asking for a relic of a four and a half year old girl in County Cork! Thus he illustrates for us his own child like heart and his concern for the little ones.

When Nellie’s coffin was opened 18 months after her death, her body was apparently found to be incorrupt.

Of course, Fr Doyle had an interest in the life of Little Nellie, and he visited her grave after giving a retreat in County Cork just three years after her death. He records his experience as follows:

Kneeling there I asked her what God wanted from me, when I heard an interior voice clearly repeating, “Love Him, love Him”. The following day she seemed to rebuke me, when leaving the cemetery, for the careless way I performed most of my spiritual duties, and to say that God was displeased with this and wanted great fervour and perfection in them.

Let us pray to St Pius, who had such care for the little ones, that the Church will finally rid itself of that awful sin of abuse which has damaged so many children and families, which has besmirched the priesthood and which has wounded the credibility of the Church in the eyes of the world.

Let us also pray that the cause of Ellen Organ may finally be opened and that she will be canonised. Ireland needs its own saints, even very little ones! In fact, if she was to be canonised, Nellie would be the youngest non-martyred saint in history.

Little Nellie of Holy God

Thoughts for August 20 (St Bernard) from Fr Willie Doyle

How many deceive themselves in thinking sanctity consists in the holy follies of the saints! How many look upon holiness as something beyond their reach or capability, and think that it is to be found only in the performance of extraordinary actions. Satisfied that they have not the strength for great austerities, the time for much prayer, or the courage for painful humiliations, they silence their conscience with the thought that great sanctity is not for them, that they have not been called to be saints. With their eyes fixed on the heroic deeds of the few, they miss the daily little sacrifices God asks them to make; and while waiting for something great to prove their love, they lose the countless little opportunities of sanctification each day bears with it in its bosom.

COMMENTS: Today is the feast of St Bernard, although we do not celebrate it liturgically as it is a Sunday. It seems as good a day as any to address some of the controversies that seem to surround Fr Doyle’s life of penance.

In today’s quotation, Fr Doyle is clear that sanctity does not necessitate severe penances. Yes, a few are called by that path, but we are all called along the path of embracing the tasks and challenges of each day. We are all called to some form of penance, but for the most part it will be moderate and focused on doing our duties well. This is not easy but it is ultimately within our reach, if we will it and if we rely on God’s grace.

Fr Doyle certainly embraced the mundane tasks of each day. But he also went much further and lived a life of austerity. This caused something of a scandal for a very small number of people when it was revealed in O’Rahilly’s biography (though it is noteworthy that in his later editions, O’Rahilly mentions a number of Protestant clerics who admired Fr Doyle’s example in this area). 

It is clear that Fr Doyle lived a most vigorous life of action during the war and that his health was in no way compromised as a result of his penances; in fact he even reported that he felt more energetic and healthy following penance. If the test of prudence in penance is that it does not interfere with our daily duties and tasks, then he most certainly passed that test.

It is also clear, from today’s quotation and from many others, that he never advised others to adopt hard physical penances and in fact he often forbade others to do so. Everything Fr Doyle did had a precedent in the lives of the saints, including some of the most popular, modern saints. It also appears that he had, or at least he thought he had, a specific calling to austerity of this type. It is also worth noting that Fr Doyle seems to have given up the hard physical penances for the last years of his life in the trenches, instead cheerfully embracing the hardships of that most awful life as his penance.

Fr Doyle also acted with the approval of his superiors. From one of his letters:

The Provincial told me to make known my devotions, penances etc to Father X…and to do whatever he told me. My heart fell, for perhaps of all the Jesuits in Ireland he would be the last I should care to consult on these things, I knew it was not his line and I felt if I got permission for one discipline a month I would do well. He was just the opposite to what I expected, was most kind and encouraging and ended by telling me to do whatever I thought God wanted, so I had the reward of being obedient.

This would seem to be the definitive seal of approval on Fr Doyle’s spiritual life.

 

We must not forget the context in which Fr Doyle lived. It is also important to remember that people – even the very holy – are influenced by their surrounding culture. Corporal penance was the norm in religious life right up to a few decades ago. Some well known Jesuits destroyed their private notes before death precisely because of the way the secrets of Fr Doyle’s spiritual life became public following the discovery of his diaries. Perhaps Fr Doyle’s penances were more common than we imagine. It is also worth remembering that penance – moderate and appropriate for our condition – is a normal part of the Christian life, so much so that the ever popular St John XXIII wrote an entire encyclical on penance and urged Catholics to offer penances for the success of the Second Vatican Council. Penance is not something obscure or disturbing in the Christian life. Indeed, it is odd for anyone to consider penance to be an anachronism given that we now live in a culture where hard, pressured work is seen as the norm, and where many people punish their bodies in a gym – this work, and these workouts, are probably much harsher than the penances normally practiced in the past. In fact, this very day there is a half Ironman competition in Dublin. 2000 people will start the morning with a 1.2 mile swim, followed by a 56 mile cycle and concluding with a 13.1 mile running race. And this is only a half Ironman, not the full thing. And we dare to look down our noses at the hardships that some people practiced a few decades ago???!!!

Yes, corporal penance was an aspect of Fr Doyle’s life, as with almost all canonised saints. But these hard penances were only one aspect of Fr Doyle’s spirituality. It would be a mistake to sum up a charming personality like that of St Pope John Paul II only by reference to the modified leather belt with which he scourged himself (it has never been made clear in what way the belt was modified – did it perhaps have something sharp or heavy embedded within it to make it a penitential item?) or St Therese of Lisieux only by reference to the hairshirt which she wore, or Blessed John Sullivan by the floor on which he slept and the chains which he wore. We can keep multiplying the examples – Venerable Matt Talbot, St Pio of Pietrelcina, St Francis of Assisi, St Dominic, St Ignatius, St Martin de Porres and on and on. There is so much more to the remarkable personalities of the saints than the physical penance they practiced. We should not ignore this aspect of the lives of the saints, but neither should we allow it to overshadow the rest of their lives and certainly we should not allow it to influence us to copy their example imprudently.

And this brings us to today’s feast of St Bernard, who admitted that he ruined his health through imprudent penance, and repented of his folly. This revelation of his imprudence does not make St Bernard any less of a role model for the rest of us, nor did it ever prevent him from being canonised or declared a Doctor of the Church. 

By the way, it is often said that St Bernard exerted more influence during his own life than any other saint in history. Some of this was probably due to his own magnetic personality and to the gifts God gave him, and some of it is almost certainly due to the era in which he lived – Christendom in the West was not yet divided and the Church was organised and very powerful.

Here is an interesting homily on St Bernard which elaborates on St Bernard’s incredible influence on those around him, and which also touches on the topic of his imprudent penance.

 

Thoughts for July 26 from Fr Willie Doyle

During a visit our Lord seemed to urge me not to wait till the end of the war, but to begin my life of reparation at once, in some things at least. I have begun to keep a book of acts done with this intention. He asked me for these sacrifices, (1) To rise at night in reparation for priests who lie in bed instead of saying Mass. (2) At all costs to make the 50,000 aspirations. (3) To give up illustrated papers. (4) To kiss floor of churches (5) Breviary always kneeling. (6) Mass with intense devotion. The Blessed Cure d’ Ars used to kneel without support while saying the Office. Could not I?

COMMENT: Fr Doyle noted these resolutions in his diary on July 26, 1916, 101 years ago today.

As is often the case, Fr Doyle’s resolutions probably seem rather daunting to us. This is a reflection of the difference between his religious culture a century ago and our religious culture today. It is also a reflection of the fact that he had already progressed very far in the spiritual life. Just as professional athletes amaze us with their physical prowess, so too the saints – and those renowned for their sanctity – also amaze us with their generosity and detachment.

There are perhaps three closely related points to take from Fr Doyle’s resolutions from 100 years ago, and thankfully they don’t necessarily mean having to kiss floors or interrupting our sleep at night!

The first point is that Fr Doyle was generous with God. He made specific, challenging resolutions. We do not have to match Fr Doyle’s resolutions – in almost all cases that would be imprudent and impossible. But we still need to be generous with God in whatever He asks. God will not ask us for more than we are capable of giving, and He is never outdone in His generosity. What is generous for one would not be for another; God meets us where we are at (but He does not wish us to stay there, but rather to grow from that point). He has given us everything we have, and He will give us even more in response to our own generosity to Him.

The second point is that we should look for sanctity now. Fr Doyle felt he was not to wait for the end of the war, but to make extra reparation in the present moment, even though the circumstances were not ideal. The reality is that from a purely human perspective the circumstances are never really ideal! We are called to seek God today, in the midst of its specific challenges and problems. Few of us are facing the adverse conditions that Fr Doyle faced 100 years ago. It did not stop him from following God, and serving others, with generosity.

Finally, Fr Doyle refers to the practice of St John Vianney and wonders why he could not copy his example. In this Fr Doyle shows us that he is true son of St Ignatius. While he recuperated in bed from his war injuries, Ignatius read lives of the saints, and inflamed with zeal, he wondered why he could not also do the heroic things that these saints did. They too were human and were weak, but, with the help of God, they achieved great things for Christ. It’s not advisable for us to copy all aspects of the lives of the saints – for many of us doing so would be like trying to copy the actions of an Olympic swimmer before we have even learned to swim! But we are called to be generous and to leave aside the comfortable mediocrity that can be so tempting in today’s culture. If the saints could be generous and heroic, why can’t we do the same, in our own ordinary circumstances of life?

“The Blessed Cure d’ Ars used to kneel without support while saying the Office. Could not I?”

Thoughts for July 23 from Fr Willie Doyle

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: Self-inflicted pain?? It sounds so…medieval, so exaggerated! It’s 2017, surely we’ve grown out of this by this stage?

Except we haven’t. We see more self-inflicted pain in this age than in any other.  What of all the diets and self-imposed fasts people take on in order to look better? How many young women can be seen undergoing the self-imposed pain of wearing dangerously high heels to look taller, or who suffer the self-imposed pain of coldness as they wear scanty clothing in winter in order to attract attention? What about the self-imposed pain of body piercings or tattoos? Or the self-inflicted suffering of unnecessary cosmetic surgery to acquire the latest “look”?  Or how about the pain and discipline of work people impose on themselves to get a promotion to the next rung of the corporate ladder, or to pass an exam or to write a thesis or a book? Consider all those people who jump out of bed to jog at the crack of dawn, no matter what the weather is like. And all those who faithfully push themselves at the gym several times a week or who undergo rigorous training to play in sporting competitions. What about those who take part in Ironman competitions? These involve a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile cycle followed by a full marathon (26.2 miles) one after the other, without a break. That is surely more punishing than corporal mortification…

But for some reason, people flinch at the mention of self-imposed pain in the spiritual life. The very idea of penance is shocking and strange to us today.

But we need to recall that penance is an absolutely indispensible part of a serious Christian life. It will be impossible to find the life of any saint who did not practice it, and impossible to find any classic book on the spiritual life that does not advocate it. As St Thomas More said: “We cannot go to Heaven in feather beds”. Pope Benedict also called our attention to the importance of penance in his excellent letter to the Catholics of Ireland, who are living through a time of crisis. In this letter he specifically mentioned the importance of penance in the reform of the Church in Ireland.

But this doesn’t mean that we need to wear hairshirts (like Thomas More himself) or scourge our flesh (like St Pope John Paul II did with his leather belt). There are other small penances that we can perform that are possibly even more difficult for some people than the momentary physical pain of corporal penance but that will still be very helpful.

Here is a link to an excellent pamphlet discussing Christian mortification by the saintly Belgian Cardinal Mercier..

http://www.catholicpamphlets.net/pamphlets/The%20Purpose%20of%20Christian%20Mortification.pdf 

Fr Doyle was severe with himself physically (although, one might add, no more severe than the most popular saints, and also always with the approval of his superiors) but he was always gentle with others, moderating and even restricting their use of physical penances. Here is some advice he gave to another correspondent:

I want you to give up all corporal penance and to take for your particular examen “self-denial in little things”. Make ten acts for each examen, and the more trivial they are the better.

His advice here is especially relevant to the modern age. This self-denial in little things makes our will stronger and probably makes us easier to live with. It can be very simple, such as cleaning up after ourselves, getting out of bed (or going to bed!) on time, not saying a sharp or impatient word etc etc. Each day presents numerous opportunities for following this path that will strengthen our will, build our character and make us easier to live with.

For Fr Doyle these little things included not complaining to others when he had a headache or even giving up butter on this bread. 

In doing these little things we are merely following the command of Jesus that we take up our cross daily and follow Him.

Thoughts for July 18 from Fr Willie Doyle

I gave way today to indulgence, with the usual result. Jesus seemed to reproach me bitterly, reminding me that He seeks a perpetual crucifixion from me.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words on 18 July 1914: 103 years ago today. It’s not clear what Fr Doyle had in mind by the word “indulgence”, nor is it clear what he means by the “usual result”. But an educated guess, based on all we know about him, would tell us that he went a little easier on himself by having butter on bread or perhaps a bit too much desert or even an afternoon nap. And the “usual result” of this was probably a sense of lethargy or tiredness or regret. According to the spirituality of the St Ignatius, this sadness is a sign of desolation, a sign perhaps that Fr Doyle did not do what God wanted of him in that moment. While he lay sick and wounded in his bed, St Ignatius read different kinds of books – some were chivalrous romance stories while others were books about saints and the life of Christ. While Ignatius enjoyed each kind of book, he was left with a feeling of emptiness or sadness after finishing the romance stories, while the books about Jesus and the saints left him full of peace and joy. It was this experience that lead St Ignatius to develop his rules for the discernment of spirits. Assuming he was not scrupulous (he wrote a booklet on how to tackle scruples, so we can assume that he wasn’t..) Fr Doyle’s sense of desolation after going a little easier on himself is, according to St Ignatius’ rules for the discernment of spirits, further proof that this personal austerity was truly God’s will for him.

Fr Doyle is one of those curious individuals who was energised by austerity. It made him stronger and fitter and healthier. Conversely, any type of indulgence left him feeling sad and dry. 

Part of this may be due to his temperament, but also by his special calling to a life of “perpetual crucifixion”. There is something consoling for us in this – if Fr Doyle could yield occasionally, should we be surprised if we, too, sometimes slip up and fail to keep our resolutions? Such little falls can humble us, and allow us to see just how much we have to constantly rely on God’s grace for everything. 

As for Fr Doyle’s life of “perpetual crucifixion”, as stated before here, if we admire his heroism in the war, we also have to admire (but perhaps not imitate!) his joyful life of strict discipline, for it was the training ground for his heroism in the war. We cannot have the Fr Doyle who was a hero of the trenches without also having the Fr Doyle who was a cheerful ascetic.

Thoughts for July 10 from Fr Willie Doyle

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 105 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.”

And elsewhere:

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?

St Josemaria Escriva

Thoughts for July 8 from Fr Willie Doyle

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.

St Benedict. Image copyright Edith OSB