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: 105 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.
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 105 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 103 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.
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 105 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.
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.
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, 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.
A great desire to know our Lord better, His attractive character, His personal love for me, the resolve to read the life of Christ and study the Gospels.
I feel also a longing to love Jesus passionately, to try my very best to please Him, and to do all I think will please Him. I see nothing will be dearer to Him than my sanctification, chiefly attained by the perfection with which I perform even the smallest action. “All for love of Jesus.”
The reason, said Fr. Petit, why we find life so hard, mortification difficult, and why we are inclined to avoid all that we dislike, is because we have no real love for Jesus.
COMMENT: Venerable Adolphus Petit was Fr Doyle’s spiritual director during his year of tertianship, the final year of formation for Jesuits before they take their final vows. He had a great respect for Fr Doyle – he is yet another “saint” who approved of Fr Doyle’s spirit and life. It is known that Fr Doyle consulted with him on a trip to Belgium in 1912, 5 years after his ordination. A biography of Fr Petit, written by an anonymous nun in 1932, has the following to say about Fr Doyle’s relationship with Fr Petit:
Overjoyed at the unusual graces bestowed on the young priest (Fr Doyle), the Spiritual Father (Fr Petit) encouraged whole-heartedly his desire for closer union with God, his passionate love of our Lord and his eager zeal for souls. He approved his attraction for mortification, but insisted at the same time that perfections consists much less in the practice of austerities than in abnegation of one’s will and judgement, and in self-forgetfulness and humility.
Here is Fr Doyle’s description of Fr Petit:
There is a wonderful little old priest here, named Fr. Petit, small in name and small in size – he is about three feet high. He is eighty-five, but as active as a man of thirty, being constantly away giving retreats. I have tried several times to get down to the chapel at four o’ clock in the morning before him, but he is always there when I come in. He is a dear saintly old man with wonderful faith and simplicity. In the middle of an exhortation in the chapel, he will turn round to the Tabernacle and say: Is not that true, my Jesus? He is giving a retreat here this moment to a hundred and ten gentlemen.
In relation to the main quote at the top of this posting, once again, there is much that one can reflect on here. The last line is key: we find life so hard, mortification difficult, and…we are inclined to avoid all that we dislike…because we have no real love for Jesus.
Most people have family and/or friends that they love in life, and are generally willing to make great, even heroic efforts, to serve them because of this love. Can the same be said about our service of Christ?