Thoughts about Fr 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, 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.

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 105 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”.

Thoughts for June 11 from Fr Willie Doyle

The Third Degree of Humility. 

1. Accepto. I will receive with joy all unpleasant things which I must bear : (a) pain, sickness, heat, cold, food; (b) house, employment, rules, customs; (c) trials of religious life, companions; (d) reprimands, humiliations; (e) anything which is a cross. 

2. Volo et desidero. I will wish and desire that these things may happen to me, that so I may resemble my Jesus more. 

3. Eligo. Wtih all my might I will strive every day agere contra in omnibus: (a) against my faults; (b) against my my own will; (c) against my ease and comfort; (d) against the desires of the body; (e) against my habit and inclination of performing my duties negligently and without fervour.

COMMENT: Today’s text from Fr Doyle comes from his notes on the Long Retreat in the autumn of 1907. This retreat was to have a profound influence on his life; everything that came after, including his sacrifices in the trenches, seem to be fruits of the seeds that were planted on this retreat.

In these notes, Fr Doyle reflects on St Ignatius’ meditation on the three types of humility, which is placed during the second week of the Spiritual Exercises. The full text from Ignatius is as follows:

Third Humility. The third is most perfect Humility; namely, when…in order to imitate and be more actually like Christ our Lord, I want to choose poverty with Christ poor rather than riches, opprobium with Christ replete with it rather than honours; and to desire to be rated as worthless and a fool for Christ, Who first was held as such, rather than wise or prudent in this world.

Fr Doyle shows us a way in which we can attempt to reach this degree of humility, namely by acting agere contra in omnibus – against myself in all things. This was fundamental in Fr Doyle’s spirituality, and it is crucial to remember that the hero of the trenches was not born that way – he made himself strong and courageous, with God’s grace, by acting against himself in small things every day. We do not need to act against ourselves in ALL things – Fr Doyle had a special calling that is different from ours. But if we do not act against ourselves in SOME things we become spiritually weak and flabby, we become selfish and unattractive to live with in our families and communities.

The benefits of this spiritual discipline can help us not only in spiritual terms but in human terms as well. The Jesuit priest, Fr Walter Ciszek, who suffered greatly for the faith in prison camps in Siberia and elsewhere in Russia, reports in his own memoirs that it was his own daily discipline in denying himself that helped him prepare for long years of deprivation, solitude and hard work. 

Fr Doyle, Fr Ciszek and so many saints show us in their lives that traditional ascetical practices not only train us for the next world, but they also equip us to face challenges in this life as well.

Fr Walter Ciszek SJ

The anniversary of the death 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. 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, not taking salt on our dinner… 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.

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 and was utterly devoted to the Mass, 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. That may well be accurate. 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 not relevant to the point I am making today – 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.

Thoughts for May 8 from Fr Willie Doyle

My way is sure. I think I can say now without a shade of doubt or hesitation that the path by which Jesus wants me to walk is that of absolute abandonment of all human comfort and pleasure and the embracing as far as I can of every discomfort and pain. Every time I see a picture of the crucifixion or a cross, I feel strangely affected and drawn to the life of immolation in a strange way. The heroism of Jesus appeals to me; His ‘naked crucifixion’ calls to me and it gives me great consolation and peace to offer myself to Him on the cross for this perpetual living crucifixion. How often does He not seem to say to me in prayer, ‘I would have you strip yourself of all things — every tiny particle of self-indulgence, and this ever and always? Give Me all and I will make you a great saint.’ This then is the price of my life-long yearning for sanctification. O Jesus, I am so weak, help me to give You all and to do it now.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these notes on 8 May 1914, 103 years ago today. Perhaps it is no surprise that he struggled long and hard with recognising this particular calling – a “perpetual living crucifixion” is not something that our weak nature feels inclined towards! 

It is clear that Fr Doyle had a very specific vocation to fight against his own personal comfort and to choose the hardest option always and everywhere. He certainly lived this reality in the war. Burying the dead day in and day out, risking his life to serve the soldiers, going days on end without sleep, eating poor meals, coping with bitter cold, regular floods, searing heat, rats, fleas, smells, shells and all other manner of “discomfort and pain”. It is true that many others lived and died in these conditions. But Fr Doyle really stands out for his cheerfulness and courage in the face of this awful list of discomfort and danger, any one of which inconveniences would probably knock the rest of us off our mental and spiritual equilibrium. Fr Doyle was universally admired for his spirit in the midst of this living hell, and one century later those of us who read his letters from the war are also struck with admiration for how he handled all he went through. 

His fortitude in the midst of these sufferings was no accident. He was fully equipped, both by grace but also by his natural training. By waging a constant war against his own comfort for years previously he was the perfect candidate to be a successful military chaplain in that awful war. There is no way that somebody who indulged their passions and comforts, who indulged their appetites and sought pleasure in all aspects of life, could have survived and thrived – mentally, spiritually or physically – as long as Fr Doyle did. 

If we admire the heroic Fr Doyle of the trenches we must also admire the Fr Doyle who made war on comfort. We cannot have one without the other. 

It is unlikely that we are called to a similar, total abandonment of all normal comforts. But it is beyond doubt that we are called to wage war against some aspects of our comfortable lives. Life with somebody who cares only about their own comfort would be intolerable and unworkable! Married relationships involve sacrifice and necessitate that we sometimes place our comforts aside. No parent would arise in the night to a crying child if their personal comfort was their highest value. Great scientific and medical discoveries require personal comfort to take a back seat as the researcher works late into the night in pursuit of a proof or a cure. Those who desire physical fitness or beauty wage war on their comfort as they restrict their diets and punish their bodies in the gym. Indeed, there can be no social justice if we each look to our own welfare and ignore that of our needy brethren. 

No, far from being old fashioned or irrelevant, the battle against self-indulgence and comfort is actually essential in building a functioning civilisation. Unfortunately many of us have forgotten this basic truth, and the sad evidence of this fact is all around us. Indeed, the wrecked economy here in Ireland is a painful reminder of how the unbridled love of comfort and instant gratification cannot underpin a functioning society or economy. 

But if we are not called to deny ourselves all comforts, we can at least make an attempt in small ways. Fr Doyle gives us some examples from his own life – no butter on bread or sugar in tea or salt on meat; not complaining when we have a minor headache; being pleasant to people who irritate us; not warming ourselves at the fire… There are numerous small ways we can all find to deny ourselves just a few of the comforts that have made us spiritually and physically enfeebled. These small sacrifices help train us to overcome ourselves when harder sacrifices are required.

Thoughts for May 3 from Fr Willie Doyle

At the community Mass this morning I again felt an overpowering desire to become a saint. It came suddenly, filling my soul with consolation. Surely God has an object in inspiring me so often with this desire, and has great graces for me if I will only cooperate with Him.

Reflecting on this inspiration afterwards, I saw more clearly that the chief thing God wants from me at present is an extraordinary and exquisite perfection in every little thing I do, even the odd Hail Marys of the day; that each day there must be some improvement in the fervour, the purity of intention, the exactness with which I do things, that in this will chiefly lie my sanctification as it sanctified St. John Berchmans. I see here a vast field for work and an endless service of mortification. To keep faithfully to this resolve will require heroism, so that day after day I may not flag in the fervour of my service of the good God.