What would the damned not give for one moment of the time which we think so little of! If one of these unhappy souls could return again on earth and live again its ill-spent life, how differently it would look upon those things which before it despised? How eagerly it would gather up the fleeting moments that not one even might be lost, but each might bear its burden of mint into eternity. Would it have need, think you, of seeking useless amusements to pass the time? Would its days and years be swallowed up in the vain pursuit of useless trifles, its precious life squandered far from God in the evil haunts of sin? One moment of time for sorrow and repentance would turn the pit of hell into a paradise of delight.
I seemed to have lost all strength and courage, and simply hated the thought of the life. Then I ran to You in the Tabernacle, threw myself before You and begged You to do all since I could do nothing. In a moment all was sweet and easy.
COMMENT: Courage, more commonly referred to as fortitude, is one of the cardinal virtues. It is impossible to live a holy life without it. In fact, it is also probably impossible to live a happy life in the purely worldly sense without it. As St Teresa of Avila, herself no stranger to this virtue, once said:
To have courage for whatever comes in life – everything lies in that.
We see many examples of courage in the life of Fr Doyle. Most obviously, his simply astounding courage during the war comes immediately to mind. If that doesn’t qualify as “heroic virtue” I don’t know what does! But Fr Doyle exhibited courage and fortitude throughout his life. Even as a student before ordination he had to confront persistent illness and fought long and hard to succeed in study. Here is the testimony of a fellow Jesuit who lived with him before he was ordained:
Viewing his character as a whole, it seems to me that the fundamental quality in it was courage — courage of a fine and generous type. When confronted with difficulties, with danger or labour or pain, instead of hesitating or weakly compromising, he was rather braced to a new and more intense resolve to see the matter out. Give in, he would not. It was this courage, supported, no doubt, by a natural liveliness of disposition, that enabled him to preserve through life his gaiety of heart and to face his troubles as they came with a smiling countenance; it was this courage, too, that steeled him to hold fast to his purpose no matter what difficulties or obstacles might arise.
This courage was not necessarily innate within Fr Doyle; he continuously prayed for this gift. As he says in one part of his diary:
With my arms round the cross, I begged Jesus to give me His courage and strength to do what He asks from me.
All saints demonstrated courage to a heroic degree, but in some cases this virtue seems to shine out with special grandeur. Today the Church celebrates two such men.
St Nicholas Owen was a Jesuit lay brother who died in 1606. He was a carpenter by trade, and it was he who perfected the art of constructing priest-holes in Elizabethan England. His work in building protest holes was fascinating; some of them were only discovered centuries later, such was his creativity and skill in constructing them. He travelled in disguise and worked quietly at night while the household was asleep, for it was dangerous to allow others to know the nature of his work. His work was so exceptional that he undoubtedly saved the lives of many priests. As Fr John Gerard, the remarkable Jesuit missionary of that era who chronicled his exploits in a fascinating memoir noted:
I verily think no man can be said to have done more good of all those who laboured in the English vineyard. He was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular.
This, of course, made St Nicholas a prime target for capture. When he was himself arrested, he was subjected to the most horrific tortures in order to make him reveal the secrets of his hiding holes. Remarkably, he withstood all attempts to break him, and he died while being tortured on the rack in the Tower of London. He was literally torn asunder and died on rack, and the case was apparently something of a scandal at the time given the ferocity of the torture he was subjected to. The authorities even went as far as to allege that he committed suicide, such was their desire to cover up their crime of murdering him on the rack. Yet he revealed no secrets, preferring agonising death rather than reveal his secrets and endanger the Catholic mission in Elizabethan England. He was a true hero and a man of courage.
We also celebrate today the feast of Blessed Clemens August von Galen, the Bishop of Münster in Germany from 1933-1946. He was a staunch opponent of both the Communists and Nazis, and, despite threats and violence, he preached fearlessly against the Nazi death-culture and in defence of the Church. He is popularly known as the Lion of Münster in recognition of his courage. More can be read about him here: http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/mcgovern/vongalb.html He is also the subject of an interesting new biography – ore can be read about that here: https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2017/03/the-bishop-and-the-nazis
Fr Doyle showed his courage in the First World War, Blessed Clemens demonstrated his in the Second World War and St Nicholas Owen stood firm during the Elizabethan persecution. Most people reading this site do not live in the midst of such dramatic circumstances, and for that perhaps we should be thankful. But we are still called to live with heroic courage in our ordinary circumstances. It is interesting to note that all three exhibited their greatest courage in fulfilling their vocations – Fr Doyle as a military chaplain; St Nicholas Owen as a carpenter and Blessed Clemens as a bishop fearlessly proclaiming the truth, even though it was politically unpopular.
Daily life will also provide many opportunities for us to demonstrate our own fortitude, most often in overcoming our own personal defects and weaknesses. As Fr Doyle once noted in a letter:
For your consolation remember that everyone I have ever met found the struggle for perfection hard because most of the work is done in the dark. It is a question of faith and courage, going along bravely day after day.
Death is the end of all things here, the end of time, of merit, of pain and mortification, of a hard life. It is the commencement of an eternal life of happiness and joy. In this light, life is short indeed and penance sweet. I thought if I knew I had only one year to live, how fervently I would spend it, how each moment would be utilised. Yet I know well I may not live a week more do I really believe this?
COMMENT: Today is the anniversary of the death of St Benedict, and in the older calendar it is his feast day. St Benedict, like St Joseph, is the patron of a happy death. Much of what we know about St Benedict comes from the writings of St Gregory the Great. Here is his description of the death of St Benedict on this day in 543.
Six days before he died, he gave orders for his tomb to be opened. Almost immediately he was seized with a violent fever that rapidly wasted his remaining energy. Each day his condition grew worse until finally, on the sixth day, he had his disciples carry him into the chapel where he received the Body and Blood of our Lord to gain strength for his approaching end. Then, supporting his weakened body on the arms of his brethren, he stood with his hands raised to heaven and, as he prayed, breathed his last.
St Benedict’s death was a peaceful one. Fr Doyle spent himself tirelessly to try to bring a peaceful death to many fallen soldiers. His was the last face many of them saw, as he brought the consolation of his priestly presence in their last moments. It was in this cause that he died, when he ran into no man’s land to rescue two wounded officers and was himself killed in the process.
I wish I could write to you at length about grace. It is a fascinating subject. You are quite right in calling it “a participation of the divine nature,” since Scripture uses almost the same words to describe it. A comparison of the Fathers of the Church helps to explain things a little. A piece of iron, they say, placed in a fire does not in reality change its nature, yet it seems to do so; it burns and glows like the fire around it, it cannot be distinguished from the fire. In similar wise a soul clad in grace borrows beauty and magnificence from God’s beauty and magnificence; it seems to partake of the nature of God. What joy to remember that every tiny thing done for God, an act, a word, a glance even, brings fresh grace to the soul, makes it partake more and more of the nature of God, until St. Paul has to exclaim: “I have said you are gods!” and no longer mortals. Our Lord longs for this transformation, and so He sends many hard trials to hasten the day of this perfect union. Let Him, then, have His way. You can have perfect confidence that He is doing the right thing ever and always. Holiness is really nothing more than perfect conformity to God’s Will, and so every step in this direction must please Him immensely.
COMMENT: In today’s Gospel we read about the Transfiguration, whereby Jesus shows just a small glimpse of His Divine glory. Even this small glimpse of His Divinity is enough to dumbfound the apostles and fill them with fear. While the earthly transfiguration, as such, was obviously unique to Christ because of His Divinity, it remains true that we are all meant to be “transformed” in some spiritual way by grace.
However, this transformation can also be physical in some way in the lives of the saints. There is a temptation to discount such phenomena as part of as mythical “Golden Legend” of the saints. Sometimes it can be good to be a little sceptical about mystical phenomena, but it is surely not the Christian position to completely and automatically dismiss such phemonena out of hand entirely.
We read in the lives of many saints about how, on occasion, others thought that they could perceive a certain radiance around them. The Book of Exodus tells us how the face of Moses was shining and radiant after he came down from the presence of the Lord on Mount Sinai. These tales are not confined to the distant past; for instance there have been reports of how acquaintances of St John Paul II perceived that his face also shone on occasion. Those who were present at the apparitions at Lourdes also reported a radiant look on the face of St Bernadette during her visions, and it was the power of this radiance that convinced them of the authenticity of the visions. Similarly, those present when St Pio said Mass could also perceive a radiance in his face.
Perhaps the same internal transformation through grace was at work in Fr Doyle’s soul at times. Here is the testimony of his brother, Fr Charles Doyle SJ:
Willie and I were dining at Melrose one evening. I arrived first, and I was looking out of the drawing room, when I saw Willie coming up the drive. I can still see his face as he came towards the house. It had an expression of sweetness, brightness, and holiness that was quite astonishing. During the last time that he was at home on leave from the Front, he came down to Limerick where I was stationed. We went out for a walk together. Coming home, we met a number of people walking… As each couple or party came near us, I noticed all eyes became fixed on Willie with a curiously interested and reverential expression. I stole a glance at him. His eyes were cast down, and upon his face was the same unearthly look of sweetness and radiance I had seen on it that evening years before at Melrose.
Was Fr Charles mistaken? Did he imagine it? We shall never know. But our instinct surely tells us that, sometimes, internal holiness manifests itself externally in some fashion. Here is some similar testimony from a soldier who knew Fr Doyle in the Great War:
Fr Doyle is a splendid fellow. He is so brave and cheery. He has a wonderful influence over others and can do what he likes with the men. I was out the other evening with a brother officer, and met him. After a few words I said: ‘This is a pal of mine, Padre; he is a Protestant, but I think he would like your blessing.’ Fr Doyle looked at my chum for a moment with a smile and then made the sign of the cross on his forehead. When he had passed on, my pal said: ‘That is a holy man. Did you see the way he looked at me? It went right through me. And when he crossed my forehead I felt such an extraordinary sensation.’
We shall conclude today with this reflection from Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen, the Carmelite Spiritual writer:
Glory is the fruit of grace; the grace possessed by Jesus in an infinite degree is reflected in an infinite glory transfiguring Him entirely. Something similar happens to us; grace will transform us “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18) until one day it will bring us to the Beatific Vision of God in Heaven. But while grace transfigures, sin, on the other hand, darkens and disfigures whoever becomes its victim.
My intense desire and longing is to make others love Jesus and to draw them to His Sacred Heart. Recently at Mass I have found myself at the Dominus Vobiscum opening my arms wide with the intention of embracing every soul present and drawing them in spite of themselves into that Heart which longs for their love.
COMMENT: We cannot truly encourage others to love Jesus unless we love Him ourselves. Similarly, we know that we do not truly love Jesus unless we want others to know and love Him.
Fr Doyle was a most effective mission preacher and retreat master who longed to make Jesus known and loved. O’Rahilly reports that during some missions, Fr Doyle could be found at the docks at midnight searching out sailors arriving into port, urging them to come to the church and occasionally hearing their confessions on the spot. He could also be found the next day before 6.00am, searching out those on their way to work in factories. Fr Doyle was an indefatigable apostle, seeking out the lost sheep wherever they may be. We could do well to learn from his approach…
Fr Doyle’s efforts found much success. As he wrote once in a letter:
I have not met a single refusal to come to the mission or to confession so far during my missionary career. Why should there be one because Jesus for some mysterious reason seems to delight in using perhaps the most wretched of all His priests as the channel of His grace? When I go to see a hard hopeless case, I cannot describe what happens exactly, but I seem to be able to lift up my heart like a cup and pour grace and the love of God upon that poor soul. I can see the result instantly, almost like the melting of snow.
Today the Church commemorates St Clement Mary Hofbauer, the great Redemptorist preacher and Apostle of Vienna who died in 1820. As the bull of St Clement’s canonisation (1909) pointed out:
He used every effort to bring sinners to penance and confession…He sought this from God through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and the saints; to obtain this he afflicted his body.
Fr Doyle seems to have adopted a similar methodology. As O’Rahilly reports:
After an arduous day’s work in pulpit and confessional he would often spenda good part of the night before the Tabernacle, cutting his sleep down to three or four hours. Thus during a mission in Drogheda, the curate observed that Fr. Doyle, on emerging from his confessional at eleven o’clock at night, used to retire to the little oratory and remain on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament until the clock struck two; yet he was always up and out of the house before any one else was astir.
In applying these ideas to our own lives, perhaps we should consider the apostolic opportunities that present themselves to us every day. For many of us there will be several opportunities to discuss the faith or to defend the Church in conversations in friends and colleagues. And of course there is the permanent apostolate of good example that we can exercise all day everyday.
We should not absolve ourselves of our apostolic obligations, thinking it to be the job of others. Those of us who are lay people have an important role in this regard. Let us look to the example of Fr Doyle, St Clement and all of the other great apostles of the Church for examples of creativity and effectiveness in bringing the good news of salvation to others.
Don’t be one of those who give God everything but one little corner of their heart on which they put up a notice board with the inscription: “Trespassers not allowed.”
COMMENT: Perhaps Fr Doyle’s lines today get to the heart of the difference between the saints and the rest of us. We may want to love God and we may try our best, albeit with many falls and weaknesses. Yet somewhere or other there is something that we want to hold onto and that we don’t want God interfering with. Perhaps it is our health or our financial security or perhaps some sin or even a little weakness or temptation that we enjoy flirting with. We may love God to a certain extent, but too many of us do not love Him enough to hand over everything, unconditionally. Jesus warns in the Gospel that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. We cannot grow to the holiness to which we are called if we do not want it. As Fr Doyle said elsewhere, there is nothing as hard as the half a half – a bit given to God and another bit given over to selfishness. It is this lack of generosity – this desire for God not to trespass – that makes Christian life more difficult than it ought to be.
Fr Doyle was different. Yes, he struggled, and he had failings. But what is very clear from his diaries is that he really did want to give everything to God; there were no warnings against Divine trespassers in his soul. This did not come about automatically but rather was the result of his constant striving to go against his self-will, even in small things and even in things that were not bad in and of themselves. We are all called to this battle against our love of comfort. Perhaps we are not all called to use the methods employed by Fr Doyle (who seems to have had a special calling to a hard life of penance) but we shall never be able to give ourselves entirely to God if we don’t make a start in disciplining ourselves even in little ways.
The saints were also fully open to God’s will in their lives. Today is the feast of St John of God. He was so totally overcome by love of God and neighbour that he became a shining beacon of charity for the poor and abandoned of Granada in Spain. He did not consider God a trespasser in his soul, and he placed no limits on his own charity.
There is also another similarity between Fr Doyle and Saint John of God. Fr Doyle died when trying to assist some fallen soldiers; St John died from an illness he contracted after he jumped into a river to save a drowning boy.
Today we can pray to both of these “martyrs of charity” for the generosity to which Christ calls during Lent.
What is it to be a saint? Does it mean that we must macerate this flesh of ours with cruel austerities, such as we read of in the life-story of some of God’s great heroes? Does it mean the bloody scourge, the painful vigil and sleepless night, that crucifying of the flesh in even its most innocent enjoyment? No, no, the hand of God does not lead us all by that stern path of awful heroism to our reward above. He does not ask from all of us the holy thirst for suffering, in its highest form, of a Teresa or a Catherine of Siena. But sweetly and gently would He lead us along the way of holiness by our constant unswerving faithfulness to our duty, duty accepted, duty done for His dear sake.
COMMENT: The holy season of Lent is upon us. Many cultural Catholics view it as a time to “give up” something. This is a good thing, but it does not necessarily get to the heart of what Lent is really about.
Lent is about growing in holiness and preparing ourselves for Holy Week and the celebration of Easter. It is about becoming a saint. Precisely how we go about this task will depend on where we are at in our spiritual lives. Giving things up can be a part of that, but there are other sacrifices and mortifications we can adopt that aren’t primarily aimed at giving things up. For instance we can deepen our prayer lives and adopt some extra spiritual practices. We can take on some extra charitable activities. We can get out of bed earlier in the morning. In a sense, each of these involves “giving something up” – time, freedom, sleep – but they are also more than that. Whatever we decide to do we have to avoid a situation where we “give something up” solely because we want to save money or because we want to go on a diet or because we want to go on a binge when Lent ends. If we are to fast or give something up, it should be a part of a well thought-out spiritual plan. There is a risk that we could fail to reap the spiritual benefits of our sacrifices in Lent. This risk may be especially prevalent in culturally Catholic countries (like Ireland) where giving things up is something of a social norm rather than a carefully considered weapon of spiritual combat.
The excellent Vultus Christi blog has an old post from some years ago with interesting suggestions on Lenten resolutions based on the Rule of St Benedict:http://vultus.stblogs.org/2011/03/for-my-oblates-and-others.html
Many books written about saints recount their bloody sacrifices and penances in great detail. Fr Doyle makes it clear today that heavy penance is not the road to sanctity for everyone. True, there were those who were called by God to live a life of hard penance. Fr Doyle was certainly one of these, and he makes it clear in his notes that it was a specific call – in one place he notes that others could commendably do things that he could not because of this special vocation of penance to which he was called. But he also shows his balance by assuring us that most people are not called by that path. This doesn’t mean that we are not called to holiness or that we are called to a lesser holiness or that we are called to a life of sloth and comfort. It just reflects the reality that God calls us all by different paths with different types of sacrifices.
But there is one path by which we can be sure that we are all called, and that is the path of faithfulness to our duties in life. It is impossible to grow in holiness without this adherence to duty. If we try to avoid our duty we will be like the unfaithful stewards that Christ warns us about in the Gospel.
Most of us reading this will struggle to some degree or other to do our work and other duties in life professionally, punctually and cheerfully. Some will be better than others, but there is almost always room for improvement. Perhaps we could follow Fr Doyle’s advice, and adopt a Lenten resolution that will help us grow in holiness by doing our duty well.
This may indeed involve giving something up – the TV, excessive use of the internet or social media, lying on in bed in the morning, idle gossip in the office, an extra long lunch break…
In any event, whatever our resolution is, it should be both achievable and challenging, and we should be prepared to instantly pick ourselves up and start again if (and when) we fail in sticking to it. And let us remember that for some of people reading this, and perhaps for me writing it, this Lent could our last. Imagine if we had only one more Lent before we are called to render an account of our lives…
Finally, some thoughts from St Leo the Great:
Relying, therefore, dearly-beloved, on these arms, let us enter actively and fearlessly on the contest set before us: so that in this fasting struggle we may not rest satisfied with only this end, that we should think abstinence from food alone desirable. For it is not enough that the substance of our flesh should be reduced, if the strength of the soul be not also developed. When the outer man is somewhat subdued, let the inner man be somewhat refreshed; and when bodily excess is denied to our flesh, let our mind be invigorated by spiritual delights. Let every Christian scrutinise himself, and search severely into his inmost heart: let him see that no discord cling there, no wrong desire be harboured. Let chasteness drive incontinence far away; let the light of truth dispel the shades of deception; let the swellings of pride subside; let wrath yield to reason; let the darts of ill-treatment be shattered, and the chidings of the tongue be bridled; let thoughts of revenge fall through, and injuries be given over to oblivion.