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: 104 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.

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Thoughts for July 17 from Fr Willie Doyle

The reformation of one’s life must be the work of every day. I should take each rule and duty, think how Jesus acted, or would have done, and contrast my conduct with His.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle’s words today are direct and relevant for us all. 

The daily reformation Fr Doyle recommends must be immensely practical. We do not reform our lives in the abstract by imagining great things we would do for God in some hypothetical reality. We must reform our own lives in the practical circumstances in which we live. Fr Doyle gives us the recipe for doing this, by considering the “rule and duty” of each day. 

Fr Doyle himself had to live this daily reformation in the dreadful, gritty reality in which he lived. Here is an excerpt from O’Rahilly’s biography, quoting extensively from Fr Doyle’s letters home, detailing how Fr Doyle fulfilled one of his duties – and also one of the corporal works of mercy – by burying the dead. Let us remember that holiness is in the duty of today, whatever its circumstances. It is not to be found in pleasant daydreams about some mythical day when everything goes along smoothly as we would like.

NOTE: Those who may be squeamish about death and gore may want to skip this particular quote.

It was not to be, however, for still another adventure awaited him. On returning, he found that a dead man had been brought in for burial. The cemetery, part of a field, was outside the town in the open country, so exposed to shell and rifle fire that it could not be approached by day. As soon as it was dark we carried the poor fellow out on a stretcher, just as he had fallen, and as quietly as we could began to dig the grave. It was weird. We were standing in front of the German trenches on two sides, though a fair distance away, and every now and then a star-shell went up which we felt certain would reveal our presence to the enemy. I put my ritual in the bottom of my hat and with the aid of an electric torch read the burial service, while the men screened the light with their caps, for a single flash would have turned the machine guns on us. I cannot say if we were seen or not, but all the time bullets came whizzing by, though more than likely stray ones and not aimed at us. Once I had to get the men to lie down as things were rather warm; but somehow I felt quite safe, as if the dead soldier’s guardian angel was sheltering us from all danger, till the poor dust was laid to rest. It was my first war burial though assuredly not my last. May God rest his soul and comfort those left to mourn him.” 

The burials soon became more frequent, and Fr. Doyle had many gruesome experiences. Thus a few days later two bodies fell to bits when lifted off the stretcher and he had to shovel the remains of one poor fellow into the grave, a task which taxed his endurance. On 1st April he had a further vivid experience of the horrors of war: 

“Taking a short cut across country to our lines I found myself on the first battle field of Loos, the place where the French had made their attack. For some reason or other this part of the ground has not been cleared, and it remains more or less as it was the morning after the fight. I had to pick my steps, for numbers of unexploded shells, bombs and grenades lay all round. The ground was littered with broken rifles, torn uniforms, packs, etc., just as the men had flung them aside, charging the German trenches. Almost the first thing I saw was a human head torn from the trunk, though there was no sign of the body. The soldiers had been buried on the spot they fell; that is, if you can call burial, hastily throwing a few shovelfuls of clay on the corpses: there was little time, I fancy, for digging graves, and in war time there is not much thought or sentiment for the slain. As I walked along, I wondered had they made certain each man was really dead. One poor fellow had been buried, surely, before the breath had left his body, for there was every sign of a last struggle and one arm was thrust out from its shroud of clay. A large mound caught my eye. Four pairs of feet were sticking out, one a German, judging by his boots, and three Frenchmen friend and foe are sleeping their long last sleep in peace together. They were decently covered compared with the next I saw; a handful of earth covered the wasted body, but the legs and arms and head were exposed to view. He seemed quite a young lad, with fair, almost golden, hair. An unknown soldier was all the rough wooden cross over him told me about him; but I thought of the sorrowing mother, far away, thinking of her boy who was missing, and hoping against hope that he might one day come back. Thank God, Heaven one day will reunite them both. I found a shovel near at hand, and after a couple of hours stiff work was able to cover the bodies decently, so that on earth at least they might rest in peace.”

Thoughts for July 16 from Fr Willie Doyle

I have come back from the missions with feelings of joy and gratitude, for these last three missions have been blessed in a wonderful way. God seems to take a special delight in seconding my efforts, just because I have hurt Him so much in the past and have been so really ungrateful. It is one of the big humiliations of my life and makes me thoroughly ashamed of myself that our Blessed Lord for His own wise ends conceals my shortcomings from others and allows me to do a little good. But He does not hide the wretched state of my soul from myself. I am not speaking in a false humble strain, but serious truth. If you, or anyone else, could only see the way I have acted towards Jesus all my life, you would turn away from me in disgust. 

I have had much consolation in my work recently. The last mission was the hardest I have given, yet it seems to have been singularly blessed. All this love and goodness on the part of Jesus only fills me with a deep sorrow that I can do so little for Him. I am getting afraid of Him, just because He is so generous to me and blesses all I do. I feel ashamed when people praise me for my work, the sort of shame a piano might feel if someone complimented it on the beautiful melody that came from its keys. I am realizing more and more that all success is entirely God’s work, and that self does not count at all. I have this strange feeling that when I get to heaven I shall have little merit for anything I have done for God’s glory, since all has been the work of His Hands.

COMMENT: One of the very hardest things that we must accept in our life of faith is our own inability to do good apart from God’s grace. So often we start out with grand plans of what we will do for God. But time, and many failings, teach us that really the spiritual life is largely about what God will do for us. Without Him we are nothing. 

Fr Doyle recognised that he was just the tool in God’s hands and was always aware of his own sinfulness and likelihood to fail. 

But this reliance on God should not lead us into some form of apathy or quietism. We rely on grace, so we must want that grace and we must strive to obtain that grace in order that we may more fully imitate, and serve, the Lord. 

How? Through prayer, mortification, sacrifices, the struggle to acquire virtue and detachment from the things of this world. As St Paul says: “Train yourselves in godliness”. 

And when we receive the grace, we must use it, relying on it to perform good works. The work and service we undertake may still be hard, but with God’s grace we can accomplish it. 

This was the secret of the saints. This was the secret of Fr Doyle. The heroism of the trenches is simply inexplicable apart from God’s grace, and lots of it. 

We shall finish today with a quote from Scuploi’s Spiritual Combat:

Think first upon thine own weakness, next turn, full of self-distrust, to the wisdom, the power and the goodness of God; and in reliance on these, resolve to fight generously.

Finally, today is the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Fr Doyle was very devoted to the Carmelites and gave many retreats to Carmelite nuns around the country. Let us pray for the Carmelite order today.

Thoughts for July 14 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Camillus de Lellis

The object of my life to be close union with and intense love of God. To acquire this I will (a) fly from the shadow of sin, never deliberately break a rule, custom or regulation; (b) do each little action purely for the love of Jesus, with exquisite exactness, fervour and devotedness; (c) beg constantly and earnestly for a great increase of love.

COMMENT: Today’s quote comes from some of the resolutions Fr Doyle made after the 30 days of spiritual exercises he did in 1907. As usual, there is much here that we can learn from. 

Flying from the shadow of sin, or, put another way, avoiding occasions of sin, is an important element of the spiritual life. How often we can make compromises by going to places (real, online or imaginary), meeting with people or practicing those habits that we know will lead us into temptation or distraction. Unless we make concerted effort, relying on grace, we will never win the battle for greater virtue. 

Today’s saint, Camillus de Lellis, was a dissipated, violent man who lived as a mercenary soldier with a propensity for gambling (and literally losing the shirt off his back in the process). His conversion necessitated that he avoid the company, and habits, that lead him into gambling and fighting. St Camillus used to teach that we should aim: 

not to be satisfied with avoiding sin, but to avoid even the least shadow and risk of sin.

Even in the use of language he was at one with Fr Doyle. 

This flight from temptation is very typical of saints. We see traps set for saints like Thomas Aquinas and Philip Neri. In both cases, others sought to tempt them by laying traps whereby they encountered prostitutes who tried to seduce them. Both saints fled the scene – they didn’t pause to think about the temptation. Similarly, Venerable Matt Talbot, following his conversion from a life of alcoholism, would avoid walking past a pub, and even refused to carry money on him, lest he be tempted to spend it on drink.

The second part of Fr Doyle’s advice today is characteristic of him: do “each little action purely for the love of Jesus, with exquisite exactness, fervour and devotedness”. Dedication to duty, day after day, even when we don’t feel like it, requires great virtue. Faithfully doing our work on time, to the best of our abilities, will be for many people a great penance. But the key is doing this work for the love of God, not just to make more money or to win a promotion. Examining our faithfulness to duty can be a fruitful aspect of our daily examination of conscience.

 

Thoughts for July 13 from Fr Willie Doyle

“Another day is gone”. This is a summer sunset in Dun Laoghaire, very close to where Fr Doyle grew up.

The soft chimes of the angelus bell mark the fall of evening. Another day is gone. Another precious day, our measurement of God’s most precious gift, time, has passed away and is swallowed up in the vast gulf of the irrevocable past. Another day has passed! Another stage of our journey towards our final end is traversed. Nearer still than yesterday to that solemn moment of our lives, its end; nearer still to heaven with its joys unknown, untasted; nearer still to Him for Whom we labour now and strive to serve. How many more days are left? Too few alas! for all we have to do, but not so few that we cannot heap them high with noble deeds and victories bravely won.

COMMENT: Each day brings us closer to our death, and to our judgement. In fact, none of us have ever been as close to our deaths than we are at this present moment… 

This is a deeply sobering thought. The stark nature of these thoughts can tempt us to downplay them or to scrub them from our minds simply because they are uncomfortable. But death is the ONE thing we cannot ultimately ignore. The fact of our death, and that each day brings us closer to it, is an incontrovertible truth. Our last day on earth will come, perhaps sooner than we would like. Ignoring this fact does not make it any less true. 

It has traditionally been a common feature of Catholic spirituality to meditate on the Four Last Things: death, judgement, Heaven and Hell. Many saints had the habit of keeping skulls with them in order to remind them of death. 

This focus on death need not necessarily make us morose, and in fact can encourage us to joyfully make the most of the time that we do have on earth. And, as Christians, we must also remember that death is not the end, but, if we die in a state of grace, ultimately leads to a joyful eternity. Fr Doyle lived with death for almost two years during the Great War. Despite being surrounded with death, and facing the real possibility of his own demise, he retained his constant joy and cheerfulness. 

Remembering the fact of our death allows us to make the most of our lives. We are alive for a purpose; our human life is vitally important as it is the training ground for eternity. How easy it could be to waste days listlessly if we ignored the shortness of our time on earth. 

Time is a great gift, the existence of which allows us to change and to grow closer to God. When we consider the sins of our lives, we should, as Fr Doyle says, use the opportunities of each day “to heap them high with noble deeds and victories bravely won”. These deeds will normally be composed of the ordinary activities of the moment and hidden faithfulness to our duty that is hardly discerned by any passer-by. But this faithfulness day by day can allow us to face the prospect of death with the cheerfulness that characterised Fr Doyle’s apostolate in the killing fields of World War I. 

Perhaps it is worth concluding today with two lines from The Imitation of Christ:

Always remember your end and do not forget that lost time never returns. 

If you have spent the day profitably, you will always be happy at eventide.

 

 

Thoughts for July 12 from Fr Willie Doyle

But remember the devil will spoil the work if he can and by every means in his power turn you from your life of immolation.

COMMENT: In today’s snippet, Fr Doyle reminds us that we are contending not only against our own weakness in the spiritual life, but that the devil also wishes to distract us from closer intimacy with God, and that he will use “every means in his power” to turn us aside. Lucifer was the most brilliant of the angels and he has many means in his power. Perhaps most of all, he will use the defects in our own characters, which he knows so well, to turn us from the path of virtue. 

When we are tempted, when the devil tries “by every means in his power” to turn us away from our good resolutions, we should proceed as we had planned, with generosity and trusting in God’s help. 

Today it is somewhat unfashionable to refer to the Enemy, but if we wish to remove him from our life of faith, we shall be forced to erase a lot of the Gospel as well. True, perhaps previous generations were too focussed on the issues of evil influences, but perhaps we have allowed the pendulum to swing far too much in the other direction in recent decades. If we prefer to ignore the existence of our Enemy, we surely give a major advantage to him. 

The efforts of the Enemy should spur us on to greater efforts, not cause us to shrink with fear. As Fr Doyle wrote in his diary 103 years ago today (12 July 1915):

Not feeling well, I gave up the intention of sleeping on boards, but overcame self and did so. I rose this morning, quite fresh and none the worse for it, proving once more how our Lord would help me if I was generous.

Fr Doyle, as a good disciple of St Ignatius, knew that a fundamental principle of our spiritual combat is to act against temptation, not to meekly yield when tempted. Consider the words of St Ignatius:

It is the way of the enemy to weaken and lose heart, his temptations taking flight, when the person who is exercising himself in spiritual things opposes a bold front against the temptations of the enemy, doing diametrically the opposite. And on the contrary, if the person who is exercising himself commences to have fear and lose heart in suffering the temptations, there is no beast so wild on the face of the earth as the enemy of human nature in following out his damnable intention with so great malice.

Finally, today is the feast (and wedding wedding anniversary) of the married couple Saints Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St Therese. Fr Doyle was an early and enthusiastic devotee of St Therese. I have recently read a remarkable book about the family of St Therese, which I cannot recommend highly enough. It is by St Stephane-Joseph Piat OFM, originally published in the 1940s under the title “The Story of a Family: The Home of the Little Flower”, but more recently published by Ignatius Press (https://www.amazon.com/Family-Saints-Martins-Lisieux-Saints-Thérèse-ebook/dp/B01H2ISD74/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1531391961&sr=8-1&keywords=family+of+saints) and by TAN (https://www.amazon.com/Story-Family-Home-Therese-Lisieux-ebook/dp/B015EPNGGA/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1531392032&sr=1-1) under slightly different titles. I must admit that, despite having read her autobiography and several other biographies of her, I have been in that (small?) number of Catholics who have an objective appreciation for St Therese, without having a personal, subjective devotion to her. But this book has given me a fresh perspective, and I was highly impressed at the holiness and devotion of the entire family, and especially her parents, both of whom are now rightfully recognised as saints. The bourgeois atmosphere of late 19th Century France may seem foreign to us now. But we can all identify with the Martin family at some level. They worked (both of them!), they had bills to pay, they knew loss and they knew suffering. But they trusted in God, and they put Him first. They were no strangers to criticism, or to being called Pharisees for their adherence to their religion. At a time when debates about marriage and the family are very central to the concerns of the Church, and at a time when the Church in Ireland prepares for the World Meeting of Families, the example of St Louis and St Zelie Martin should stand as a beacon of light and inspiration for all.

Saints Zelie and Louis Martin, parents of St Therese of Lisieux

Thoughts for the Feast of St Benedict from Fr Willie Doyle

St Benedict

 

Avoid haste and want of control of bodily movements. The interior man, no matter how burdened with work or pressed for time, is never in a hurry. He is swift and expeditious in all he does, but never rushes; and by a jealous watchfulness over odd moments, “gathering up the fragments” of a full day “that none of them may be lost,” he finds time for all things. He knows that the Almighty is never in a hurry; that the great works of God in nature as in the soul are done silently and calmly, and that there is much wisdom in the old monastic saying, “The man who rushes will never run to perfection.”

COMMENT: In today’s quote, Fr Doyle speaks to us about the importance of balance and moderation. Even when busy we should not be in an excessive hurry, but always maintain our equilibrium. Perhaps this is one area where Fr Doyle had to struggle. He was naturally hot tempered and extraordinarily zealous. However, it is clear that by the end of his life he had mastered this aspect of his temperament. He was a source of peace and tranquillity for others. Consider the image of Fr Doyle below. Consider the purity and serenity in his eyes – they display a deeply tranquil and balanced man. His eyes are reservoirs of peace. He had just volunteered as a military chaplain, and  was just about to head to the war. He knew what he was facing, yet he retained his calmness. By all accounts, he remained serene and peaceful right to the very end. This man, who had a nervous breakdown slightly more than 20 years before, was now a rock of strength and peace for others.

Today is the feast of St Benedict, one of the patron saints of Europe and indeed the Father of the West. Monks following his rule were instrumental in saving western civilisation after the fall of the Roman empire. By preserving the heritage of classical learning, and indeed by preserving the faith itself within their monasteries, the Benedictine monks played a pivotal role in the development of Christendom and indeed of western civilisation itself. We owe many historical inventions and advances in learning, as well as practical developments in agriculture, engineering and even brewing to the dedication and application of the Benedictines.

The motto of the Benedictine order is Pax – Peace. The Rule of St Benedict is renowned for its balance and moderation, especially compared to the harsher rule of life adopted by the Eastern monks. St Benedict tells us that it is important that people in the house of God (and by extension in the Christian family) should not be vexed or anxious, for this destroys the peace which so readily assists in the growth of holiness. Commenting on the Rule of St Benedict, Pope Emeritus Benedict tells us:

For its moderation, humanity and sober discernment between the essential and the secondary in spiritual life, his Rule has retained its illuminating power even to today.

We live in an increasingly frenetic world. The technology that was supposed to alleviate our work has often only served to complicate our lives further. Let us pray that we may acquire the moderation and balance that both Fr Doyle and St Benedict speak of, and that this spiritual equilibrium will better equip us to serve God and our neighbour more effectively.