Thoughts for the Feast of St Teresa of Avila from Fr Willie Doyle

St Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church

The life of St. Teresa teaches us that we should never despair of becoming saints. As a child she was filled with a strange mysterious longing for martyrdom. But the early years of her religious life found her cold or tepid in the service of God, indifferent to the sacred duties of her state. The call came. Sweetly in her ear sounded that little voice which too often in other souls has been hushed and stifled. Teresa rose. The past was gone and no lamenting could recall its ill-spent days, but the present was hers, and the future lay before her. Ungenerous in the past, generosity would be her darling virtue; cold and careless, no one would now equal her burning love for her patient outraged Saviour.

COMMENT: Teresa’s personality was remarkable and communicates itself so readily through her writings. She had a wonderful biting wit and holy impatience that really got to the bottom of things, and sometimes it is hard not to laugh out loud when reading the psychologically astute observations in her writings.

Few saints have shown more courage, fortitude and leadership than she did.

Many saints had a great devotion to Teresa and Fr Doyle was no different. He regularly gave retreats to Carmelite convents, and he referred to her several times throughout his letters, and even fasted at meals on one occasions in her honour. Here is his record of this experience:

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.

Finally for today; here is an excellent homily on the life and spirit of St Teresa:

 

Fr Doyle’s struggle against his faults

Fr Doyle wrote the following in his diary on this day in 1916:

Lately the desire to be trampled on and become the slave of everybody has grown very strong. I have resolved to make myself secretly the slave of my servant and, as far as I can, to submit to his will e.g to wait till he comes to serve my Mass and not to send for him, never to complain of anything he does, to take my meals in the way he chooses to cook them and at the hours he suggests, to let him arrange my things as he thinks fit, in a word, humbly to let him trample on me as I deserve.

O’Rahilly notes that Fr Doyle took these steps as part of his Ignation spirit of taking the offensive against his faults, precisely because he was naturally inclined to want his own way with things. This was part of Fr Doyle’s dominant defect, and we see here his strategic and practical struggle to overcome it. Fr Doyle did not make a truce with his faults, but struggled right to the end to overcome them. 

Thoughts for October 8 from Fr Willie Doyle

Solid virtue is so called because it is formed by amassing together a facility in repeated acts. Hence the practice of any virtue is not the less meritorious because it is easy. Quite the contrary. The merit depends on the intention we had when we determined to practise the virtue, and not on the amount of pain it costs.

COMMENT: Here we see once again the tremendous balance of Fr Doyle. Solid virtue comes from practicing virtue time and time again, especially in little things. Big once-off actions, while they may be meritorious, are not the essence of well grounded virtue and holiness which comes from doing ordinary tasks with the right intention.

In this Fr Doyle was quite like St Francis de Sales who taught that even small, simple acts performed with love were of great merit.

Here is a description of St Francis’ view of the matter from his great friend and disciple Jean Pierre Camus, taken from the book The Spirit of St Francis de Sales:

He considered, as we have seen, that the degree of the supernatural in any virtue could not be decided by the greatness or smallness of the external act, since an act in itself altogether trivial, may be performed with much grace and charity, while a very brilliant and dazzling good work may be animated by but a very feeble spark of love of God, the intensity of which is, after all, the only rule by which to ascertain its true value in His sight.

St Francis de Sales

Thoughts for October 5 from Fr Willie Doyle

Do I ever say, when an occasion of denying myself comes, “It’s too hard, I am no saint?” Might it not be asked of me in justice, “Why aren’t you? It is your business to be one, God intends you should be one, but you are too lazy, you won’t take the trouble.”

Let us remember that we must not drag Christ down to our own level, but rather we must let Christ lift us up to His level.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle’s words today hit where it hurts. We are not saints because we don’t take the trouble to become saints. Sanctity does not mean performing miracles or founding religious orders or even doing great things that will make us famous. It means loving God, conforming ourselves totally with His Will, and doing everything for love of Him. This is difficult, but God provides the grace we need to achieve it. But we ourselves must supply effort as well. Too often we “won’t take the trouble” to do so day after day on a consistent basis.

The liturgical calendar today presents numerous striking examples of holiness, including St Faustina, who receive the visions that are the basis of the Divine Mercy devotion and Blessed Raymond of Capua who was spiritual director to St Catherine of Siena, one of the greatest saints in all of history, and also served as Master General of the Dominicans. Both St Faustina and Blessed Raymond lead dramatic lives and are well known. However, today I want to focus on three less well known but very vivid examples of holiness who, in the words of Fr Doyle, took the trouble to strive for holiness in the very diverse and ordinary circumstances of their lives.

Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos

Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos was a German Redemptorist missionary in the United States who died in New Orleans in 1867. He was a renowned healer even during his life and his spirituality was very similar to that of Fr Doyle. His retreat notes and diaries reveal resolutions to sleep on the floor and engage in other ascetical practices to discipline the will. Like Fr Doyle, he was known for his good humour and cheerfulness. Here is a short excerpt from one of his letters:

Every offering has value only insofar as one snatches it away from one’s own benefit dedicates it to God through this self-conquest. One loves and gives precisely because one loves, and because one considers what is given as a good, as a treasure. Love of creatures must be subordinated to the love of God, whom one is pledged to love above all things. Time, in which we have found nothing to offer up to God, is lost for eternity. If it is only the duties of our vocation that we fulfil with dedication to the will of God; if it is the sweat of our faces that, in resignation, we wipe from our brow without murmuring; if it is suffering, temptations, difficulties with our fellow men – everything we can present to God as an offering and can, through them, become like Jesus his Son.

Blessed Alberto Marvelli

Blessed Alberto Marvelli was a remarkable Italian layman who was killed in an accident on this day in 1946. He modelled himself on Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, giving away his clothing, opening a soup kitchen and assisting the poor and homeless in the city of Rimini which had largely been destroyed by bombing raids in the Second World War. He was an engineer who used his professional competence to help rebuild the city. His intense works of charity were nourished by a deep spiritual life. He was also fully engaged in political life, was a local town councillor and was a renowned opponent of the communists. He was fighting an election against communists when he was killed in an accident, aged only 28. There are several books about him published in Italian, along with his spiritual diaries. Alas, I cannot speak the language – I would very much like to read them…

Blessed Bartolo Longo

Our third example today is Blessed Bartolo Longo, who had a complete transformation in life. He got caught up in the occult when he was young and became a satanic priest. He experienced a conversion, and became a renowned apostle of the rosary, a Third Order Dominican, a founder of several charitable works and established the famous shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii. He died in 1926. His example shows that nobody is too far gone to be saved by God’s Divine Mercy.

A missionary priest, a young, politically engaged layman and a former satanic priest: the examples we find in today’s diverse feasts show us that anyone from any background can be a saint.  As Fr Doyle says to us today:

Why aren’t you (a saint)? It is your business to be one, God intends you should be one, but you are too lazy, you won’t take the trouble.

Thoughts for October 4 (St Francis of Assisi) from Fr Willie Doyle

Saint Francis in Meditation

In the end what once caused us pain and tears becomes the source of great interior joy, since we have realised how these things help in our spiritual progress.

COMMENT: It is true, as Fr Doyle says, that things that were once disagreeable to us can become a source of peace in our lives. We can see this in today’s saint, Francis of Assisi, who, as the son of a rich merchant, had many pleasures available to him but chose to abandon this luxury to embrace a life of extreme poverty and penance. The deprivation that would have caused the young Francis much pain became a source of joy as he matured into great sanctity.

Like St Therese of Lisieux, some aspects of modern piety does a great disservice to Francis, presenting him mainly as a type of medieval environmentalist and peace activist, and downplaying other aspects of his character. Sanctity is always well balanced. It calls us to love justice and peace AND to hate vice and overcome it; it calls us to respect animals and the environment AND to radical conversion and serious apostolate.

Despite first impressions, there are many similarities between Fr Doyle and St Francis including an ardent love for souls, a desire to go on the missions, an openness to martyrdom, great asceticism and a passionate love for Christ.

One of the pivotal moments of St Francis’ life was when he heard Christ calling to him to rebuild the Church which was falling into ruin. The Church faces ruin in every age, and always from the same sources – the compromises and unfaithfulness of Her members. St Francis’ remedy was the hard and heroic route of personal reform. His example changed the face of the earth and bequeathed numerous saints to the Church.

The path for the renewal of the Church today is exactly the same – real personal renewal which will allow us to preach the Gospel constantly, but by our example rather than by words, as Francis urged his followers.

Thoughts for October 1 (St Therese of Lisieux) from Fr Willie Doyle

St Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church

 

Kneeling at the grave of the Little Flower I gave myself into her hands to guide and to make me a saint. I promised her to make it the rule of my whole life, every day without exception, to seek in all things my greater mortification, to give all and to refuse nothing. I have made this resolution with great confidence because I realise how utterly it is beyond my strength; but I feel the Little Flower will get me grace to keep it perfectly.

COMMENT: As can be seen from this quote, Fr Doyle had a great devotion to St Therese, whose feast we celebrate today. This devotion may have been heightened by the fact that they were born in the same year, 1873. It always comes as a shock to see others younger than us who, already having died, are plainly seen to have lived lives of great holiness. It is a reminder to us that holiness is not the preserve of the old or something that we should set our minds to some day in the future. It is the task we are to achieve today, now!

Modern piety has tended to greatly distort the image of St Therese, presenting her in a rather sentimental manner. Perhaps her own nickname, as the Little Flower, is partly to blame. The reality is that St Therese was a tough spiritual warrior who faced many problems and sufferings, including a dreadful spiritual blackness. Her Little Way is anything but simple or “little” – her way of abandonment and trust and simplicity and acceptance of daily crosses is open to all, but it takes much effort and holiness to persevere in this, even for one day!

There are many similarities between Therese and Fr Doyle, especially when it comes to embracing our daily duties, the life of spiritual childhood and the spirit of mortification.

Of course, the sentimental image of St Therese tends to emphasise her simplicity and joy and humility and to ignore her strong spirit of mortification. Here are some quotes from and about Therese and mortification. The aim is not to overemphasise this aspect of her character, for like all the saints, it is only one, albeit essential, dimension of her spiritual life. Rather, the aim is to dispel the awful saccharine image that has been built up around Therese.

Above all I endeavoured to practise little hidden acts of virtue; thus I took pleasure in folding the mantles forgotten by the Sisters, and I sought for every possible occasion of helping them. One of God’s gifts was a great attraction towards penance, but I was not permitted to satisfy it; the only mortification allowed me consisted in mortifying my self-love, and this did me far more good than bodily penance would have done.

When someone knocks at our door, or when we are rung for, we must practise mortification and refrain from doing even another stitch before answering. I have practised this myself, and I assure you that it is a source of peace.

And here are some comments from one of her sisters in Carmel on St Therese’s spirit of penance:

Thus in many pretty ways she hid her mortifications. One fast-day, however, when our Reverend Mother ordered her some special food, I found her seasoning it with wormwood because it was too much to her taste. On another occasion I saw her drinking very slowly a most unpleasant medicine. “Make haste,” I said, “drink it off at once!” “Oh, no!” she answered; “must I not profit of these small opportunities for penance since the greater ones are forbidden me?”

Toward the end of her life I learned that, during her noviciate, one of our Sisters, when fastening the scapular for her, ran the large pin through her shoulder, and for hours she bore the pain with joy. On another occasion she gave me proof of her interior mortification. I had received a most interesting letter which was read aloud at recreation, during her absence. In the evening she expressed the wish to read it, and I gave it to her. Later on, when she returned it, I begged her to tell me what she thought of one of the points of the letter which I knew ought to have charmed her. She seemed rather confused, and after a pause she answered: “God asked of me the sacrifice of this letter because of the eagerness I displayed the other day . . . so I have not read it.”

This spirit of simple daily penance is reflected in the life of Fr Doyle. Here is a quote from him on embracing our daily duties, followed by some commentary from O’Rahilly’s biography:

“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. How many alas! who might be saints are now leading lives of indifferent virtue, because they have deluded themselves with the thought that they have no strength to bear the holy follies of the saints. How many a fair flower of innocence, which God had destined to bloom in dazzling holiness, has faded and withered beneath the chill blast of a fear of suffering never asked from it.” (April, 1905.)

Words such as these, coming from the pen of one who was not unfamiliar with scourge and vigil and fast, are helpful and consoling. Not that they picture the path of holiness as other than the royal road of the cross. Fr. Doyle wished rather to remove the mirage of an unreal and impossible cross from the way of those of us whose true holiness is to be found in meeting the daily and hourly little crosses, humanly inglorious perhaps, but divinely destined for our sanctification. In the lives of canonised saints, and of him whose life we are recording, there are doubtless holy follies and grace-inspired imprudences. But these are not the essence of sanctity; they are its bloom, whereas its stem is self-conquest. Without these there can be great holiness – no terrifying penances marked the life of St. John Berchmans or of that winsome fragile nun who is known as the Little Flower. But without the slow secret mortification of doing ordinary and mostly trivial duties well, there can be no spiritual advance. Heroism is not a sudden romantic achievement; it is the fruit of years of humdrum faithfulness.

Today is also the anniversary of the death of Venerable Tomás Morales SJ who, as well as being a Jesuit, had a great affection for the Carmelites and for St Therese. Here is a quote from his writings which is relevant for our considerations today.

Fight always, even though you don’t feel like it, even though your mood may be different. Remember what St Therese said: “Where would our merit be if we only fought when we felt like it”.

Thoughts for September 30 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Jerome in the wilderness

 

Don’t dwell on what you have not done, for I think that want of confidence in His willingness to forgive our shortcomings pains Him very much, but rather lift up your heart and think what you are going to do for Him now. You know the secret of making a short life very long in His eyes, and a life of few opportunities crammed full of precious things. Do everything for His sweet love alone.

COMMENT: Here we see the wonderful gentleness of Fr Doyle, consoling someone to whom he was giving spiritual direction. Sometimes there may be a tendency to consider Fr Doyle as overly austere; only somebody who deliberately looks for austerity, and ignores other aspects of his life, could come to this conclusion.

His message for us today is very helpful. Every one of us sometimes fails to do some good that ought to be done. The answer is to repent, and then move on, and do our duty now. Dwelling on past failures can lead to discouragement and perhaps even to scruples. Indeed, as Fr Doyle points out, our lack of confidence in God’s forgiveness pains Him.

Today is the feast of St Jerome, one of the Fathers of the Church and also a Doctor of the Church. Fr Doyle mentioned St Jerome once in a letter to his father written from the trenches. The charming aside in which he jokingly mentions St Jerome is also further evidence of Fr Doyle’s balance and good humour. He is describing the booklet on Vocations that he wrote and refers to the old abbreviation “MSS” for the word manuscript, and how the abbreviation once lead to humorous incident in Clongowes College:

You will be glad to know, as I was, that the ninth edition (90,000 copies) of my little book “Vocations” is rapidly being exhausted. After my ordination, when I began to be consulted on this important subject, I was struck by the fact that there was nothing one could put into the hands of boys and girls to help them to a decision, except ponderous volumes, which they would scarcely read. Even the little treatise by St. Liguori which Fr. Charles gave me during my first visit to Tullabeg, and which changed the whole current of my thoughts, was out of print. I realized the want for some time; but one evening as I walked back to the train after dining with you, the thought of the absolute necessity for such a book seized me so strongly, (I could almost point out the exact spot on the road), that there and then I made up my mind to persuade someone to write it, for I never dreamt of even attempting the task myself.

I soon found out that the shortest way to get a thing done is to do it yourself, or rather God in His goodness had determined to make use of me, because I was lacking in the necessary qualifications, to get His work done, for I am firmly convinced that both in “Vocations” and “Shall I be a Priest?” my part consisted in the correction of the proof sheets and in the clawing in of the shower of bawbees.

I remember well when the MSS. – which does not stand for Mrs as Brother Frank Hegarty read out once in Clongowes: St. Jerome went off to Palestine carrying his Missus – had passed the censors to my great surprise, the venerable manager of the Messenger Office began shaking his head over the prospect of its selling, for as he said with truth, It is a subject which appeals to a limited few. He decided to print 5,000, and hinted I might buy them all myself!

Then when the pamphlet began to sell and orders to come in fast, I began to entertain the wild hope that by the time I reached the stage of two crutches and a long white beard, I might possibly see the 100,000 mark reached. We are nearly at that now without any pushing or advertising, and I hope the crutches and flowing beard are still a long way off. God is good, is He not? As the second edition came out only in the beginning of 1914 the sale has been extraordinarily rapid.

Thoughts for September 28 from Fr Willie Doyle

Don’t let the devil spoil the work by making you fret and worry.

COMMENT: This line from Fr Doyle is taken from a much longer letter of spiritual direction, the specifics of which are unlikely to be relevant to many of the readers of this website.

But this line, about the father of lies, and his capacity to make us worry, is relevant for us all…

One of the characteristics of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is peace and serenity. On the other hand, one of the traits of the enemy is worry and anxiety.

All of the saints faced worries and anxieties. Many were founders who faced financial worries. Many saints faced false accusations of scandal. Then there were those who underwent a severe trial of faith, experiencing a profound dark night of the soul. Then we have those “victim souls” who suffered intense illness and abandonment. Other saints had to separate themselves from friends and family in the process of entering religious life, or going away to the missions, or even converting to Catholicism. And of course there were the martyrs, who faced torture and horrific death.

One thing that characterises the saints throughout their trials is serenity. They had the peace that the world cannot give; they refused to give in to the temptation to fret and worry. We see this same tranquility and cheerfulness in Fr Doyle’s letters home to his father from the Front. It is hard to believe that bombs and gas attacks were being unleashed around one who was so happy and concerned for others. 

As Fr Doyle wrote on another occasion:

Worries? Of course; and thank God. How else are you going to be a saint. 

 

Thoughts for September 27 from Fr Willie Doyle

St Vincent de Paul

 

For fifteen years has Jesus been waiting for me to return to Him, to return to the fervour of my first year of religious life. During that time how many pressing and loving invitations has He not given me? What lights and inspirations, remorse of conscience, and how many good resolves which were never carried into effect. O my God, I feel now as if I cannot resist You longer. Your infinite patience and desire to bring me to You has broken the ice of my cold heart. “I will arise and go” to You, humbled and sorrowful, and for the rest of my life give You of my very best. Help me, sweet Jesus, by Your grace, for I am weak and cowardly.

COMMENT: In today’s quote we find Fr Doyle lamenting what he considered to be his unfaithfulness during his first 15 years of religious life. These lines were written during the 30 day spiritual exercises he did just after ordination in 1907.

In retrospect, it’s not immediately clear to us that Fr Doyle was lukewarm or lacking in zeal during his time studying for the priesthood. Many who knew him then considered him an excellent role model. However it is clear that Fr Doyle felt he lacked something during this time, and it is also clear that after this retreat he went about the process of serving God with a much greater efficiency and exactitude so that in comparison a very pious period of studying for the priesthood might seem lukewarm and lacking in devotion.

Fr Doyle isn’t the only great spiritual hero who felt he had much lukewarmness to account for. Today’s saint, Vincent de Paul, seems to have had very mixed motives during his early years. The desire to secure a prestigious ecclesiastical benefice and live in comfort seems to have been foremost in his mind when he was ordained a priest in his very early 20’s. In fact, he even had recourse to the courts to vindicate what he saw as his rights in the Church, and, so keen was he to protect his rights that he even chased a man who owed him money to Marseilles. It was on this expedition that he was kidnapped by Turkish pirates and sold as a slave. It is this experience, plus the importance of friendships like those with St Francis de Sales and Pierre de Berulle that gradually brought about his conversion.

There are other important similarities between St Vincent and Fr Doyle. Both were renowned for their charity. In Fr Doyle’s case this started very early in life – as a child he would take food from his family home and give it to the poor around Dalkey, his native village. He kept this habit all his life, often giving away his food and gifts to soldiers in the trenches.

Both also stand in opposition to the dreadful disease of Jansenism. For anyone unfamiliar with this heresy, here is an excellent description of it:

What type of anthropology lies behind Jansenism? There is a heightened sense of sin, sin which cannot be overcome, but only beaten into semi-containment. There is a division of humanity into the saved and the damned, with the majority being damned. There is a tendency to see the poor, the weak as being damned, or at the very least as being beyond the influence of grace. Victims are damned, abusers are damned. Grace is given so sparingly, by a God who is mean with both love and Grace, and man, he is made in the same niggardly image. God is not merciful and forgiving but full of anger and rage, swift to condemn, waiting to punish. The wounds of the Son are not salvific but condemnatory, both victims and abusers are left without hope, the hell of now is but a foretaste of the hell to come. It is in this image man is created.

In St Vincent’s case, he knew the original promoters of this heresy, and tried, through gentleness and friendship, to win them back. In the case of Fr Doyle we find a great abhorrence of Jansenism. As he said in one letter:

The wretched spirit of Jansenism has driven our dear Lord from His rightful place in our hearts. He longs for love, and familiar love, so give Him both.

It is clear that everything Fr Doyle stood for was in marked opposition to the Jansenistic spirit. Fr Doyle had a great love of the poor and the weak and a burning, passionate love of Christ. He was always gentle with others, and wrote a booklet to combat the problem of scruples. He encouraged the notion of spiritual childhood and the reliance on God’s grace to overcome our faults.

Both St Vincent and Fr Doyle are relevant to us today for another reason. It is truly shocking to read about the state of the Church in France during St Vincent’s lifetime. Priests were uneducated, slovenly, given to liturgical abuse and living lives of scandal. Bishoprics were seen as the hereditary rights of powerful families, and young boys were appointed bishops by these families in an attempt to secure their rights and benefices.

Yes the Church in Ireland, and indeed in much of the world, faces its fair share of problems today. But it also faced massive problems 350 years ago as well. Reform is always possible.

 

25 September 1916

I was very much annoyed because because someone burnt the floor of my dug-out and also on finding my candles had been taken. On arriving at Locre I found a second bed in my room and heard that X was coming, This upset and worried me terribly till I realised that all these things were God’s doing and that He wished to annihilate my will, so that I should never feel even the smallest interior disturbance no matter what might happen. I have secretly given permission to everyone to treat me as he wishes and to trample on me; why then should I not try to live up to this life?

COMMENT: Fr Doyle had a strong will, and with a strong will often comes a quick temper. We see here various situations which interiorly annoyed Fr Doyle but which he also used as a way of growing in virtue. There is every indication from Fr Doyle’s private notes and the testimony of those who knew him that, with the help of God, he more than conquered his annoyances and temper. We, too, can do the same if we learn to see every moment as an opportunity to grow in virtue.