Lessons for lay people from Fr Willie Doyle
Fr Doyle was a very ordinary “saint”. One nun who knew him said that there was nothing singular about him, and that holiness to him was as natural as wings to a bird. True, he lived an extraordinary life of high adventure, and, in his practice of self-denial and love of neighbour he reached a high degree of sanctity. He passed the test of holiness laid down by Christ: “Greater love has no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13)
However, he is different from those canonised saints who performed remarkable miracles or received extraordinary mystical phenomena. Instead, Fr Doyle was a master of holiness amid ordinary duties and a humdrum existence.
Fr Doyle had a rather highly strung disposition by nature. Indeed, as a novice he suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of a fire in the novitiate where he lived, and for a while he seemed that he would not be able to continue with his Jesuit training. While he was physically strong and good at sport, he always suffered ill health and so was not naturally constituted for a life of trench warfare. As pointed out continually on this site, it was his steady practice of virtue over the years, and his cooperation with grace, that created the hero of the trenches who was willing to run across a battlefield battered with shells and bullets to bring help to his “poor brave boys”, as he called them.
This slow, daily practice of spiritual combat and training in virtue is something that we can all apply to our lives, including lay people.
There are numerous lessons that can be drawn from this remarkable life. 4 major themes are presented here.
Above all, Fr Doyle was a man of prayer. He was one of the first people in Ireland to start the devotion of spending a holy hour in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. He regularly arose at night to pray, especially on Thursday nights in imitation of Christ in Gethsemane. He did not always find prayer easy, and often suffered from a distaste for prayer and a desire to give up. But still, he persevered. He was of course a renowned spiritual director and retreat giver, and saw the importance of retreats for laity, a position that not all priests agreed with at the time.
He himself seemed to live the biblical command to pray always. He had an incredible system of counting aspirations (short prayers), often saying thousands of such short prayers daily as a way of ensuring that he was constantly in union with God. He did not find this system at all easy, once referring to this constant prayer as “the penance” of his life.
Not everyone is called to a life of prayer in the way Fr Doyle was. Nonetheless, we must all pray, laity included. Without this there can be no holiness; no sustainable attempt to live a life of charity as Fr Doyle lived it. As usual, Fr Doyle’s writings give us some useful insights into prayer. Only a small sample from the vast body of his correspondence and notes can be reproduced here:
You seem lately to have had a bad attack of want of confidence in God and a feeling of despair of ever becoming a saint. Yet, my dear child, it is neither impossible nor hopeless as long as God leaves it in our power to pray… I assert fearlessly that if only we all prayed enough and I mean by that a constant, steady, unflagging stream of aspirations, petitions, etc., from the heart there is not one, no matter how imperfect, careless or even sinful, who would not become a saint and a big one. I am perfectly and painfully conscious that, for my own part, I do not pray a hundredth part of what I should or what God wants. Prayer, then, being the key to sanctity, never tell me again, my dear child, that there is no chance of your becoming a saint. But you certainly never will until you learn to turn every action into a prayer and shake off the old tempter who strangles your efforts to pray.
Without constant union with our Lord there cannot be any real holiness, one reason being that without recollection the inspirations of the Holy Spirit are missed and with them a host of opportunities of little sacrifices and a shower of graces. As a means of gaining greater recollection, each morning at Holy Communion invite Jesus to dwell in your heart during the day as in a Tabernacle. Try all day to imagine even His bodily presence within you and often turn your thoughts inwards and adore Him as He nestles next your heart in a very real manner, quite different from His presence in all creation. This habit is not easily acquired, especially in a busy life like yours, but much may be done by constant effort. At times you will have to leave Him alone entirely, but as soon as you can, get back to His presence again.
Keep in God’s presence going through the house and try to grasp then any lights you may have got in prayer.
And for those inevitable times when prayer is difficult:
One word about the difficulty at prayer. It is an unnatural thing, that is a supernatural thing, and hence must always be hard; for prayer takes us out of our natural element. But pray on all the same.
As well as being a man of prayer, Fr Doyle was a man of penance. Many Catholics downplay the importance of penance today, perhaps as a reaction to some excessive emphasis on penance in past generations. Nonetheless, self-denial is an indispensible – and for most of us an unpalatable – necessity in the Christian life. Who can doubt that our families and our society would more peaceful if everyone said “No” to themselves more often.
While Fr Doyle was always joyful, he lived an austere personal life (always with the agreement of his confessor and based on the inspirations he received in prayer) and we almost certainly are not called to such a life ourselves. In fact, Fr Doyle was most clear with those he directed that small acts of self-denial were preferred way of proceeding.
I am glad you have found profit from the particular examen. You must push on with this, for remember you are no beginner in the spiritual life. From time to time increase the number of acts when you find facility coming. However it is better to keep to a fixed number steadily than to go jumping up and down, better, for example, to make twenty-five acts every day than fifty one day and ten the next. The rule to keep before you is: Look upon nothing as too small to offer to God. Big sacrifices do not come very often, and generally we are too cowardly to make them when they do. But little ones are as plentiful as blackberries in September, and stiffen the moral courage, by the constant repetition of them, to do, in the end, even heroic things…Again, nothing is too small; in fact the smaller it is the better, so long as it is some denial of your will, some act you would just as soon not do.
Your desire for penance is an excellent sign. But have a fixed amount to be done each day and do not be doing it in fits and starts. Anything like what you call “frenzy” ought to be suspected and resisted.
Prayer is easy, works of zeal attractive; but going against self, till grace and perseverance give facility, is cruel work, a hard battle.
As I said before, my dear child, I fancy you tried to do too much, to be too generous. Do not try to run till you can walk well. Draw up a list of certain little sacrifices which you feel God is asking from you and which you know you will be able to give Him without very much difficulty: better be cowardly than too generous. Then, come what may, be faithful to your list and shake it in the face of the tempter when he suggests that you should give it up. After some time, when greater facility has come by practice, you might add a little to what you did at first, and so on till, please God, one day you will be able to say, “I know only Jesus Christ, and Him crucified ; with Christ I am nailed to the Cross”
I believe strongly in corporal penance as a means to the end. But a denial of your own will often costs more than a hundred strokes of the discipline. To interior penance you need not, and must not, put any limit.
I do not want, in fact I forbid you, to be imprudent in the matter of corporal penances.
To what, then, might this self-inflicted pain involve? It can be something very little – Fr Doyle gave up butter on his bread and sugar in his tea, and, rather refreshingly, he also struggled with these little tasks. But perhaps most of all, it refers to the third theme was can adopt from Fr Doyle’s life – fulfilling the duties of our state in life.
Fidelity to duty
Fr Doyle continually stressed fidelity to duty as an absolute necessity for holiness. True, lay people are not bound by rules and norms as a Jesuit was 100 years ago, but there are still duties to be performed – children washed and fed and educated, spouses to be kept company, a house to clean and professional work to do. To perform these duties well sounds like it is an easy, and a small, thing to do. But in practice performing the duty of each moment with precision and our full attention is a matter of great holiness. And as for being a “little thing”, the Lord told us that he who would be faithful in little things would be faithful in great things (Luke 16:10). Christ is unlikely to entrust a great, heroic mission to those who have been negligent in the basic duties of life. Seen in this way, Fr Doyle’s faithfulness in small duties was the training ground for his fidelity in the trenches.
Let us read what Fr Doyle has to say:
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.
For sixteen years has Jesus been seeking fruit from my soul, and especially in these last three years of preparation for the priesthood. I have no excuse for He has told me how to produce that fruit, especially by the exact discharge of each little duty of the moment.
During the reflection on the Hidden Life I got a light that here was something in which I could easily imitate our Lord and make my life resemble His. I felt a strong impulse to resolve to take up as one of the chief objects of my life the exact and thorough performance of each duty, trying to do it as Jesus would have done, with the same pure intention, exquisite exactness and fervour. To copy in all my actions walking, eating, praying Jesus, my model in the little house of Nazareth. This light was sudden, clear and strong. To do this perfectly will require constant, unflagging fervour. Will not this be part of my “hard life”?
Each fresh meditation on the life of our Lord impresses on me more and more the necessity of conforming my life to His in every detail, if I wish to please Him and become holy. To do something great and heroic may never come, but I can make my life heroic by faithfully and daily putting my best effort into each duty as it comes round. It seems to me I have failed to keep my resolutions because I have not acted from the motive of the love of God. Mortification, prayer, hard work, become sweet when done for the love of Jesus.
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.
During His Passion our Lord was bound and dragged from place to place. I have hourly opportunities of imitating Him by going cheerfully to the duty of the moment.
And perhaps most difficult of all is the good use of time, a precious gift which is too frequently squandered:
We should call a man a fool who wasted his wealth warming himself before a fire made of banknotes. Do we act less madly in seeking gratification by consuming our precious day in frivolities?
St Teresa of Avila was, as usual, very straight-talking: “May God deliver me from gloomy saints”. She would have had no fear about Fr Doyle. Despite an ongoing digestive illness, a ascetic lifestyle and sub-human conditions in the trenches, Fr Doyle always remained cheerful. He had a magnetic influence on people as a mission preacher and retreat giver. He was loved by the soldiers in the trenches for many qualities, but especially his cheerfulness and joy. When reading the letters he sent home from the war, it is impossible not to be struck by their good humour and cheerfulness. It is hard to believe that many of these letters were written in circumstances where Fr Doyle’s life was at risk from bullets, bombs and poison gas.
We are unlikely to face the dangers Fr Doyle dealt with on a daily basis. But we do face other frustrations – traffic jams, bills, annoying colleagues, rain! This cheerfulness is also important in apostolate and evangelisation. If we appear cranky and short tempered, how can we convince others that we have a life-changing message worth listening to?
Some thoughts from Fr Doyle on cheerfulness:
Since then I have gone on from day to day and year to year, with the same cheerful spirits, making the best of difficulties and always trying to look at the bright side of things.
Keep smiling. It is a grand thing to cultivate a smile. Keep the corners of your mouth up, especially if you are in for an attack of the dumps. There are three D s to be avoided the Devil, the Doctor, and the Dumps. The Devil, we all know, is bad enough; the Doctor is very little better; and the Dumps are the Devil himself! So I repeat, keep smiling, it is the very best remedy for gloom. The devil loves nothing better than a gloomy soul; it is his plaything.
Smile a while, and while you smile another smiles, and soon there’s miles and miles of smiles, and life’s worthwhile because you smile.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we actually have to feel joyful and cheerful, but we have to at least will it and try to communicate it. As Fr Doyle wrote:
It is a curious thing that I have never had a moment’s hesitation nor ever felt fear in going into the greatest danger when duty called and some poor chap needed help. But to sit in cold blood, so to speak, and to wait to be blown to pieces or buried by a crump is an experience which tests one’s nerves to the limit. Thank God, I have been able to conceal my feelings and so to help others to despise the danger, when I was just longing to take to my heels. An officer said to me at the Somme, ‘I have often envied you your coolness and cheerfulness in hot corners’. I rather surprised him by saying that my real feeling was abject fear and I often shook like a leaf.
Three of my lads came tearing in to my dug-out; they had nearly been sent to glory and felt they were safe with the priest. The poor priest cracks a joke or two, makes them forget their terror, and goes on with his lunch while every morsel sticks in his throat from fear and dread of the next shell. A moment passes, one, two, here it comes; dead silence and anxious faces for a second, and then we all laugh, for it is one of our own shells going over. Five minutes more and we know all danger has passed. It has been a memorable day for me, though only one of many such in the past.
It is true that the religious and cultural climate of Fr Doyle’s time is vastly different from our own. Nonetheless, there is much that we can learn from him, and the 4 points presented here are only a very small sample of the spiritual lessons his life and writing present to us. But while these 4 basic lessons for lay people – prayer, self-denial, fidelity to duty and cheerfulness – may seem simple; faithfully implementing them requires significant generosity and will surely lead us on a path to great intimacy with God.