I see more and more each day how different the world would be if we had more really holy priests. With this object I have started a crusade of prayer.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words in a letter on this day in 1913. His was right when he wrote this a century ago, and hindsight has shown us that he was even more correct about the importance of holy priests than he probably realised himself.
We are all called to be holy, and holy lay people can do things that a priest simply cannot. But without holy priests who sanctify and support lay people the progress of the Church is limited. Fr Doyle knew this – he worked hard to promote vocations and to support priests, urging them not to settle for mediocrity, but to be ambitious in their pursuit of sanctity.
Fr Doyle himself was a holy priest who loved others so much that he sacrificed himself and died to save non-Catholic soldiers in World War 1. At a time when the priesthood is held in low regard, the example of his heroism and holiness is needed now more than ever.
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.
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 106 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. 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 both worked, 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. St Louis and St Zelie Martin are beacons of light and inspiration for all, especially those who are married and raising children.
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. 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.
I awoke in the middle of the night with the feeling that Jesus wanted me. I resisted, but at last got out of bed. At the foot of the altar I was thinking of something else, when suddenly He seemed to remind me of my prayer, ‘Jesus come and dwell within my heart as in a tabernacle’. I felt Him urging me to this close union and He seemed to promise me that He would remain with me ‘from Communion to Communion’ if only I was recollected, but that I would easily drive Him away by unfaithfulness especially in want of guard over my eyes.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these very personal and intimate reflections in his diary 109 years ago today, on 10 July 1912. Two days later, he described the same incident in a letter, and recounted that he struggled against what he perceived to be the call to go to the chapel because “I did not want the trouble of walking down to the chapel in the early hours of the morning”. Sometimes we can imagine that Fr Doyle was not quite like us, given the austerities that he voluntarily endured and embraced throughout his life, and it is consoling to see that he too struggled, just as we all do.
Interestingly, exactly one year later, on 10 July 1913, Fr Doyle had another “call” to nocturnal prayer, and what seemed to be another mystical experience:
Last night I rose at two o’clock, very much against my will, and went down to the domestic chapel. Jesus seemed to want me to come before Him as a victim of His divine anger on behalf of sinners … Then He spoke in my soul clearly and forcibly: ‘You must be your own executioner. I want you to sacrifice all, which you have never done yet though you often promised. From this hour you must never give yourself one grain of human comfort or self-indulgence even at the times you have been accustomed to do so, e.g. when very tired, not well, travelling, etc. I want from you a suffering love always, always, always. The feasts and relaxations of others are not for you. Give Me this courageously and I will grant the desires of your heart.’
Jesus seemed to ask the following: (i) perfect denial of the eyes, (2) the bearing of little pains, (3) much prayer for strength, (4) a review of each half day at examen to see if this resolution has been kept.
My whole soul shrank from this life—‘no human comfort ever’. But with His grace, for I know my own weakness too well, I promised to do all He asked, and lying on the ground, I asked Him to nail me to my cross and never again permit me to come down from it.
Fr Doyle was a mystic. His diary – never intended for public consumption – reveals this mystical side of him. He often felt that God was speaking directly to him. This does not seem to have been the result of visions or apparitions, but rather from what he perceived to be internal inspirations and perhaps locutions. Fr Doyle was a well trained Jesuit who spent 16 years in preparation for his ordination. He was no sentimental or gullible fool, and on the balance of probability we must trust that he discerned these matters correctly.
For the rest of us there is some very practical advice in the last line of today’s first quote, which is very applicable for all of us living in the nitty gritty of the daily grind: I would easily drive Him away by unfaithfulness especially in want of guard over my eyes.
Fr Doyle was concerned that he might drive God away through unfaithfulness, especially by not maintaining custody of his eyes. This could sound very pietistic or simplistic. But Fr Doyle is correct – we do drive away the spirit of recollection if we are too greedy with our eyes, always looking at things, feeding our imagination and curiosity. We must guard our eyes, our heart, and our imagination. St Teresa of Avila described the imagination as the “mad woman of the house” who will upset everything and destroy the order of the house. St Josemaria Escriva wrote:
Custody of the heart. That priest used to pray: “Jesus, may my poor heart be an enclosed garden; may my poor heart be a paradise where you live; may my Guardian Angel watch over it with a sword of fire and use it to purify every affection before it comes into me. Jesus, with the divine seal of your Cross, seal my poor heart.”
St John tells us that the other enemy is the lust of the eyes, a deep-seated avariciousness that leads us to appreciate only what we can touch. Such eyes are glued to earthly things and, consequently, they are blind to supernatural realities. We can, then, use this expression of sacred Scripture to indicate that disordered desire for material things, as well as that deformation which views everything around us — other people, the circumstances of our life and of our age — with just human vision.
Then the eyes of our soul grow dull. Reason proclaims itself sufficient to understand everything, without the aid of God. This is a subtle temptation, which hides behind the power of our intellect, given by our Father God to man so that he might know and love him freely. Seduced by this temptation, the human mind appoints itself the centre of the universe, being thrilled with the prospect that “you shall be like gods.” So filled with love for itself, it turns its back on the love of God.
We all probably recognise this from ordinary human experience. When trying to study, if we give way to curiosity on the internet, on the radio etc, then we lose our recollection and focus. In conversations with others, if we spend our time looking around or at our phone and not focusing on those we are speaking with, we can easily lose focus on the conversation, and in the process display a lack of respect to others.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we always have to go around with our eyes downcast, ignoring the beauty of creation around us, but rather that we always try to avoid seeing things that may be sinful to watch, and secondly, that we focus on what we are meant to be doing and not lose our focus and recollection by looking around at distractions too much.
This, of course, is easier said than done, especially in an era with smartphones and social media, when many of us have become accustomed to always consume information and have shortened our concentration spans. Even Fr Doyle struggled, and this is a consolation for us. But who can doubt that the world would be a better place if we all focused on what we are meant to be doing at the time we are doing it, and fostered a greater spirit of recollection and internal peace?
God wants you to suffer willingly. Many rebel and fight against what God gives them; many more take their cross in a resigned “can’t be helped spirit”; but very few look upon these things as real blessings and kiss the Hand that strikes them.
COMMENT: Mystical experiences, miracles and harsh penances are often associated with the lives of the saints. But these are not the essence of holiness. They are not, for the vast majority of Christians, the normal path to Heaven. Instead, it is doing God’s will, and specifically joyful abandonment to God’s will when things don’t go the way we plan, that is one of the key signs of holiness. It is, of course, far easier said than done.
St Ignatius continually emphasised “holy indifference” – an abandonment to God’s will, indifferent to our own. We all experience occasions when things aren’t the way we’d like – illness, bereavement, financial worries – we all meet these “crosses” at different times on our journey through life. Fr Doyle himself suffered much – he experienced ill health throughout his life, and during his years in the war he abandoned himself completely to the dangers, dirt, cold, heat, tiredness and destruction he saw all around him, accepting all of this from the hands of a Father in Heaven who loved him and whom he loved in return.
We will conclude today with some words from the great Doctor of the Church St Francis de Sales:
The everlasting God has in His wisdom foreseen from eternity the cross that He now presents to you as a gift from His inmost heart. This cross He now sends you He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with loving arms and weighed with His own hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you.
He has blessed it with His holy Name, anointed it with His consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God.
Lord, give me grace and strength of character to tear myself away promptly from what, if not bad, is less good, and to give myself earnestly, self-denyingly, perseveringly, to the better and the best.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle always wanted to choose the hard thing, he always wanted to do the best thing. Thus, his prayer doesn’t just refer to tearing himself promptly away from bad things, but even from things that are less good. This is what we must aspire to – an interior struggle between the good and the best! Most of us are probably not yet there; our battles are probably (at least some of the time) between good and evil, not between a higher and a lesser good. Even so, Fr Doyle’s prayer reveals a crucial tactic in our spiritual struggle – we must flee temptations promptly. This is the advice of all of the saints and spiritual writers. The spiritual hero is the “coward” who flees temptation as soon as it presents itself, not the one who enters into conversation with it.
As St Benedict says in the Prologue to his Rule, the one who is victorious in God’s service is the one who…
has foiled the evil one, the devil, at every turn, flinging both him and his promptings far from the sight of his heart. While these temptations were still young, he caught hold of them and dashed them against Christ.
I have often wondered what Jesus meant by the ‘work’, but I could never bring myself to ask you what you thought it was, for I knew if this message really came from Him, He would make clear what he wanted done in His own good time. Yesterday I was writing in my room a thought which had come to my mind: ‘Is there not something wrong with a priest who constantly feels the need of amusement and distraction? Has such a one tasted the sweetness of Jesus in the Tabernacle?’ I suppose it was only putting in words the grace He has given me; worldly amusements are nearly always now a torture to me, while it is a perfect joy, a comfort and recreation, to spend an hour with Him. As I was writing that sentence quoted above, without a thought of you or anything in particular, suddenly it flashed into my mind as clearly as if someone had spoken the words at my elbow, ‘The work I want you to do is the sanctification of My priests through retreats’.
Now I know well that one must not attach too much importance to what may be only a passing thought, due to many causes, still I must not conceal from you that the peace and consolation which came with this inspiration was very great, and the longing for great holiness most intense. Somehow I seemed to realise too that the retreat I have in mind, and the standard of perfection I hope, with God’s grace, to set before His priests will bring down on me much ridicule, but that, at the same time, the seed will fall on the good soil of many hearts He is now preparing, and will mean a new life of great sanctity to many. I know from experience that the material to work on is magnificent, but the standard of perfection is deplorably low. Surely there cannot be a grander work than this, but if it is to be done as Jesus wishes, it calls for a state of perfection which, without any exaggeration, I know well I am far from having reached.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these extraordinary words 107 years ago today (7 July 1914) to what O’Rahilly describes as a “privileged penitent”.
This penitent (probably a nun), told Fr Doyle that she has received some form of message that Fr Doyle had some special ‘work’ to do in his life, and this letter from a century ago is Fr Doyle’s assessment of what he discerned this work to be. As ever, he recognised that all work for God starts with our own growth in holiness.
Perhaps even more extraordinary are the words that this “privileged penitent” wrote about Fr Doyle (they are published only in the later editions of the O’Rahilly biography):
In response to inspirations received directly or indirectly from Jesus, he strove, notably for seven or eight years before he died, to ‘put on Jesus Christ’, to model his life on the Priest-Christ, to be, as far as it was humanly possible, ‘another Christ’. This was the secret spring of his holiness. It was not a simple attraction, not a mere fad, but a forming of a life of priestly holiness, distinctly asked for and expressed by Christ. He heard with attention the first invitation: ‘Model your life on Mine, lead a perfect life’. And as if to secure a faithful response, Jesus seemed in the year 1910 to have planted in his heart a spark of divine love. This was the ‘sweet wounding’, a grace like to that received by St Teresa, of which he complained. It made him understand Christ’s love for His priests and His – almost helpless – dependence on them for the sanctification of souls. Jesus infused into his soul some of His own passionate love for souls; and it was this passion that made him at times seem to do rash things. It was the ‘charity of Christ’ that urged him, and he did nothing through mere caprice or impulse. As a matter of fact, he hated penance as being opposed to his natural gaiety of disposition; his sensitiveness to pain made him shrink from even a pin-prick. But there was no choice. He promised to be a friend of the Great Friend, to be as far as possible a priest like the Great Priest, to live as He lived and die as He died – for the priesthood and for souls. The padre offered his life for the sanctification of the priesthood as Christ offered his life for the Church. ‘When you hear of my death’, he wrote, ‘you will know that I died for them.’ Christ asked penance and death in reparation; but He asked personal priestly holiness to serve as an example to other priests – attachment to the person of Jesus – so that as he had loved, others too would learn to love, not as the ordinary good Christian loves, but as intimate friends should love their Friend and Master.
This letter contains some truly astounding suggestions, perhaps the most remarkable of which is the claim that Fr Doyle experienced something akin to the transverberation of the heart that great saints like Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Philip Neri, Pio of Pietrelcina and others encountered. It is true that Fr Doyle’s own private diary records what he describes as a painful, sweet wounding of his heart:
I dare not put on paper what I feel, even if I could; but at times Jesus seems to pour all the grace of His Sacred Heart upon me until I am intoxicated almost with His love and could cry out with the pain of that sweet wounding.
There may be other explanations, and we cannot know at this distance, and based on the material in the public domain, whether this truly was the same experience of the saints.
At the end of the day we should not be too curious about it. The extraordinary mystical experiences of the saints (just like their extraordinary penances) are not really very essential for us. What matters is the message of their lives. In today’s quote, written 107 years ago today, we see the importance Fr Doyle placed on the holiness of priests. This wasn’t just what we might today term as “clericalism” – it is true to say that the Church will be holy if there are holy priests. And the contrary is true – sinful priests will breed a lukewarm and sinful Church. Let us therefore pray for our priests as Fr Doyle asked. Even to this day, Fr Doyle’s example and writings remain a source of inspiration for many priests (and lay people) around the world – his special work continues, even after his death.
As a boy He gave me something of the kind, so that a passing glance at an immodest picture used to make me shudder; and until I began my theology at 31 I was quite ignorant of most sexual matters. That was His goodness, not mine.
COMMENT: Today is the feast of St Maria Goretti, the great champion of purity. She died at age 11 in defence of the virtue of purity and as such her intercession is often sought by those with struggles in this area.
Fr Doyle seems to have had an unusual purity. In addition to the above quote, here is the testimony of a fellow Jesuit on the issue of Fr Doyle’s purity:
I knew from many talks with him on the subject that Willie found it hard to realise the difficulties of those struggling with impurity and the awful fascination of this sin, just as those who have never taken strong drink fail to appreciate the difficulties and temptations of the drunkard.
This does not mean that Fr Doyle was never subject to temptations, but rather that through God’s grace his major temptations related to others aspects of the moral life, mostly relating to his temper and tendency towards impetuousness.
It is fascinating for us to consider that a normal, well adjusted young man 100 years ago could be largely unaware of sexual matters until his thirties. But then again, we live in an age which has lost the innocence of times past.
The words of St Josemaria Escriva on purity are relevant for us to consider today:
Never speak of impure things or events, not even to lament them. Remember that such matter is stickier than pitch. Change the subject or, if that is not possible, continue with it, speaking of the need and the beauty of purity — a virtue of men who know the value of their souls.
Having said all of that, we do not want to fall into a Jansenistic trap of obsessing about sin and about impurity. Sadly, some strains of Catholicism, especially in Ireland, seem to have fallen into this trap in the past. Such an approach was far from that of Fr Doyle. We must resist the temptation, but if we fail, we pick ourselves up and go forward, without scruples, nostalgia or curiosity.
Fr Doyle seems not to have written or spoken much about sex and purity, except in his booklet on scruples (this booklet was composed from his notes after he died). The following brief excerpt from the full booklet (available here:SCRUPLES AND THEIR TREATMENT) shows how gentle Fr Doyle’s approach was, and how far it was how we are often encouraged to perceive that era in the Church.
Scruples regarding Holy Purity
As the scruples of pious persons are often concerned with the virtue of purity, many may find it useful and consoling to recall the following.
Mortal Sin not Probable.
In order that a mortal sin against purity be committed, it is necessary (as for every mortal sin) that there be at the time and at the same moment full consent and full actual attention to the grave malice of the thought, word or action.
In other words, in order to sin mortally, there must be perfect knowledge and full consent, the one clearly perceiving, the other fully accepting, the grave sin.
Besides this it is necessary that both acts be simultaneous.
Is this what happens in the thoughts or liberties of pious souls against the angelic virtue? Certainly not.
Nearly always they do not realise they are doing wrong; they completely forget their thought or act is sinful, even though a moment before they may have clearly perceived its malice.
In all such cases they do not commit sin, since they are not conscious of wrong while thinking or acting. Or they only see the malice of their thought or act in a confused way, and though there may be full consent of will, the fault is no more than venial, since the knowledge of the wrong is imperfect.
Two Principles of Security.
Should souls that have been tempted against purity examine whether they have consented?
They must not think of doing so.
These examinations are imprudent and dangerous, their only result being to upset one’s peace of mind, or bring back the temptation with renewed force.
Besides they are quite unnecessary, because a scrupulous soul may take for rule the two following principles.
Firstly, every time mortal sin is committed, the soul knows it clearly before any examination.
Secondly, on the other hand, the soul is certain that mortal sin has not been committed when there is any doubt on the matter.
Utility of these Temptations.
Instead of being discouraged, souls strongly tempted against holy purity should look on themselves as highly privileged. It is a truth of Christianity that God only permits trials for our greater good.
The Holy Spirit assures us of this by the mouth of St. Paul: “To them that love God all things (even the vilest temptations) work together unto good” (Rom. 8:28).