Summary: Abbot Columba Marmion was a priest of Dublin diocese who became a Benedictine monk and eventually abbot at Maredsous, Belgium. He was beatified in 2000. His writings, especially his Christ the Life of the Soul, show the reader how to become transformed into Christ.
Dom Placid Murray OSB outlines his story and his legacy.
Ireland has contributed a great deal to modern Benedictine history – and indeed to the church at large – in the person and spiritual teaching of Blessed Columba Marmion (1858-1923), who was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 3 September 2000. During the beatification ceremony the Pope singled our Marmion’s writings as ‘an authentic treasure of spiritual teaching for the church of our time’ and he prayed for ‘a rediscovery’ of Marmion’s spiritual teaching
(1). Any such attempt at rediscovery cannot hope to recapture the ‘age of innocence’ that first welcomed his books so enthusiastically
(2). Marmion currently is not so much out of date as out of fashion (3). The prevailing spiritual fashion nowadays is the urge on all sides to achieve self-realisation, to build up self-esteem. All is centred on the self, on the ‘me’. Marmion, by contrast, invites the contemporary Christian to a liberation from the self by rediscovering the ‘unsearchable riches of Christ’
(4). Marmion’s was a prayed spirituality, chanted with his monastic brethren in the daily liturgical round of the Divine Office and Mass. It was there that he discovered the message that he preached in so many retreats and which found a permanent expression in his books. It was a ‘seeking for Christ in his mysteries’ rather than a ‘quest for the historical Jesus’, a faith trying to understand, rather than an intellect looking for faith. If in fact this has turned out to be Marmion’s ‘mission’ in the church, how then did he understand his original and personal ‘vocation’ to become an Irish Benedictine?
His origins and background: Dublin and Rome
Marmion was born on 1 April 1858, the seventh child of William Marmion and his French wife, Herminie. Baptised Joseph on 6 April in St Paul’s Church, Arran Quay, his early life was passed entirely inside a few square miles of his native Dublin. The Marmion household was devoutly Catholic and three of Marmion’s sisters later entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy. In 1868 he attended the primary school run by the Augustinian Friars in St John’s Lane, Dublin, before proceeding, in January 1869, to the Jesuit-run Belvedere College, where he received an excellent grounding in Greek and Latin. In 1874, at the age of fifteen years and nine months, he entered Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, the Dublin diocesan seminary, and commenced his studies for the diocesan priesthood. In 1877, having completed his studies in philosophy, he was conferred with the Bachelor of Arts degree by the Catholic University, Dublin. In 1879 he proceeded to Rome to complete his theological training living in the Pontifical Irish College and studying at the College of Propaganda Fide for eighteen months. Here he was recognised as a brilliant student, being awarded the gold medal for academic excellence in 1881. Although invited by the college authorities to present himself for the doctorate programme, he turned the offer down for health reasons, on account of the extra year in Rome that this would have entailed. He received minor orders in February 1881, was ordained subdeacon on 12 March, deacon on 15 April and, at the early age of twenty three years and two months, was ordained priest on 16 June. He returned to Ireland in July 1881, with his theological course completed and with a reputation for brilliance, but without any experience of studying at a secular university, and with little direct knowledge of adult lay life outside his own family. In September 1881 he was appointed curate in Dundrum parish in Dublin, where he remained for a year until his appointment as Professor of Metaphysics and French in Holy Cross College, Clonliffe in September 1882. He was also appointed chaplain to the enclosed nuns of the Redemptoristine convent at Drumcondra, a position he retained until 1886. He served for a short period in 1886 as chaplain to the women’s prison in Mountjoy in Dublin.
The Monte Cassino experience: anima naturaliter benedictina
It was while he was a student at Rome that Marmion felt for the first time the call from God to the Benedictine life. Appropriately enough, it happened at Monte Cassino, although the occasion itself was simply a return journey from Naples to Rome from a summer outing with some fellow students from the Irish College in 1880, when Marmion was aged twenty-two (5). This experience shows that Marmion’s vocation, even in his seminary days, was never that of a clear cut call to the diocesan priesthood, so much so that he could later write about Msgr Kirby, who ordained him: ‘… I fear he looks on me as a kind of apostate for having left the secular mission. However I heard the words Magister adest et vocat te and I obeyed (6). It was in front of a painting in the Monte Cassino abbey refectory, depicting St Benedict at prayer in the Sacro Speco (of Subiaco), that the divine call appeared to him to be beyond doubt. However, the realisation of the call came in a roundabout way, and only six years later, through his friendship with Francois Moreau, a Belgian student in Propaganda, who was fired with enthusiasm for the combination of Benedictine and missionary ideals promoted by Dom Salvado, founder of the monastery of New Norcia in Western Australia. Shortly before his ordination to the priesthood, Marmion wrote a long letter from Rome to Dom Salvado, in which he traced the history of his vocation. He began by saying that he wished to make known to Dom Salvado ‘what I believe is my vocation to your mission of Western Australia’. Although in the event he did not join the Australian venture, nevertheless one passage in the letter is worth quoting in full, since it shows clearly that he was already considering becoming a Benedictine before his ordination, albeit with some misgiving:
Even though I had always felt a great desire for the religious state, I used to feel however at the same time a certain unease or scruple as regards becoming a Benedictine, seeing that God had given me an immense desire to work for the salvation of souls; and I used always feel deeply moved when I used to hear or read something about those thousands of human beings for whom Jesus had shed his blood, and who die without knowing him. And so, when I read the details concerning your mission, I realised that it was exactly that to which I was called, because I should satisfy my desire to be a religious, and at the same time work for the most forsaken souls, and in obedience (7).
The first Maredsous period
On 25 October 1886 Marmion received permission to join the Benedictine Order from Dr William Walsh, the newly appointed Archbishop of Dublin. On 21 November 1886 he entered the newly founded Belgian abbey of Maredsous, with which, by virtue of his Benedictine vow of stability, he was to be associated for the rest of his life. The first thirteen years of his monastic life (1886-99) were spent at Maredsous itself, beginning with a particularly exacting novitiate under Dom Benoit D’Hondt. After a rather unsuccessful start in the abbey school as surveillant (a kind of housemaster to the junior boys), he found his feet within the community through more congenial work, notably the teaching of Thomistic philosophy to the junior monks. He also gradually built up a reputation in the surrounding district as a spiritual guide, through the exercise of ministry on a small scale. Throughout his protracted exile in Belgium he remained unmistakably, although not defensively, Irish in person and character, even after French had become the language of his daily life. Furthermore, though he became a member of the German Beuronese Congregation (by virtue of his vow of stability for Maredsous), nevertheless the local people around the abbey quickly christened him ‘the Irish Father’. Such was Marmion’s lot – to be a solitary Irish Benedictine on the continent before his time.
The Louvain period
At some stage between 1896 and 1899 Marmion had already worked out his distinctive understanding of the doctrine of divine adoption, which was later on to be the kernel of his published works. Dom Idesbald Ryelandt (8) once described to the present writer how it had been a soul-searing experience for him to have lived for years alongside Marmion, a man whose whole life was dominated by the intuition of that one line from St John, The Word was made Flesh. Marmion did not preach from a written script; Dom Idesbald described his style as a freely ranging concatenatio, pouring out from an interior abundance. Marmion disclaimed all originality in what he had to say. The Dominican writer, Père M. M. Philipon, has preserved a remark made by Marmion during a retreat he preached in 1916, ‘The doctrine is not mine, non est mea doctrina. I have drawn it from the Gospels, the Epistles, from tradition and the Holy Rule (9). In a letter of May 1917 he wrote, ‘It was in the liturgy that I learned to know Saint Paul and the Gospels (10). In 1899 he was sent as one of the founding monks from Maredsous to the monastery of Mont-Cesar in Louvain. He remained in Louvain for ten years, during which time he fulfilled the duties of prior, prefect of clerics and professor of dogmatic theology. This decade in Louvain provided a wide outlet for his matured spiritual doctrine, through his lectures on dogmatic theology in Mont-César, his retreats to priests and religious, and his wide private correspondence.
Marmion the writer
Marmion published little throughout his life, unlike most writers who gradually build up a reputation by continuous publications. He was in his late fifties when Christ, the Life of the Soul first appeared in 1916. At that time, as abbot, he was weighed down by the cares of office, with little leisure for literary pursuits, and censorship under German occupation during World War I made it necessary to alter the date of publication. The immediate and phenomenal success of the book has been described by Dom Bernard Capelle as a silent plebiscite (11). This was followed by Christ in his Mysteries (1919), Christ the Ideal of the Monk (1922), and Sponsa Verbi (1923). The books were able to appear in rapid succession because they were compiled from notes taken down during his weekly conferences to his monastic community. The final editing was done by Dom Raymond Thibaut, and was in each case authenticated by Marmion, who even remarked about the text of Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, ‘c’est bien moi’.
The Abbacy 1909-23
The third and final phase of his monastic life began when the Chapter of Maredsous elected him as its third abbot in 1909. As abbot, over and above the spiritual guidance of his community and of many individual correspondents, Marmion was involved in four major public events. The first was the invitation by the Belgian government in 1909-10 to undertake a Benedictine foundation in Katanga, which was part of the Belgian colony of the Congo. In spite of pressure from government quarters, the chapter of Maredsous refused the offer, and Marmion, who would have favoured such a foundation, accepted this negative decision. The next important external event occurred in 1913 when nearly the whole community of Anglican Benedictines of Caldey Island, off Tenby in Wales, transferred their allegiance from Canterbury to Rome. Marmion became deeply involved in the spiritual and canonical process of the reception of the community into the Catholic Church. The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 ushered in four years of grave anxiety for Marmion. Unlike the military situation in World War II, Belgium was able to retain its sovereignty over a small coastal strip of its own territory. This enabled those young monks of Maredsous for whom Marmion had found a temporary home at Edermine in County Wexford, to travel to and from the front, where they acted as brancardiers (stretcher bearers). Marmion made every effort to maintain the bond of community between those monks who had remained behind in Maredsous under German occupation, and those based in Edermine, even travelling in disguise through the German lines to reach Ireland. One final piece of important monastic, ecclesiastical and even political business absorbed much of Marmion’s later energies, although strictly speaking it was not of his remit. His strenuous efforts to install Belgian monks in Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem (12) following the internment of the original German community by the victorious British forces, were of no avail, the question being finally settled by the re-installation of the German (Beuronese) monks in 1921. The anti-German sentiment in Belgium after World War I made it impossible for Maredsous and the other Belgian houses to remain in the German Beuronese Congregation. Marmion played a central role in the process of withdrawal, to this end visiting the other Belgian houses after the Armistice in November 1918. On 23 December 1918 the monastic chapter in Maredsous voted in favour of separation from Beuron and in February 1920 the Belgian Benedictine Congregation of the Annunciation was formally erected. Throughout this period, and in spite of failing health, Marmion maintained his hectic schedule of retreats and sermons and his extensive correspondence. He died at Maredsous on Tuesday 3rd January 1923 after a brief illness which originated in a chill and developed into bronchial pneumonia. He would have been sixty-five on the following 1 April.
This article is taken from Ed. Martin Browne OSB & Colmán Ó Clabaigh OSB, The Irish Benedictines: A History published by The Columba Press 2005.