Bl. Columba Marmion: A Spiritual Master for Our Time

We just welcomed into the world my son, Colum Patrick Staudt. Colum is short for Columba, the Latin word for dove, the name of two great Irish saints, St. Columba of Iona (d. 597) and St. Columban (d. 615). I first came across the shortened form of Columba through my friend Fr. Colum Power. He is the one that introduced me to a modern Columba, the great spiritual master, Blessed Columba Marmion. I’m proud to initiate my son into the tradition of this great line of Irish saints!

Bl. Marmion, in particular, is striking for a number of reasons. First, he became a widely admired spiritual director, retreat master, and writer, teaching a generation of Catholics, including popes! Second, he is among a small number of modern Benedictine Saints and at the heart of a revival of Benedictine spirituality. I credit Bl. Marmion, in part at least, with my own vocation as a Benedictine oblate. Third, like St. Columban he left his Irish homeland for the European mainland to help re-stimulate monasticism there. St. Columban was generally following in the footsteps of St. Columba the great Abbot and missionary of Scotland. Bl. Marmion draws these strains of renewal together: apostle of spiritual renewal, Benedictine abbot, and Celtic missionary pilgrim (in the line of peregrinatio pro Christo or ‘exile for Christ’).

Bl_Columba_MarmionJoseph Marmion was born in Dublin in 1858 to an Irish father and French mother. He entered diocescan seminary in Dublin and completed his studies at the College for the Propagation for the Faith in Rome. It was in Rome that he first heard the missionary call and actively sought to be sent to Australia. The Cardinal Archbishop of Dublin had already set sights upon him for a prominent role back home and asked him to return to Ireland before a final decision was made. In the meantime, however, Marmion’s plans shifted during a visit in July of 1881 to the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous in Belgium. During his stay, he heard a voice: “It is here I want you.” It would take some time for this come true, as Marmion began his priestly life outside of Dublin working in parish life, hospital ministry, as a chaplain to sisters, and as a seminary philosopher professor. Eventually, he did receive the necessary permission and entered Maredsous in November of 1886, taking the name Columba.

After a somewhat difficult adjustment in the novitiate, he was settled enough to become assistant novice master himself! This role was not to last for long as he was sent to help found a new monastery as prior of Mont-César Abbey in Louvain. His time there was significant: resuming his teaching duties as a professor of theology, beginning to give his famous retreats, and forming a lifelong friendship with Cardinal Mercier. It was not too long, however, until he was called home to Maredsous, for no less reason than become its next Abbot!

As Abbot, Marmion became one of the most sought after retreat masters in the English and French speaking world and continued writing many important letters of spiritual direction. He oversaw the life of the Abbey during the tumultuous days of the First the World War, founding a temporary refuge for his younger monks in Ireland, and then led the establishment of a new Belgian Congregation of Abbeys after the War. Before his death at Maredsous on January 30, 1923, he had become a world renowned author with his worked translated into 7 languages. When he was beatified in the year 2000 he became one of only a handful of Benedictine to be canonized or beatified since the martyrs of the English Reformation.

The best example of his famous retreats is recorded in Marmion’s magnum opus, Christ the Life of the Soul. We all know the proverbial phrase, “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” This book should be an exception, when you read the endorsements across Zaccheus Press’s newly translated edition (2005).

•      “Read this—it is the pure doctrine of the Church” –Pope Benedict XV. Benedict used the book for his bedside reading, which he described as a “great help … in my spiritual life” and as “singularly conducive to excite and maintain the flame of divine love in the soul, and to foster the desire to imitate Christ and to live by Him.”

•      Marion’s works are “outstanding in the accuracy of their doctrine, the clarity of their style and the depth and richness of their thought” –Pope Pius XII

•      “An authentic treasury of spiritual truth” –Pope John Paul II

To these astounding papal endorsements, I will add my own modest one. I have found that Marmion speaks equally to both my mind and my heart. His writing is thoroughly Thomistic, rooted in Scripture, and completely ordered toward holiness. As I read him, I am at once transfixed, moved, challenged, comforted, and inspired. I have found him to be a great model for theology, one that draws more deeply into the life of faith, reverence, and love (hallmarks of his writing).

Marmion’s spiritual doctrine both continues the Benedictine tradition and makes important adjustments to the modern world, particularly in embracing St. Thérèse’s little way (Marmion was a strong supporter of her canonization). John Paul describes his spiritual vision well: “in his writings he teaches a simple yet demanding way of holiness for all the faithful, whom God has destined in love to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ (cf. Eph 1: 5). Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and the source of all grace, is the center of our spiritual life, our model of holiness” (Beatification Homily, Sep. 3, 2000).

Christ the Life of the Soul is only the first volume of a famous trilogy, followed by Christ in His Mysteries and Christ the Ideal of a Monk (though he also wrote Christ the Ideal of the Priest and Sponsa Verbi: The Virgin Consecrated to Christ). We could briefly sum up the three works as an expansion of the following theme:

We shall understand nothing—I do not say only of perfection, of holiness, but even of simple Christianity—if we do not grasp that its most essential foundation is constituted by the state of a child of God; participation, through sanctifying grace, in the eternal Sonship of the Word Incarnate (Christ in His Mysteries, 64).

Christ the Life of the Soul focuses on this theme directly, describing the spiritual life essentially as that of adoptive sonship: “All holiness … will consist of receiving the divine life from Christ and through Christ, who possess the fullness of it and who is established as our only Mediator; of preserving it, of increasing it constantly by an adhesion ever more perfect, a union ever more close, to Him who is at its source” (8).

Christ in His Mysteries describes the way in which one is conformed to Christ through the mysteries of his life, encountered in the liturgy and sacraments: “We shall see that each one of His mysteries contains its own teaching, brings its special life; is for our souls the source of a particular grace, the object of which is to ‘form Jesus in us’” (12). Marmion takes the reader through the importance of the mysteries in general, as a way of conformity to Christ, and then through each of the mysteries in detail, following the liturgical year.

If his work on the mysteries of Christ enables us to see how we conform to the Son in our adoption, the final volume speaks even more practically about the way of life that follows. Christ the Ideal of the Monk may seem far removed from most people, but Aidan Nichols counters that “the life of the monk is the life of the Christian when stripped down to its bare essentials and lived out in relation to others … and a spiritual father or guide (Introduction to Mysteries, x). Marmion himself says at the opening: “When we examine the Rule of St. Benedict, we see very clearly that he presents it only as an abridgement of Christianity, and a means of practicing the Christian Life in its fullness and perfection.” This final volume, which may be Marmion’s most personal of the three, sharpens his vision into the details of how it shapes life in the concrete.

Before one begins with this trilogy, I would recommend first approaching Marmion through his letters of spiritual direction found in Union with God. Speaking of endorsements, the cover of this book claims it as one Bl. Mother Teresa’s favorite works. Marmion’s tone is his letters is more personal as speaks candidly, directly, fatherly, and with humor to the soul in such a way that it inspires both gently and firmly. Here is a pertinent example:

Indeed, my daughter, the inner life becomes very simple from the moment we understand that it consists entirely in losing oneself in Jesus Christ, making only one heart, one soul, one will with His own. This is not done once and for all, “one buries oneself more and more in this holy will” as Saint Chantal so truly said (33).

As John Paul said, his writing is both “simple yet demanding.” It is this combination that makes his writing particularly relevant today. Marmion was a spiritual master who worked with apostolic zeal for a revival of holiness in his time. His message is one that can revive us still today!

R. Jared Staudt

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R. Jared Staudt is Assistant Professor of Theology and Catechesis at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO and the managing editor of the theological journal, Nova et Vetera. His interests include systematic theology, especially in St. Thomas Aquinas, and the relationship of religion and culture.

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