Blessed Columba Marmion: A Deadly Serious Spiritual Writer | Christopher Zehnder
About forty years ago, Patricia Bitzen of St. Cloud, Minnesota, the mother of seven, received very bad news. Doctors told her she had cancer. She underwent a double masectomy, but the cancer was found to have spread to her lungs and lymph gland. She was given three months to live. Her brother, a Benedictine monk at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, suggested she go to the Abbey of Maredsous in Belgium, to pray at the tomb of Dom Columba Marmion. She did.
"She literally staggered into the abbey church on her last legs," said Fr. Mark Tierney, a monk of Glenstal Abbey in Ireland and vice-postulator for Blessed Columba's canonization cause. But when she touched the tomb, she turned to her husband and said, "I feel grand!" Back in the United States, doctors examined her and found no cancer. This was in August 1966.
"Now she is about 78," said Fr. Tierney, "plays golf every day, and has no sign of cancer at all. Rome was very impressed by her case."
Indeed Rome was, for Patricia Bitzen's healing provided the needed miracle for Dom Columba Marmion's beatification on September 3, 2000, 77 years after his death.
Patricia Bitzen is not the only recipient of what Fr. Tierney prefers to call Blessed Columba Marmion's "favors." "People have prayed to Marmion for various reasons," Fr. Tierney said. "For instance, I'm getting letters from as far away as Greece from people who, having been married for ten, fifteen years, could not have children -- and then they prayed to Marmion, and they had a child. Even during his life, he would meet a lady who didn't have a child, and he would say, 'by this time next year, you'll have a child.'" And she did. "That was very embarrassing during his lifetime," said Fr. Tierney, "but now that he's dead, it's still happening.
"Marmion is still alive and well and doing great things for people."
But perhaps Marmion will now grant far greater favors, for English speakers at least, through the publication of a new translation of what some have called his greatest spiritual work, Christ, the Life of the Soul. Blessed Columba Marmion, whom Fr. Benedict Groeschel calls "this great and original spiritual writer," has much to teach Catholics of the 21st century about their true dignity -- their adoption as sons by God the Father through Our Lord Jesus Christ.
A Son of Ireland
Interest in, and knowledge of, Dom Columba Marmion has waned over the past forty years. Who was he?
The son of an Irish father and a French mother, Joseph Aloysius Marmion was born on April 1, 1858 in Dublin, Ireland. In 1874, he entered the Dublin diocesan seminary, and after completing his studies at the College of the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, was ordained a priest on June 16, 1881. As the name of the Roman college indicates, Marmion's ambition was to become a missionary monk, in Australia; but after visiting the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous in Belgium, Marmion felt a calling to the cloister. His bishop, however, asked him to wait, and in subsequent years, Fr. Marmion served in Ireland as a curate, a professor at his diocese's major seminary in Clonliffe, and as a chaplain for Redemptorist nuns and at a woman's prison. Finally, in 1886, Marmion's bishop permitted him to enter Maredsous as a monk.
Taking the religious name of Columba, after the great Irish missionary saint of the sixth century, Marmion followed the difficult path of monastic discipline and community life, making his solemn profession on February 10, 1891. As a monk, he joined a group of monks from Maredsous in founding an abbey in Louvain, where he was made Prior and where he served as a professor at the university there and as spiritual director for young monks. In addition to these duties, Marmion preached retreats in Belgium and in the United Kingdom and was spiritual director for many religious communities. On September 28, 1909, Dom Columba was elected third Abbot of Maredsous, where he directed the life of over 100 monks as well as overseeing a humanities college, a trade school, and a farm.
Despite these cares, which would be enough for most men, Dom Columba continued to give retreats and serve as a spiritual director. He even advised Belgium's Queen Elizabeth. Indeed, as Pope John Paul II pointed out in the homily for Marmion's beatification, amid the trials of the First World War, Dom Columba's "sole comfort ... was preaching and giving spiritual direction." Dom Columba died during a flu epidemic on January 30, 1923. He was 65 years old.
A Look at His Books
It was Dom Columba's retreat conferences that formed the basis for the enduring legacy of his published works: Christ the Life of the Soul (1917), Christ in His Mysteries (1919), Christ the Ideal of the Monk (1922), and the posthumously published, Christ the Ideal of the Priest.
For Fr. Benedict Groeschel, Marmion's books provided a unique source of spiritual insight and nourishment in the pre-Vatican II era. "In those days [the 1950s] there was not much interesting Catholic theology around in the United States, anything that would engage you," said Fr. Groeschel. "It was a theological wasteland. It wasn't wrong, but it was utterly uncreative. The soul was looking for something really intelligent and attractive, and a powerfully Christological reading and interpretation of the Catholic faith. And that's where Abbot Marmion comes in. Abbot Marmion was not a particularly philosophical person at all. But he was deeply imbued with the Church Fathers, and particularly St. Augustine. He built everything on the Church Fathers and offered to us a very beautiful foundation."
Though Marmion was not opposed to the more abstract theological mode of St. Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics, he had a different point of departure, said Fr. Groeschel. "Abbot Marmion in some ways was the beginning of a movement that became known, under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as the 'New Evangelization.' That movement begins theological and religious investigation with the self," an approach that "comes directly from the great statement of St. Augustine: 'You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.' It relates to how a person experiences their need for God."
"One of the things about Abbot Marmion," Fr. Groeschel added, "is that he ain't fooling. He's a deadly serious spiritual writer."
This seriousness is reflected in the theme of Divine adoption that forms the great motif of Marmion's works: because God became man, men can become adopted sons of God. The doctrine of Divine adoption is, of course, found in the New Testament, and has always been taught by the Church, but Marmion brought a special depth of insight to its expression. Indeed, some of Marmion's admirers believe he will one day be declared a Doctor of the Church -- the Doctor of Divine Adoption.
According to Fr. Tierney, "A lot of the Eastern fathers wrote about the idea of Divine adoption, but they put it into technical language. Marmion brought it down to the level of the ordinary man. Marmion's definition of grace is that it is nothing more than the life of Christ in the soul. That is why he chose the title, Christ, the Life of the Soul. Grace is the life of Christ in the soul, which we get at baptism and which we build on right on up to the day we die."
A Simple Approach to Prayer and Doctrine
Marmion's understanding of the centrality of Divine adoption in turn influenced his approach to prayer. For Marmion, according to Fr. Tierney, the "definition of prayer is quite simple -- just spending time with God. He didn't go into all the logistics of prayer; he tried to simplify things. He was one of the first to insist that holiness, contemplation, and prayer are open to anyone, whereas in his day, many people thought it was just for monks and nuns and priests. The main contribution of Marmion to modern spirituality is that he opened the door to everyone and anyone. He said God does not limit Himself to the holiest of holy people but [comes] to everybody and that sinners are capable of reaching great heights as well as anyone else. He's got the theology of hope, which he picked up when he was a chaplain in a woman's prison in Dublin as a young priest, when he was dealing with very hardened criminals, people who had no hope. He was able to give them some hope for their future and also for the fact that they were not condemned by God, even though they were condemned by man."
Marmion's gift for simplifying things extended to all aspects of Catholic doctrine. Indeed, much of his popularity as an author arose from his special gift for simplifying complex doctrines, and making them accessible to the average Catholic. "Marmion had this wonderful facility for synthesizing all aspects of God's message -- the liturgical, scriptural, and theological," Fr. Tierney noted. "For example, he was quite a devotee of St. Thomas Aquinas. But he also incorporated much from the greatest writers of devotional spirituality, such as St. Francis De Sales, who was one of his principal heroes."
Alan Bancroft, the translator of the new edition of Christ, the Life of the Soul, spoke of Marmion's approach in more personal terms. Marmion, he said, "demonstrates to me is that it is possible undeviatingly to follow the words of the Gospels and Epistles and yet at the same time to present them in a way that often makes you blink and say, 'of course!' In speaking of the Holy Spirit's delicate guidance of souls, Marmion gives this description: 'you read a text of Holy Scripture; you may have read and re-read it many a time without its really having struck your mind; but one day, all of a sudden, a light flashes out, so to speak, illuminating to its very depths the truth stated in that text.' Marmion's words have that effect on me. What he had received from his long and deep meditation, he was able to pass on to us."
Reading Marmion Today
Mr. Bancroft, not a theologian (he is a lawyer), thinks one needs "no high level of sophistication to benefit from reading Marmion." He noted that Fr. Tierney asked him "to produce an English translation that, with no sacrifice of completeness and accuracy, would be accessible to modern readers." And Fr. Tierney feels he achieved that. In particular, Marmion's frequent Latin quotations - always a challenge to those not well-versed in that language - have been translated into English for the new edition. Mr. Bancroft is currently working on a translation of Dom Columba's Christ in His Mysteries.
From Fr. Tierney's perspective, Marmion "is for everyone." But, he cautioned, "it's not something that you would read like a novel. If you've read three or four pages, that's enough. It's something to be dipped into, to be savored or relished. Marmion said his books were written in prayer and can only be understood in a mentality of prayer. I've seen groups in Ireland, Belgium, France, that meet and read only three or four pages of Marmion and discuss it. People get not only to the stage of knowing Marmion, but loving him."
The Relevance of Marmion
It may be that more Catholics should read Marmion. Fr. Groeschel believes that Marmion offers "a marvelous antidote to the appalling Christologies of our moment. Abbot Marmion is rich in the writings on the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Mysteries of Christ. He is a tremendous antidote to the shenanigans in our time."
And the 21st century may prove to be Marmion's time. After the Second Vatican Council, said Fr. Groeschel, "everything that was traditional was kind of overlooked as irrelevant. It was true in society in general. There was a general cultural explosion, and Marmion was one of the casualties." But Fr. Groeschel said he senses a change. "Marmion's a classic, and a classic writer is one who has relevance to any intelligent time. Now, when times are not intelligent, they will not accept any classics -- and that's what happened in the latter part of the 20th century. Now there is a beginning of a rebuilding of the classics. That era in world history, when everything in the past had no significance, that rather silly era is coming to its own silly conclusion.
"We've had the age of barbarism without Attila the Hun; do-it-yourself barbarism," said Fr. Groeschel. "I think we're coming out of the doldrums."
And Blessed Columba Marmion may be part of the recovery.
[This article was published in a slightly different version in The Wanderer in January 2006.]
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Christopher Zehnder is editor of Los Angeles Lay Catholic Mission and San Francisco Faith.
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