Dom Marmion, Master of the Spiritual Life

January 15, 2023
Source: District of Asia
Abbot Marmion

As we approach the hundredth anniversary of his return to God, let us retrace the career of this Benedictine before giving a preview of his book Christ, The Life of the Soul.  After having read Christ, The Life of the Soul, Benedict XV addressed a letter to the author full of praise. In it, the pontiff praised Dom Colomba Marmion for his "singular ability to arouse and maintain in hearts the flame of divine charity. He also emphasized how much his "doctrine is capable of arousing in souls the ambition to imitate Christ and the ardor to live by Him who, 'through God himself, was established our wisdom, our justice, our sanctification and our redemption' (1 Cor 1:30).

Dom Columba Marmion

Joseph Louis Marmion was born in Dublin on April 1, 1858. His father, William Marmion, was Irish. His mother, Herminie Cordier, was French. He was the seventh of nine children, three of whom were to enter religion.

He studied theology in Rome at the Pontifical College of Propaganda Fide and was ordained a priest on June 16, 1881. On his way back to Dublin, he stopped at the abbey of Maredsous (near Namur) to greet a former fellow student. The monastic atmosphere that he observed there seduced him to such an extent that he considered interrupting his trip and staying at the monastery. Called to order by his bishop, he continued his journey to his homeland and his diocese of origin.

Vicar in Dundrum (south of Dublin) for a year, he was then appointed professor of philosophy at Holy Cross College, the diocesan seminary in Dublin. In mid-November 1886, he received permission from his bishop to fulfill his religious vocation.

Welcomed there by Dom Placide Wolter (first abbot of Maredsous), he began his novitiate under the name of Brother Colomba. The formation was rough for this thirty year old surrounded by twenty year olds. But it did not matter! He persevered in his path until his solemn profession on February 10, 1891. Noted for his many talents, Dom Marmion was sent by his superiors to Louvain to found the Abbey of Mont-César where he became prior in 1899. He also became the confessor of the future Cardinal Joseph Mercier, then Archbishop of Malines-Brussels.

Dom Hildebrand de Hemptinne (second abbot of Maredsous) having been named Primate of the Benedictine Confederation by Leo XIII, Dom Marmion was chosen to succeed him on September 28, 1909. His abbatial motto is taken from the Rule of Saint Benedict: "Serve rather than dominate" (ch. 64).

He gave his monks many spiritual conferences centered on the person of Christ. His secretary, Dom Raymond Thibaut, transcribed and ordered them to form a trilogy that Dom Marmion took care to revise and approve. Christ, Life of the Soul, Christ in His Mysteries and Christ, Ideal of the Monk were published in 1917, 1919 and 1922 respectively.

Dom Marmion died on January 30, 1923 at the abbey of Maredsous, victim of an influenza epidemic.

Christ, life of the soul

From the preface, the author reveals his ambition:

"To reach first the good and believing souls, and to make them better: by raising the ideal of those who were content with the mediocre, by dilating the ambitions of the pusillanimous, by stirring up fervor in the lukewarm, by inspiring the fervent with a will to holiness;”

"Then to obtain from these living people, enriched with a supplement of life, that in their turn they make overflow around them the Christianity of which, in them, the level will have been exalted and the energy increased;”

"Finally, thanks to these pious allies, these zealous cooperators, widen the circle of action and pass resolutely to conquest: bringing other souls from indifference to practice, from impiety to religion, from unbelief to faith, from death to life."

To do this, Dom Marmion proceeds in two stages. He begins by describing God's plan and the principal artisans of its realization (Christ, the Church and the Holy Spirit). He then details the foundation and the two fundamental movements of the Christian life.

The first part of the book is centered on this passage from St. Paul's epistle to the Ephesians:

"In Christ God chose us from before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless before Him; in His love, according to the good pleasure of His will, He predestined us to be His adopted sons, through Jesus Christ, to the praise of the magnificence of his grace, by which He made us acceptable in His own sight, in His beloved Son." (Eph 1:4-6)

The divine plan includes three stages: "Our predestination and vocation in Christ Jesus, our justification by grace which makes us children of God, our supreme glorification which assures us eternal life.”

Having become adopted children of the Father by the grace that comes to us from Christ, "we must be so identified with Christ by grace and our virtues that the Father, looking at our souls, recognizes us as his true children and takes His pleasure in us, as He did in contemplating Christ Jesus on earth.”

The work of our sanctification results from the coordinated action of Christ, the Church and the Holy Spirit.

Christ "is the unique model of our perfection, the artisan of our redemption and the infinite treasure of our graces, the efficient cause of our sanctification.”

"Grace is, in fact, the principle of that supernatural life of children of God which constitutes the basis and substance of all holiness. Now this grace is found in its fullness in Christ, and all the works that grace makes us do have their exemplar in Jesus; then, Christ merited this grace for us by the satisfactions of His life, His passion and His death; finally, Christ Himself produces this grace in us, by the sacraments and by the contact that we have with Him in faith.”

The Church maintains in us the divine life "by her doctrine, which she keeps intact and integral in a living and uninterrupted tradition; by her jurisdiction, in virtue of which she has authority to direct us in the name of Christ; by her sacraments, in which she enables us to draw from the sources of grace which her divine Founder created; by her worship, which she herself organizes to give all glory and honor to Christ Jesus and to his Father.

The Holy Spirit, "deposits in us forces, 'habits', which raise the powers and faculties of our soul to the divine level: these are the supernatural virtues, especially the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity [...], then the infused moral virtues which help us in the struggle against the obstacles which oppose in us the divine life. Finally, there are the gifts...".

Now that the divine plan and the agents of its realization are known, it is still necessary to want to be part of it:

"It would be of little use to us if we only contemplated in an abstract and theoretical way this divine plan, in which the wisdom and goodness of our God shine forth. We must adapt ourselves practically to this plan, or we will not be part of Christ's kingdom.”

The foundation of the spiritual edifice - which the second part of the book describes - is faith in the divinity of Our Lord:

"The first attitude of the soul in the face of the revelation made to it of the divine plan of our adoption in Jesus Christ is [...] faith. Faith is the root of all justification and the principle of the Christian life. It attaches itself, as its primary object, to the divinity of Jesus sent by the eternal Father to work out our salvation. [...] From this capital object, it radiates on everything that touches Christ: the sacraments, the Church, souls, the whole of revelation...".

"By faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ, we identify ourselves with Him; we accept Him as He is, Son of God and Word incarnate; faith delivers us to Christ; and Christ, introducing us into the supernatural realm, delivers us to His Father."

To the one who believes, Jesus Christ also asks that he receive baptism (Mk 16:16). "Baptism is the sacrament of divine adoption and Christian initiation.” According to St. Paul, "Baptism represents the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, and it reproduces what it represents: it makes us die to sin, it gives us life in Jesus Christ.”

"The Christian life is nothing other than the progressive and continuous development, the practical application, throughout our entire existence, of the initial double act of baptism, of the double supernatural result of "death" and "life" produced by this sacrament; this is the whole program of Christianity.”

To die to sin means "to weaken in us, as far as possible, the action of concupiscence; it is at this price that the divine life will blossom in our soul, and this to the very degree that we renounce sin, the habits of sin and its attachments. One of the means to achieve this necessary destruction of sin is to hate it: one does not make a pact with an enemy that one hates.”

Faced with the hydra of sin, which is constantly being reborn, only the regular practice of penance as a virtue and as a sacrament can consolidate the work of sanctification initiated at baptism: "The more the soul, through mortification and detachment, frees itself from sin and empties itself of itself and of the creature, the more powerful is the divine action in it.”

To live in Jesus Christ means "that the supernatural life must be maintained in us by human acts, animated by sanctifying grace and brought to God by charity.” “Without changing anything that is essential to our nature, what is good in our individuality, what is required by our particular state of life, we must live by the grace of Christ, relating all our activity to the glory of his Father through charity.”

Indeed, if "by grace we are children of God; by the infused supernatural virtues we can act as children of God, producing acts that are worthy of our supernatural end." "With the growth of grace, charity, and the other virtues, the features of Christ are reproduced in us more faithfully, for the glory of God and the joy of our souls."

The means of spiritual growth "are mainly prayer and the reception of the sacrament of the Eucharist.”

Through the Eucharist, "Our Lord makes himself present on the altar, not only to pay perfect homage to his Father by a mystical immolation which renews the oblation of Calvary, but also to make himself, under the sacramental species, the food of our souls.”

Through her public prayer, the Church "participates [...] in the religion of Christ towards His Father, in order to continue here below the homage of praise which Christ, in His holy humanity, offered to His Father. For each one of us, "prayer is one of the most necessary means of realizing here below our union with God and our imitation of Christ Jesus.

In conclusion, Dom Marmion insists on the importance of fraternal charity which "must be the radiance of our love for God", on devotion to the Blessed Virgin who "will not separate us from Jesus, her Son, our head" and on the glory of heaven which is "the final term of our predestination, the consummation of our adoption, the supreme complement of our perfection, the fullness of our life".

- By Abbé François Knittel, FSSPX