Marmion's Place in the History of Spirituality

January 16, 2023
Source: District of Asia
Abbot Marmion

In 1918, a friend sent me one of the first copies of Christ the Life of the Soul, which had just been published secretly. "It has been published," he wrote, "at the request of certain souls who had been directed by the Abbot of Maredsous. They hoped that such a book would allow them to reflect on what he had told them and recapture the happy effects of his direction." I remember thinking at the time that my correspondent could hardly have put the aim of the book in a more modest way. Well, the book appeared and was an immediate and overwhelming success. And when the restrictions caused by the war were raised, it rapidly became universal, socially as well as geographically. It was as if the desert had received its long-awaited rain. Animae vestrae sitiunt vehementer!

Dom Marmion's works have become a spiritual classic. What is the explanation of this immediate success? Is it simply that Dom Marmion expressed more happily what others had said before him, or is his thought original? We cannot pass judgment before making clear what exactly his message was.

Whatever be the source of his conviction on this point one of the most striking characteristics of Dom Marmion's books is the centering of everything on Christ. This sets him apart at once from that class of spiritual writers, numerous enough, who regard perfection principally as a matter of personal striving after great purity of life, and set out accordingly to provide the devout soul with a detailed code of conduct. This moralizing tendency is very evident in the literary tradition of early monachism. Cassian, for instance, in his Institutiones, after a brief description of the lives of the Eastern monks, deals exclusively with the seven deadly sins and how to overcome them.

St. Benedict consciously reacts against this rather stoical outlook, and replaces the amor ipsius boni by the amor Christi. Herein Dom Marmion is faithful to Benedictine tradition, and the heir of St. Paul, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Augustine, St. Bernard and so many others who "would know nothing but Christ."

The fundamental disposition of man's soul before God is that of a finite being in the presence of the Infinite. As creatures our whole being thirsts for our Creator, and that with an instinct so profound that man can only forget God by distorting his very nature.

The appearance of Christ on the spiritual scene has not changed this direct approach of man to God. He has, on the contrary, facilitated and confirmed it by His teaching and example, and by the potent graces of His Redemption. This fundamental attitude is sufficient for the soul: it has given birth to heroic sanctity and the highest mysticism; in its independence of revelation it is open to all. But it is a disposition that leaves the soul a stranger to the mystery of Christ as revealed to St. Paul, unaware of its right by the power of the Incarnation to cry "Abba, Father."

These are the tremendous truths which Dom Marmion, after some initial uncertainty, grasped in their clearest significance. He saw in it the pearl of great price and gave up everything to make it his own and to share it with others. We need only recall some of the more striking passages in his works: the general summary, for instance, which opens his Christ the Life of the Soul (pp. 5-8).

1. God is a Father. Eternally, long before the created light rose upon the world, God begets a Son to whom He communicates His nature, His perfections, His beatitude, His life....

In God, then, is life, life communicated by the Father and received by the Son....

From both proceeds that Third Person, whom Revelation calls by a mysterious name: The Holy Ghost....

2. And now God decrees to call creatures to share this divine life, so transcendent that God alone has the right to live it, this eternal life communicated by the Father to the Only Son, and by them to the Holy Spirit...... By nature God has only one Son, by love He wills to have an innumerable multitude: that is the grace of supernatural adoption.

3. Realised in Adam from the dawn of creation, then crossed by sin... this decree of love is to be restored.... The Only Son of God... unites Himself in time to a human nature... The Divine life, communicated in its fulness to this humanity makes it the very humanity of the Son of God. ...

4. But this Only Son... appears here below only to become the Firstborn of all who shall receive Him.... He is constituted the Head of a multitude of brethren, on whom, by His redeeming work, He will bestow the grace of Divine life So that THE SAME DIVINE LIFE WHICH FLOWS FROM THE FATHER INTO THE SON, AND FROM THE SON INTO THE HUMANITY OF JESUS, WILL CIRCULATE THROUGH CHRIST IN ALL WHO ACCEPT IT; IT WILL DRAW THEM EVEN INTO ETERNAL BLISS IN THE BOSOM OF THE FATHER.

And the second characteristic of Dom Marmion's work, a much more personal aspect than the first, namely the profound application of the entire doctrine to our moral life. Even this, in itself, is not new, but, with Dom Marmion it wears a spontaneity born of intense conviction and assiduous practice. Life for a Christian is trans- formed to the last detail by the consciousness of being a son of God.

Nothing else, perhaps, can explain so well the extraordinary popularity of Dom Marmion's teaching as this practical aspect in his writings. Truth in the abstract, no matter how compelling for the intellect, is of itself an insufficient motive power in life. Dom Marmion is, however, amazingly direct and concrete in presenting spiritual truth. His words are an inspiration for life no less than for thought.

But if the average man is more concerned with how he should act than with what he should think, he will only respond to a message that is simple. If Dom Marmion's books are read by thousands throughout the world, it is due in great part to his facility in explaining the most profound truths with utter simplicity. It is no easy task to explain in simple terms the theology of the Blessed Trinity, the eternal generation of the Word, and our participation in it through the humanity of Christ. So many turgid treatises had been written on these undoubtedly difficult themes that many priests had decided they were truths too abstract for the pulpit.

And yet, it is the man, so to speak, in the pew, who has been given Dom Marmion to read, and who has asked for more. There is a host of letters to bear this out, testimonials from simple folk of every kind, almost unlettered sometimes and quite unversed in theology.

Dom Marmion's long experience as teacher served him in good stead in his conferences. He never wastes time on side issues, nor is he distracted by a point of controversy. If he has St. Thomas at his fingertips, he only presents him. in broadest outline to his readers. He presupposes no theological formation in his audience, but repeats and explains the most elementary notions unceasingly.

The whole work of Dom Marmion, it seems to me, reveals a personality unique in the history of spirituality. Never has the highest spiritual doctrine been so happily adapted to the faithful at large. It is certain that this teaching, so necessary and so powerful, has left a permanent mark on the Christianity of our times.

An abridged version of an article by Dom Bernard Capelle, Abbot of Mont-César.