Dom Columba was one of the first monks whom we postulants met on our arrival at Maredsous in 1896, and the very first, perhaps, with whom we became really acquainted. He had been professed ten years and was assistant to the Master of Novices. Younger by twenty years than "Père Zélateur," as we called him, I was to him little more than a child, but I remember vividly how encouraging I found his open manner and his way of treating me as a man. Not indeed that he was sparing in the matter of jokes and harmless teasing at that he excelled. But never did he belittle anyone or say anything in the least hurtful: it was all happy diversion. And once it was a question of observance of the Rule or the formation of the novices, of work to be done in the house, or, especially, in the church, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the business in hand. He guided, encouraged, corrected and administered reproof with the twofold conviction of the majesty of God, the object of all our activities, and of the dignity of those young people who had received so high a vocation. His gravity impressed us all the more because he was so exuberantly gay and merry at recreation.
I remember how trying he used to find the heat in summer. One day we were discussing a recent appeal made by Pope Leo XIII to the Benedictines of Europe on behalf of the monasteries of Brazil, which were threatened with extinction. "Father Columba," we said, "there's your chance. They'll make you Abbot in Brazil." "What a hope," he replied at once, "how do you think I could pontificate? With all those vestments on I'd perspire enough to make the Pacific overflow." A slight geographical inexactitude, no doubt, but that only served to give the answer its full hyperbolic flavour.... A few days later when we saw him, as M.C. assist at the Abbot's vesting, or years afterwards when we assisted at his own pontifical vesting at the throne, we may have smiled at the remembrance of his joke; it never seemed to have occurred to him, as he moved about with the utmost reverence, following the rubrics with profound recollection. And so it was easy for us to reconcile his two aspects: we knew how deeply rooted in God he was, even when making a joke; and the lively tone of his occasional reproof did not make us forget his goodness and youthfulness of heart. Then it was such a tremendous help to feel that he trusted us, and only wanted to sound the depths of our youthful generosity.
Sometimes it was less easy for outsiders to appreciate him at his true value, and at first sight he often took them aback. Imagine it! They had come to consult a master of the spiritual life, who must, of course, be an austere ascetic, his faculties absorbed in another world. They found instead a jovial conversationalist with a figure anything but emaciated, and a ready repartee on his lips. When the time came, however, to treat of spiritual problems, in one moment he was concentrated on them, and apparently without transition or effort. He spoke from the depths of his soul because his life was one, not divided into separate “compartments," but ever in the presence of God-or rather, in the very hands of God by a permanent union with Christ Jesus. So that what might have seemed to some instability of mind and a superficial ease in speaking on any subject, was really due to the organic unity of his life. "Perfectus Deus, perfectus homo” was one of his favorite formulas to describe the character of Our Lord, and he applied it with equal readiness to the Christian, ceteris paribus, as "perfect Christ, perfect man." He insisted that we should respect God's plan, and develop to the full all the best possibilities of our human nature.
He was extremely uncompromising on matters of principle, and his respect for God's rights was often carried to the point of indignation. In 1917, during the Great War, the Germans, who were in occupation of Belgium, determined to confiscate our Abbey bells to make use of the copper. Abbot Columba awaited them in his church. When the soldiers entered he read aloud a strong protest, declaring with the precision of a theologian the sole right of the Church to dispose of the Church's property, and condemning their intention as a sacrilegious theft. Then, going out, he left them alone in the church. The soldiers walked around for some time, and finally went off without touching anything.
During the last years of his life he spent weeks by himself in the great forest of the Ardennes reading and meditating on St. Bernard's mystical commentaries on the Canticle of Canticles and in his familiar conferences he would confide to us the secrets of those delicious hours. His joy was to live on intimate terms with those who had ascended the heights of prayer and were one with God: Dom Pius de Hemptinne, for example, Sr. Benignus, a humble Visitation nun of St. Gerard's near Maredsous; the Carmelites of Louvain, whose director he was-and other such favoured souls.
On the other hand, we can say without injury to his memory that he had little aptitude for business, the management of affairs, and the realities of material life in general. The story is often told-he used to tell it himself with great merriment -about his unfortunate speculation when chaplain to a certain religious community in Ireland. He wanted to oblige them by buying a horse and trap, and thought he had made a splendid bargain; but the horse proved to be a decrepit old hack, and the trap fell to pieces in no time.
When the things of God were in question, however, his soul was bathed in light. He was the most clear-sighted and practical of directors, and intensely concerned for the details that really matter in life. His letters, many of which have been published, are full of practical advice and wise suggestions for our daily conduct. These pages are every- where lit up by the beams of profound theological insight, and an inspired application of the texts of Holy Scripture.
One Sunday in the winter-he was not yet Abbot-he was appointed to say Mass in a neighboring village and he set out early. It had been snowing, and the whole country- side was of an even dim grey in the half light. Father Columba went astray. The wind had piled up great heaps of snow in the deep-set paths and on the hill slopes. He ploughed his way laboriously, sometimes covered to his knees, exhausted and frozen, until his Guardian Angel, on whom he was calling continuously with great fervour, showed him a friendly light. It was a little cottage and the people in it received him kindly. He asked the right road and took it immediately, fasting all the while. Having fulfilled his duties, he returned to the monastery about midday, fortified only with a small cup of coffee and some bread and butter. This was the ordinary breakfast of the country and even after such a trying adventure he would not accept but what was prescribed by his monastic rule.
This forgetting of self in his search for Christ was the normal practice of his life. To Christ he had given his all. He looked on him as his guide, the one who animated his life, the Leader whose divine personality should give to the soul its tone and its practical expression. He abhorred that spurious contemplative life which settles itself down to ease and idleness, instead of accepting the daily labour and common work which obedience, apostolic zeal and charity lay on us. He used to say that God seldom grants the gift of contemplation to any but those who have laboured long and hard in their neighbours' service.
His humility was something very real. Often, to encourage me, he told me that his will was weak, and he spoke of his miseries with a striking accent. He was obviously sincere, and we have no reason to believe that he was not clear-sighted concerning himself. When the saints accuse themselves of weakness and sins, they believe what they say, and speak of something actually existing. Dom Marmion's "misères” were visible. There was the visible burden of his corpulency, and increasing weakness of heart. This latter gave him an insuperable inclination to sleep, and he confessed that it was harder to accept this than any of the other crosses which God had sent him.
But he was always ready-too ready, perhaps, -to think the best of others. Such was his own inherent straight- forwardness and so sincere his desire for God alone that he was prone to overlook the weakness of human nature in others. One of his monks once expressed surprise at his granting a rather unusual permission. He only answered: "you are sensible men, and, above all, monks. I understand that before asking me these permissions you think over them in the presence of God, and that you have good reasons for what you ask." As we got to know him better, we gave up asking him for permissions, and simply laid the matter before him and asked what he thought right to be done in the particular case.
One had to see him praying really to know the man; it was a revelation to behold his profound adoration expressing so clearly a love which believes all things, which hopes all things. In the early morning, he was the first in choir, and prepared for the Office of Matins with outstretched hands and head bowed down in a long adoration. His ardent look during the conventual Mass, during the prayers at table, or when in the privacy of his cell he spoke to Christ, and raised up his hands and eyes to Heaven, saying: "Father, receive me as Thy beloved Son "-these things can never be for- gotten by us. No matter where he was, an instant sufficed for him to put himself in communion with God, and it was prayer, ascending respectfully and familiarly to God, through Jesus Christ Our Lord, that really expressed the fulness of his life. He desired us likewise to have that same faith in prayer and in the blessing of our Abbot.
I remember how, on one occasion, a young Father had to give his first sermon at the nine o'clock Mass on Sunday. For some reason or other he was not ready to preach, and at seven a.m. he went along to Abbot Marmion. "Father Abbot, I haven't got my sermon prepared; may I be dispensed from preaching?" "Surely not," said Father Abbot, go and prepare it now"; and, showing him the Gospel of the day, he sent him off to think over it in the woods. At 8.30 the young Father is back to him again. "Father Abbot, I'm afraid I must invoke Chapter 68 of the Rule.” (If brother be commanded impossible things.) Father Abbot is adamant. "Come now, here's a good blessing for you. Go and pray before the Blessed Sacrament, and then give your sermon." There was no escape. We may imagine the trepidation of the poor preacher as he mounted the pulpit. But his prayer, and the Abbot's blessing had worked: the preacher used to tell afterwards how, as soon as he began to speak, he saw the plan of his sermon clearly before him, and the ideas seemed to follow one another in such natural sequence that he had never before spoken with such fluency.
His last illness was an uninterrupted prayer. His whole body was worn out and racked by fever. He lay nearly un- conscious, but the words of the Psalms, and texts of St. Paul magnifying God's mercy and the mediation of Christ, kept welling up from his heart and prayed for him as he himself had done all his life. His words to those who were admitted to him during this last crisis were inspired by the same heavenly thoughts and, transfigured, as it were, by prayer, were treasured by us as the very oracles of God. This last illness was for us a living lesson, the last token of his paternal love for us. May we, too, be ever conscious of our weakness, but only to lay it like him, before God's mercy, by the hands of Jesus Christ, ever-living to make intercession for us.
An abridged version of the Reminiscences of Abbot Marmion by Dom Bede Lebbe.