Letter of Dom Columba Marmion, Abbot of Maredsous, to Father Louis Peeters, S.J., Provincial of the Belgian Province of the Company of Jesus
I took pleasure in translating this letter of Blessed Columba Marmion — written a hundred years ago — to the esteemed Father Provincial of the Jesuits in Belgium. Blessed Marmion’s humility, gentleness, candour, wisdom, and zeal for the sacred liturgy are transparent in this important text. The original French text of the letter is found in Columba Marmion, Correspondance 1881–1923, François Xavier de Guibert, Paris, 2008, pp. 685–689. The letter speaks for itself and remains astonishingly relevant.
Abbey of Maredsous,
15 April 1914
I sincerely thank you for having been so kind as to send me a copy of your work on the liturgy. I had already precedently requested of the Reverend Father Festugière that he not continue the polemic, first of all, because I know from experience that controversy in no way advances the cause that we all have at heart — the glory of God and the good of souls — and then, also, because I have a great love and a profound veneration and affection for the Company. I was a student of the Jesuits, having completed nearly seven years of the Humanities at Belvedere College, Dublin. At the end of my studies, I asked to be admitted into your noviceship, and I was received by the Reverend Father Provincial, but because of the lack of secular priests, the Cardinal prevented me from following my desire. Since that time, I have remained in relations of great intimacy and friendship with several of your Fathers in Ireland, in Belgium, and in France. All of this by way of saying that there is not the slightest bitterness, or the slightest resentment in the remarks that I shall permit myself to make to you.
I regret that I was unable, because of a want of leisure, to respond sooner to the letter that you were so kind as to write to me, and I thank you for the perfect frankness and openness which characterize it. Before addressing the question, allow me to say a word about Reverend Father Festugière. If you knew him personally, you would not be able to attribute to him “ironic” answers or hostility towards the Company. He is the humblest, the meekest, the most considerate religious that one could meet, truly incapable of wanting to cause pain to anyone at all. A former officer in the French navy, he holds in horror all that seems to depart from perfect uprightness, and, as he believed to have found this defect in the attitude of some members of the Company towards the monastic Order and the cause of the liturgy, which things he regards as sacred, he sometimes expressed his displeasure in too caustic a manner. For my part, I find that these outbursts take away from his work and, in a second edition, I shall see to it that they disappear.
In your letter, Reverend Father, you will allow me to indicate what I believe to be a profound error into which you fell in perfectly good faith. You seem to believe that all the wrongs are on the side of the monks, that all the attacks come from us, and are gratuitous and without provocation. Allow me, then, to show you that it is nothing of the sort. If we have remained, until present, in silence, it is because our motto “Pax” obliges us to keep silence so long as one attacks our persons only. I know, by my own experience and by that of my monks, that several Fathers of the Company do not hide their disdain for our Order and do us real harm in trying to prevent the entrance of young men to our abbeys and of students to our colleges. Here are the proofs that I affirm: 1) During the six years that I spent as a secular priest in the world, I habitually went to the Reverend Jesuit Fathers for confession, and when I declared my intention of becoming a monk to my confessor (one of your Fathers in Dublin), he mocked me, saying that the Benedictine Order is a thing of the past, an Order gone out of fashion and, at present, no longer had any reason to exist. You will find the same arguments held publicly in the article on the Abbey of Villers by the Reverend Father de Moreau, S.J., page 132; one even finds there words entirely offensive to the monastic Order; scorn can be found in many other passages of the book, for example, on page 85, and following. Since becoming Abbot of Maredsous, five young men who had the intention to enter our community (two of whom I had accepted) were turned from their project by Fathers of the Company by means of analogous arguments. Not long ago, one of my scholastics encountered one of your Fathers (a man very much in view at the moment): this Father said to him that we monks will have a terrible account to render to God “for all the time that we lose in choir”. I could multiply the examples, but we never judged that we had to protest; we preferred to remain in “peace” And we have never thought nor said about the Company what many of your Fathers say and what Father de Moreau printed concerning monks.
When, however, the Holy Father (Pope Saint Pius X), who resurrected frequent Communion and the Communion of children in the Church, made appeal to all priests, pressing them to work for the restoration of the liturgical spirit, we noticed two things: 1) that the reviews and other organs of the Company were keeping a systematic silence on this subject; 2) that when, to obey the Holy Father, we were trying to make the liturgy come out of the oblivion into which it had fallen (outside of monasteries) for four centuries, the same disdain, which certain members of the Company displayed for the monastic Order, was brought to bear upon a cause, which one made the mistake of identifying with us — because it goes beyond us — but that, all the same, is dearer to us than life. Several highly placed ecclesiastical personalities asked us, then, to protest and to defend the cause of the liturgy. This is why I asked Father Festugière to write, and also why, in his writings, he found himself led to target the Company in too direct and personal a way. I said that certain Fathers of the Company spoke of the liturgy, before Father Festugière had written anything, in a scornful way. Here are a few specimens:
The Reverend Father Brou, S.J., (well–known writer, editor of Études), in his life of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, published in 1897, page 41: “It was the time when the disciples of Pope (Saint Gregory), reformer of the chant of the Church, were branching out all over Gaul and Germany. One sees that Gregory did not forget his dear England; he counted, undoubtedly, on music to open the way to souls; our missionaries today are not doing anything different with their accordions and their music boxes”. This publication goes back to the time of Leo XIII, but the inspiration of Études has not changed from 1903 to 1913, as any attentive reader can see for himself.
The Reverend Father Maréchal, S.J. (La mystique chrétienne, Revue de Philosophie, L’expérience religieuse, 1912, pp. 127, 128) treats of the liturgy as “an artifice for beginners”, of being “a provisional state”. “We are very much at ease in recognizing that rites and vocal prayer are a useful introduction to the mystical life, etc.”. So as not to lengthen this letter unduly, I limit myself to citing those specimens that represent the general mentality.
As for the “Exercises of Saint Ignatius”, I can speak of them with a certain knowledge. I made them twice (before my entrance into the monastery) under the guidance of eminent Fathers of the Company. I drew a very great profit from them for my whole life. During my eight years of seminary, I studied and regularly followed the method of meditation called “of Saint Ignatius”. Then, as a secular priest, fir six years, I practiced it with a certain fidelity. I judge that one who would speak or write against these exercises as a means of conversion, as a most powerful method to break with the world and with vice, would be going against historical truth and the teachings of the Holy See; but I have received several (confidential) letters from a member of the Company, eminent by his learning and holiness, in which he informs me that there exists in the very bosom of the Company a double current: some, with him, argue that the asceticism of the Society deviated, since the 17th century, under the influence of Rodriguez and, that, from being liturgical and organic as it was in the thought of Saint Ignatius, it became methodical and individualistic. Another Father, my intimate friend and compatriot, confirmed the truth of these utterances, and assured me that Saint Ignatius never had the intention of imposing the exercises as a permanent method of the spiritual life, but, to employ the terms of Father Maréchal, as a “provisional state” for beginners, and that, moreover, after their solemn vows, the Fathers of the Company were exempt from them. I do not forget that the Reverend Father Croiset in the 17th century wrote a Liturgical Year in 18 volumes. This book, which had 40 editions, is a perfect assemblage of liturgical piety, which witnesses to the harmony that then existed between the spirituality of certain Fathers of the Company and the liturgy.
Whatever may be said with regard to the validity of the affirmations (a bit contradictory, you will admit) that one gathers concerning the authentic spirituality of your blessed Founder, my experience of thirty–three years of priestly ministry (I have confessed and directed a great number of priests and religious of both sexes) has produced in me the following convictions:
1) That the exercises of Saint Ignatius made under the direction of an enlightened guide are a means of incomparable efficacy for breaking with a worldly life, and to enter upon the way that leads to God;
2) As an habitual method of mental prayer, I have found, in practice, that a very great number, the strongest majority of priests especially, who followed it in seminary, and who promised themselves that they would continue it as priests, overcome by the difficulty and dryness of this method, abandoned all meditation shortly after leaving the seminary, to the very great detriment of their soul and their ministry.
3) That for those who desire to find in their mental prayer the preparation for their liturgical life (Office, Mass, administration of the sacraments), this method is of little help, and that when they adopt a more simple method, they find that their mental prayer prepares their Office, and that their Office powerfully helps their mental prayer.
4) I have noticed that those who follow this method with fidelity are inclined to separate themselves from the parochial and organic life of the Church, to sequester themselves in a prayer that is individual in its source and in its tendencies.
5) Finally, I have noticed that the persons who follow this method often have an extremely complicated interior life, drawn, in great part, from their own reflections, subject to many dangers, and errors, and having need of a learned and continuous direction, whereas those who receive from the liturgy the matter and inspiration of their interior life, being guaranteed by this lex orandi, lex credendi against the errors of their own sense, have, ordinarily, an interior life that is very simple, luminous, ambulantes sicut filii carissimi in dilectione (Ephesians 5:1–2).
I would, Reverend Father, have many more things to add, but this letter is already too long. My aim in writing it is not at all to attack the Company, but to dispel equivocacies by showing 1) that what you call attacks against the Company are but responses to systematic attacks, which, be they hidden (or even open), are nonetheless real and dating from some time; 2) that what our Fathers have written in favour of the liturgical movement has, as their direct goal, obedience to the injunctions of the Holy See, and the good of souls; 3) that if, in defending liturgical piety, it was necessary to demonstrate that certain methods of piety can be reconciled, only with difficulty, to the liturgical and organic piety of the Church, it is, in no way, to a polemical end, but to the end of a positive teaching that these comparisons were instituted. For the future, I desire with all my heart that every appearance of polemics or of controversy be banished from our studies on the liturgy. Father Festugière will do a second edition of his work, from which will be eliminated all that resembles a personal attack; if, in the studies that we will carry out on prayer, we are obliged to express our preferences for a liturgical piety in harmony with the organic life of the Church, we, in no way, intend to condemn those who prefer to follow other methods, provided that they do not seek to obstruct the liturgical movement by imposing these methods.
I am persuaded, Reverend Father, that you will receive this letter in the spirit in which it was written, a spirit of loyalty and frank simplicity. I do not intend to make it public, and I shall communicate it only to those who believe that we are, gratuitously and without provocation, launching attacks on institutions and persons.
Kindly accept, Reverend Father, the expression of respectful and devoted sentiments in Our Lord.