Come apart into a desert place

Abate MarmionThe First Conference

Let us pray. Send forth, we beseech Thee, O Almighty God, thy Holy Spirit into our hearts, to rule and direct them according to thy will, to comfort us in our afflictions, to defend us from all error, and to lead us, as thy Son hath promised, into all truth: through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

A Retreat with Blessed Marmion

Reverend and dear Fathers, I am grateful for this opportunity to be of service to the Confraternity of Catholic Priests here in England. Silverstream Priory was founded with the intention of praying for diocesan priests, and of offering, whenever possible, spiritual refreshment to you who labour in the vineyard of the Lord, bearing the burden of the day and the heat.

And the apostles coming together unto Jesus, related to him all things that they had done and taught. And he said to them: Come apart into a desert place, and rest a little. For there were many coming and going: and they had not so much as time to eat. And going up into a ship, they went into a desert place apart. (Mark 6:30–32)

Come to me, all you that labour, and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls. For my yoke is sweet and my burden light. (Matthew 11:28–30)

I have developed this retreat along two tracks, if you will. The first would be a reading of the life and teaching of Blessed Columba Marmion (1858–1923), the Church’s most illustrious and influential Irish Benedictine, one whom we can reasonably hope will be declared a Doctor of the Church, the Doctor of Filial Adoption. The second track along which I developed this retreat addresses the piety of the diocesan priest, the pietas sacerdotalis, in the light of this question: «What does the Church offer?»

Blessed Abbot Marmion’s zeal for the holiness of priests was well known — he was a great preacher of retreats to the clergy — and we can, I think, count on his powerful intercession during these days together. Blessed Columba Marmion spent himself willingly in preaching to priests, seeing in every priest a friend of Jesus. He would, I think, have applied to his brethren in the priesthood that mysterious verse of Psalm 138 that the Church, in her liturgy, applies to the Apostles: Mihi autem nimis honorificati sunt amici tui, Deus. «But to me thy friends, O God, are made exceedingly honourable» (Psalm 138:17)

You are my friends, if you do the things that I command you. I will not now call you servants: for the servant knoweth not what his lord doth. But I have called you friends: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you. (John 15:14–15)

Apostle of the Clergy

Dom Marmion, as a newly professed Benedictine of Maredsous, and speaking French somewhat imperfectly, launched his apostolate to priests by a series of monthly retreat days preached to the local clergy in 1897 and 1898. Sent to Louvain in 1899, he quickly acquired a reputation for preaching, not only with an impressive clarity of doctrine, but also with a a refreshing zest and with Irish humour. Before long the clergy of Louvain were beating a path to his door in search of godly counsel. Cardinal Mercier charged Dom Marmion with giving spiritual conferences to the clergy of Brussels in 1907 and, shortly thereafter, he was invited to preach to the clergy of the archdiocese of Westminster and of the diocese of Southwark. Abbot Marmion, recognising in his minstry to the clergy a particular mission given him by God, continued to preach to priests at every opportunity, and this right up until 1922, the year before his death. Among the many titles that one might attribute to Dom Marmion, «Apostle of the Clergy» would, I think, have to figure prominently.

Christ Before All Else

Blessed Columba Marmion’s message to priests can, I think, be summed up in one word: Christ: 1) Christ in relationship to the Father, that is, as Beloved Son and Eternal High Priest; 2) Christ in relationship to his Body and Spouse, the Church, that is as Head and Bridegroom; 3) Christ in relationship to the soul, that is as Redeemer, Way, Truth, Life, Food, Drink, and Friend.

The radical Christocentrism of Blessed Marmion’s message may not strike one as being particularly unique or unusual, but in his day, it was revolutionary. One hundred years ago, it was not uncommon for «gardens of the soul» to be densely overgrown with every conceivable variety of pious practice, devotion, litany, novena, chaplet, method of meditation, and examination of conscience. Such things — while useful on occasion, and in small doses — tend, I think, to generate what Monsignor Ronald Knox aptly terms «enthusiasm»: a seeking after emotional gratification to validate one’s faith. The «enthusiasm» that characterizes Protestant pietistic revivalism, and the various devotional trends that wax and wane even in some Catholic circles, stand in contrast to the grandeur and the sobria ebritetas of Blessed Marmion’s Christocentrism.

The Divine Economy

We live in an age when people are easily seduced by the «marketing» of hundreds of subjective approches to mystical experience, enlightenment, and intimate communion with God. None of this is new, of course. The modernists of the beginning of the last century — no strangers to Dom Marmion — were fascinated by «mysticism». For them, however, the word referred to the pursuit of one’s own personal religious experience, this experience becoming the source of one’s personal religious truth. Blessed Columba Marmion confounded the «mysticism» of the modernists in his day by presenting a wholly objective mysticism, that of the Fourth Gospel and of Saint Paul coming to him through the sacred liturgy. Dom Marmion held fast to the objective quality of  authentic religious experience and to its utterly transcendant character. For Blessed Columba Marmion there is no mysticism apart from the humble reception of Divine Revelation: the Word proceeding from the Father; Christ Jesus, «the brightness of his glory, and the figure of his substance» (Hebrews 1:3); the Church, Christ’s Body and His Bride; and the return to the Father, by means of the sacraments, in the grace of the Holy Spirit. A Patre; per Filium; in Spiritu; ad Patrem. This is the Divine Economy: exitus a Deo, reditus ad Deum. Any religious experience that does not find its place within this great Trinitarian circular design is unworthy of a soul created capax Dei per gratiam, «capable of God through grace».

x-marm-1888The objective spiritual life practiced and taught by Dom Marmion, the way to God that comes from God, the way disclosed in the sacred liturgy and articulated in the Church’s doctrine is not, for all of that, something impersonal, leaving one’s affect out in the cold. Abbot Marmion was a man of exquisite sensibility; he understood the need souls have of «tasting and seeing that the Lord is sweet». He was far from indifferent to the fire that burned in the hearts of the disciples while He spoke to them on the way and opened to them the Scriptures. He had the gift of communicating this same fire to souls. He practiced, with a characteristically Benedictine liberty of spirit, the great Catholic devotions: the Rosary, the Way of the Cross, the Blessed Sacrament, and the Sacred Heart. The enduring value of Blessed Columba Marmion’s Christocentric doctrine of the spiritual life is that it springs from the liturgy, the lex orandi; finds expression in doctrine, the lex credendi; and informs — to use a current buzz word — praxis, that is, the lex vivendi.

The Gospels and Saint Paul

Blessed Columba Marmion was, as we shall see in the course of our time together, wholly steeped in the Fourth Gospel and in Saint Paul. Certain texts, made familiar to Abbot Marmion by his lifelong immersion in the liturgy of the Church, synthesize his whole approach to holiness:

This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him. (Matthew 17:5)

And of his fulness we all have received, and grace for grace. (John 1:16)

For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting. (John 3:16)

I and the Father are one. (John 10:30)

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me. (John 14:6)

Now this is eternal life: That they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. (John 17:3)

He that spared not even his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how hath he not also, with him, given us all things? (Romans 8:32)

Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and justice, and sanctification, and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:30)

And he said to me: My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

For to me, to live is Christ. (Philippians 1:21)

That I may be found in Him. (Philippians 3:9)

I could go on, but it would oblige me to a lengthy catena aurea of texts. It will be far better for you, I think, to make the acquaintance of Blessed Columba Marmion for yourselves, or, if you already count him among your heavenly friends, to rediscover, by means of a slow, sapiential reading, something of the rich Christocentrism left us in his trilogy, Christ, the Life of the Soul (1917); Christ in His Mysteries (1919); and Christ, the Ideal of the Monk (1922), and in his collected spiritual letters. To a soul asking for counsel, he wrote:

As for me, if you asked me in what the spiritual life consists, I should say, «It is very simple, it is resumed in one word: Christ».

Abbot Marmion’s radical Christocentrism caused astonishment in some Catholic circles weaned on a multiplicity of devotions and exercises, and even among Protestants who chanced upon his writings. A French Protestant, having read Christ, the Life of the Soul, exclaimed: «What? Is this, then, the doctrine of the Catholic Church? If it be so, the reformation was a great misfortune». Pope Benedict XV, however, presenting the great Metropolitan Andrzej Szepticky of Lviuv with a copy of Christ, the Life of the Soul, said: «Read this. It is the pure doctrine of the Church».

The Mercy of God Shining on the Face of Christ

There are various schools of prayer in the Church or, if you will, families of souls marked by certain affinities. Blessed Abbot Marmion typifies that family of souls who look more to the beauty, and glory, and mercy of God shining on the face of Christ than to their own unlovely, darkened, and miserable selves. This is not to suggest that Blessed Columba Marmion was, in any way, unaware of the unloveliness, the darkness, and the misery of sin–sick souls.

The abyss of our miseries, he writes, is very great, greater even than we think. But God’s mercy is infinite like God Himself. If we lay open our soul to Him with all its infirmities and sins, His Divine gaze penetrates this abyss of which we cannot see the bottom. His gaze goes into the most hidden recesses and brings us strength and light. There is only this Divine gaze that is able to penetrate into our inmost being and sound the depth of our woes. God alone too can supply the remedy and we may be assured that He will do so.

To another correspondent he wrote:

To know how to display our miseries before God is to draw down grace. Never forget that.

It is a great mistake to suppose that God is dazzled by our perfection; let us seek rather to draw down His compassion and mercy by acknowledging our miseries.

The Abbot was acutely conscious of what he called his own misères, but he saw them in the light of the Face of Christ, and this makes all the difference in the world. «Thou hast set our iniquities before thy eyes: our life in the light of thy countenance». Posuisti iniquitates nostras in conspectu tuo, saeculum nostrum in illuminatione vultus tui (Psalm 89:8).

For Blessed Marmion, the antidote for all such things, the remedy, the great means of restoring likeness to the image lay, not in endless examinations of self, nor in tedious moralising, nor in imposing on oneself burdensome resolutions, but, rather, in the contemplation of Christ.

For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Christ Jesus.
Quoniam Deus, qui dixit de tenebris lucem splendescere, ipse illuxit in cordibus nostris ad illuminationem scientiae claritatis Dei, in facie Christi Jesu. (2 Corinthians 4:6)

Jean LeclercqRadical Christocentrism

I recall listening, spellbound, in 1990, in the aula of the Augustinianum in Rome, to Dom Jean Leclercq, famous for his classic work on holiness and culture in the Middle Ages: The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. The Benedictine savant was presenting the religion of Saint Bernard and of the great monastic fathers of the 12th century. «Theirs», he said, «was the religion of Saint John and of Saint Paul, the religion of the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, of the Athanasian Creed, and of the Te Deum Laudamus: Trinitarian, Christological, liturgical, and ecclesial. Theirs was a religion spacious, broad, lofty, deep, and, at the same time, humbly rooted in the mystery of the Incarnation and in the homely economy of the sacraments». Blessed Columba Marmion stands firmly planted in this tradition. 

Blessed Abbot Marmion’s classic trilogy bears witness to his radical Christocentrism: Christ, the Life of the Soul (1917); Christ in His Mysteries (1919); and Christ, the Ideal of the Monk (1922). Some thirty years after his death there appeared a fourth volume, Christ the Ideal of the Priest (1951). Dom Idesbald Ryelandt compiled this posthumous volume from Abbot Marmion’s numerous notes on the priesthood and on the sanctity of the priest.

A Man of Prayer

Blessed Columba Marmion did not sit down one fine day and decide to write a systematic presentation of the Christian life. His extraordinary contribution to the life of the Church did not begin in anything he wrote. He was, it must be said, more a preacher than a writer. And more than a preacher, he was a man of prayer and, first of all, a man of liturgical prayer.

Abbot Marmion’s preaching and, consequently, his publications, came to him, it seems to me, first of all in his choir stall and in the service of the altar. It is no different in the life of a priest labouring in the vineyard. Your preaching, Reverend Fathers, begins in your prayer and, quite specifically in the daily round of the Hours, even if you pray them in apparent solitude, as most of you must. I say apparent because one who sets about reciting his Office finds himself, by the very fact, in medio ecclesiae. The psalms of the Divine Office are a kind of holy communion giving us, under the species of human language, nothing less than the filial and priestly prayer of Christ to the Father. Psalmus in ore, Christus in corde.

Praying With Christ

Well over forty years ago, I was in a train, going from Paris to Lourdes. Across from me in my compartment was an elderly Dominican Father engrossed in reading and in telling his beads. I had just finished saying part of the Office, when the Dominican smiled and offered me a “holy picture” from his own breviary. It depicted Saint Catherine of Siena reciting the breviary with Our Lord as they walked side by side. The elderly Dominican turned out to be Père Henri-Marie Manteau-Bonamy, the famous Mariologist.

sacerdote breviario-thumb-300x562-11273The image from Père Manteau-Bonamy’s breviary affected me deeply. I don’t know what has become of it. Someday perhaps I shall find it between the pages of a book. The truth it portrayed still challenges and comforts me. Whenever, for one reason or another, I am obliged to pray the Divine Office alone as most of you do, I softly sing one verse and, then, read the following verse silently, allowing Our Lord to sing it. Thus do I form a single choir with Christ; I am conjoined to Him as a member of His Body. His prayer comes to flower on my lips, and my prayer rises to the Father from His Heart. I never pray the Office alone. Christ is always present, singing His part, sustaining my weakness, and making my poor prayer all His. Had Père Manteau-Bonamy never given me that “holy picture” of Saint Catherine reciting the breviary with Our Lord, I would not, I think, be praying in quite the same way all these years later.

The Wellspring of Holy Preaching

My point, in relating all of this, is that for Blessed Columba Marmion, as for you and me, Holy Mass and the Divine Office are the wellspring of holy preaching, of fruitful preaching, of preaching that makes a difference. I speak here of the kind of preaching that, even as it strikes the ears of one’s hearers, purifies and inflames the heart of the preacher himself. Is it not wonderful that preaching sanctifies the preacher? How can the Word pass through the mind, and heart, and mouth of a priest without cleansing him, without healing him, without enlightening him?  The priest faithful to the liturgy of the Church learns to speak fluently, and almost effortlessly, the native dialect of the Church, the language of her Fathers, of her Doctors, saints, and mystics. It was this that gave to Blessed Columba Marmion’s preaching a wonderfully penetrating quality. One of the Abbot’s disciples wrote:

It was sufficient to have heard him to be convinced that he lived what he taught. [His preaching] penetrated deeply even «reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow». The doctrine he taught was not new; one might have found the substance of it in any number of articles and books heavy with erudition and knowledge. There is often, all the same, something lacking [in such discourses] that Dom Columba knew how to put into them. Words, be they written or spoken, have a certain ring that cannot be counterfeited. Logic can satisfy the intelligence; it does not sanctify. The preaching of Dom Columba sanctified. It was charged not only with doctrine, but also, if one may say so, with the operative anointing of the Spirit of grace.

The sacred liturgy itself is the original sancta predicatio; it is the Church’s theologia prima. Blessed Columba Marmion had the gift of transmitting to souls the theologia prima that had penetrated him through every pore of his sensate being in choir and in the service of the altar. Like all of us, faced with preaching, he had to question, he had to ponder, and he had to wrestle with the poverty of human language, straining all the while to articulate in reasonable words what “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him” (2 Corinthians 2:9). Therein lies the secret of Blessed Columba Marmion’s signal contribution to the life of the Church and to the sanctification of priests.