The Fourth Conference
Let us pray. O God, who makest thine angels spirits and thy ministers a flame of fire: send forth thy Spirit and renew the face of the clergy: that thy priests, sent as ministering spirits, may take away every stumbling–block from thy kingdom, and may kindle in the hearts of all men that fire whoch thou camest on earth to bestow. Who livest and reignest, forever and ever. Amen.
The Loneliness of the Priest
It would seem that, as a newly–ordained priest, Father Joe Marmion, experienced a certain loneliness, a painful emptiness. It may have been a case of the classic post–ordination let–down or it may have been an early episode of the descents into depression that, from time to time, were to mark him in later years. Four months after his ordination to the holy priesthood, Father Marmion was appointed curate at Dundrum (Dublin). Less than one year after his first appointment, a disconsolate Marmion wrote this to Vincent Dwyer, an Australian classmate of his and a dear friend:
Oh, I am more convinced now than ever that a student can’t set too high a standard of holiness for himself in College; and take my word for it, for I have seen it that those students who are considered «good», but don’t go in for an unreserved service of God, would shudder if they knew what they would be after about one year on the mission. The life of a priest is very much more lonely than we anticipate. I have often been for days without opening my lips to a mortal. This may seem very strange but it is true, and if we can’t find our pleasure before Gesù sacramentato, we will, inevitably, go for consolation into society and then . . . .
Marmion does not complete his sentence. He and Father Dwyer knew one another well enough not to have to finish certain sentences. Six years later, the popular young Father Marmion, having known a certain success and enjoyed pleasant notoriety as a professor at Clonliffe, left his priestly ministry in Dublin and entered the Abbey of Maredsous as a nobody novice. As a Benedictine, he was given an Irish name: Columba. He made monastic profession on 10 February 1888. Shortly thereafter, he wrote again to his friend, Father Dwyer:
My dear Vincy . . . I think I asked permission to write to you and was refused. In any case our faculties for letter–writing, usually limited, are almost suspended during novitiate. I won’t waste any more time or paper on excuses. I will only say that my affection for you has undergone no change; and no day passes without a special prayer for you — according to promise — and the rosary every Saturday for the four.
To begin from myself. I am convinced that I am where God wills me to be. I have found great peace, and am extremely happy: to use a euphemism, I wasn’t a success on the secular mission; and it is a singular mercy of God that I am here.
But you will ask me, what do you do? Well, we are up about 3:30 every morning. Matins commence at 4, and from that, till bedtime — about 8:30 — in choir, in study, and in teaching and in manual work. The chief object of our congregation is to carry out the Sacred Liturgy and the Chant of the Church with the greatest exactitude and splendour possible. We have therefore the conventual Masses, Masses of Vigils and, in fact, everything prescribed. I had no idea that such riches and beauty were contained in the Divine Office, etc.
The Discovery of the Sacred Liturgy
The discovery of the sacred liturgy of the Church, the liturgy in all its richness, the liturgy in all its fulness and, in particular, the Divine Office, radically changed the theological world–view of Columba Marmion. It plunged him into an abyss of light, into the Church’s theologia prima. It was in the choir–stall to which he returned eight times a day that Dom Columba Marmion began to experience the Trinitarian dynamic of the Church’s liturgy, i.e. all things descending a Patre, per Filium, in Spiritu, and all things redeemed, recapitulated, and redirected ad Patrem, per Filium, in Spiritu. This is the great circular design of the divine economy of salvation articulated by Dom Cipriano Vagaggini in his classic work, Theological Dimensions of the Liturgy.
In the perfect plan as it was in the beginning, all things created received being from the Father, through the Son, and for the Son, and this by the quickening action of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life. Original sin wrenched creation askew, thwarting the Divine Plan; but the Father sent the Son and poured out the Holy Spirit « to re-establish all things in Christ, that are in heaven and on earth, in Him » (Ephesians 1:10).
Although Joseph Aloysius Marmion was baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; although he was plunged into the life of the Three Divine Persons, becoming, by grace, what Jesus is by nature, that is, a well–beloved Son; although he was raised in a pious, God–fearing, Catholic family, and even dressed in black from the time he was a small boy to get him used to the soutane for which, in his parents’ eyes, he was pre–destined; although he studied philosophy, and then theology, at Clonliffe and in Rome; although he read his breviary faithfully, offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass each morning, never failed to make his daily Way of the Cross, and never omitted his daily rosary; it was not until he experienced total immersion in the liturgy of the Church as a Benedictine monk that the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity came alive for him. Dom Columba Marmion was to spend the rest of his life communicating to others, in every state of life, his own discovery of the liturgy of the Church.
In the sacred liturgy — and principally in the Divine Office with its daily round of psalmody punctuated by the ever–recurring Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto — Columba Marmion passed from a speculative, notional knowledge of the Most Holy Trinity to an experiential, sapiential, cordial knowledge of what it means to be «a son in the Son».
Thus does Blessed Marmion write in Christ in His Mysteries:
Nowhere else, as in the liturgy, can we become so well acquainted with the the gestures of Jesus Christ, the words which fell from His lips, the feelings of His Divine Heart; it is the Gospel relived at each stage of the earthly life of Christ, Man–God, Saviour of the World, head of His mystical body, and bringing with Him the virtue and grace of all His mysteries for our souls’ benefit.
Nowhere, as in the liturgy, does there exist such a complete, simple, orderly, and deep exposition of all the marvels which God has performed for our our sanctification and salvation; it is the most perfect expression of Revelation and that most adapted to our souls’ needs, it is an exposition which appeals both to the eyes of the body and of the imagination and which moves the attentive souls to its depths.
The liturgical cycle is an incomparable source of supernatural light. Moreover — and this is an essential truth for our sanctification — we may derive from it the special fruit which Our Lord willed to attach to each of His mysteries when, as our head, He lived with them here below.
If you want to learn Irish, or French, or Italian, or German, or Chinese, all the specialists recommend a program of total immersion. The occasional dip into a native–speaking environment is insufficient. The language will never get inside you. It will never become the idiom of your dreams, your desires, your passions, and your prayers. Nothing but total immersion, on a day–to–day basis, and this over the better part of a lifetime, will root a language in a man’s soul. The same thing may be said of the sacred liturgy. It is not one worthy option among many on an à la carte menu of spiritualities. The liturgy, ever ancient and ever new, is the authentic, pure, piety of the Church, the Bride of Christ, the Mother of the faithful.
As a seminarian and, then, as a young Dublin priest, Joseph Aloysius Marmion knew his way about the complexities of the missal, the breviary, the Roman Ritual, and even the Pontifical, but the riches they contained were to him, in some way, like the treasures of a museum locked behind plate glass. At the Abbey of Maredsous, the young Dom Columba found himself immersed in the liturgy, plunged into the prayer of Christ and the Church. It became for him a spring of living water, daily bread in abundance, an inebriating new wine, honey in the mouth, healing oil. Even more, the liturgy became the very oxygen of his soul.
Years later, as a spiritual father to countless souls in all walks of life, Blessed Columba Marmion came to insist on the primacy of the liturgy. Father Aidan Nichols, O.P., in his delightful little book, A Spirituality for the Twenty–First Century, has a brilliant chapter entitled, «Columba Marmion and the Love of the Liturgy». The secret of Marmion’s success, he writes, was that «in the Liturgy wise theology and sound doctrine had become prayer». For Marmion, concludes Father Nichols, «the Liturgy is grounded in the Holy Trinity, and more specifically in the Son’s own being as praise of the Father».
Over sixty years before the Second Vatican Council promulgated Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Abbot Marmion preached the liturgy as «source and summit» of the life of the Church. He quenched his thirst for God in drinking directly from the liturgy’s pure wellsprings. Blessed Marmion lived —one can say, prophetically— what the Second Vatican Council, in organic continuity with Saint Pius X’s teachings on the liturgy and with Pius XII’s Mediator Dei, solemnly affirmed:
Every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.
Through his writings —notably through his trilogy, Christ the Life of the Soul, Christ in His Mysteries, and Christ the Ideal of the Monk— Blessed Marmion would lead multitudes, all over the world, to do the same. In 1921, Abbot Columba was able to write to his old friend from seminary, Vincent Dwyer, become Bishop of Maitland in Australia:
The pope [Benedict XV] said to me at my last audience, Vous avez écrit un très beau livre; and I know from one of the Cardinals that he uses it for his daily meditation. This is a consolation, a guarantee of orthodoxy. The volumes have been translated into English, German, Italian, Polish, Dutch, and have passed through 12 editions.
Dom Lambert Beauduin, a spiritual son of Abbot Marmion, and himself a father of the modern classic Liturgical Movement, wrote concerning Blessed Columba: «He revealed to us the soul of the liturgy; by this I mean all the elements of doctrine and of life, that the liturgy reserves for us beneath the visible veil of its rites and symbols». What is the soul of the liturgy if not the mystery of the Three Divine Persons revealed, present, and efficaciously operative in the Church?
Blessed Columba Marmion approached the liturgy as the primary and indispensable wellspring of the true Christian spirit, which is the spirit of our divine adoption as filii in Filio, «sons in the Son», exactly as Pope Saint Pius X directed the entire Church to do, in his ground–breaking Motu Proprio of 22 November 1903:
Filled as We are with a most ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit flourish in every respect and be preserved by all the faithful, We deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church.
Blessed Columba Marmion’s habitual and familiar reference and source was the sacred liturgy, the lex orandi. From his total immersion in the lex orandi, there rose before the eyes of his mind a luminous perception of Trinitarian doctrine, the lex credendi. And it was this lex credendi that grounded, and shaped, and nurtured His holiness of life, the lex vivendi. In the liturgy of the Church, the lex orandi, Blessed Columba Marmion, experienced an ineffable communication of Trinitarian life; in the doctrine of the Church, the lex credendi, he found that ineffable communication clearly articulated; and in the practice of the virtues, the lex vivendi, he radiated the splendour of Christ in him, « the hope of glory » (Colossians 1:27).
From this threefold principle — lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi — we can begin to grasp the source, the perception, and the expression of Columba Marmion’s life in the Trinity. Here is the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity adored [lex orandi]; the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity confessed [lex credendi]; the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity irradiated in holiness of life [lex vivendi] or, as the Apostle says:
Now thanks be to God, who always maketh us to triumph in Christ Jesus, and manifesteth the odour of his knowledge by us in every place. For we are the good odour of Christ unto God, in them that are saved, and in them that perish. (2 Corinthians 2:14–15).
In a letter that he wrote from Maredsous to one of his spiritual children on 9 May 1917, Abbot Marmion expressed what the liturgy of the Church meant to him, and what he wanted it to mean for the souls entrusted to him. He writes:
My very dear daughter, As Our Lord has given you to me to form you and guide you, I am going to set forth for you the true principles concerning the liturgy.
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. During His mortal life, He was all of that for us by His immediate action. Since his Ascension, the Church replaces Him and exercises the same functions of way, truth, and life. She is the way by means of her Sacraments especially. By Baptism, she grafts us into the vine, she associates us to His Person as members, she unites us to Him as Head. The Holy Eucharist accentuates and perfects this union. The sacramental liturgy presides, under the guard of the Holy Spirit, over this sacramental action of the Church, and her rites and her ceremonies explain and interpret the true doctrine on this capital point in a way that is authentic and adapted to the intelligence of the faithful. This is why the Council of Trent wishes that pastors explain often these rites to their sheep. She (the Church) is truth because lex orandi lex credendi: liturgical prayer is also the law of our faith.
During the Ages of Faith, although the vast majority of the faithful were uneducated, neither knowing how to read nor possessing books, they were, nonetheless, much more instructed in the mysteries of our faith, in the mystery of Christ, than are the men and women of our days. They had explained to them the prayers and ceremonies of the Mass, the lessons of the Office; in a word, the Church, our mother herself instructed her children in an authentic manner. Erunt docibiles Dei (John 6:45; Isaias 54:13).
The liturgy, under the breath of the Holy Ghost, draws from the Holy Scriptures, the tradition: the symbolism of the Church, a doctrine that is pure and perfectly adapted to the soul of the faithful. It was in the liturgy that I learned to know Saint Paul and the Gospels. The liturgical texts, for example the Masses de tempore, are masterpieces of doctrinal composition. There the New Testament is explained by the Old, the soul’s attitudes towards God are indicated in the orations. Little by little the soul becomes penetrated with these things and finds her mental prayer prepared by our mother, the Church, as Jacob found the repast prepared by his mother for his father Isaac.
In the 16th century, under the influence of a certain school of the Society of Jesus, the prayer of the faithful came to be divorced from the prayer of the Church. The soul, left alone, withdrawn into herself, sought the meaning of the Scriptures by reasonings and no longer went to Our Lord through the Church; from this stems the great difficulty that souls experience in prayer. To my knowledge, thousands of priests who learned, in seminary, to practice this laborious and dry mental prayer, abandoned it after their ordination, to the great detriment of their souls. The liturgy, understood as the authentic organ by means of which the Church prays and teaches her children to pray, belongs to the whole Church, and Pius X strongly engaged all the priests, the bishops, and the religious Orders to cooperate with him in putting in back into vigour. This was part of his instaurare omnia in Christo, “restoring all things in Christ”. So well did Saint Teresa understand this that she said she would give her life for the smallest liturgical rubric. Understood in this way, it [the liturgy] is not the prerogative or the specialisation of any given religious Order; it belongs to the Church!
If, by the liturgy, you mean the splendour of the offices, or liturgical scholarship, then I do believe that the Order of Saint Benedict is especially called to its study and its exercise, serving, in this way, as a source and model of liturgical knowledge. The good that I have been able to do souls — men, women, children, rich, poor, all —in revealing to them the treasures of spiritual life, of light, of facility in their relations with God that are contained in the liturgy, demonstrates to me the very great importance for every priest, parish priest, curate, for all, to work at spreading abroad this wellspring of spiritual life [that is] so secure and so ecclesial.
It was against this rich liturgical background, and in the context of the ceaseless round of the Divine Office chanted in choir, that Dom Marmion wrote on 20 January 1906:
I have received a strong interior light on the manner of honouring the Blessed Trinity and of acting in such a way that all our life may consist of a perpetual Gloria Patri.
A Trinitarian and Doxological Piety
Blessed Columba Marmion’s piety is essentially doxological. In a time when the stock–in–trade religious discourse was concerned with a morbid self–examination and with the stilted sentimentality of conventional devotionalism, Blessed Marmion entered whole–heartedly into the infinite horizons opened by the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, the Te Deum Laudamus, and the Gloria Patri. I am amazed, for example, at the number of times in his writings that Blessed Columba Marmion quotes the Te Deum. He was steeped in the Theocentric, Christological, Trinitarian religion of the Fathers of the Church. He drank deeply of the grand theological poetry of the ancient liturgies, remarkable as much for their poetic beauty as for their doctrinal rigour.
In 1914, he wrote:
I am firmly convinced that the more one advances in life, the more one has relations with God, the better one understands the grandeur of the divine praise in the Office. There is no other work which approaches even remotely this praise. Built up around the holy sacrifice which is its centre, it constitutes the purest form of glory which man can give to God, because it is the most intimate association of the soul with the canticle which the Word Incarnate renders to the adorable Trinity.
[Every Sunday at Prime, Blessed Columba Marmion chanted the dazzling Quicumque Vult, the so–called Athanasian Creed. When was the last time you prayed it? It is still part of the monastic Office at Prime on Trinity Sunday but has, alas, fallen through the cracks of the latest reforms of the Office of the Roman Rite. A great pity. It is the very substance of a sound theological Trinitarian piety. Dom Marmion would have known the text by heart: the purest doctrine of the Church articulated in waves of rhythmed prose, and turning to undiluted praise in the silence of the receptive heart.
Qualis Pater, talis Filius, talis Spiritus Sanctus. Increatus Pater, increatus Filius, increatus Spiritus Sanctus.
Immensus Pater, immensus Filius, immensus Spiritus Sanctus.
Aeternus Pater, aeternus Filius, aeternus Spiritus Sanctus.
Et tamen non tres aeterni, sed unus aeternus.
Sicut non tres increati, nec tres immensi, sed unus increatus, et unus immensus.
Similiter omnipotens Pater, omnipotens Filius, omnipotens Spiritus Sanctus.
Et tamen non tres omnipotentes, sed unus omnipotens.
Ita Deus Pater, Deus Filius, Deus Spiritus Sanctus.
Et tamen non tres dii, sed unus est Deus.
Ita Dominus Pater, Dominus Filius, Dominus Spiritus Sanctus.
Et tamen non tres Domini, sed unus est Dominus.
Addressing diocesan priests, Abbot Marmion said this:
Believe me, if you recite the breviary without rushing it, the phrases of Holy Scripture which you pronounce will finally become, as it were, a part of yourself. You will find that the ensemble of the texts of the Old and New Testaments in their setting in the Temporale and the Sanctorale form a Promptuarium, a treasure–chamber filled with graces and light. These illuminations will enlighten your faith in the mysteries of Christ, of the Church, and even in the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.