Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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March 21, 2002
Passing of Saint Benedict

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

On March 21, 2001, on the occasion of the 1,500th anniversary of Saint Benedict's arrival at his hermitage in Subiaco, the Cardinal Secretary of State, Angelo Sodano, gave thanks to God: "Young Benedict went among these solitary rocks in order to be able to consecrate himself entirely to the contemplation of God. And 1,500 years later, he continues to remind us of the fundamental duty of our existence: to love God above all things... Here it was that young Benedict created the Benedictine family, this school of divine service, in order to lead an innumerable host of men and women over the centuries to more intimate union with Christ, following the mandates of the Gospel."

The Church recently raised to the altars one of the spiritual sons of Saint Benedict: Dom Columba Marmion, Abbot of Maredsous (Belgium), beatified on September 3, 2000. Irish from his father's side, French from his mother's, Joseph Marmion entered the world in Dublin on Holy Thursday, 1858, one of nine children born into the Marmion family. The first two boys having died in infancy, Joseph's parents turned to Saint Joseph to beg his intercession for another son. Indeed, three other sons would be given them, among whom was the future Dom Columba, named Joseph in gratitude to the adoptive father of Jesus.

Saddled with heavy responsibilities in a major export firm, Mr. Marmion was nonetheless a fervent Christian. He was to declare to his son Joseph, while the young man was in the seminary, "In the midst of my pressing occupations, I never go for more than a few minutes without offering my entire self to God." Mrs. Marmion utterly espoused her husband's religious ideal, and the family followed the parents' pious example. Three of four daughters would become nuns.

Pleasant and mild, Joseph was coddled by everyone. He developed the habit of considering everything in the light of faith. One day, in response to an uncle who talked of nothing but banks and markets, Joseph said, "But in the end, Uncle, money isn't everything!"-"Ah, my boy, you don't know what money is! You can't understand that yet!"-"Now," Dom Marmion would later comment, "my uncle is in eternity, and he has an even lesser opinion of money than do I!" At the conclusion of his secondary school studies, Joseph decided to enter the seminary. But soon he was violently tempted against his priestly vocation. In the midst of this trial, he sought out a friend from whom he hoped to find consolation. As a matter of fact, this friend, frivolous and worldly, would only have succeeded in dissuading him from entering the seminary. He did not find him. Instead, he met another friend, a fervent Catholic, who showed him the devil's snare and confirmed him in his intention to devote himself to God. Joseph saw in these circumstances the hand of Providence, besought by his sister Rosie's prayers.

Which spirit is guiding us?

"In every soul, there are three spirits trying to take control," Dom Marmion would later write. "The spirit of falsehood and blasphemy which, from the beginning, continually suggests the opposite of what God whispers in our ears; the spirit of the world, which inclines us to judge matters according to the desires of the senses and the prudence of the flesh-but the prudence of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God (cf. 1 Cor. 3:19); finally, there is the Spirit of God, which always inspires us to raise our hearts above nature, and to live by faith. This Spirit fills us with peace and joy, and produces in us the fruits of which Saint Paul speaks (cf. Gal. 5:22). The Spirit of God, even when It reproaches us or inclines us to feel distress for our sins, always fills the soul with peace and filial confidence in our Heavenly Father. The other spirits dry up our souls... plunging us into despondency and discouragement."

Joseph entered Holy Cross College in January 1874, a seminary which at that time had nearly 80 students. Marked by a contagious cheerfulness in recreation, he was the center of a group from which often burst joyful laughter. At times reproved by the Father Rector for the excesses of his liveliness, he received these reprimands with humility: "It is a bitter but salutary medicine. I must accept it to get better," he affirmed. Sent to Rome to complete his theology studies, Joseph stayed there two years. On June 16, 1881, he was ordained a priest in the chapel of the Irish College. On his way home, he passed through Belgium and visited the Benedictine Abbey in Maredsous. As he crossed the threshold of the monastery, he heard an interior voice tell him, "This is where I want you." Five years would pass before he would be able to respond to this call. Upon returning to Ireland, Father Marmion was named vicar of the parish in Dundrum, south of Dublin. The following year, he was given responsibility for the philosophy courses at Holy Cross Seminary, where he himself had formerly been a student. For four years, he nurtured his decision and, in 1886, having been given his archbishop's approval, he left for the monastery.

For a long time, his family and close friends had been aware of his new orientation. When he made it public, the news was met with both surprise and disappointment. People did not hesitate to criticize this change considered inexplicable. But the Master was there, calling him. "Before I was a monk," Dom Marmion would later explain, "I could not, in the eyes of the world, do more good than I was doing where I already was. But I thought, I prayed, and I understood that only by practicing religious obedience would I be certain of always doing the will of God. I had everything I needed for my sanctification, with the exception of one good alone: that of obedience. It is for this reason that I left my homeland, renounced my freedom and everything else... I was a professor; I had, still quite young, what people call a good position, success, friends who were very close to me-but I didn't have the opportunity to obey. I became a monk because God revealed to me the beauty and grandeur of obedience."

The conquest of true freedom

Saint Benedict teaches that obedience is "the virtue of those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ" (Rule, ch. 5). Consecrated life is a most special configuration to Christ... For Jesus revealed Himself to us as the "obedient One" par excellence, coming down from Heaven not to do His will, but the will of Him who had sent Him (cf. Jn. 6:38). For the love of God, the monk also "submits himself to his Superior in all obedience, imitating the Lord, of whom the Apostle says, He became obedient even unto death" (Rule of Saint Benedict, ch. 7). For many people in this day and age, obedience is inconsistent with personal freedom and the legitimate desire to determine one's life in an independent manner. But Christ, who is the Truth, teaches us the way to true freedom. He Himself told us: The truth will set you free (Jn. 8:32). Therefore, in showing us the way of obedience, He points out to us a "path to the gradual conquest of true freedom" (John Paul II, Vita consecrata, March 25, 1996, no. 91).

Joseph Marmion arrived in Maredsous on November 21, 1886. The austerity of monastic life contrasted with his outgoing cheerfulness. The exile far from his homeland was his first trial. He was indeed given the religious name of an Irish monastic saint, Columba, but this name reminded him of everything he had left. What is more, he had no command of French, and he forced himself to work hard in order to reach the point of speaking it correctly. Finally, the very small number of letters he was permitted to write and the limitations imposed on the exercise of his priesthood gave him the feeling of having abandoned his friends and the individuals who had recourse to him. For an Irishman accustomed to conviviality, isolation was profound suffering. "I had the impression, the day I entered Maredsous," he wrote November 30, "that by entering the monastery, I had quite simply just done the craziest thing in the world." One day, his heart crushed, he threw himself before the tabernacle: "My Jesus, You have called me. It is for You that I am here."

"In God's hands"

The vocation of this vicar from across the Channel was not regarded without skepticism by the old and rigid novice master. Between himself and Father Columba reigned an absolute contrast of dispositions. But in order to fight the little natural liking he felt towards the novice master, the novice began the habit of going every night to humbly disclose to him his faults of the day. Above all, he fervently devoted himself to matters of God, primarily to prayer and spiritual reading. In 1909, he wrote to one of his monks who was grappling with serious difficulties: "You will be forced, as I once was during my first years at Maredsous, to throw yourself with lowered head into the hands of God. Try, my dear son, to find everything in Him. Try to become an interior man, entirely submitted to God and accustomed to relying on Him alone." The books Father Columba read were varied-the Holy Scriptures, especially Saint Paul; Saint Francis de Sales; Saint Thomas Aquinas; Louis de Blois; Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila; Saint Catherine of Sienna; Father Olier; Bishop Gay... Without knowing it, he was in this way preparing his future spiritual conferences, which would be collected in numerous books.

With time, the increasingly stronger conviction of having found his vocation developed in Father Columba's soul. He confided to a friend: "I am where God wants me to be. I have found great peace and I am extremely happy." Dom Marmion made his solemn profession on February 10, 1891. The following Sunday, the parish priest from a village next to Maredsous asked that a monk come to preach in his church. "There is indeed a young foreign monk," the Prior replied, "but I don't think I can send him to you because his French is still imperfect, and I doubt that he would be of any use to you."-"Send him to me anyway; it will at least be a change for my parishioners." After the Mass, the parish priest swore that he had never had as gifted a homilist in his parish. From then on, the "Irish Father" was requested everywhere in the area. Aware of his talent for preaching, Dom Marmion likewise knew that it was useless "to preach from the rooftops, if such is not preceded by an intimate union with Our Lord in the 'darkness' or the silence of prayer."

In October 1900, Dom Marmion was named Prior of the Monastery of Mont-César, a foundation dependent on Maredsous, close to the city of Louvain. It had as its abbot Dom Robert de Kerchove, a forceful and unemotional man of rather incisive authority. Father Columba left Maredsous with apprehension. Nevertheless, he abandoned himself to the will of God. Dom Robert wished for his monks to remain permanently in their enclosure, while Dom Columba, full of apostolic zeal, was inclined to respond to the appeals which came to him from the outside. Yet, there were no disputes between them, as Dom Marmion was always ready to submit to his Abbot. One day in 1905, he was assailed with numerous doubts. Worried about the future, the idea came to him that it would be wonderful if everything could be organized according to his way of thinking. But, looking at his crucifix, he exclaimed, "No! Not as I wish, but as You wish, Lord!" He stated, "If, at that moment, Christ had told me, 'I give you free rein. Organize your life and everything that concerns you the way you want it. Take your pen, write your plan, and I will sign it,' I would have answered him, 'No, Jesus, I do not wish to have the least plan for my life. I wish only to carry out Your divine plan for me. You are the one who will guide me. I abandon myself entirely into Your Hands."

Activity or activism?

Dom Columba added to his responsibility as Prior that of professor of theology. He taught this subject with his intelligence, with his prodigious memory, but especially with his heart, burning with love for God. In his eyes, theology was food for prayer and orientation towards the true goods, be it to give thanks, be it to ask for blessings. The new Prior's activity also extended to the preaching of retreats to many communities in Belgium and various English monasteries. Only the intensity of his life of union with God explains the fruits of his brimming energy, which could have become unprofitable activism.

On September 28, 1909, Dom Marmion, at the age of 52, was elected Abbot of Maredsous by his brothers. He adopted as his motto "Better to serve than to rule." If a person had to give the number one quality which led his brothers to choose him as Abbot, it would be his reputation for preaching sound doctrine. On the occasion of the retreat he gave at Maredsous before his election as abbot, the community understood that it had in him a master of the spiritual life. Notwithstanding, to govern a community of over one hundred monks is no simple task! As a result of his permanent union with God, Dom Columba retained his interior calm and unfailing optimism when it was a matter of procuring the good of souls. During his term as abbot, the monastery enjoyed profound influence, both spiritual and intellectual. Vocations rose considerably. But Dom Marmion was not disinterested in temporal questions. Thus he had the abbey outfitted with electricity and central heating, both uncommon for monasteries at that time.

To individuals of all ages and stations who came to see him and to ask for spiritual direction, Abbot Columba resolutely pointed out the way-the spiritual life is, above all else, a search for God. He insisted that Jesus Christ must be the center of all prayer and the only way to union with God, for, as Jesus said, No one comes to the Father but through me (Jn. 14:6). Saint Peter added, There is no salvation in anyone else (Acts 4:12). God has predestined us to participate in His divine life, to enter forever into the communion of His Three Persons, and to do so even during our earthly life by means of sanctifying grace, which makes us His adoptive children (cf. Eph. 1:5) and the heirs of His glory. This eternal predestination was fulfilled in time by Jesus Christ-by His redeeming Passion, Jesus redeemed humanity fallen into sin, and He gives to all who believe in Him and obey Him the supernatural life of grace. This life is to blossom into eternal life, in the face-to-face vision of the Trinity.

The power of truth

In the presence of sinners, his clear-sightedness was combined with great charity. "I am convinced" he would repeat, "and this by experience, that it is not by discussion but by kindness that souls are won over or brought back. It is not by wishing to convince someone of his wrongness that he is won over, but rather by showing him the truth with gentleness and benevolence". The following story illustrates his method well. In a large city, during the First World War, a poor priest who, after having practiced spiritualism, had many years since lost his faith and morals, was on the verge of death. Dom Marmion went to visit him on various occasions. The priest and Dom Marmion spoke amicably, and, the patient's state having improved, they began to have tea together. When Dom Marmion finally addressed the question of the priest's spiritual life, he received nothing but evasive or negative responses. "I've asked others... I'm happy the way I am... I don't want to change". Abbot Columba prayed for this soul and offered himself to God for it. After further fruitless visits, greatly distressed but not discouraged, he attempted one last effort and sent a message in which his apostle's heart overflowed with charity and supernatural seriousness. The hour of mercy came. A note from the priest soon arrived-"You have won the game... Come, I am waiting for you." Dom Marmion took all the necessary steps and, on Christmas Eve, he reconciled this soul with the Lord. Some time later, the sick man rendered his soul to God, with manifest sentiments of contrition and love.

Dom Marmion's zeal for souls had its source in an intense devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He likewise held the greatest respect for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the renewal of the sacrifice of Calvary and the testimony of Christ's love for us. "During the Mass at the monastery that we sing every day," he explained, "I have the opportunity to meditate on the great act which is accomplished at the altar. More often than not, I feel my heart overflow with joy and gratitude in thinking that I possess, in Jesus present on the altar, an atonement worthy to be offered to the Father, a satisfaction of infinite price. How many graces are contained in the Mass! No saint, not even the Virgin Mary, has been able to draw from this sacrifice all the fruit which is held in it." His devotion to the Passion found expression besides in his daily recitation of the Stations of the Cross.

"I want to enter there!"

Dom Columba was also driven by a profound devotion to Our Lady. "We should be by grace what Jesus was by nature, a child of God and a child of Mary," he often repeated. Someone said to him one day, "The Rosary is for women and children."-"Suppose it is," he replied, "but what did Our Lord say? Unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven (Mt. 18:3). And I want to enter there!"

The thirteen years of Dom Marmion's term as abbot were marked by the terrible years of the First World War. Since Belgium had been invaded by the German army, the Abbot feared the requisition of his young novices by the occupant. He therefore decided to immediately take them to England, then to Ireland. Many difficulties, misunderstandings, and tensions with Maredsous ensued. The Irish house (established in Edermine) more resembled a youth hostel than a monastery. A crisis arose there in 1916 and continued until 1918. Dom Marmion wrote about this subject: "I need your prayers, because certain young Fathers here at Edermine have grieved me by their affected attitude of cold indifference towards me... I have tried to win them over with perseverance and prayer, but up till now without success. They are good, but full of self-confidence... They oppose the letter of Canon Law to the spirit of the Holy Rule." The affair went as far as Rome, and the matter was laid before the Congregation for Religious. The Abbot showed great humility and obedience and, finally, the Edermine house was closed in 1920.

The end of the Great War saw the sudden appearance of new problems. A new mentality was developing everywhere, a result of the collapse of social barriers... Dom Marmion did his best to understand the unfamiliar ways of these young monks. Many had served in the war, as stretcher bearers or chaplains. Returning to the monastery, they could not instantaneously get rid of all the habits picked up in military life. "I dread the arrival of these young monks who have been deprived for so long of our traditions and our monastic spirit," wrote Abbot Columba. The majority, however, readapted as a result of their spirit of faith.

All these trials prematurely exhausted the Abbot's system and brought him to death's door. In the moments before he expired, he united himself with Jesus' Passion through the Stations of the Cross. His last words were, "Jesus, Mary, Joseph!" On January 20, 1923, he peacefully rendered his soul to the Heavenly Father. Thanks to Dom Raymond Thibaut, his secretary, Dom Marmion's oral teachings have been preserved for us in the form of three popular books: Christ, Life of the Soul, published in 1917; Christ in His Mysteries, in 1919; and Christ, Ideal of the Monk, in 1922. These three works had been revised by Dom Marmion and would be subsequently translated into several languages.

During the beatification of Dom Marmion on September 3, 2000, Pope John Paul II declared, "He left us an authentic treasure of spiritual teaching for the Church of our time. In his writings, he teaches a simple yet demanding way of holiness for all the faithful, whom God has destined in love to be His adopted children through Jesus Christ... May a widespread rediscovery of the spiritual writings of Blessed Columba Marmion help priests, religious and laity to grow in union with Christ and bear faithful witness to him through ardent love of God and generous service to their brothers and sisters."

Blessed Dom Columba, stay close to us; convey to us, through your prayer to God and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the breadth and the depth of your love for Him!

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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