Paul Hurley SVD recalls a great Benedictine abbot who was born in Dublin 150 years ago next month William Marmion, from Clane, Co Kildare, worked as a salesman for a corn merchant in Dublin. In 1847 he married Herminie Cordier, a French girl who came to Ireland to study English. He was described as "rather straightlaced, pompous and authoritarian", while she was "docile and less assertive". They had nine children. five boys and four girls, three of whom became Mercy nuns.
Both parents were very religious — relatives called them "the holy family" — and decided at once that Joseph, the third youngest, born on April 1, 1858, would be a priest. So even as a child they dressed him in black, unlike his siblings. Five years later. when William got a better job as director of another corn firm and his wife started teaching • French to private pupils, they moved from Queen Street to a better house in nearby Blackhall Place, off the city's north quays.
For his secondary education Joseph was sent to the Jesuits' Belvedere College where, though ridiculed for his black clothes, he was a brilliant student. At 15 he won a scholarship to Clonliffe Diocesan Seminary for five years. Again he so excelled there that he was sent to finish his theology studies in Rome, where he won a doctorate and was ordained at 23.
He first thought of becoming a Benedictine monk when he visited Monte Cassino and again when he spent two days at Maredsous Abbey in Belgium on his way home. But he had promised Cardinal McCabe, then Archbishop of Dublin, that he would first spend some time working there, to repay his debt to the diocese. After a year as curate in Dundnun, he was appointed professor of philosophy at Clonliffe, where he spent four years. In 1886 he was given permission to join the Benedictines. Dom Mark Tierney, OSB, in his fine biography of Blessed Columba says some people "predicted that he would not persevere in his monastic vocation and would be back in Dublin soon again". They were wrong, for he became one of the greatest Benedictines of modern times. On his way to Maredsous, where he arrived in November 1886, aged 28, he threw away his tobacco box and never smoked again. He found his strict twoyear novitiate difficult, mainly because of the iron rule of his novice-master, Dom Benoit D'Hondt. He also had to cope with a new culture and language, French. But he was unanimously approved for Benedictine membership and made his profession in 1888. His first tasks were teaching in the Abbey's secondary school and lecturing in philosophy to the junior monks.
Maredsous was founded in 1872 by monks from Beuron Abbey in Germany, and built by the generosity of the Belgian Desclee family. The English Abbot John Chapman, OSB, also a great spiritual writer, who lived there for a couple of years, described it as "a wonderful little bit of the Middle Ages, a huge monastery of blue stone, built on top of a hill, round three sides of a cloister, the fourth side being the church, as large as asathedral".
A new monastery. Mont Cesar. was founded by Maredsous in Louvain in 1894 and Marmion was sent there as prior. Louvain being in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, he had to learn another new language; from there he also began giving retreats in Belgium, England, France and Ireland.
In 1895 he was sent to represent Maredsous at the centenary celebrations for Maynooth College. On the way he visited his sisters in Cork, Waterford and Dublin — both his parents were then dead. At Maynooth he met, among many others, Mgr Mercier, the future Belgian cardinal, who became one of his best friends.
When Maredsous's Abbot de Hemptinne was appointed head of the Benedictine order Marmion was elected to succeed him in 1909 — and was abbot till he died 14 years later. His community numbered 130 priests and brothers, who ran a secondary school, an arts school and a large farm.
One of his first and most unusual tasks concerned the "Caldey Affair". In 1906 a group of young English Protestants founded an Anglican Benedictine monastery on Caldey Island off the south coast of Wales. When it became evident that they had "leanings towards Rome", the Church of England disowned them and they decided. by 27 votes to six, to become Catholics. Marmion was asked to help them do so and had to make four visits to Caldey before its monks were fully established as Catholic Benedictines.
World War I brought him some difficult problems. At the start of the War he brought 23 of his youngest Belgian monks to Ireland, for safety and to avoid military service. A wealthy French lady helped him to buy Ederrnine House, near Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, where the young monks lived until 1920.
Equally difficult were the long negotiations Marmion had to undertake at the end of the War when he was asked to send some of his Belgian monks to the Dormition monastery in Jerusalem for two years after its German monks were expelled. In arranging this he spent five months travelling in Europe, including a meeting in Rome with Pope Benedict XV.
Even more painful was the separation after the war of Maredsous and two other Belgian monasteries from the German branch of the Benedictines. AntiGerman feeling was then so strong in Belgium that this had to be done. But Marmion dealt with all these difficult problems with great charity and tact.
At the same time he continued giving retreats, mostly to priests and religious, in Belgium and abroad. About 1,800 of his letters have survived, some 300 in English; he also spoke and wrote in Flemish, French, German and Italian. He died. a victim of a flu epidemic, on January 30, 1923.
The Benedictine Marmion Abbey in Illinois is named after him, while Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick, founded four years after his death, is dedicated to him. Thousands of people heard him preach, while hundreds of thousands have read his books, especially the trilogy, Christ, the life of the soul, Christ, in his mysteries and Christ, the ideal of the monk, which, though written in French have been translated into 16 languages, including Korean and Japanese. These spiritual classics were not really "writtenby him, but were based on his notes and those taken by others during his lectures. And so, says Dom Mark Tierney, they lack "the stories and anecdotes with which he always illustrated his talks, for he was a good storyteller". Dom Bernard O'Dea described him as "rotund, happy, taking short jerky paces and appearing the typical jovial monk of legend". Since his books an not easy to read, Dom Mark advises taking "a chapter or less at a time".
Marmion hardly ever quoted the Old Testament, apart frorrthe Psalms, which he knew by heart. His spirituality was based on he gospels and the letters of St Pail and St John. He was also grealy influenced by the writings of St Thomas Aquinas and St Francis de Sales.
At his beatification in 2000 Pope John Paul said: "Dom Marniion left us an authentic teasure of spiritual teaching for te Church of our time. hi his wriings he teaches a simple yet demanding way of holiness Er all the faithful. May a widespread rediscovery of his spiritual watings help priests, religious and laity to grow in union with Grist and bear faithful witness to ha through ardent love of God ad generous service of their broters and sisters."