Although he was beatified by John Paul II, Columba Joseph Marmion — an Irish Benedictine who became an abbot in Belgium — is a neglected figure today. So Anselm J Gribbin is delighted by this reissue of his book of advice to Catholics seeking to imitate Christ
Christ, The Life of the Soul by Blessed Columba Marmion OSB, translated by Alan Bancroft, Gracewing £17.99
In the Jubilee Year of 2000 Pope John Paul II beatified an Irish Benedictine priest. Columba Joseph Marmion, with a rather unusual CV.
Born in 1858, Marmion served five years as a diocesan priest and seminary professor in Ireland before becoming a monk at the Abbey of Maredsous in Belgium.
In 1909 he was elected as Maredsous' third abbot and was a much sought-after confessor, spiritual director and retreat master until his death in 1923.
Marmion was, unquestionably, one of the great Catholic spiritual authors of the 20th century. His books — originally written in French — influenced several generations of priests, religious groups, and lay people. Many years have elapsed since Marmion's writings were first translated into English, mainly by a Benedictine nun of Tyburn. These were made available again in a onevolume edition produced by Maredsous in 2000, the cost of which was prohibitive to the general public.
Alan Bancroft is therefore to be commended for providing the English-speaking world with a modern, fresh and readily accessible translation of Christ, The Life of the Soul.
At the core of Marmion's spirituality is the figure of Jesus Christ, our divine saviour, the model and exemplar of Christian life. This is a book, then, which is concerned with travelling on the path to holiness in the footsteps of Christ. It is steeped in Catholic doctrine: the Bible, the letters of St Paul, the Sacred Liturgy and the writings of the Fathers, Doctors and saints of the Church.
However, one would be mistaken in thinking that it is a dry and indigestible theological text, written solely for priests. The book exemplifies the spirituality that all Christian men and women should emulate: the gift of true life and liberty which Christ, respecting free will and openness to divine grace, calls us all to pursue. As Marmion puts it: "It is each and every one of us who ought to participate in the holiness of
Jesus. Christ has excluded no one from the life that He brought, and by which He made us God's children: 'Christ died for all.' It is for the whole of humanity that Christ has reopened the doors of eternal life."
Of particular note here is Marmion's emphasis on the doctrine of our "divine adoption" through the sacrament of Baptism as "children of God".
Christ, The Life of the Soul offers much practical guidance for the spiritual lives of the laity, avoiding the misrepresentations of recent years.
After establishing Christ as the centre of spiritual life and our place, as Catholics, in the Church — Christ's mystical body — Marmion explores the themes of faith, the importance of baptism, the Sacrament of Penance, and our life and supernatural growth in Christ exercised through charity.
Concerning the pre-eminence of charity — recently highlighted by Pope Benedict in Deus caritas est — Marmion explains that "when we come to the close of our earthly life, faith and hope will disappear; faith will give place to sight, and hope to procession; and from that to clear sight. From that assured possession will radiate the love that never ends".
Two chapters are devoted to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Eucharist as the "bread of life" (Panis Vitae). These are worth particular consideration, for we hear much these days about lay participation in the
liturgy, though often with little reference to what the Church actually taught, especially at the Second Vatican Council.
Marmion was a child of the "Liturgical Movement" prior to the Council, and he is credited as one of the first individuals to use that phrase. Another chapter considers prayer, particularly mental prayer, and its transforming power in the Christian life.
There is much sound advice to be found here. For instance, Marmion discusses the distinction to be made between "methods of prayer" and the nature of prayer in itself. He writes: "The method should vary according to the aptitudes and needs of souls, whereas prayer stays always, basically the same for all souls: a conversation in which the heart of a child of God pours itself out before its Heavenly Father and listens to Him in order to please Him."
Bancroft's new translation is a readable yet faithful rendition of the original French. conveying, with beauty and accuracy, Marmion's teachings. Among the notable differences between Bancroft's text and the "Tyburn edition" is the translation of the numerous Latin quotations given in the work, mainly from scripture. Latin lovers (like myself) may lament this, but it does improve the flow of the text and more people will be appreciative of it than not.
Bancroft adds useful editorial footnotes to elucidate Marmion's thoughts, or to clarify textual references all indicating the care in which he has taken in producing this translation. The book, by way of appendices, includes an informative account of the beatification of Marmion and his cause for canonisation by Dom Mark Tierney, vice-postulator, as well as a detailed chronology of his life. It is unfortunate that there is no index, especially as this is a rather bulky volume. Some may also judge the pale green cover somewhat offputting. However, this does not detract from the book's contents, and its typographical layout, which is easy on the eye.
Bancroft's new translation, which carries the recommendation of Fr Benedict Groeschel, will do much to prompt a reexamination of Marmion's contribution to Catholic theology and spirituality, especially Christology. But more importantly it will make Marmion's classical spirituality accessible to a wider audience, greatly assisting them on their spiritual journey through this life.