The beatification on Sunday, 3 September 2000, of Dom Columba Marmion OSB, abbot of Maredsous Abbey and spiritual writer, is a salient reminder that spirituality must be grounded in Christian revelation.
The following day, when Pope John Paul II received pilgrims in St Peter's Square who had participated in the beatification ceremony, he told them he hoped that Blessed Columba Marmion might "help us all to live the Christian life ever more intensely and to have an ever deeper understanding of our membership in the Church, the mystical Body of Christ."
The beatification is timely, given the recent renewed interest in the spiritual dimensions of the human person. Many people, jaded by the pace of modern life, with its materialist "he who dies with the most toys wins" ethos, have sought to develop these spiritual dimensions - even to the extent of involvement in the New Age movement.
At the same time, many criticisms of aspects of religious education teaching have drawn attention to an overemphasis on the affective elements of Christianity. At their worst, some catechetical programs have emptied Christianity of any significant or substantial doctrinal content, leaving some with a view that Christianity offers little more than "feel good", pop psychology.
Christianity exists because Christians believe that God revealed Himself at various points in history, the summit of this revelation being Jesus Christ. Christians thus believe that the veracity of Christianity stands or falls on whether this revelation actually took place. St Paul was to say, "If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then our preaching is useless and your believing it is useless" (1 Cor 15: 14).
Joseph Marmion - whose legacy stands in stark contrast to such an effete 'Christianity' - was born in Dublin in 1858 and commenced his studies for the secular priesthood at Holy Cross Seminary, Clonliffe in 1874. He later studied at Propaganda Fide College in Rome, where he was profoundly influenced by Francesco Satolli, a prime figure in the Thomistic revival who imbued Marmion with a solid Thomistic formation that was to form the basis of his spirituality. He was ordained to the priesthood on the Feast of Corpus Christi, 1881.
Fr Marmion's ministry as a secular priest included teaching at Clonliffe seminary, and convent and prison chaplaincies. Contact with Dom Roscindo Salvado soon after ordination was to prove seminal in the development of Fr Marmion's monastic vocation. Salvado was the Abbot of New Norcia in Western Australia and combined the life of a Benedictine monk with that of a missionary. Fr Marmion saw in him a latter day version of the early medieval Irish monks who had Christianised much of Europe, including Columbanus, whose name he took at his monastic clothing.
He was admitted to the abbey of Maredsous, in Walloon-speaking Belgium, in 1886, there being no Benedictine monastery in Ireland. He entered because he wanted a life of communal prayer, also because he sought obedience. His gifts as a lecturer and preacher would be later much in demand.
In 1899 he became the first Prior of the Beuronese study-house at Louvain and in 1909, became the third Abbot of Maredsous. Through a daughter house in England at Erdington, Marmion was to play a key role in the reconciliation of the Anglican monks of Caldey and nuns at Milford Haven just before World War I. Marmion himself was to return to Caldey in August 1914 as a refugee from the German advance.
Marmion, who died in 1923, is remembered chiefly for his three great works of spiritual theology: Christ the Life of the Soul, Christ in his Mysteries and Christ the Ideal of the Monk. His spirituality was profoundly influenced by the Bible and the liturgy. "The principal source of prayer," he wrote, "is to be found in Holy Scripture read with devotion and laid up in the heart".
For Marmion, the liturgy was pivotal, as in the liturgy wise theology and sound doctrine became prayer and a contemplative attitude towards the liturgy could draw from the mysteries their full potential. He was to say of the Divine Office - which the Church now encourages as many of its members as are able, to pray - "Those who recite the Divine Office with generosity and recollection easily arrive at contemplation".
At the core of Dom Marmion's theology is the Trinity, particularly the relationships between the three persons of the Trinity. Christian spirituality, he believed, could not be understood apart from the Trinity; it involved entering into a relationship with the persons of the Trinity.
With acknowledgement to ideas in Fr Aidan Nichols' article, "In the Catholic Tradition", Priests and People, July 1997. Michael Daniel teaches at a Melbourne independent college.