In an Instant

One of my favorite books is a collection of excerpts from Bl. Columba Marmion’s letters. I have been reading it again recently, and was struck again by the following passage:

If you have delayed giving yourself to Our Lord, well! repair that by giving yourself to Him now without reserve, with great fidelity and great generosity. And never fear that your past faults and infidelities will prevent you reaching the degree of union that God intends for you; in an instant He can repair all that.

What Abraham Did Not Do

“If you were Abraham’s children, you would do what Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God; this is not what Abraham did.” (John 8:39-40)

The Catena Aurea includes the following comment of Origen on the passage above:

It might seem to some, that it were superfluous to say that Abraham did not this; for it were impossible that it should be; Christ was not born at that time. But we may remind them, that in Abraham’s time there was a man born who spoke the truth, which he heard from God, and that this man’s life was not sought for by Abraham. Know too that the Saints were never without the spiritual advent of Christ. I understand then from this passage, that every one who, after regeneration, and other divine graces bestowed upon him, commits sin, does by this return to evil incur the guilt of crucifying the Son of God, which Abraham did not do.  You do the works of your father.

The teaching here is so familiar that it is hard not to let it become a mere notion, a cliché, rather than the unspeakably terrible thing that it is. Bl. Columba Marmion writes:

[The soul] in voluntarily performing an action contrary to God’s will practically denies […] that God is supreme goodness worthy of being preferred to all that is not Himself; it puts God beneath the creature. Non serviam: “I know Thee not, I will not serve Thee”, says this soul, repeating the words of Satan on the day of his revolt. Does it say them with the lips? No, at least not always; perhaps it would not like to do so, but it says them in act. Sin is the practical negation of the Divine perfections […] practically, if such a thing were not rendered impossible by the nature of the Divinity, this soul would work evil to the Infinite Majesty and Goodness; it would destroy God.

But the really astonishing thing is not the malice of sin, but the mercy of God in the face of that malice: “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” (Romans 5:10)

Easter and Spiritual Freedom

The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:26)

The Risen Lord shows a remarkable freedom with respect to earthly things. Not only is he entirely free from all weakness and suffering, but not even locked doors are no barrier to him, His body is full of intese and perfect life, and everything is easy to Him. Having conquered sin and death He has won for Himself the perfect peace of victory.

“Peace be with you.” The peace that He has won for Himself He gives to us. Perfect freedom from all mortality and suffering will come to us only after our own bodily resurrection, but even now we share in Christ’s freedom through the holiness given us in Baptism.  Blessed Columba Marmion teaches (Christ in His Mysteries, ch. 15) that holiness consists in two elements: first perfect freedom from sin and detachment from all creatures, and second belonging totally to God. Both elements are luminously manifest in the Resurrected Christ: For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God

The readings for this season emphasize again and again that we, having died to sin with Christ, must now live entirely “to God.” If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Col 3:1-2) The joy of the Resurrection should enable us to delight in God alone and to achieve a total freedom from all attachment to creatures. “Get rid of the old leaven.” (cf. Col 3:1) Put away all the disordered desires and attachments that are the roots of sin and death, and rejoice only in God. This is what St Ignatius calls “indifference.”

St Bernard of Clairvaux in a remarkably stern Easter Sermon warns his monks, that having passed through the Red Sea with with Christ, they must take care not to look back to the carnal consolations of Egypt:

Woe to you, whoever you are, if like a dog you turn back  back to your own vomit, and like a pig you wash only to wallow again in the mire! (cf 2 Pet 2:22) I speak not only of those who bodily return to Egypt, but also those who return in their hearts, who seek after the joys of this world, and so lose the life of faith, which is love (caritas). For, “if any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.” (1 Joh 2:15)

In another sermon he warns his monks not to abandon the freedom they have won through the hard fast of Lent:

Nothing of the spiritual exercises [of Lent] should be lost or diminished at the coming of the Holy Feast of the Resurrection. Let us rather strive to pass over to a better life. For any one who, after the tears of penance, does not return to the consolations of the flesh, but advances to trust in the Divine Mercy and enters into a new devotion and joy in the Holy Spirit; any one who is not so much tormented by the memory of past sins, as he is full of delight and inflamed with desire for the eternal rewards; such a one is he who rises with Christ, who celebrates the Pasch, who hastens to Galilee. You therefore, dearly beloved, if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God; set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Col 3:1-2) Just as Christ rose from death through the glory of the Father, so might you too walk in the newness of life. (cf. Rom 6:4) You should pass from temporal joy (saeculari laetitia) and the consolations of this world by compunction and godly sorrow, to holy and spiritual devotion passing over with rejoicing and exulting. May He grant this to you who has passed over from this world to the Father, who draws us after Himself, and deigns to call us to Galilee to show us Himself, who is over all things, God, blessed for ever. Amen.

The Rule of Reason

In the letter embedded above Bl. Columba Marmion says exactly what I’ve tried to say to certain “enthusiastic” penitents in the confessional. It is dangerous to think that one is being guided by the Holy Spirit when one is in fact just being guided by one’s own fancy; man was meant to be ruled by reason enlightened by faith:

You must begin at the foundation of your soul, and try to accustom yourself to follow reason enlightened by faith, and no longer be the slave of your impressions. What distinguishes man from the animal is, that the animal, having no higher principle of action than sense, follows his impressions alone; whereas man has a spiritual principle which he should alone follow, using his senses, his impressions; but without being swept along by them.

Ronald Knox’s strange masterpiece Enthusiasm is a study of religious movements which give primacy to “impressions”.

Grave Matter

Before entering the monastery and receiving the name “Columba”, Joseph Marmion was a priest in the archdiocese of Dublin. From a letter written to a friend from seminary days in 1881:

I prefer the hearing of confessions to any other duty. I never found any difficulty as yet although I have a great many penitents, even from other parishes & from Dublin. I believe that very much less “geny” is required than is generally thought; great kindness & patience are everything & the principle sacramenta propter homines ( et mulieres) : of course you must know that if a man steals a pound he must restore it, & that murder, drunkenness etc, are sometimes mortal sins; beyond this, you very seldom get a “casus.” …

The funniest line in Bl. Columba Marmion’s letters

I have been reading a collection of the English letters of Bl. Columba Marmion. Unlike in the more famous collection of his letters, the letters here are given in full – including the funny parts. Here is the funniest bit of all, from a letter of spiritual direction to an English nun:

I should be so glad to complete what I consider to be God’s work in your soul, by delivering you over completely to Our Dear Lord “Who has looked down on your lowliness” and wants you all to Himself (no accounting for tastes) .

No accounting for tastes! He isn’t just being flippant either; he was very aware of the dangers of flattery. In another letter to the same correspondent he gives the theological point which makes his joke the opposite of cruel:

God’s glory, as derived from us, consists principally in the infinite condescensions of His mercy. The more miserable and unworthy we are, – provided we have a good will and seek Hirn sincerely, – the more is His mercy exalted in stooping down to our misery. “There is more joy in Heaven before God’s Angels for one sinner who does penance, than for the 99 who need not penance”; and there is more glory given to God when He condescends to stoop down to a poor, mean, selfish, ordinary creature, than when He communicates Himself to one of those grand, noble, superior natures which, to our eyes, seem to claim His notice. St. Paul understood this so weIl: “He hath chosen the weak and despicable things of this world to confound the strong,” etc; ut non glorietur in conspectu ejus omnis caro,” “That man should not glory in His sight.”

Peace and Perfect Joy

In one of his earliest letters of direction Blessed Columba Marmion writes the following:

The best means of acquiring […] calm is an absolute resignation to God’s holy will, there you will find the region of peace and ____[word illegible] Try to wish for nothing, to attach your heart to nothing without having first presented it to God and placed it in the Sacred Heart, in order to wish it in Him and with Him. One of the chief reasons why we lose peace of soul is that we desire something, our heart clings to some object, without knowing if God wills it or not, and then, when an obstacle is opposed to our desires, we are troubled, we are no longer in conformity with His holy will, and we lose peace. Continue reading

The Way of the Cross and Real Apprehension of Sin


One of the purposes of devotions such as the Way of the Cross seems to be that they make us realize things which we already know. Or, to put it in Bl. J. H. Newman’s terms, they give us real apprehension of truths which we tend to apprehend only notionally. Take for example mortal sin: we apprehend at least notionally that with mortal sin we oppose God. Bl. Columba Marmion states this with great force:

Sin is […] the negation by the creature of the existence of God, of His truth, His sovereignty, His holiness, His goodness. […] In voluntarily performing an action contrary to God’s will [the soul] practically denies that God is sovereign wisdom and has the power to establish laws; it practically denies the holiness of God and refuses to give Him the adoration due to Him; it practically denies that God is omnipotent and has the right of claiming the obedience of beings that receive their life from Him; it denies that God is supreme goodness worthy of being preferred to all that is not Himself; it puts God beneath the creature. Non serviam: “I know Thee not, I will not serve Thee”, says this soul, repeating the words of Satan on the day of his revolt. Does it say them with the lips? No, at least not always; perhaps it would not like to do so, but it says them in act. Sin is the practical negation of the Divine perfections […] practically, if such a thing were not rendered impossible by the nature of the Divinity, this soul would work evil to the Infinite Majesty and Goodness; it would destroy God.

He then immediately proceeds to show how this infinite malice is revealed in the passion:

And was not this what happened? When God took to Himself a human form, did not sin slay him? (Christ the Life of the Soul)

But the problem is that we tend that revelation tends in turn to be only notionally apprehended. And this is where the Way of the Cross can help us, since the contemplation of the concrete circumstances of the Passion leads to real apprehension. Thus many meditations on the Stations begin by contemplating the malice of sin. Here is Bl. Cardinal Newman’s own meditation on the first station:

Jesus is condemned to death. His death-warrant is signed, and who signed it but I, when I committed my first mortal sins? My first mortal sins, when I fell away from the state of grace into which Thou didst place me by baptism; these it was that were Thy death-warrant, O Lord. The Innocent suffered for the guilty. Those sins of mine were the voices which cried out, “Let Him be crucified.” That willingness and delight of heart with which I committed them was the consent which Pilate gave to this clamorous multitude. And the hardness of heart which followed upon them, my disgust, my despair, my proud impatience, my obstinate resolve to sin on, the love of sin which took possession of me—what were these contrary and impetuous feelings but the blows and the blasphemies with which the fierce soldiers and the populace received Thee, thus carrying out the sentence which Pilate had pronounced?

Per Evangelica Dicta

How are we to understand the silent prayer after the Gospel at Mass: “Per evangelica dicta, deleantur nostra delicta: By the words of the Gospel may our sins be blotted out”? How does the reading of the Gospel blot out our sins? The brilliant German novelist Martin Mosebach in one of the essays in his rather idiosyncratic book on the Liturgy uses this prayer as an argument for having the Gospel read in Latin: the reading of the Gospel is much more than proclamation; in it Christ becomes present, and it thus as the character of a sacramental an efficacious, sin-forgiving blessing. (Häresie der Formlosigkeit, 2nd. ed. 135) I have no problem with reading the Gospel in Latin, but I think that Mosebach’s argument tends to muddle the distinction between sacramental and sacrament a bit. We say a sacrament is efficacious “ex opere operato,” from the work done, but a sacramental “ex opere operantis,” from the work of the doer. Mosebach seems to be wanting the sacramental to work like a sacrament: as if it were irrelevant whether one understood the words of the Gospel for them to have their effect. In the case of a sacrament this is clear; Ronald Knox famously remarked, on being asked to use the vernacular for a Baptism, “the baby doesn’t understand English and the Devil knows Latin.” But in the case of a sacramental this is not at all clear.

Although the subtitle of Mosebach’s book is “On the Roman Liturgy and its Enemy” its spirit is rather Byzantine than Roman. I think this is manifest in many parts of the book, but perhaps nowhere so clearly as in the place just cited. For Byzantine theology does not distinguish between sacraments and sacramentals. There is an old Russian story which gives gives a kind of exaggerated version of what Mosebach seems to be thinking: A monk gives a drunkard a copy of the Gospel in Church Slavonic, and advises him to read it whenever he wants a drink, but the man assures the monk that he does not understand Church Slavonic and the book can be of no use to him.

But the monk went on to assure me that in the very words of the Gospel there lay a gracious power, for in them was written what God himself has spoken. ‘It does not matter very much if at first you do not understand. […] If you do not understand the Word of God, the devils understand what you are reading and tremble […] St. John Chrysostom writes that even a room in which a copy of the Gospels is kept holds the spirits of darkness at bay and becomes an unpromising field for their wiles.’

Now, I don’t want to deny that there might be something to all this, Chrysostom  is a strong authority, but it is hardly likely that this typically Byzantine enthusiasm is what the Roman Liturgy is referring to with “per evangelica dicta…” The Roman tradition places great emphasis on attention to the liturgically proclaimed word, “ut mens nostra concordet voci nostrae” (Regula Benedicti XIX,7). Even one of the most Byzantine-spirited Latin theologians, the “Origen of the 20th century,” H. U. von Balthasar, is very Roman when it comes to this question. Like Origen himself Balthasar occasionally makes a really good point:

It is essential to listen [to the word] obediently and with full attention, not least as a means of purification and preparation for holy communion (“You are made clean by the word which I have spoken to you” [Jn 15:3]; “Per evangelica dicta deleantur nostra delicta”). This attention is therefore necessary as a liturgical act, i.e., an act pertaining to the worship of the whole Church. Consequently it is wrong to isolate this act, which can only be a personal act, and as such makes ready for the sacramental act of holy communion, and to sacramentalize it, ascribing to it a kind of ex opere operato effect which is totally foreign.

The contact which we have with the Word in the Gospel is a preparation for the union which we will have with Him in through the Sacrament, which is itself a foretaste of the union which we will have with Him in the Beatific Vision.

The contact with him in the Gospel is the contact of faith. Blessed Columba Marmion’s Christ the Life of the Soul is largely concerned with how the contact that we have with Christ through faith is the foundation of the spiritual life and our adoption as sons. Thus when the Gospel is proclaimed in we come into real contact with the Light of the world, who reveals to us our sin and blots it out on condition that we believe:

For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting. For God sent not his Son into the world, to judge the world, but that the world may be saved by him. He that believeth in him is not judged. But he that doth not believe, is already judged: because he believeth not in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment: because the light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light: for their works were evil. For every one that doth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, that his works may not be reproved. But he that doth truth, cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, because they are done in God. (Jn 3:16-21)