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Words of Life: On the Margin of the Missal
by Dom Columba Marmion, Abbot of Maredsous
Fort Collins, Colorado: Roman Catholic Books, 2001 (originally published 1939)
(488 pages; $18.95, cloth)
Custody of the Heart: Selected Spiritual Writings of Abbot Martin Veth,
edited by William P. Hyland
Atchison, Kansas: Benedictine College Press, 2001
(185 pages; $15.00 [$18.50 with postage and handling; it can be ordered from: Fr. Maurice Haefling, O.S.B., St. Benedict’s Abbey, 1020 N. Second St., Atchison, KS 66002], paper)
reviewed by Addison H. Hart
In the last two decades or so there has been a rediscovery of the fifth-century Rule of St. Benedict. The helpful introductions and commentaries of Esther de Waal come readily to mind, and numerous others have contributed to this renewal of interest in Benedictine piety.
Some of the works are very good (for example, the scholarly Benedict’s Disciples, edited by David Hugh Farmer), and some are dreadfully poor (for example, the soggy and frequently silly View From a Monastery, by Benet Tvedten), but regardless of their varying merits, any thoughtful Christian cannot help but be pleased to see such a turning towards the premier European exemplar of spiritual sanity and balance. It is a trend, one hopes, that will continue.
Along these lines, two volumes have appeared during the past year, which, although printed by out-of-the-way publishers, are both worthy of note. Both books are collections of writings by renowned Benedictine abbots of the twentieth century, both are rooted in the liturgical spirituality of the Church, which has the daily Eucharist and Divine Office at its heart, and both stand in the great tradition of the Rule. Indeed, both books are arranged around the liturgical year, setting out before the reader the mysteries celebrated in the various seasons and holy days and showing them to be the rich spiritual sources of Christian contemplation they are.
The first of these, Words of Life: On the Margin of the Missal, is at present the only sizable example in print in English of Blessed Columba Marmion’s writings, and—as good as it is—it is still simply a volume of selections taken from his longer works. This fact constitutes a significant oversight by contemporary Catholic publishers.
Dom Columba Marmion (1858–1923), beatified by Pope John Paul II on September 3, 2000, was regarded as one of the great spiritual writers of his age. Born Joseph Marmion in Ireland and ordained a priest for the archdiocese of Dublin in 1881, he went on to become the abbot of Maredsous in Belgium, facing during his tenure the turmoil brought on by the First World War. In 1922, he completed the last of his remarkable trilogy, comprised of Christ the Life of the Soul, Christ the Ideal of the Monk, and Christ in His Mysteries. (There can be little excuse, after his recent beatification, for these and his other writings to remain out of print.)
Marmion’s achievement was to reveal, with seeming effortlessness, the organic relationship that exists between the theology of St. Thomas, the heritage of the Fathers, the insights of the saints and mystical doctors, the Catholic liturgical heritage, and—preeminently—the Bible. He was one of those chiefly responsible in the twentieth century for a revival of traditional biblical research and piety in the Catholic Church, and every page of every writing of his is soaked in sacred Scripture. Along with his healthy biblicism, he was profoundly Christocentric, his love for Christ being the particular quality that succeeded in making him attractive as a spiritual writer even for those outside the Roman Catholic fold.
The value of Words of Life is that it is arranged as a daily devotional, containing substantial portions of the abbot’s works. It follows the church year, finding in that annual sacred cycle an ongoing encounter with the mystery of Christ’s Person:
The Church makes us contemplate, one by one, and link by link, all the mysteries of Jesus; all that He said, all that He did, all that He fulfilled in His Person, all that He willed for us, is there presented by the Church, in its proper place. . . . Nowhere so much as in the liturgy does there exist a narration as complete and simple, as ordered and profound, of all the wonders that God has wrought for our sanctification and salvation; it is a Revelation of what is at the same time most perfect and most appropriate for our souls; it is a setting forth that speaks to the eyes of the body and of the imagination, and touches the attentive soul to its very depths. (p. 2)
The second volume under consideration follows the same logic and path as that set forth above by Dom Marmion, although it is not a devotional book but a collection presented with the liturgical year in mind. This should come as no surprise, since Abbot Martin Veth (1874–1944), whose spiritual writings have been carefully and beneficially collected by William P. Hyland in Custody of the Heart, was personally influenced by Dom Marmion. Born in Bavaria, he immigrated with his family to New York State in 1884. He was professed a monk at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kansas, in 1894, and in 1921 he became the second abbot of that monastery. During the Second World War, Abbot Veth had the somewhat uncomfortable position of guiding congregations of monks and nuns largely made up of Americans of German descent. Custody of the Heart is a selection taken from his conferences given to the sisters of Mount St. Scholastica, the sister house of St. Benedict’s, between 1938 and 1944.
Like Dom Marmion, Abbot Veth draws from the vital liturgical life of the Benedictines to set forth an essentially biblical spirituality, keeping before the reader invaluable insights gleaned from the works of such giants as Augustine, Leo, Gregory, Bernard, Gertrude, Thomas, and, of course, Marmion. Also, as with Marmion, Veth’s spiritual writings contain a depth, though simply and elegantly expressed, for which only an ongoing and intense participation in the church’s many centuries of living tradition can account.
Both books are recommended, and those seriously desiring to go deeper into the authentic piety of the Benedictine tradition should especially seek them out. Abbots Marmion and Veth are two true sons of St. Benedict, whose voices deserve a fresh hearing in our own time.
Addison H. Hart is retired from active ministry as parish priest and university chaplain. He is the author of Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God and The Yoke of Jesus: A School for the Soul in Solitude (both from Eerdmans). His forthcoming book is a study of the Sermon on the Mount. He lives and writes in Norheimsund, Norway.