Friday, November 8, 2013

How I Didn't Write an Article on Blessed Columba Marmion

Sometimes commenters on this blog are kind enough to suggest I should write articles for Catholic publications. I have actually done this a few times, and I'd like to do more, but I can't help being amused by a recent effort of mine to follow this advice.

It's pretty obvious to anyone who's read more than a few posts here that my writing is, for better or worse, very subjective and autobiograpical and personal. This is the kind of writing I like to read as well as to write, as I've mentioned often before.

But I felt, if I was going to submit an article to the print press, I should strive for something more objective and informative and factual.

One day-- come to think of it, I can say for sure that it was last October 3rd-- I was interested to hear the priest in the church in UCD mention Blessed Columba Marmion, whose feast day it was, in his homily.

I was interested because I had never even heard of Blessed Columba Marmion. The priest mentioned that he was an Irishman who became abbot of a monastery in Belgium, but I had no idea if that was in the golden age of Irish Christianity or whether it was in more recent times.

I looked up Columba Marmion as soon as I got back to the library. It turns out that he died in 1923, and was beatified by John Paul the Second in 2000. He was the abbot of the Benedictine abbey in Maredsous, as well as a much sought-after speaker at spiritual retreats. A trilogy of spiritual works, based upon his retreats, became hugely successful in the last years of his life. Marmion was actually considered to be the most popular Christian spiritual writer in Europe, at one time.

What better subject for an Irish Catholic publication, I thought? I jumped into my research straight away.

Columba Marmion's writings have something of a "back to basics" appeal to them-- at a time when Catholic spiritual books were mostly tracts of rather dense Scholastic philosophy, Marmion's work was considered to be a refreshingly simple return to the Gospels. (Or so it seemed to contemporaries-- by today's standards, his works are quite dense and dry themselves. I don't know whether this is evidence of that much-discussed phenomenon, "dumbing down".)

I found them tough going myself. Or rather, I found the single volume I read, Christ the Life of the Soul, to be tough going.

Marmion certainly goes back to the Gospel-- in fact, the book is mostly a compendium of quotations from Scripture. There's nothing at all wrong with that, of course, and I found several passages very inspiring. But on the whole, the book didn't interest me greatly-- I felt I had encountered all the ideas in it before. And I wondered why so many readers in the early twentienth century (as I learned from my background reading) had been so galvanized by Marmion. The style was not at all compelling-- although to be fair, Marmion's books were originally written in French, and (as previously mentioned) drawn from lecture notes. His biographer has explained that the published writings don't do justice to the man's personality, or his playful sense of humour.

I don't mean any of this as a slight upon Blessed Columba Marmion's work. In fact, Blessed John Paul the Second, when he was announcing Marmion's beatification, called for a renewal of interest in his writings. So I have no doubt that I am simply missing something. Nevertheless, the fact remained that I couldn't really "get into" the book.

Even though I was only planning an article of five hundred words or so, I also read a short book-length biography of the man (written by Mark Tierney OSB) and quite a few journal articles. One of the good things about working in a university library is that I have access to a huge range of books and journals, academic and not-so-academic, in print and online.

When I had finished my research, I found myself putting off actually writing it. Whenever I did find myself thumping the keyboard, I always had other stuff to write about.

So I put it off-- and I put it off-- and eventually, I had to admit that I wasn't going to get round to writing it at all.

The thing is, I just couldn't think of anything to say on the subject. Nothing suggested itself. If I tried to draw some moral or elaborate some theme arising from Marmion's life and writings, it would be entirely contrived and forced. And I felt I would be doing the great man a disservice.

I suppose I could have written a purely informative, encyclopedia-style article with a garnish of a few personal observations. But reading those kind of articles is something of a purgatory to me, never mind writing them. This might be why I am so ignorant.

So if anyone thinks it is pure perversity that makes me write almost two and a half thousand words on the subject of titles, or a long post on the appeal of Star Trek to a religious conservative, I hope that little account might clear me of such suspicion. I find it hard to write on a subject that doesn't interest me. And I find it hard to stop writing on a subject that does interest me. And, yes, the things that interest me can be idiosyncratic. But trying to convey that interest is the challenge, and the fun.

Not that I've entirely given up on writing about things that don't positively send my fingers flying around the keyboard of their accord. I just find it tough, that's all. And I suspect the results would be as little fun for the reader as they were for the writer.

P.S. After writing this article, I remembered something Marmion had written that did really strike me and stick in my mind-- that every moment of every day should be a preparation for receiving the Eucharist.


  1. The name Marmion sounds slightly familiar, but I can't say I really knew anything about him. I understand what you mean though. If I have to do work revolving around something I don't enjoy then I usually have a hard time even convincing myself to start the thing. Just wait until something you enjoy comes along.

  2. I'd never heard of Marmion at all and I did an awful lot of reading when I was coming to faith!