Father Cassian Koennemen Interview

Father Cassian Koennemen Interview

Ms. Mohan

We are blessed to have two among us who we count as friends, colleagues and monks who have recently published works of spiritual direction.  

I was able to sit down with Father Cassian a couple of days ago so that we could chat about his publication The Grace of Nothingness, a book about Blessed Columba Marmion, OSB.

I had never heard about Blessed Columba Marmion before I read your book. Who was he and what is the book about? 

He was an Irish priest and professor who entered a Benedictine monastery, Maredsous in Belgium, and eventually wrote several books that were read the world over and are still in print today, 99 years after his death.  I had heard about him, but I took no interest in his work, for I had a great bias for reading the Doctors of the Church on the spiritual life and wasn’t so interested in 20th-century writers.  


Well, Archbishop Burke continued to hound me, to nag me about reading Marmion.  In fact, he even went so far as to buy me one of his books, which I made no haste to read.  Yet when I finally picked it up, I realized that Marmion was applying the “greats” to the very topic of grace ––and of nothingness–– that I had been researching.  It was a Godsend and the perfect topic for my license thesis.

Here’s the bigger question: why did you choose to write about him?

It was my way of working out my tension with God.  Writing this book allowed me to work out something deep within me, namely my self-reliance, and it taught me a better way to rely on God and God’s grace.  I wanted to learn the best way to allow God’s grace to transform me, and I was a vain young man who needed some help with things.

So what is grace?

 It is the power of God at work in a person.  It is a transformative power that heals, transforms, and perfects.  It is that “higher power” at work within a person that a graduate of a 12-step program would recognize as most needed for transformation.

 Can you give me an example of how this works?

For example, each Lent we identify some new practice or some attachment on which we want to do some work, and we ask God to give us help on it or give us greater interior freedom from it.  We turn to His help for that season, and occasionally that change sticks.  I started going to daily Mass one Lent, and I just kept at it ever since then. 

Were there any surprising moments as you wrote this book?

(chuckling)  Yes!  I learned that Marmion had a tremendous influence on Mother Teresa of Calcutta, including inspiring her to accept her “nothingness” without God’s grace –– you may recall she liked to call herself God’s instrument publicly but privately she was clearer about attributing all of her merits to God, to the point of being “nothing” without God.  I also learned that my thesis director in Rome had been spiritual friends with St. Teresa of Calcutta and had discussed this very topic of nothingness with her.  He allowed me to analyze his published account of his conversations with her. 

 You and I have spoken about St. Therese of Lisieux and some of the challenges that she poses for us to appreciate her.

Her childlike trust in God makes her way to God very accessible but also easy to overlook.  Her statement of going to God with empty hands is a radical reversal of trying to win God or give Him a gift.  In trusting in God’s mercy for all that is necessary, she trusts that God will complete her and fill her empty hands with gifts.  Paradoxically, St. Therese states that we should empty ourselves, embrace our nothingness in order to be filled with God’s love, all while also being loyal to the Christian life and tradition.  Here’s something interesting, too!  The Pope wrote to Blessed Columba to ask advice on whether to canonize St. Therese.  Of course, we know the answer.  Basically, my book follows a thread from Jesus to the Catholic tradition, to St. Therese, to Marmion, to St Teresa of Calcutta; it then makes a few new contributions / updates for today.

Over the summer, I determined that we, as a faculty, needed some extra spiritual support during the Covid season.  So, with your help, we determined that the theme would be grace.  And, this was even before I understood the theme of your book!  How have you assisted with the faculty learning groups (Priory Learning Communities) as we have explored this theme?

As you know, I have provided you with readings from my book and some other topical readings on grace.  We all, faculty and monks included, need to study grace, to allow God to transform us by it.

What is one of your favorite quotations from the book? 

“Oh, my dear child, I would wish to engrave on your heart, in letters of gold, this truth, that no matter how great our misery, we are infinitely rich in Jesus Christ, if we unite with him” (Marmion 18).  

 That seems like a perfect way to end our conversation.  Thank you for sharing your passion with us.