On Wednesday the 1st of May, Sr Paula Moroney OCDM conducted a Carmelite Conversation in the Library on Blessed Titus Brandsma (1881-1942). Here is Paula’s introductory paper to the Conversation.
Titus Brandsma is a witness to the presence of God as love living within the human person. He believed in the power of God's word, the truth of God's presence, to bring joy and consolation to others. Because he was an instrument in God's hands he could communicate by a simple word or smile this peace from within. His serene smile was his signature; it came from deep within and lasted to the end, even though he also carried the terrible sufferings of his war-torn world.
A true follower of the crucified Christ, he suffered and died as a martyr for the Church and his people. Nothing was spared him of the horror and brutality, the pain and mental anguish which united him more closely with his Lord. He cared about others and offered them friendship, the smile of love and understanding, a comforting word of sympathy, out of his own utter poverty and weakness. This was all part of Titus and flowed from his unselfish heart, focussed in prayer over a lifetime, receptive to grace and touched by mystical gifts. A man wholly given to God he understood that contemplation and labours for God's glory are all works of love and therefore equally important.
Titus' own definition of mysticism given in the Dutch Catholic Encyclopedia published in 1937 offers a clear picture of the man himself. He wrote: "mysticism is a special union of God with the human being, whereby the latter becomes conscious of God's presence and seeks to be united with God." (Vol viii, p. 199-206)
He always had a positive and optimistic attitude to life and believed that all people have this capacity to rise to something greater because all are connected with God and in and through God all find a unity since they are related on a higher spiritual level. This is the reality of Titus' mysticism. He would never reject his world, even at its worst crisis, but would find good wherever he was. Behind his gentle smile was inner strength and assurance born of the gift of love.
CARMELITE, SCHOLAR, WRITER, SPIRITUAL GUIDE
Throughout his life Titus was a prolific writer producing articles, studies on mystical writings, history, translations especially bringing St Teresa's Carmelite writings into Dutch, planning and eventually embarking on a book of her life. With his title of Professor of History of Philosophy and Mysticism at the University of Nijmegen where he became Rector Magnificus, he was still simple and sincere, faithful to his calling as a man of prayer and Brother to his Carmelite family. That is what really made the difference. Everything about him was genuine and real. There are many stories of his kindness and unstinted support for nameless people on the streets or at the door. "The poor would be rich and the rich poor if all were like Titus", said his Prior.
He won his Carmelite vocation at a cost, you might say, because all his life he had to battle with health issues. Small and frail looking, only 5'1" like St John of the Cross, his strength came from within. When he was completing his doctoral studies in Rome he was laid up for 3 months with severe debilitating intestinal illness but notwithstanding he wanted to defend his thesis at the due date. However it was rejected and he had to return the following year. God's timing taught him many things about patience and trust and finding real strength in faith. His Dutch background rooted in Friesland, the land of dykes and terps (those mounds where people took refuge from flooding) taught him vigilance and survival and also loyalty and love for his native region with its own Friesian dialect and history. He was fluent in many languages and once he gave a sermon in the local dialect (pre Vatican 2), was reprimanded but never deterred. This was part of a rich heritage that should not be lost.
Titus began his academic career teaching philosophy and history of mysticism at the seminary in Oss and then at the newly founded Catholic University of Nijmegen. Now he could combine two of his great interests, his love of research and his desire for knowing ways of mystical union with God.
One practical interest was collecting and studying early mystical writings, visiting libraries and museums to see ancient manuscripts which he carefully photographed and catalogued for the University archives. Eventually his valuable collection amounted to some 170 albums of 60,000 plates he discovered in 60 original Mss., a priceless addition to the Netherlands Carmelite Institute with its long tradition reaching back to 1597. Of the medieval mystics John Ruusbroeck from his own region was his favourite, for in him he found realism and balance. There was a similarity between this spirituality and that of St Teresa in that both kept their practical human qualities while living deeply contemplative lives. They absorbed the divine and allowed it to flow over in works of kindness and compassion for others.
In St Teresa Titus discovered a lifelong friend and during his novitiate days he published a collection of extracts from her works which he translated himself since no Dutch edition existed in the 1920s. Her prayer-poem," Let nothing disturb thee...Patience obtains all things, whoever has God wants for nothing," was his daily inspiration and his constant prayer through days of testing darkness in prison. He considered the Interior Castle to be the masterpiece of all mystical literature and often recalled her words in the Seventh Dwelling Places about good deeds that flow from love never rob us of God's presence.
His curious mind pursued new interests in vacation time when he could explore places in Spain and experience Teresa's life-settings. The wonders of nature gave him great joy and when he attended Carmelite meetings at Niagara he was amazed beyond words at the power and splendour of the Falls which communicated God's very being.
Beauty in its many facets appealed to him and the Blessed Virgin Mary was its perfect expression. He was drawn to the image of the Enclosed Garden as a recurring ideal. A series of lectures he gave in USA and Ireland in 1935 published under the title of "Beauty of Carmel" encompass in 8 chapters the history of Carmel and show Mary bearing for us the grace of her Son. With distinct imagery he likens her to the sunflower, itself an image of the sun, and this comparison reflects Titus' own distinctive temperament, bright, positive and optimistic. His volume has been the foundation for much recent historical scholarship.
Here was a mystic fully immersed in life, as we see in the photo of the cheerful relaxed Friar enjoying a glass of Irish whisky and a cigar on a visit to his confreres in Ireland, heartily absorbed in this new conversation scene, a natural communicator.
In the 1930s there was turmoil in Europe from economic stress, communism, the Spanish Civil War, anti clericalism and the ruthlessness of Nazism. Then the German invasion of Holland in 1940 involved Titus in more writing and lecturing on current policies, travelling throughout the country using his Gold train pass, a familiar figure, friendly and available to all. He was official advisor and director of Catholic journalists when there were as many as 30 daily publications in circulation. In this tense political climate he was closely watched by authorities suspicious of his influence, yet he remained undaunted, never afraid to speak on the education crisis, upholding his view that Jewish students should be admitted into Catholic schools and deploring Anti-Semitism. He promoted the ecumenical movement well ahead of his time and spoke strongly against Nazi propaganda. He was the clear prophetic voice giving strength to faith, speaking on behalf of the Bishops.
It was a dangerous role, he was well aware. At the beginning of January 1942 he began an endless journey up and down the country to circulate the Catholic principles among journalists. When he arrived home at the priory in Nijmegen on 19th January he had 2 visitors. These Gestapo agents asked to see him for they must take him to The Hague for questioning. His room was searched and sealed. The prior had no alternative but to watch it happen.
Up till now every day was packed with duties, time was short. Henceforth the days and weeks were prolonged, drawn out, and every moment became significant. When he was pushed and locked into the cold grey cell at Schevengen that night, comfortless and alone, it made him laugh. 'To think that at my age, 60, I am a prisoner!'... I have my own cell. I am no longer needed except for interrogation. Yet a Carmelite is never alone and in himself he was free. Nothing could separate him from God.
What Meister Eckhardt wrote of the awareness of God, Titus experienced as never before: "Be still therefore and do not waver from your emptiness." If ever Titus felt empty it was here, yet he would enter into the stillness and find grace. "By patience a person possesses his soul." At the same time he is open and available, free of self, and therefore enabled to absorb God's presence.
Prisoner no.58, this 'dangerous little friar', was subject to hours of questioning on his position. He stayed calmly focussed, forceful and decisive. Truth and freedom meant everything in his mind. Next he was instructed to submit a written statement explaining why he and the Catholics of Holland opposed the Nazi movement. He took 3 days to write his Apologia and he was not afraid to make his point that Nazism was inhumane, idolizing self and bringing out the dark side of human nature in its drive to dominate the whole world. He concluded with a prayer for reconciliation with God who transcends all - a prayer that God bless both countries, the Netherlands and Germany, and grant peace and freedom.
Back in his cell he had only the barest necessities but he had life and he had time and this tiny space must be a place of prayer. His altar was a piece of board on which he pinned some prints: the Crucified Christ from Fra Angelico's tableau; texts which held extra meaning for him from the Imitation of Christ, St Teresa, St John of the Cross. Finally he opened his breviary at the page where the Blessed Virgin of Mt Carmel could be seen from his bed. To put order into his days he stayed near Christ on the Cross, united in spiritual communion, and prayed the Divine Office and the Rosary. He wrote some letters and reflected. "Prenez les jours comme ils arrivent..." a favourite axiom of his. "Take the days as they come, the good with a grateful heart, and the bad for the sake of those which follow, because misfortune is only a passerby."
Here he was face to face with Jesus and learnt to accept his own suffering in union with Him. This poem, found among his belongings after his death, expresses his love purified in the darkness.
O Jesus when I look on you
My love for you becomes more true.
And yours, I know, will never end:
You see me as a special friend.
This calls for courage on my part
But pain is a blessing for my heart,
For pain makes me become like you
And leads me to your kingdom too.
I feel true blessing in my pain:
Such suffering for me is gain,
For what your providence will do
Is make me one, my God, with you.
Just leave me in this cold alone
Although it chills me to the bone.
No visitors, no one to see
To be alone is good for me.
For you, Lord Jesus are right here;
I never felt you quite so near.
Stay with me, with me, Jesus sweet,
Your presence makes my joy complete.
Feb.12,13, 1942 (Trans. Henrietta Ten Harmsel)
It was to St Teresa that he turned in this solitary confinement. Only now did he have time to attempt the writing of her biography but the problem was that he had scarcely any paper and no reference books so having sketched out his plan of 12 Chapters he wrote between the lines of the only book he had, Verschaeve's "Jesus". His small neat hand writing can easily be deciphered between the print. This kept him occupied for several hours each day and he completed 7 chapters before being abruptly removed, trucked away with other political prisoners to their inescapable fate at the transit camp of Amersfoort.
In the days and weeks of solitude Titus had known dread and fear, as his plans and expectations fell away. A brief poem lays out in bare stark lines how "grief would come and lay me low," but at the end he did not understand why. Then out of the darkness shone the ray of light.
This grey cell was also a place of encounter of intimate contact with Jesus, when light entered and love was strengthened, when suffering came to be seen as the face of God. The reality of grace became immanent; he knew the divine indwelling, a gift of special friendship offered in return for total surrender of self in fidelity. His contemplative soul was refined over a lifetime of prayer and even in this dark jail he could find mystical space filled by a hidden Presence. "Those who hold onto God lack nothing." (St Teresa's familiar saying)
...Until the day came when he was taken without warning by van to Amersfoort. That journey to the notorious concentration camp must have been a tortured nightmare. Death loomed all around. Titus, cast away from life, walked with his quiet serenity and compassion into this place of violent suffering.
There, in Passion week, a small group managed to gather surreptitiously in prayer each evening for a short meditation on the 7 words from the Cross. On Good Friday Titus spoke in the barracks to his fellow prisoners on the mystery of Christ's Passion. It had to be done cautiously because religious meetings were forbidden but he cloaked his talk as history of Dutch literature, specifically around the medieval writer, Geert Grote and the men in those overcrowded prison huts caught the significance.
CLIMAX OF THE CROSS
The mystery of the Passion is a constant theme in early Dutch spiritual writings and Titus now took it to further depths. He wrote a brief concise summary referring to this tradition but his spoken words revealed far more personal penetration. Who can convey the reality of God drawing so near to human beings as to bear their pain, searching them out in their distress, consoling them in their suffering by living it? If suffering is inescapable and crushing how can it be borne? Here, surrounded by others in their tormented state, one man saw divine mercy and love. His words of simple wisdom considered Christ's suffering for love. This is the way to overcome hatred and evil, by meditating daily on Jesus' wounds, inward healing touches the heart and enables one to go forward with love when met with cruelty and injustice. (cf 1 Peter 2:21-24) His fellow prisoners knew that here was someone who was free in himself, living the truth in love, giving meaning to the sordid surrounds. It showed how a power for good could overcome the worst evil. Terrible things would continue to happen but they can only hurt the exterior; they cannot touch the inner soul. Then, before the end of April, word came that he was being transported to Germany. That spelt the end. There was no return.
Taken back to headquarters for more questioning Titus remained firm and clear, his viewpoint on Catholic education, the press, his opposition to discrimination against the Jews and to intolerant Nazi propaganda were unchanged and his faith and trust in God prevailed. The verdict therefore was deportation to Dachau.
The weeks passed in this inhumane death camp were his Gethsemane. He felt the weight of loneliness and fear, powerless to pray or to see beyond the darkness, deteriorating in health and herded in with thousands of others, all pushed beyond extremes so that they barely existed. However there were rare moments of fleeting spiritual encounters to uplift the spirit.
At Dachau a young Carmelite Brother, Raphael Tijhuis from Mainz, sought him out and, shocked at the sight of the Professor looking so old and ill, became a friend in bonds and his secret carer, covering up for him where he could. This Brother survived to write his memoir and so we know that they made contact with 4 other Polish Carmelites and contrived to meet together for a brief prayer in passing, which helped restore their spirits in this living death.
Then there was the Little Angel of Dachau. When his company of prisoners, those many hundreds of clerics, were working in the fields, bent over herbs and weeds, a little girl came by and asked if she could buy some gladioli. She had a small container which she dropped in a space between the beds whispering, "Our dear Lord God is inside." The parish priest had carefully arranged this and with utmost reverence and discretion these undistinguished priests could share new strength from the Bread of Life. Grace came in hidden, unexpected moments.
Such small signs rekindled life. "Now I know that You love me," said Titus. And then there was the spectacle of brilliant fresh colours of the rising sun in their patch of sky while they endured the weariness of standing for endless hours of minutes for morning roll call. But the labours, the beatings and the abuse did not stop and for Titus the end was not long coming. When he could no longer stand, weakened with dysentery, hardships and brutality he was admitted to the hospital block. He had reached his Calvary. Six days later he died of a fatal injection, his ashes buried in the Grave of Unknown Thousands.
Photos of Titus in earlier days show him usually wearing a hat. This hat, by a singular providence, revealed his thoughts from those bleak last days. Jammed into his tiny cell with two others on his way to Dachau he had written his thoughts on narrow strips of paper and wondered what to do with them next. Seeing his hat he slipped them into the lining. After his death his suitcase of clothes taken from him in the camp was returned to the Monastery at Nijmegen. Since everything was scarce and most items unprocurable in the war, the Prior claimed the hat for himself. It needed some adjustment so he sent it to a hat-maker who happened to know Titus and respected him greatly. If he could keep the handsome hat he would give the Prior the choice of any new hat in his shop. The old one he treated as a relic and an old lady who suffered with rheumatic hands was handling it when the paper strips came tumbling out. They are the only texts where Titus speaks of his spiritual suffering. St John of the Cross must have reached these depths of pain too. For both of them it was the night when they encountered the divine and there was grace and peace when they emerged.
Paula Moroney 1.5.2019