Mark McIntyre introduces St Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Martyr of Dachau
There is a wonderful photograph of the Brandsma family, dated 5th August 1905. Rather like another famous Carmelite saint’s family, five of the six children are members of a religious order. Each young person has chosen different communities and orders, responding to God’s call. St Titus Brandsma is there, clearly in the mantle of a Carmelite. From his mother, he inherited her certainty and assurance of the Catholic faith. From his father he gained the need for faith to engage with issues of the day, to make a difference, to proclaim truth in a broken world. Constant Dolle, in Encountering God in the Abyss, says: ‘…between seriousness of thought and seriousness of action. Here lies the roots of Titus Brandsma’s life – the beginnings of a new existence in which the current of life inexhaustibly continues and renews itself’.
In 1898 Titus entered the Carmelite monastery of Boxmeer. He was assigned a cell, which he came to see not just as the practical place to sleep and exist, but his place of encounter with God himself. In the cell was a sign in Latin which read ‘perpetual silence’ signifying an interior disposition of the Carmelite Religious. Wherever that ‘cell’ might be, the interior fostering of it was to be the place for continual renewal of life. We see in St Titus Brandsma’s life how the cell becomes, as he writes in the final letters of his life, the place where he is happiest, a mighty fortress and a wellspring of life. Though this cell is physically that of the concentration camp, the interior cell which he has fostered and nourished has become the place of godly encounter.
Yet by way of a counterbalance, Titus also, in his first letter home, speaks of being happy, ‘in the midst of fellow brothers’. He valued the sharing of life in community; sometimes expectation, or concern, sometimes of loss or of hope. This experience always produced something greater than the mere sum of what had been joined together.
Brandsma lived in a changing world and in a changing Dutch Catholic church, which centuries on was still emerging from the upheaval of the Reformation. Yet he has a clear spiritual focus when he writes, ‘The Carmelite order has a double goal…. The first goal is, simply put, “to meet our obligations,” avoiding sin and practising virtue in the process. But in addition, we have been given a second and much more sublime goal, one we shall achieve only by a pure gift of God’s goodness. It is that, not only after death but already in this earthly life, we will to some extent taste, in our heart and experience in our spirit the gracious impact of the divine presence and the sweetness of the heavenly glory’.
This ‘vocation’ for the Carmelite was written during those early years of his novitiate and formation, during which he was involved in setting up discussion groups, including studies his native Friesland; seriousness of thought and action. Later in life he would become a great academic, a professor in the history of philosophy and mysticism, and involved in journalism in the run up to his arrest and imprisonment.
During his time as professor at Nijmegen, four philosophical and theological themes develop in his thought: mysticism as part of ordinary life; the idea of God; the idea of the world; and the image of the human person. From these themes we discover how saw God, creation and humanity, especially in the time of rising National Socialism and the dehumanising of those created in the image of God. The Nazi ethos celebrated and sought to cultivate the white Ayrian hero, a supreme and chosen race which led to the dehumanising of others. Titus in his work encourages a different heroism – one that speaks out for the value of human beings in all their diversity. He was willing to make the gospel countercultural to all that he saw developing around him. He called people first to pray, and then to help those around you, honour the presence of Christ in the other person. ‘Keep before you the presence of God in your brother’, he says. In the context of the rise of Nazism, to stand for the persecuted is to put yourself in the place of the other.
This heroic call to witness led to his arrest on a jumped-up charge when he defied Catholic publications in the Netherlands to publish Nazi propaganda. He was interrogated and then imprisoned first at Amersfoort and then at Dachau. In these places he wrote about being ‘Happy in his cell’ and ‘living in the presence of God’. There are witness statements to the way in which facing interrogation and torture, Titus remained in the place of interior peace and certainty; the image of the interior cell – a place where we find God, the ground of our being and then view all that is happening around us.
Witnesses from that time of captivity tell it how ‘the equanimity and the inner strength of Titus Brandsma remained unbroken, even there in the most engulfing darkness to have characterised our era – the utter hopelessness of the camps. The image of the even-tempered Titus Brandsma, living out of a deep inner joy, confronts us with the great wound of European modernity’. He lived out this vocation with a sense of deep inner joy.
Titus Brandsma died on 26th July 1942, just days before St Edith Stein was martyred in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He was beatified by St John Paul II in 1985, and canonised by Pope Francis on 15th May 2022. His feast day is 27th July.