Carmel in the World
2019. Volume LVIII, Number 1

  • Angelo Paoli, 1642-1720
  • Marian Spirituality and the Carmelite Tradition – Part II
  • Carmel and Music VIII – Venerable Augustine Mary of the Blessed Sacrament (Hermann Cohen), O.C.D.
  • Carmelite Thinking on Mary
  • A Pedagogical Perspective of an early Seventeenth Century document on an Introduction to Prayer for Novices
  • Thérèse and Joan: A Mysterious Kinship
  • Titus Brandsma: A Marian life (below)
  • Blessed Titus Brandsma: A Life of Unconditional Love
  • Gaudete et exsultate – The Carmelite Dimension
  • The Carmelite Institute Malta – Ten Years of Spiritual and Carmelite formation

Titus Brandsma: A Marian life

Sanny Bruijns is a Carmelite sister of the Dutch province[1]

A lot has been said and written about Blessed Titus Brandsma from different perspectives: Titus as a journalist, Titus as a professor or Titus as a Carmelite. A perspective that hasn’t received a lot of attention is that of Titus as a brother of Mary, the Mother of God. In this article we retell the life story of Titus Brandsma focusing on the Marian presence in his life.

A religious family
Anno Sjoerd Brandsma was born the fifth child from the marriage of Titus Hendriks Brandsma and Tjitsje Annes Postma at a farm in Oegeklooster near Bolsward in the north of the Netherlands. He had four older sisters and a younger brother. Five of the six children entered religious life. His eldest sister, Boukje, became a sister of St Clare in Megen in 1893. His sister, Siebrigje, entered the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood in Rijkevoort in 1903. His sister, Apollonia, entered the Franciscan Sisters in Rotterdam in 1895. His sister, Gatske, married Michiel de Boer in 1901 and they took over the farm in Oegeklooster near Bolsward. The last born of the Brandsma family was again a boy, called Hendrik. He joined the Franciscans in Megen and became a Franciscan friar. The Brandsma family was a religious family. Titus’ parents were members of the Third Order of St Francis and his father was also a member of the parish council of the Parish of St Martin in Bolsward. The family prayed the rosary on a daily basis. So as a young boy Titus became very familiar with this Marian devotion, which would last a lifetime. In prison he made several rosaries, when the old one was taken from him.[2] Another Marian devotion he came to know in his home district, was the devotion to Our Lady of Friesland. In the parish church which the Brandsma family regularly attended, Our Lady of Friesland was venerated.[3] Most likely Titus sang the Marian song of Our Lady of Friesland. The first stanza goes like this:

Be near to us – O dear Lady

of the Frisian Seven Woods.

We seek you with Frisian loyalty

take us under your care.

Our longing for God moves us.

That is why we draw near to you.

Because he who finds you

finds God, your Child,

in you, O dear Lady.

In this song the young Anno Sjoerd Brandsma became familiar with the idea that we find Jesus by going to Mary (Per Mariam ad Jesum). With Mary as a mother and as a sister he followed Jesus on his way to the heavenly Father. The Marian retreat he developed later in his life was given the title ‘To Jesus with Mary’. The notion of going to Jesus with Mary is also present in the meditations and prayers he wrote on the Way of the Cross for a Frisian place of pilgrimage, called Dokkum. At every station of the Cross he prays to Jesus as well as to Mary. At the ninth station, when Jesus falls under the Cross for the third time, he prays:

O Mary who has observed with admiration and motherly compassion the final efforts of your Son, help me to remember this when the fulfilling of my task in life becomes too heavy.

As an eleven-year-old boy Titus started his seminary education with the Franciscans in Megen. In his home parish as well as in Megen he got to know the Franciscan Marian devotion, about which he wrote several articles in the Catholic Encyclopaedia and in a Marian magazine, called ‘Carmelrozen’. In one of his articles he reflects on a Marian poem of a fifteenth century Franciscan (Brugman 1400-1473) that opens with the words: ‘During all my life I have chased this beautiful Lady’.[4] Like this Franciscan, Titus sought Mary throughout his life.

My soul magnifies the Lord
After his Franciscan years in Megen, Titus entered the Carmelite novitiate in Boxmeer in 1898 at the age of 17. He joined the Carmelite Order out of his desire for a more intense prayer life, because of Carmelite spirituality and because of the great devotion to Our Lady in the Carmelite Order. He was aware of the fact that his love for Mary and his desire for a prayer life could grow in Carmel. Inspired by the Marian tradition of the Carmelite Order, Titus became a modern icon of the Mary-form and Mary-like life.
In one of his lectures on Carmelite Mysticism he wrote:

If we wish to conform ourselves to Mary in order to enjoy more fully the intercourse with God, by following her example, we should obviously be other Marys. We ought to let Mary live in us. Mary should not stand outside the Carmelite, but he should live a life so similar to Mary’s that he should live with, in, through, and for Mary.[5]

In those days, several Marian customs were practiced in the Carmelite Order, like praying the rosary and the Little Office of Mary and the devotion of the scapular of Our Lady. It was also customary to write a Marian monogram at the top of the letter. Titus wrote, for instance, a few weeks after he entered the novitiate, a letter to his mother for her forty-ninth birthday with the name ‘MARIA’ in the upper left corner. Because his mother had her birthday the day after the feast of Teresa of Avila on October 16, Titus included in his letter a name-poem on the name Teresa. In this poem every line starts with a letter from the name Theresia. In the accompanying letter he wrote:

Dear mother, I can’t be present today, but I share your joy. The monastic life gives me more joy than any other feast can ever give me. I am very happy here in my cell and among the other friars and I do believe that God has called me here, but you must pray for me that I may know, whether I follow his will or not. My cell looks like a small square room with a window. One wall with a bed and on the other wall a table and a book shelf with my statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.[6]

In his novitiate Teresa of Avila became a reliable guide on his spiritual journey. So it is not surprising that he published a collection taken from the writings of Teresa as a nineteen year old Carmelite friar. Later in his life he translated – together with some confreres – the writings of Teresa from the Spanish language into Dutch. At the end of his life Titus was inspired by the life and the teachings of Teresa of Avila by working on her biography in his prison cell in Scheveningen. From age 18 to 24 he studied philosophy and theology in Boxmeer, Zenderen and Oss. In 1902, when he was twenty-three years old, Titus made his Solemn Profession in Boxmeer. From that moment onwards he was a brother of the Order of the Brothers of Our Lady. This must have been a deliberate choice to dedicate himself to Mary. In 1905 he was ordained in St John’s Cathedral in Den Bosch together with his classmates. On the picture for his ordination he praised the Lord with the words of Mary in her Magnificat: My soul magnifies the Lord. He who is mighty has done great things to me (Luke 1:46, 49).
During his Roman years (1905-1909) Titus visited the catacombs, where he was impressed by a very ancient image of Our Lady, called the Orante. In his article, ‘The Adoration of the Virgin in the Catacombs’, he refers to the Orante as the image of the praying Church or the image of Mary who sings her Magnificat.[7]

A Marian magazine
After he completed his studies in Rome (1906-1909) gaining his doctorate, Titus travelled back to Holland to live his Carmelite life in the Carmelite monastery in Oss (1909-1923). In Oss he taught philosophy to the Carmelite friars, he vitalized the local newspaper and he founded a school as there was a lack of proper education. In 1912, at the age of thirty-one, he took the initiative, together with some fellow Carmelites, of starting a Marian magazine, called Carmelrozen. The name is inspired by Thérèse of Lisieux. This magazine sought to foster love for Mary through an increased knowledge of her, because, according to the editors, a lack of knowledge means a lack of love. Topics in Carmelrozen included: different forms of veneration of Mary; the doctrine of the Church/Councils/Church Fathers; veneration of Mary, its origins and development; the life of Mary according to reliable sources and revelations; places of devotion; writings of people with a great devotion to Mary, and their life histories; feast days of Mary; liturgy; Christian art works; a chronicle of Mary that what was happening every day in the field of veneration of Mary; stories, legends and poetry. In the period 1912-1942 Titus wrote dozens of articles in Carmelrozen, including about the statue of Our Lady of Friesland, the history of the Feast of the Annunciation, the feast of the Assumption and an article on Mary’s motherhood of God as the leading idea of the mystical life.[8]

Mary’s divine motherhood
In 1923 the Catholic University of Nijmegen was founded. Titus was appointed a professor in philosophy and the history of devotion, especially Dutch mysticism. In 1932 he is elected Rector Magnificus at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. Two months later, he delivered his speech on the concept of God.
We like to live and speak in images and parables. We like to make use of examples. For the development of our concept of God we are not lacking in images. Once there was a Virgin, who became mother of the incarnate God, who gave us God as the Emmanuel. He died on the Cross in order that we may live in union with God. Thus the Mother of God gave us that intimate union with God, while she made herself an example of the most intimate community. May the example always stay in our mind. There is something more here than just an example. She is called to make us look at God. As we, like the Child in her arms, guided by the Revelation, recognize God, may she likewise lead us through our intellect to the contemplation of God in all that He has created, in order that He, as He lived in her, may live also in us and indeed be born from us, may come forth from us.[9]
As Rector Magnificus he represented the University at the inauguration of the new building of the Catholic University of Milan in 1932. On this occasion he had a private audience in Rome with Pope Pius XI who gave him a rosary for his mother. Six months later his mother died at the age of 83. On the occasion of the fifteenth centenary of the dogma of the Divine Motherhood of Mary at the Council of Ephesus (431) a National Marian Congress was organized in Nijmegen. As a Marian man, Professor Titus Brandsma was a member of the organizing committee. The intention of the organizers was to bring Mary closer to the people in years of crisis and great poverty. This congress became a national Catholic event. For Titus the centenary was an occasion to reflect on the divine motherhood of Mary as a central thought of the mystical life.
It is a happy thought, on the occasion of our celebration of the centenary of the proclamation of Mary’s Motherhood of God at Ephesus in 431, to be able at the same time to see in that divine Motherhood an image of the mystical graces to which every child of Mary, and particularly the Sisters and Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel according to their special vocation to the mystical life, must make themselves receptive in so far as they are able.
In Mary we see the most beautiful image of our union with God. She, the bride of the Holy Spirit, teaches us how we also, though not in the fullness of grace but in a wider sense, must be brides of God, in order that he be born in us, united – also in us – with human nature, our human nature. Under the beneficent influence of the Holy Spirit we must be born to a new life with God, who lives in us more than we live of ourselves.[10]

A Marian soul
In 1935 Titus visited the Carmelites in the United States to give some lectures on Carmelite mysticism. One of his lectures was on the theme ‘Brothers of Our Lady’. In this lecture he compared devotion to Mary with that of a sunflower:

The sunflower itself is an image of the soul, created in the image of God in order to absorb the sun light of God’s generous goodness. Two suns which throw their beams on one another, one shining with boundless light, the other absorbing that light, nourishing itself in it and shining like another sun, but so much elated through the rays of the Sun, which shines on her, that she cannot turn away from Him, but only can live for Him and through Him. Such a flower was Mary. Let us also, flowers from her flower garden, like her, turn our flower-buds towards the Sun who, with His rays, penetrated her and who wants to throw on us also the rays of His light.[11]

The comparison of Mary with a flower might be inspired by a Carmelite hymn, called ‘Flower of Carmel’. Undoubtedly, it is inspired by the idea of the soul as an enclosed garden. Titus works with the concept of the Marian soul as an enclosed garden in the Carmelite retreats he gave to different groups of religious. Just as Teresa of Avila wrote about the inner journey in her Interior Castle, Titus writes about the interior life as an ‘Enclosed Garden’. The only drawing he left us is a drawing of ‘De omheinde hove’ (The enclosed garden). This is one to the titles given to Mary, which symbolizes the inner space where God can dwell in a human being.
By comparing the interior life with an enclosed garden he explains in images what it meant for him to live a Christian and Marian life. This is how he describes it:
The garden of our heart is rather bare, but we can do something about it by growing in there all kind of flowers, which we must choose carefully.
The first flower is the sunflower. As the sunflower turns her heart to the sun, so we must keep our heart directed towards God and make ourselves receptive to his light and the glow of his fire of love. The garden of our heart is like a garden of roses. The red rose is the symbol of the ardent love and of the divine love. We are like cuttings on the rose’s branch. We are crafted on the trunk that is Christ. We may live, and grow and bloom from Christ. But to live a life of love is not easy. It presumes a pure heart. That is why the lily must be there, too. The lily is the symbol of purity. She rises high up from the green foliage. She is free and noble and glows in whiteness. Also the grass must be there. Grass is the image of humility. Only one flower is allowed to grow in there, the daisy. The daisy is cut, together with the grass, and it is tread upon, but each time it again sticks out its little head with its beautiful fresh little flower. It is the image of the receptivity for the indwelling of God and the foundation of humility, the root of all virtues. Then there are still the climbing plants as decoration on the garden walls. The most beautiful creeper is the lathyrus with its most splendid colours. The lathyrus is the image of obedience! She does not grow independently, but she lets herself be guided. She lets herself be bound and guided everywhere, and she blooms everywhere, as long as there is sun. Finally there is a path in the shape of an M(ary), along which there are beautifully mature fruit trees planted. The tree is the image of abstinence from earthly things and of poverty. Beautiful is the tree in its foliage, but that wealth is passing. There will be other times. Naked and bare he stands there throughout the winter time. Thus this tree is the image of poverty. Beneath the trees there is room for a fountain. The Holy Communion is the fountain, to which we have to give a place in the middle of the garden. Not only to find delight each time in the presence of Our Lord, but also to draw from there the living water that must sprinkle the flowers, the grass and spray also the trees with water.[12]
Before the fountain there is a bench to contemplate the fountain and the garden of the soul. In the enclosed garden Titus imagined communion with Jesus and Mary. In the enclosed garden of his soul he lived his Christian and Marian life.
During his lifetime the cell that was given to him in the novitiate was interiorized and became an interior cell. With this interiorized cell he was arrested on January 19, 1942. The way of love he lived in the footsteps of Jesus and Mary turned out to be his way of the cross.

Mary, Hope of all Carmelites
After he was arrested in the prison of Scheveningen near The Hague he wrote, on January 23:

Well, being brought into a prison cell late at night, the door being heavily closed behind you with locks and keys, you stand and feel rather strange for a moment. The comic side of this affair, my going to jail in my old age, urged me to laugh rather than to cry, but strange it was all the same. There I stood…My little cell itself is not so bad: a tiny bit of a room with the bed occupying the whole breadth.[13]

As in his letter to his mother at the age of seventeen, he describes his cell this letter. He managed to transform his prison cell into a monk’s cell by reorganizing the place into a Marian space for the living Lord. He transformed his prison cell into a Carmelite cell with a picture of Christ and a picture of Mary:

I had no spare picture of Our Lady in my breviary – and surely her image ought to be in a Carmelite’s cell. I managed this too. In the part of the breviary we are using now and which was luckily left to me, is the beautiful picture of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. So now my breviary is standing wide open on the topmost of the two corner shelves, to the left of the bed. When sitting at my table I only have to look a bit to the right and I can see her beautiful picture; while lying in bed my eye is firstly caught by that star-bearing Madonna, Hope of all Carmelites. Beata solitudo. I feel at home in my little cell. I am alone, but the Lord is close to me.[14]

With the eyes of his heart fixed on Mary and with Jesus at his side this servant of God continued his own Way of the Cross from Scheveningen to Amersfoort, from Amersfoort to Kleef and from Kleef to Dachau. There he died on July 26, 1942. As a follower of Christ, he gave his life for his friends. As an icon of the Carmelite way of life, his spirit is very alive in all who feel inspired by his way of following Mary and Jesus.

[1]     This article is based on her article in Teresa, Rivista Enciklopedika ta’Spiritwalità. July-September 2011. Malta.
[2]     Titus Brandsma, De Rozenkrans in de Middeleeuwen in Nederland, in De Gelderlander November 4, 1939; Titus Brandsma, Het Kransje van de Twaalf Sterren, in De Gelderlander September 29, 1941.
[3]     Titus Brandsma, Het beeld van Onze Lieve Vrouw te Bolsward, in Carmelrozen 7 (1918-1919) pp. 37-40; Maria-verering in Friesland, De Gelderlander July 19, 1941.
[4]     Pater Brugman als Maria-dichter. In: Carmelrozen 29 (1940-1941), pp. 266-271.
[5]     Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Mysticism, Chicago 1936. p. 51.
[6]     Letter of Titus Brandsma conserved in the Dutch Carmelite Institute, Boxmeer –
[7]     Titus Brandsma, De vereering der H.Maagd in de catacomben, in Carmelrozen 1 (1912-1913), pp. 127-132.
[8]     Carmelrozen, 1 (1912-1913), 2 (1913-1914), 3 (1914-1915), 4 (1915-1916), 5 (1916-1917), 7 (1918-1919), 8 (1919-1920), 9 (1920-1921), 10 (1921-1922), 11 (1922-1923), 13 (1924-1925), 20 (1931-1932), 21 (1932-1933), 29 (1940-1941).
[9]     Titus Brandsma, Godsbegrip, Nijmegen/Utrecht 1932. p. 35-36.
[10]    Maria’s moederschap van God, leidende gedachte in het mystieke leven, in Carmelrozen 20 (1931-1932), pp. 11-15.
[11]    Titus Brandsma, Carmelite Mysticism, Chicago 1936, p. 54.
[12]    Titus Brandsma O.Carm., Naar Jezus met Maria. Karmelretraites. Met een inleiding door Sanny Bruijns, O.Carm. en verantwoording door Rudolf van Dijk, O.Carm. Boxmeer, 2008.
[13]    Prof. dr. Titus Brandsma, Mijn cel, dagorde van een gevangene, Tilburg 1944, p. 9-10
[14]    Ibid. p. 15-16

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