Titus Brandsma in Jail Cell 577

July 27, 2020 |

“Cella continuata dulcescit​.” A cell becomes more sweet as it is more faithfully dwelt in.

This summer, I had the great privilege to attend the International Course on Bl. Titus Brandsma in the Netherlands and Germany, along with other Carmelite friars in initial formation from around the world. We participated in presentations about Titus’ life as a Carmelite, educator, and journalist, and visited important places like Boxmeer, where he made his Novitiate, and Oss and Nijmegen where he lived and ministered as a Carmelite. Finally, we made a pilgrimage to the concentration camps in Amersfoort and Dachau where Titus suffered along with many innocents entered into his martyrdom.

There is much that I could write about following the experience, but I will confine myself to reflecting upon the particularly inspirational example of how Bl. Titus Brandsma transformed his jail cell into a Carmelite Cell. On January 19, 1942, Titus was arrested and taken to a jail for political prisoners in Scheveningen, Netherlands. How disrupted was his life? While reading through the letters he wrote in jail, one gets the impression that Titus’ life was not as disrupted as one may expect.

“Crucifixion” by Fra. Angelico, Holy card used by Brandsma in Cell 577 about which he wrote the poem, “Before the Image of Jesus”: “I am blissful in my suffering For I know it no more as sorrow But the most ultimate elected lot That unites me with You, O God.” (​Excerpt) Translated from the Dutch by Susan Verkerk-Wheatley and Anne Marie Boss, April 2018.

In the letter to confreres and family titled “My Cell” Titus describes constructing a little altar on the table in his cell. Onto a propped up checkerboard, he pinned a holy card with an image of “The Crucifixion” by Fr. Angelico, and on either side cards with mottos of St. Teresa of Jesus, “To die or to suffer” and of St. John of the Cross, “To suffer and be despised”. Hardly a pick-me-up for a usual afternoon, but the Passion of Christ is the rightful consolation for the sorrowful. He would prop open his Carmelite Breviary on a shelf so that he may always turn see an image of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.

In the letter titled “My Timetable” Titus describes his daily prison horarium. He prays the Liturgy of the Hours, celebrates Mass making a “spiritual communion,” and meditates for a half-an-hour. He reads the “Life of Jesus” by Cyril of Verschaeve, and writes a biography of St. Teresa of Jesus between the lines of the text due to lack of paper. An S.S. Capitan orders him to respond to the question “Why do the Dutch, especially the Catholics, resist National Socialism?” and Titus occupies himself writing diligently. Like John of the Cross, he writes poetry in prison. Such a thing is poetry. Am I the only Carmelite that sometimes imagines he may enjoy jail?

The ideal of the monastic cell does not refer merely to the exterior habitation, but also the inner room of the soul where one prays to the Father in secret and where the Father who sees in secret rewards the soul. Within his cell, and within his heart, the Carmelite meditates on the Law of the Lord and enjoys a holy leisure with his Lord. The practice of carrying this oratory of the heart into one’s daily activities is traditionally called the “Practice of the Presence of God.” Titus writes about the blessed solitude of his jail cell in Scheveningen, “I am already quite at home in this small cell. I have not yet got bored here, just the contrary. I am alone, certainly, but never was Our Lord so near to me.” (“My Cell” by Titus Brandsma, Jan. 27, 1942, Scheveningen, Essays on Titus Brandsma. Ed. Redemptus Valabek, O.Carm, Carmel in the World Paperbacks Vol. 2, Edizioni Carmelitane, Rome, p. 295.)

Portrait of Titus Brandsma in the Amersfoort camp, drawn by fellow prisoner John Dons.

The refuge of his jail cell in Scheveningen ended as Titus was tried, sentenced and transferred to the concentration camp in Amersfoort, Netherlands. His exterior comforts were taken away, but I wonder if Titus was completely robbed of his interior consolation. We can assume that he continued to pray always within the inner cell of his heart. When gazing upon the drawing of Titus made by fellow prisoner in the Amersfoort camp, one may sense a hidden inner peace relative to the chaos and despair that surrounded him.

Later, fellow prisoners from Amersfoort testified to the deep inner strength of Titus. He was not shaken by the brutality of the camp, but always greeted the prison guards with a smile. He risked the little time after the evening meal to visit and support struggling prisoners. Titus was transferred next to the brutal concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, where prisoners were purposefully worked to death with little food and rest but much torture and cruelty. He survived just over one month in Dachau before being euthanized.

When I consider the life of this frail little friar, this “dangerous man”, I believe Bl. Titus Brandsma is properly an icon of ​fortitude​. He carried the light of Christ into the darkness that was Dachau, and the darkness could not overcome the light. May we be inspired by Titus’ example of living in allegiance to Jesus Christ, nourishing a deep love for God and neighbor in prayer and witnessing to truth and love amidst the evils of the world. And may God, through the intercession of Bl. Titus Brandsma, give us the grace that we need to overcome fear, face difficulties and bear suffering, and the strength to do what is right. Amen.

Neil Conlisk
Br. Neil Conlisk is a simply professed Carmelite currently in formation.
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