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Thursday, 05 May 2022 12:26

Titus Brandsma: Lessons for Living with Illness?

A reflection by

Gregory James Geaney, O. Carm.

Pucusana, Perú

Not for a minute would I dare to compare myself to Titus Brandsma, Carmelite, about to be canonized a Saint. The only thing we have in common is our “Carmeliteness,” nothing more. But I can't help seeing some parallels in our lives' journeys, parallels that are comforting to me as I grow older and finally must face death in real time as Titus did. The parallels are unforeseen gut punches (or passive dark nights of the spirit) occasioned by 1) forced time spent all alone in one's cell, and 2) the prospect of untimely death hanging over one's head. Both experiences lead to an overpowering sense of uselessness and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.

Maybe Titus saw coming his incarceration in Holland of the 1940's, but I didn't see coming the Covid Pandemic in Peru of the 2020's. In March of 2020 I found myself going from busy pastor in Pucusana, a fishing town just south of Lima, to life in prison in the Pucusana parish house. It was a strict lockdown, the mother of all lockdowns in South America at the time. Suddenly my cell became more than just a day-time refuge from pastoral obligations or a night-time place to lay my head. It became an honest-to-God 13th century style hermitage, the type you would find on Mount Carmel in 1207 or so.

On January 19th, 1942, Titus's normal life, full of vehement activity, changed drastically. He ended up all alone in a real cell with bars and locks, and his first reaction was: "I am now getting what I always wanted in life. I am going to a cell where I will finally become a true Carmelite. "It was almost with a sense of joy that he embraced the solitude of his cell and focused in on the real presence of God accompanying him at every moment, day and night.  In the silence of his cell, he would have to deal with a deeper sense of self and give a new meaning to the way he spent his days, no longer feeling useful as was his wont when fighting for peace and justice and equality in his job as University Rector.

My pandemic lockdown in the Pucusana parish was not so joyful, although I did experience a deeper sense of the presence of God in my life. I also had some good spiritual reading to keep my spirits up, like the book on Titus titled Encountering God in the Abyss by Constant Dölle. At the same time, I was experiencing a lot of real guilt (shut up in my room like a coward while the people in town went to work - nurses and doctors with Covid patients, people tending to stores in the market place, bus drivers and fishermen, essential workers). However, unlike Titus, I was not powerless. I asked my Superior for a change of venue, ending up in our Novitiate teaching some classes to the Novices...somewhat of a relief.

The relief lasted a couple of months. Then the Spirit struck again with a second gut punch (second passive dark night of the Spirit). One night, after preparing classes, I began to urinate blood. Several exams and operations later the doctor diagnosed malignant cancer in the bladder. After removal of the tumor i had to move to our main house in Miraflores, once again confined to my cell during therapy, experiencing not only uselessness, but powerlessness and, like Titus, having to be realistic about the possibility of dying in the not too distant future. I soon would be 88 years old.

As luck would have it, my therapy began to work, and I went back to the Pucusana Parish in a limited capacity. The challenge now was how to keep working without becoming bitter. Titus again showed the way. On his way to Dachau via Kleve he was thrown into smaller and more crowded cells. It was a time of terrible physical and spiritual suffering. for Titus, an awful passive dark night, but a night of enormous consolation for those who had the luck of sharing their lives with his. Titus could foresee the suffering to come in Dachau, no longer in a private cell, but thrown into the common barracks with thousands of other prisoners. In one of his poems, he wrote: ¨But pain for me is a blessing for my heart, for pain makes me become like You." The dark night would transform him, as did the time spent in his cell, into the God of compassion and mercy of Dachau. His focus would no longer be on God and himself, but on God and his brother prisoners by incarnating in himself the arcane but accurate definition of love: "when the needs of others are greater than my needs." No matter how much he suffered on work details or getting physically punished by sadistic soldiers, he would always be there for his brothers whose needs were greater than his. He visited each one each day in their common quarters, a consoling word to keep their spirits up, a friendly hug to renew their faith in love, a timely prayer to give them strength to get through the day, while he himself walked blindly in a pitch black night of the soul.

The transformation of Titus was subtle but total. His mentor, John of the Cross, would have it in his Spiritual Canticle: "No flocks are now my care, no other toil I share, and only now in loving is my duty." He no longer had a flock to care for in Holland. He was no longer looked up to as a distinguished scholar who could solve educational problems or give profound theological talks or write profound newspaper articles. Only love was left attending to the needs of his brother prisoners whose needs were greater than his. And so, Titus prepared for death by injection by humbly accepting his present state of dejection and subsequent rejection: "pati and contemni" --to suffer at the hands of the guards and be despised, becoming nothing, no-thing, just a number 30492. But at the same time, he was fusing with the God of Love and Compassion and Mercy, becoming love, which was everything.

As I said at the beginning, I would never dare to compare my life to Titus's life. But how he inspires me to end my Carmelite journey here on earth as nobody, no-thing, not looked for, not consulted, not needed, leaving only love, as Thomas Keating would say. Love is the only thing that matters in the long run. Titus shared God's love with his fellow prisoners right up to the end, and finally, with his nurse, Tizia, who reluctantly had to administer his final lethal injection. He felt so sorry for her and tried to ease her sense of guilt- her need being greater than his at the very last moment of his life. Wow!   

God knows how many months or years I have yet to live. The only thing I know now is how to die. Saint Titus, we pray, please show us the way.

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