Reading from the perspective of the relationship with God

Comment (English) on ‘Jan Pelgrim Pullen

by Huub Welzen


Reading from the perspective of the relationship with God

Huub Welzen[1]


The mystical sensitivity of Titus Brandsma not only emerges in his writings, speaking and actions, but also from the way in which he read mystical works and sacred Scripture. His capacity to be moved and his longing for the union with God became, as it were, the eye with which he read these texts. By means of three articles by Titus Brandsma about Jan Pelgrim Pullen, I will show how Titus read the texts of Jan Pelgrim Pullen, how this reading touched his mystical experience, and how this mystical experience of Titus influenced the reading. I will especially zoom in on the third article. In this, it can be seen how Pullen reads the Bible. My hypothesis is that the way in which Titus Brandsma read the Bible comes to light in the manner in which he writes about Pullen’s way of reading.

The life and works of Jan Pelgrim Pullen (1550-1608)

Jan Pelgrim Pullen was born in 1550 in Vlodorp.[2] He went to Roermond as a young priest. In 1584-1585 he administered the diocese on behalf of Lindanus. Shortly after, Pullen left for Cologne to lead a contemplative live, but at the request of the bishop he returned to Roermond. When in 1588, Lindanus was appointed bishop of Ghent, Pullen followed him. Three months later, after the death of the bishop, he went back to Roermond. In order to be able to lead a contemplative life, he relocated first to Cologne, later to Liège. Finally, he established himself in Den Bosch where he lived until his death.

Pullen’s life is characterised by a strong ascetism. He is a mystically gifted man, who is very capable of guiding other people on their spiritual way. He wrote about thirty works, mostly at the request of others. Titus Brandsma summarises the tenor of this. Time and again, it is

that the human being can and must lose himself entirely in God, and in this ascent into God, find his utmost and only bliss. As far as we now know, these are all writings which are so full of the insignificance of human nature, over and against God and, at the same time, of the glory of the ascent and of being submerged into God, that through them the spirit is powerfully drawn to God and, through the writer, is also led to the utmost and most intimate union with God.[3]

Titus Brandsma made a contribution to the known works of Jan Pelgrim Pullen. It has a long title: Den Toepat om tot goddelijcke kennis te comen, waar in geleert wort, hoe den mensch, doer een geheel ontblooten, vernieten ende ontsincken sijn selfs en alder dingen, tot de hoochste kennis, beschouwinge en vereeninge met Godt sal comen. Gemaekt door den Eerw. Heer Pelgrom.[4] In the second and third article Titus Brandsma specifically explores this writing.

The Pathway which leads to divine knowledge

In the subtitle of Den Toepat, words appear such as ‘exposure’, ‘annihilation’, ‘detachment’ and ‘being released from one’s self’. Detachment is a first condition for arriving at knowledge of God. Detachment flows out of the nature of the divine-human relationship itself. God is not knowable by means of images and descriptions. Over and against God’s eternal essence, we are as nothing. Therefore, we need to experience our self as emanating from God, seeing beyond all that is other within us. Through this ‘exposure’ we approach God who dwells in us. Thus, we arrive at the contemplation of God’s essence and to a conscious knowing of being one with God.

Included in this exposure and annihilation is the renunciation of the spirit. This means seeing beyond the wisdom of the world, contrivance and ingenuity. Only God is everything, and outside of this, nothing has any meaning. Through God’s grace we are wholly focused on him. In this way we arrive at the fulfilment of the commandment to love God with all our heart and all our capacities. It is the way to delight in God.

It is important to persevere on this way. That is possible when you cling to nothing. That so few people live united with God is due to the fact

that so few people know that all that they are and all that they do, and would be able to do, counts for nothing compared to that which God can and desires to do in them. ‘It must be annihilated’, says Pullen, ‘it must all be annihilated, what you have and what you are and what you practice, because it is all nothing’.[5]

The pursuance of the way

The pursuance of this way exudes a different atmosphere. Titus Brandsma writes about this in the third article in which we most clearly can recognise the spirituality of Titus Brandsma himself. Pullen points out that after we have surrendered everything, we once again must search for God in creatures, and that God brings us again into contact with creation. It is vitally important to remember that everything in its origin is divine, that in the depths of its essence it comes forth from God. In this way, we see God in all things in the first place.

Regarding the actions which lead our attention to God, Pullen includes attending Holy Mass, receiving Holy Communion, reading sacred Scripture, proclaiming the word of God or listening to the proclamation of others. More specifically, Pullen speaks about the reading of sacred Scripture. Titus Brandsma gives a crystal-clear summary of his text.

Even if someone has plumbed the meaning of sacred Scripture and is a scholar in elucidating the mysteries of the faith, if he is not inwardly turned to God and free of himself, then he has actually not assimilated the true meaning of Holy Scripture and the mysteries of the faith, because this is God, who gives himself to us, who speaks to us in order to reveal Himself in his deepest essence, not in words and images, but in the stillness of the silent renunciation of all gratification. Not the letter, but the spirit gives life. The letter of Holy Scripture and of the highest human knowledge cannot make us understand what is beyond understanding, unless we learn from this that through it, God actually desires to tell us how infinite and incomprehensible His essence is, and through this concept of incomprehensibility, in humble recognition of our limitation and of all revelation, we see like a blind person, in the all dazzling light. Somewhat less knowledge and somewhat more of this light, which causes us to see ourselves as blind, would be very useful to us.[6]

In this passage a hermeneutic is expressed which people can also assume belongs to Titus Brandsma himself. The same applies to the passage immediately following this. This contains a defence of the Holy Fathers, when they have made exegetic and scholarly mistakes. These are not so serious, especially because the Fathers sought union with God. Losing sight of God is much worse than proclaiming a scholarly impropriety. People can recognise this hermeneutic as being also the hermeneutical practice of Brandsma. I am very keen to explore this further by means of four points: the relationship with God as a pre-understanding in the reading process, literal and spiritual reading, the defence of the Fathers and the place of scholarship.

The pre-understanding: the intimate union with God

In many ways, the present-day theory of interpretation has described how much in the reading and understanding of texts the assumptions, the premises and the pre-understanding of the readers play a role. This also applies to the reading of texts from sacred Scripture. The reader’s concept of God is also part of this pre-understanding. In his three articles about Jan Pelgrim Pullen, Titus Brandsma gives a quite a clear image of Pullen’s concept of God. God is absolutely transcendent and to be known by no word or image. The way of detachment has, as its goal, to go beyond everything which is not God. After the step of exposure, the human being turns himself back to the creatures in order to recognise that in this, everything has its origin in God.

In his inaugural speech on the concept of God, Titus Brandsma speaks about his own concept of God.

‘First and foremost, we need to see God as the deepest ground of our being, concealed in the innermost part of our nature, but nevertheless there to be seen and contemplated, clearly knowable – first by orderly and systematic reasoning and then subsequently without repeated rationalisation at every turn and as by instinct – so that we see ourselves in God’s unremitting gaze, and not only venerate Him in our own being but also in everything which exists: first and foremost in our neighbour but also in nature, in the cosmos, omnipresent and pervading everything with the work of his hands. This indwelling and inworking God should not only be the object of instinct, but reveal himself in our lives, finding expression in our words and deeds, emanating out of the whole of our being and all that we do’.[7]

Here are clear points of contact with the spiritual way of Jan Pelgrim Pullen. The idea that every creature is divine in its origin, is common to Pullen and Brandsma. In itself, this idea also has a Biblical foundation. It is a known fact that Paul’s address at the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17 is very meaningful to the spirituality of Titus Brandsma. In particular, verses 27-28 correspond highly with the pronouncements which concern the concept of God. Paul argues that people search for God and perhaps gropingly find him. After all, he is not far from us. Because through him we live, we move, and we are, just as the Greek poets said: we are of divine origin.

Furthermore, in the inaugural speech there is a similar insight into the transcendence of God, as in Den Toepat. With Pullen, this led to his ascetic way of life. Titus Brandsma notes that the concept of God which he developed, demands of our cognitive power that we can abstract. It is the capacity to abstract ‘that leads us to the visio Dei, to the joyful contemplation of God.’[8] What Pullen endeavours to reach via the way of ascesis, the letting go of all that is not God, is for Titus the way of abstraction which leads to the visio Dei.

Literal and spiritual reading

Jan Pelgrim Pullen and Titus Brandsma both stand in the hermeneutical tradition of the multiple meaning of texts. Den Toepat makes a difference between literal and spiritual meaning. Pullen even says that the letter of sacred Scripture and of the highest human knowledge cannot unlock for us the true meaning of sacred Scripture. All they can do is help us to understand the incomprehensiveness of God. This is supported with a quote from 2 Cor. 3.6: ‘Not the letter but the spirit gives us life’. Pullen and Brandsma take into account this pronouncement on the way in which Scripture is interpreted. With them, the contrast is how well someone is, or is not, turned to God and detached from himself. This is decisive with regard to the question if someone can recover the actual meaning of Scripture. The letter of Scripture and the use of a scientific set of instruments does not make this actual meaning accessible. It is the intimate union with God which actually releases the true meaning for the readers.

The basic principle that the release of the spiritual meaning has to do with the stance of the reader, is present early on in the history of the Christian hermeneutic. In book IV of De Principiis, Origen (± 185 – 251) sets out the basic principles of his allegorical exegesis. Just as the human being is constructed out of body, soul and spirit, so is Scripture also built up out of body, soul and spirit. The bodily meaning is the literal, which immediately presents itself. This meaning is meant to build up the simple human being. The soul of Scripture works constructively for the person who has somewhat further advanced. The ‘spiritual law’ is aimed at perfection. God has hidden the mysteries of our life in Scripture. In order to receive insight into these hidden mysteries, people can inquire into the deeper meaning of the words. But there are people who are not capable of this effort. For these people the ‘bodily’ aspect of Scripture serves a useful purpose, because it instructs people in line with the possibilities of their understanding.

For Pullen and Titus Brandsma, the relationship with God is decisive for being able to access the text in its deepest layers. It is not the scholarly approach which gives people the capacity to understand what Scripture actually desires to say, but inwardly being turned to God.

A defence on behalf of the Church Fathers

The summary of Den Toepat follows with an endearing apology on behalf of the Church Fathers who, in their explanation of Scripture and of the mysteries of the faith, have made mistakes. For Pullen this is not such a serious thing. The most important thing is that they searched for and found union with God. That there are faults in their explanation is perhaps due to the fact that they sought too much of their power from earthly scholarship.

Also, this idea has ancient roots. It is explicitly present in De doctrina christiana of Augustine (354-430). Right up to the modern time, this text has greatly influenced the way in which Scripture is interpreted. For Augustine, every explanation must serve the double commandment of love. An explanation which conforms to love but not with the aim of the writer, is not fundamentally faulty. But it certainly needs to be corrected. Who, however, believes that he has understood scripture but has construed no meaning from it for the love of God and for the neighbour, has not understood it. Whoever, from his explanation of Scripture, builds up love, but asserts something different than what the author intended, makes no fatal mistake. He does not lie because Scripture does not lie. He makes the same mistake as someone who leaves the beaten track but through the fields still reaches his destination.

The place of Biblical scholarship

In the text of Titus Brandsma over Den Toepat, there appears to be an aversion to exegetic scholarship purely for itself. This knowledge and scholarship must always go hand in hand with being turned to God. That out of the writings of Jan Pelgrim Pullen, Titus Brandsma has finely picked up this stance regarding Biblical research purely for its own sake, is not strange. Because of his scholarly work dedicated to the Modern Devotion people may expect that Titus Brandsma was very familiar with the principal work of this spiritual movement: De Navolging van Christus of Thomas van Kempen (The Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis). In De Navolging we find a similar concern for being correctly attuned to reading and researching Scripture. In book I, two passage can be found with reference to the reading of Scripture: I,1,1-10 and I,5,1-11. Thomas á Kempis is convinced that Scripture needs to be read with the spirit of Christ. Many experience little longing on hearing the Gospel because they do not have this spirit. The reading of Scripture must be directed to the process of being conformed to Christ. This focus makes Thomas suspicious of scholarly debate: ‘What is the use of an elevated discourse on the Trinity when you lack humility and therefore displease the Trinity. Really, lofty words do not make a person holy and upright’. (I,1,7-8). The reading of Scripture should be directed to finding the truth. ‘You must search for Truth in the sacred books, not rhetoric.’ (I,5,1). Humility defines the reading stance. ‘If you want to make progress, then read humbly, simply and faithfully, and never wish to be known as learned.’ (I,5,10). That you should not strive after scholarship, does not mean that you may not ask questions. Thomas recommends posing questions and listening in silence. A person can understand this paradox, such that all voices which are directed to oneself must be brought to silence, so that the voice of Scripture can be all the better understood.

It can be reasonable argued that for Thomas á Kempis, for Jan Pelgrim Pullen and for Titus Brandsma, the Biblical texts were born out of a relationship with God. This demands that these texts are read out of the same relationship with God. It is the relationship of the reader with God which opens the texts. But at the same time, through the reading, the reader is drawn deeper into that relationship.


Through our commentary on the articles of Titus Brandsma, the hypothesis has been further fleshed out that Titus Brandsma read Scripture out of his mystical relationship with God. Of course, this hypothesis must be tested further by studying the texts in which Titus Brandsma interprets passages from Scripture. He is no biblical interpreter in the sense of a present day academically schooled exegete. But he stands in the long Christian tradition of reading Scripture, in which the text of the Bible is systematically brought into connection with being on the spiritual way. It is striking that in recent developments in exegesis, more space is given to approaching texts in the way in which Titus Brandsma practised this. Dialogue is more and more the basic metaphor for what occurs in the process between text and reader. The attention to the reader creates space for the religious pre-understanding by which, for centuries long, Scripture has been read. The scholarly reading and the spiritual reading no longer need to stand in opposition to each other. In a new hermeneutical paradigm, they can be integrated.

  1. Translation of: Huub Welzen, ‘Lezen met het oog op de Godsverbondenheid’, in: Anne-Marie Bos (red), Titus Brandsma. Spiritualiteit dichtbij in veertien teksten, Baarn 2018, 58-67.
  2. Sometimes, Venray and Stralen are mentioned as birthplaces and 1520, 1544 of 1545 as the year of birth.
  3. Titus Brandsma, ‘Jan Pelgrim Pullen (1550-1608)’, De Gelderlander, 17 september 1938, 13.
  4. Translated into English: The Pathway for arriving at divine knowledge, where it is learned how the human being, through total exposure, annihilation and being released from his self and all other things, shall arrive at the highest knowledge, contemplation and union with God. Written by the Rev. Pelgrom.
  5. Titus Brandsma, ‘Jan Pelgrim Pullen (1550-1608) II’, De Gelderlander, 24 september 1938, 13.
  6. Titus Brandsma, ‘Jan Pelgrim Pullen (1550-1608) III’, De Gelderlander, 1 october 1938, 21.
  7. Titus Brandsma, Godsbegrip, Nijmegen – Utrecht 1932, 26.
  8. Titus Brandsma, Godsbegrip, Nijmegen – Utrecht 1932, 28.

Translated from the Dutch by Susan Verkerk-Wheatley and Anne-Marie Bos

© Titus Brandsma Instituut 2019