Tangible faith. Titus Brandsma on the material sides of the practice of faith

Comment (English) on ‘De verspreiding van het H. Scapulier in Nederland

by Peter Nissen


Tangible faith. Titus Brandsma on the material sides of the practice of faith

Peter Nissen[1]


Titus Brandsma on everyday practices of faith

Time and time again in articles, Titus Brandsma paid attention to practices of faith which are generally ascribed to the folk religiosity of ordinary people. These are practices which have a strong bodily component, such as going on pilgrimage or where objects play an important role. In 1921, in Carmelrozen, the journal of his own order, he wrote about the scapular. In 1939, on the occasion of the Utrecht art-historical doctoral thesis of Frances van den Oudendijk Pieterse concerning the ‘Feast of the Rosary’ by Dürer,[2] he wrote a series of four articles in the daily newspaper De Gelderlander, about the promotion of the rosary in the mediaeval Low Countries. It is known that, in line with the Carmelite tradition, the rosary was very precious to Titus Brandsma in his own daily religious practice.[3]

The phenomenon of pilgrimage was also something which repeatedly occupied Brandsma. In 1933 in De Katholieke Encyclopaedie, he devoted much attention to the reference to ‘pilgrimage’ and in a subsequent section of the same encyclopaedia he wrote about Dokkum, located close to his own birthplace Oegeklooster, as a place of pilgrimage dedicated to Saint Bonifacius, not knowing that ultimately Dokkum would later become a place of pilgrimage also dedicated to Titus himself.[4] Titus Brandsma also played an important role in the revival of the Bonifacius pilgrimage to Dokkum in the 1920s.[5] In 1926 he was the main speaker at the festival during the first great Friesian pilgrimage to Dokkum, in which around two thousand people took part.[6] Titus also repeatedly wrote about Bolsward in Friesland, as a place of pilgrimage that came into being around the devotion to the miraculous image of Our Lady of Zevenwouden.[7]

Faith is not possible without ‘trinkets and treasures’

This attention to material and physical aspects of the practice of faith was, in the pre-war period, striking for an academically schooled theologian and philosopher such as Titus Brandsma was, and as if that was not enough he was also one who paid particular attention to the history of spirituality and mysticism. At that time, the practice of theology, both on the Catholic as well as the Protestant side, was still strongly influenced by the notion of dualism, where the world of human beings and the world of the divine stand in opposition to each other and connected to this, the opposition of body and spirit.

The consequence of this dualism meant that theology showed relatively little interest in matters which are situated in the world of time and space, matters which are concerned with corporality and matter itself. Perhaps this was more strongly present in the study of spirituality than in the other domains of theology. Spirituality – the word says it all – was pre-eminently concerned with the spirit, spiritus. The attention to corporality and the material sides of religious experience was, with theologians at the time of Titus, near enough absent. Matters which were concerned with this were thought to belong to the domain of folk religiosity of ordinary people and that was the research domain of the cultural anthropologists who often, just like Titus, were priests but, in general, in the scholarly domain they were no more than well-meaning amateurs. The authors who were involved in studying spirituality often viewed the folk religiosity of ordinary people as ‘dumb and vulgar’. According to Kees Waaijman, ‘devotionality and popular piety, as a rule, fall outside the perspective of institutional spiritualities’.[8]

In his choice of subjects, Titus Brandsma was however not fussy. For him, themes such as pilgrimages, devotional practices, material aspects of religious experience belonged to this field of study. He harboured no disdain for bodily expressions of spirituality and religiosity and for the role that objects played in this. Afterall, these bodily practices and these objects made faith tangible. The Augustinian Father Leopold Verhagen, famous in the 1950s and 1960s in the Netherlands as the presenter of the epilogue of the television broadcasts by the KRO[9], rather pithily defended the importance of objects in the daily practice of faith with the following words: ‘You can’t have faith without having trinkets and treasures.’[10]

Material and physical aspects of faith

Academic researchers who were occupied with religion, and more specifically with Christianity, were, until recently, convinced of that importance only to a very limited extent. Attention to the material aspects of Christian religious experience, therefore to objects, buildings, clothing, food and other artefacts, was left to the art historians, in so far as the objects concerned those which were ascribed to high culture, to the cultural anthropologists, in so far as the objects concerned the culture of daily life, and to the liturgical historians when the material objects and buildings played a role in the official cult practices of the Christian churches.

In the world of religious scholars, the attention towards material culture had already been present for some time, especially among those who were schooled in anthropology. They carried research into grave culture, images of the divine, totems, amulets, masks and various other material objects. But at the theoretical level there were also many religious scholars who were still not strongly convinced that those material forms formed an elementary dimension of religiosity. Also in their world those forms were often seen as peripheral externals. When the religious scholar Ninian Smart developed his dimensional approach to religion, for example in his book The Religious Experience of Mankind, published in 1969, he initially did not include the material dimension, and also did not in his book Worldviews, published in 1983.[11] It was only in The World’s Religions, published 1989 – and elaborated further in his monograph concerning the dimensions of religion, Dimensions of the Sacred, published 1996 – that Smart added the material as a seventh dimension of the holy.[12] The awakening of the importance of material culture for the study of religiosity in general and for the study of Christian spirituality in particular, actually only made its debut in the 1990s in both the scholarly study of religion as well as the theological circle and at that time won for itself at the theoretical level, its own academic standing.

A trailblazing book in this respect was the 1995 published book Material Christianity, Religion and Popular Culture in America by Colleen McDannell.[13] With her book, Colleen McDannell wishes to draw attention to the intrinsic role which material culture plays in religious experience.[14] Objects are more than only devices within religious practice. They play an important role in the construction of what religion is. They produce the religious experience; that is to say, they make possible the sensory experience of the sacred. ‘American Christians, this book argues, want to see, hear, and touch God.’ Religion and spirituality are experienced within the physical frameworks of time and space: in particular places, in particular buildings, through particular actions, in forms of physical proximity.

Your faith grows by doing it

For McDannell, although she does not explicitly elaborate on this, an insight from the cognitive approach to religion also plays a role: religion is not (or at least not only) learned through the reading of holy texts or listening to holy people, but especially through ‘doing religion’. The physical expressions of religion and spirituality in forms, objects (such as the rosary and the scapular) and rituals (such as pilgrimages and processions) are the ways through which people make religiosity and spirituality their own. Religiosity and spirituality are learned by practice. That begins early on in the way that children, in everyday domestic practice, become familiar with the ‘household of faith’, with the dimension of the sacred and celestial bodies.[15] It would not amaze me when this insight, although implicit, would have also played a role in Titus Brandsma’s interest in practices and objects out from the everyday cultivation of faith, in his case not arising out of a cognitive theory about how religion is ‘acquired’, but out of a sort of pastoral intuition about how the practice of faith in daily life needs to be embedded.

The interest in material culture that considerably increased in the cultural sciences during the last quarter of the previous century, is of great importance to Colleen McDannell’s approach. Between the 1970s and 1990s, that interest really took off. Cultural scholars discovered that we live in a world which not only consists of ideas, but also of trinkets and treasures. Those trinkets and treasures or material objects (McDannell differentiates four categories: artefacts, landscapes, architecture and art) have no meaning in themselves. They receive meaning in relation to people: creators, users, receivers, observers.[16] The cultural scholar tries to decipher the patterns of relationships in the association with trinkets and treasures. He or she reads material culture as a text which informs us of the meanings which people ascribe to reality.

Bodies matter

The neglect of the material dimension of religion by religious scholars was, according to McDannell, also the consequence of a puritanical-Protestant concept of religion: religion and/or spirituality is something of the mind and of the W/word, thus something of the learned scholar, of more highly educated people, generally men. The increasing attention towards the role of material objects means, at the same time, a broadening of the concept of religion and of the bearers of religion and spirituality. Religion and spirituality also belong, as McDannell provocatively states it, ‘to women, children and other illiterates.’[17] Furthermore, the attention towards material culture asks for a broadening of the pallet of senses which is involved in religious practices: faith not only ‘comes from hearing’ (Rom. 10.17: fides ex auditu), but also from seeing, feeling, tasting and smelling’.

In the past two decades, this understanding has worked its way into the study of spirituality thanks to the concept of embodied spirituality. This concept has developed out of different research traditions, the one more theological, the other more psychological and another more anthropological. In the study of spirituality, the work of Meredith McGuire is especially important, for example her ground breaking article ‘Why Bodies Matter’, published in 2003 in the American journal for spirituality Spiritus, and her book Lived Religion, published in 2008.[18] According to McGuire, ‘Spirituality fully involves people’s material bodies, not just their minds or spirits,’ and she describes in her book embodied spiritual practices which revolve around preparing food and eating together, around daily work, around singing together and making music and around walking and going on pilgrimages. Titus Brandsma’s interest in pilgrimages would have been a perfect match for this.

The fairly recent concept of an embodied spirituality does not mean that in earlier times spirituality was not embodied. What is new is the way in which corporality is valued. In earlier times, the body was not seen as a legitimate and reliable source of spirituality. On the contrary, it had to be repressed, sublimated, tamed and ruled over. In the spiritual domain, the body was not seen as an equal partner of the soul, the heart, the mind or consciousness. That has now changed. The body is no longer only seen as an object, but also as a subject, actively present and acting in the physical world. It is the house and the home of the whole person. It is the source of spiritual insight, a microcosm, a mystery, and at the same time indispensable when it comes to the sustainability of every process of spiritual transformation.[19]

‘It simply speaks for itself’

In his series of two articles about the scapular, Titus Brandsma does not venture into profound considerations about the importance of this material object for spirituality. But between the lines, he certainly seems to show his appreciation of the physical practice of wearing this object of devotion. Here, the term scapular is not referring to the shoulder cloth (the literal meaning of the Latin scapulare) of the religious, therefore to the broad strip of textile which they wear over their habit, but to the small piece of textile that laity wear under their clothing when, for example as a member of a brotherhood of the Third order, they wish to bind themselves to the spirituality of a particular order.[20] The Carmelite Order also provided this scapular to those who were not members of the Order: a brown small band or small piece of cloth on which, in general, is sewn an image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Around 1900 in Catholic Netherland, the wearing of the Carmelite scapular had become a mass phenomenon: one hundred thousand wore it, sometimes without even knowing what it meant.[21] In 1912, Titus Brandsma’s fellow brother of the order, Angelinus Koenders, had already dedicated a small book to the scapular.[22]

Titus Brandsma begins his historical consideration over the promotion of the scapular by pointing to the popularity of its use. It tends to be rather more striking when Catholics do not wear it than when they do. At the same time, there is very little about it in literature. With that, Titus touches on an important aspect of everyday practices of faith: it is precisely because they speak for themselves that they are seldom explicitly recorded in historical sources. In this regard, for future historical observers, the everyday threatens to become invisible. Therefore, says Titus, do not attach too much value on the lack of witnesses. It is precisely the ordinary which makes the scapular so special. It is an outstanding example of embodied spirituality because of the fact that it is worn so closely to the body. In this regard it shows that the wearer binds himself to Carmelite spirituality. For the wearer, it makes that spirituality tangible and also visible to others. In this regard, it points to the place of clothing which has recently been given attention in the research into religiosity: clothing is an ‘identity marker’, it expresses where someone wishes to belong, it makes religious identity visible.[23] Nevertheless, when it comes to the scapular the latter plays less of a role, given that with lay people it is, after all, worn not over but under their clothing. Therefore, it is in the first place an ‘identity marker’ for the one who wears it: a practice that, expressing it in the words of Titus Brandsma, is ‘intimately connected to the life of the Catholic’.


  1. Translation of: Peter Nissen, ‘Tastbaar geloof. Titus Brandsma over de materiële kanten van de geloofspraktijk’, in: Anne-Marie Bos (red), Titus Brandsma. Spiritualiteit dichtbij in veertien teksten, Baarn 2018, 190-197.
  2. Titus Brandsma, ‘De rozenkrans in de Middeleeuwen in Nederland’, in: De Gelderlander 4, 11 and 18 November and 2 December 1939.
  3. E.C.M. Mariman, ‘De rozenkrans van Titus Brandsma. Feiten vragen’, in: Devotionalia 29 (2010) nr. 172, 232-237.
  4. Titus Brandsma, ‘Bedevaart’ and ‘Dokkum’, in: De Katholieke Encyclopaedie, Amsterdam 1933-1938, vol. 4, cc. 213-215; vol. 9, cc. 187-189.
  5. Piet van der Schoof, ‘Oude en nieuwe vormen van religieuze beleving’, in: Tjebbe de Jong (ed.), Katholiek leven in Noord-Nederland 1956-2006. Vijftig jaar bisdom Groningen, Hilversum 2006, 254-276, especially 261.
  6. Joan Hemels, ‘Als het goede maar gebeurt’. Titus Brandsma adviseur in vrijheid en verzet, Kampen 2008, 50.
  7. Titus Brandsma, ‘Het beeld van Onze Lieve Vrouw te Bolsward’, in: Carmelrozen 7 (1918), 37-40; Idem, ‘De Friese Lieve Vrouw’, in: Ons Noorden, October 1940.
  8. Kees Waaijman, Spirituality, Forms, Foundations and Methods, Gent-Kampen 2002, 233.
  9. The KRO is the Catholic Radio Broadcaster in the Netherlands.
  10. E.M.F. Verheggen, ‘”Geloven, dat kunt ge niet zonder spullekes.” Reliekenbewaarders in Achel en Eindhoven’, in: Brabants Heem 51 (1999), 117-128.
  11. Ninian Smart, The religious experience of mankind, New York 1969; Idem, Worldviews. Crosscultural explorations of human beliefs, New York 1983.
  12. Ninian Smart, The world’s religions. Old traditions and modern transformations, Cambridge 1989; Idem, Dimensions of the sacred. An anatomy of the world’s beliefs, Berkeley, LA 1996. See also idem, ‘Methods in my life’, in: J.J. Shephard (ed.), Ninian Smart on world religions, Vol. I, Farnham 2009, 3-20.
  13. Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity. Religion and popular culture in America, Yale 1995.
  14. Peter Nissen, ‘Key text: Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity. Over de materiële dimensie van christelijke religiositeit’, in: NTT Journal for Theology and the Study of Religion 71 (2017), 86-95.
  15. For this aspect of ‘familiarity’ see also the important book by Ann Taves, The household of faith. Roman Catholic devotions in mid-nineteenth-century America, Notre Dame, IN 1986.
  16. Peter Nissen, ‘De heiligheid van dingen. Over materialiseringen van het sacrale’, in: Petra Versnel-Mergaerts en Louis van Tongeren (ed.), Heilig, heilig, heilig. Over sacraliteit in kerk en cultuur, Heeswijk 2011, 195-213.
  17. McDannell, Material Christianity, 13.
  18. Meredith McGuire, ‘Why bodies matter. A sociological reflection on spirituality and materiality’, in: Spiritus 3 (2003), pp. 1-18; Idem, Lived religion. Faith and practice in everyday life, Oxford 2008.
  19. Jorge N. Ferrer, ‘What does it mean to live a fully embodied spiritual life?’, in: International Journal of Transpersonal Studies 27 (2008), 1-11.
  20. W.H.Th. Knippenberg, Devotionalia. Beelden, prentjes, rozenkransen en andere religieuze voorwerpen uit het katholieke leven, Eindhoven 1980, 29-34.
  21. Antoine Jacobs, Kroniek van de Karmel in Nederland 1840-1970, Hilversum 2017, 469-480.
  22. Angelinus Koenders, Over scapulieren en scapulier-medaille, Venlo 1912.
  23. Linda B. Arthur (ed.), Religion, dress and the body, Oxford 1999.


Translated from the Dutch by Susan Verkerk-Wheatley and Anne-Marie Bos (March 2019)

© Titus Brandsma Instituut 2019