The miraculous Holy Communion of Lidwina of Schiedam

Comment (English) on ‘De H. Liduina van Schiedam’ by Charles Caspers


The miraculous Holy Communion of Lidwina of Schiedam

Charles Caspers[1]

More than Willibrord, Boniface, Peter Canisius and other outstanding men, Lidwina, the Virgin of Schiedam (1380-1433), has been admired and venerated over the centuries as a national saint of the Netherlands. Her story of suffering, which began with a fall on the ice, has become an established part of Dutch cultural and religious inheritance. Titus also had a soft spot for Lidwina, as he did other female mystics such as Teresa of Avila and, the named after her Therese Neumann (1898-1962).[2] According to him, the latter showed a great resemblance to Lidwina. However, a big difference was that from 1926 Neumann received international attention whilst, according to Titus, too little appreciation was given to the Virgin of Schiedam. In 1931 in Het Schild, a Catholic apologetic journal, he somewhat indignantly asked the question: ‘What has survived of the veneration of Lidwina amongst the Dutch people in which our forefathers so brilliantly excelled?’ In 1933, this heartfelt cry proved to be an important impulse for Catholic leaders to commemorate the 500th anniversary year of the death of Lidwina, and to produce a journal especially for this occasion.[3] The jubilee celebration was not without result: during the decades which followed, both at home and abroad, Lidwina was more popular than ever as a patron saint of those with a long term illness.

In February 1939, six months before the outbreak of the Second World War, Titus writes again about Lidwina, this time in a four-part series of articles in the daily newspaper De Gelderlander, written for ‘ordinary people’.[4] A central place in this series (the conclusion of the second and the start of the third instalment) includes the above cited passage about Lidwina’s eucharistic vision. Since the above mentioned jubilee, Lidwina’s star was very much in the ascendency. She was a rewarding subject to write about, but Titus also had – at least according to this writer – special reasons for doing this. In the contribution which follows, the broad contours of Lidwina’s story of suffering are first sketched out, then we look more deeply into Titus’ reasons for bringing her to the public’s attention, and finally we attempt to interpret the above cited passage.

A short biography of Lidwina

Born[5] on 18 March 1380, Lidwina was the only girl out of a family of nine children; she had four older and four younger brothers. It is assumed that her name is derived from ‘Lijd-wijt’ (suffering widely) as a sign that she would suffer, ‘wijt’: that is to say, without limit, because of God. On 2 February 1395, the feast day of Candlemas, when skating with her friends she broke a rib. This fall defined the rest of her life. Her recovery did not progress, and after some years of ongoing struggle, she could no longer get up from her sick bed. In the last 33 years of her life – a time span which points to the life of Jesus – she was even unable to touch the ground. She spent a total of 38 years in her sickbed. During the first half of this period she ate and drank very little: now and then a slice of apple or a small piece of bread, with a little beer or sweet milk, gradually only water from the Maas. During the second half of her illness, from 1414 until her death in 1433, she ate absolutely nothing more, only Holy Communion, brought to her by the parish priest. Lidwina’s sickness went hand in hand with bodily deterioration; the worms which gnawed their way out of her body caused her great pain. Despite this, she asked God to allow her to suffer more. By doing this she hoped to release the souls of the deceased from purgatory. She was even prepared to suffer for forty years for the sake of the conversion of only one sinner, or the liberation of only one soul from purgatory. Thus, with her own suffering she knew how to ease that of others. Around 1403-1404, Lidwina had already received the strength to be able to endure it all by contemplating Christ’s passion and receiving the Body of the Lord during Holy Communion. It was with these two arms that she embraced the Beloved in love.

The most important event during her long sickness was that of the miraculous Holy Communion in December 1412, as described above by Titus. Thanks to the proclamation of this miracle Lidwina achieved fame as a living saint in the dukedom of Holland and later on, further afield. As an intercessor to God, many came to visit her to ask for her prayer. On Tuesday 14 April 1433 she died in an odour of sanctity. She was buried next to the local church of St. John [the Baptist] which attracted a flood of pilgrims.

The years of Lidwina’s life coincided with the origin and subsequent blossoming of the most important spiritual reformatory movement ever known in the Netherlands, the Modern Devotion. Various devout play a role in her life story. Two of them, both canons of the Congregation of Windesheim, dedicated a Latin vita to Lidwina shortly after her death: Hugo van Rugge and Thomas à Kempis, the author of The Imitation of Christ.[6] It was particularly with thanks to them and to a third biographer, the Franciscan Jan Brugman, who around 1450 constructed the third Latin vita, that Lidwina continued to be known to future generations. Titus was familiar with all of these vitae.

Reading and interpretation

At the start of his series of articles, when Titus introduces Lidwina, he points to the difference between her and other saints. Other saints stand out as fiery male and female lovers of God whereby ‘they are the active subject in the loving struggle between God and his beloved’. Lidwina desires not only to love God but especially to be loved by God. It is her ideal to be a passive subject of God’s love. In making this argument Titus wishes to draw special attention to a particular quality of Lidwina, her ‘patience’. During her lifetime, Lidwina was already known for her patience and endurance and five hundred years after her death that was still the case. After all, she was known as a patroness of the long-term sick. Titus now argues that there was something which tested Lidwina’s patience more heavily than her bodily suffering and for this he offers an explanation. Keeping the two key words, ‘passive’ and ‘patient’ at the back of our mind, we look now at the long passage about the miraculous Holy Communion and offer our own comments on the commentary of Titus.

Firstly, Titus writes about the remarkable fact that Lidwina could remain alive for nineteen years with the sacred host as her only food. By way of explanation he says that she is one of the (female) saints who God wished to keep alive, at first-hand, by intimately uniting himself with her. This happened by means of Holy Communion and to such a degree that it not only strengthened her soul but also her body. For Christendom at that time, and still today for many believers, Holy Communion counted (counts) as spiritual nourishment through which people felt (feel) themselves strengthened in solidarity with God and fellow believers. This was experienced in various ways and to varying degrees.[7] Titus makes the comparison with daily life when, thanks to pleasurable things, people sometimes experience a release from bodily needs. In general, this lasts for a short time, but it appears that this was permanently the case with Lidwina.

Titus then goes into great detail about the doubts of the parish priest concerning the authenticity of Lidwina’s lifestyle and, consequently, his refusal to bring her Holy Communion. In this situation, whilst she was also suspected of being a fraud, Lidwina did not erupt into justified anger but kept her patience. Titus regarded this patience as greater and saintlier than the patience she summoned up during her bodily pains. Because of the way in which she endured the lack of the so intimately craved Holy Communion, she therefore blossomed, according to him, into the ‘leader and teacher for the school of patience’. For many readers of De Gelderlander this conclusion would have been surprising, even though they shared, as Titus did, in the ‘eucharistic fascination’ which characterised Catholic life in the first half of the twentieth century.[8]

Lidwina’s torment lasted three months, from the feast day of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8 September) to the feast day of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8 December).[9] Then God himself brought an end to the situation. The Christ child appeared in a vision to Lidwina which, at a certain moment, changed into a huge host on which Christ’s crucifixion wounds (five red spots) were visible.[10] Reluctantly the priest gave her this host as Holy Communion. When he subsequently described Lidwina’s vision and communion as devilish deceit, the fury of the parishioners rained down on him. Because of the tumult which this unleashed, the bishop of Utrecht set up a canonical investigation into what had occurred. The outcome of this was that the bishop praised God for the love which He had shown to Lidwina with this miracle. Henceforth, the priest now freed from doubt, brought Holy Communion to Lidwina every two weeks. From a religious perspective this made her into a privileged woman when we consider that in the late Middle Ages laity only went to Holy Communion once a year and religious not more than once a month.[11]

Although Lidwina’s suffering would continue for around twenty years after the occurrence of the miraculous Holy Communion, when it comes to its good outcome Titus infers: ‘With this, Lidwina’s severest suffering was over’. Before continuing with another chapter (‘Neighbourly love of Saint Lidwina’) he gives further explanation to the surprised readers of De Gelderlander, and to us today. Lidwina certainly possessed great patience to accept the suffering but that suffering was not the power source of her patience, that was Holy Communion. For a better understanding we have to look at what Titus calls the ‘foundation’ of that patience, namely ‘her life drawn from Jesus in His Blessed Sacrament’. He argues further: if Lidwina is for us an example worthy of imitation then, just as she herself did, we should in the first place reconcile ourselves to God, our true power, who descends in us through Holy Communion. In the Christian tradition this is a classic subject: people venerate saints most faithfully whenever they follow the saints’ example by addressing themselves exclusively to God.[12]

Little by little, it becomes clear what Titus means by his characterisation of Lidwina, that she not only wished to love God but also wanted especially to be loved by God. She longed for union with God by means of the Holy Communion. However, it is not the communicant who unites himself with God, but God who unites himself with the communicant. Until the twentieth century, Catholics learned from their early childhood years that whoever receives Holy Communion, allows Jesus into his or her heart.[13] That was no different in Lidwina’s time. Thus, one of Lidwina’s biographers, Thomas à Kempis in his The Imitation of Christ speaks about the heart as a banqueting hall in which we may receive our Beloved.[14]

At the Catholic University of Nijmegen, Titus occupied a chair in the ‘history of piety’ and, together with others, made efforts to extend people’s knowledge and understanding of the rich, and very much by him admired, treasury of religious literature from the late Middle Ages.[15] However, all of this, including his admiration for Lidwina as a mystic and saint of the Eucharist, does not mean that he was someone who, in head and heart, was stuck in the past. To a somewhat more intense degree than Titus’ contemporaries, mediaeval Christians would have been astonished by his interpretation of Lidwina’s patience. For the latter, the Virgin of Schiedam counted as an unrivalled artist in suffering and hunger and as an unparalleled intercessor to God. By contrast, for Titus and his kindred spirits, she was an example, worthy of imitation, thanks to – frequent – Holy Communion. In his vision the sacrament which was instituted by Jesus himself makes it possible for all people to grow into a mystic. Not all scholars agree with him on this point. Until the last weeks of his life the Eucharist was deeply valued by Titus. Holy Communion was for him a source of strength.[16]

  1. Translation of: Charles Caspers, ‘De miraculeuze communie van Liduina van Schiedam’, in: Anne-Marie Bos (ed), Titus Brandsma. Spiritualiteit dichtbij in veertien teksten, Baarn 2018, 92-97.
  2. In 1930 Titus visited Neumann where she lived in Konnersreuth (northern Bavaria), see Ton Crijnen, Titus Brandsma. De man achter de mythe. Een Nieuwe biografie (Nijmegen 2008) 219-222. Gradually, he became more sceptical about the authenticity of her mystical experience and visions, see Titus Brandsma, ‘Theresia Neumann’, in: Katholieke Encyclopaedie 18 (1953) 632-633. About Titus’ ideas of mysticism, see Titus Brandsma & Marcel Smits van Waesberghe, ‘Mystiek’ ibid 296-301. [Note Bos: See also:]
  3. Titus Brandsma, ‘Teresia Neumann van Konnersreuth’, in: Het Schild, 13 (1931) 5-17, 49-58. See also Sancta Liduina, gewijd aan de voorbereiding van het Ve eeuwfeest 1-2 (1931-1933) 1-3, with the citation from the address of Titus.
  4. De Gelderlander of 11 February 1939 (‘De H. Liduina van Schiedam I’), 18 February 1939 (‘De H. Luidina van Schiedam II’), 25 February (‘De. H. Luidina van Schiedam III’), 4 March 1939 (‘Naastenliefde van Sint Liduina’). We find the instalments in the rubric ‘Van Ons Geestelijk Erf’, see Susan van Driel, Voorwerp van Gods Liefde. Titus Brandsma over de weg die God en mens met elkaar gaan (Boxmeer 2010; Karmelitaanse vorming 17).
  5. For a recent study over Lidwina, and a new Dutch translation of the vita which Thomas á Kempis constructed about her, see Charles Caspers & Rijcklof Hofman, Een bovenaardse vrouw. Zes eeuwen verering van Lidwina of Schiedam (Hilversum 2014).
  6. Cf. Charles Caspers & Thom Mertens (ed.), Thomas van Kempen en zijn Navolging van Christus, Leuven 2003.
  7. Charles Caspers, ‘De vervulling van het verlangen’, in: Hein Blommenstijn et al., Nuchtere mystiek. Navolging van Christus, (Kampen 2006) 117-125.
  8. On the fascination around the Eucharist at the time of the Rich Roman Catholic Life in the Netherlands, see for example Paul Post, Peter Nissen & Charles Caspers, Religie thuis. Religiebeleving in het Katholieke huisgezin rond 1900 (Leuven 1995; Trajecta 4-2).
  9. Titus calls the lesser known feast day of the Expectation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which falls on 18 December, most vitae give the feast day of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
  10. Thomas a Kempis, St. Lydwine of Schiedam, Virgin, edited by Vincent Scully (London 1912) 179-187. Cf. Charles Caspers, ‘Joy and Sorrow. The Meaning of the Blood of Christ in the Late Middle Ages’, in: Catrien Santing & Jetze Touber (ed.), Blood, Symbol Liquid. Representations and Interpretations of Blood in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (Leuven 2012) 37-60.
  11. Cf. Peter Browe, Die häufige Kommunion im Mittelalter (Münster 1938).
  12. Cf. Aurelius Augustinus, Als lopend vuur. Preken voor het liturgisch jaar, 2; translated preface and notes provided by Richard van Zaalen, Hans van Reisen and Sander van der Meijs (Amsterdam 2001) 94-95 (‘Heiligen vereerd in het ene offer van de Heer’).
  13. Charles Caspers, ‘Catechese over de mis van omstreeks 1860 tot omstreeks 1960’, in: Gerard Lukken & Jeroen de Wit (ed.), Het kind in het midden. Liturgie vieren met kinderen (Kampen 2000; Liturgie in beweging 5) 59-69.
  14. Charles Caspers, ‘Het verlangen naar het verlangen’, in: Hein Blommestijn e.a., Nuchtere mystiek. Navolging van Christus (Kampen 2006) 105-115, especially 110-111.
  15. See, for example Rudolf van Dijk, ‘Titus Brandsma en de bestemming van de Bibliotheca Neerlandica Manuscripta van Willem de Vreese’, in: Ons Geestelijk Erf 72 (1998) 273-292 and 73 (1999) 40-72; Idem, ‘Titus Brandsma und die editio critica des gesamten Schrifttums von Geert Grote’ (1340-1384). Geschichte eines Editionsprojekts’, in: Ons Geestelijk Erf 73 (1999) 208-247; idem, Titus Brandsma en de Moderne Devotie (Boxmeer 2010; Karmelitaanse vorming 18).
  16. See, for example, Rafaël Tijhuis, Innerlijke reis Dachau. Dagboek van Rafaël Tijhuis, met daarin de laatste dagen van Titus Brandsma, Leeuwarden 2005, 84-86 and 113-114.

Translation: Susan Verkerk-Wheatley / Anne-Marie Bos

© Titus Brandsma Instituut 2019