Titus Brandsma. Mystic in everyday life

Comment (English) on ‘Mystiek‘ 

by Michael Plattig (2018)


Titus Brandsma. Mystic in everyday life

P. Michael Plattig, O.Carm.[1]


Godfried Bomans, a former pupil of Titus Brandsma, said:

“He was the only mystic on the continent of Europe who had a general railroad pass and who became holy in the compartment of a train … . When he talked about the history of mysticism one felt that much of what he said came from first-hand experience.”[2]

Titus Brandsma considered mysticism not as a phenomenon out of touch with the real world but as an encounter with God that can be experienced in everyday life. Bruno Borchert referred to it as ‘democratization of mysticism.’[3] The ordinariness of mysticism is the subject of this paper, which is primarily based on an article on mysticism which Titus Brandsma wrote for De Katholieke Encyclopaedie in 1937 and in which he briefly outlined the key aspects of Christian mysticism.



Titus starts with a definition:

“Mysticism, a special union of God with man, whereby the latter becomes conscious of God’s presence and on his part also unites himself with God. Mysticism, therefore, has a two-sided character. The special, fervent union of God with man, so that the divine no longer hides itself behind the human but is felt inwardly, may be called the divine essence of mysticism; while the receptiveness of man to this divine grace, its experience by man and its influence on his life constitutes its human dress.”[4]

An interesting thing is that Titus Brandsma assumes that, in a mystical experience, God does not only then appear, but human person becomes conscious of His presence, which is secured anyway. Something is made clear and transparent to the person; something that has been given by God all along, His presence, can now be experienced. This reminds one of the so-called inhabitatio, the indwelling of God in the soul, which is emphasized time and again in German and Dutch mysticism and in Carmel. For example, John of the Cross wrote:

“Oh, then, soul, most beautiful among all the creatures, so anxious to know the dwelling place of your Beloved that you may go in quest of Him and be united with Him, now we are telling you that you yourself are His dwelling and His secret chamber and hiding place. This is something of immense gladness for you, to see that all your good and hope is so close to you as to be within you, or better, that you cannot be without Him.”[5]


“God sustains every soul and dwells in it substantially, even though it may be that of the greatest sinner in the world. This Union between God and creatures always exists. By it He conserves their being so that if the Union would end they would immediately be annihilated and cease to exist.”[6]

John of the Cross explained that God’s dwelling in the soul cannot subside, not even in sinners, because it is an essential part of human nature. This is a source of comfort for the sinners because it opens up a permanent possibility of repentance by searching one’s soul, returning to oneself, to one’s true nature. This confirms that sin is not a moral category, but rather refers to a state of being out of touch with oneself. Against the background of God’s dwelling among man this will inevitably lead to an alienation from God. This is an insight that is still valid, especially in the ecclesiastic context and liturgical language where man is often seen as deficient and is reduced to his supposedly sinful nature. God’s dwelling rules out such use of language!

Titus Brandsma’s description of mysticism reminds one of its later definition by Karl Rahner. Rahner describes mysticism as follows: “Mystics are not a step higher than believers at large; rather, mysticism in its authentic, theological root sense is an intrinsically essential aspect of faith, not the other way around.”[7] He describes Mystic as a basic experience, as reception of the spirit, of freedom and of mercy, which every man has: “… man has to let the experience come out, has to dig it out of the rubble of the everyday bustle, and he may not run away from it when it silently wants to become clear…”[8]

In his further considerations, Titus Brandsma points out that the receptiveness of the person to God, his ability to experience God and to let his life be influenced by Him, constitutes the human dress of mysticism. An encounter with God has certain consequences; it influences man’s whole life.

“The indwelling and influence of God should not only be recognized intuitively but should also manifest itself in our lives, express itself in our words and actions, radiate from our being and our behavior.”[9]

Against this background and quite in line with tradition, Titus Brandsma distinguishes the intellectualistic and voluntaristic schools or mysticism and asceticism.

“With Ruusbroec and St. John of the Cross, Teresa and the mystic school of Carmel occupy a more moderate position, which in the case of the first two in a sense perhaps still leans toward the intellectualistic viewpoint, in Teresa’s toward the voluntaristic one, but may still obtain as a notable harmony between the two schools. That is why they also generally count as leaders in the mystic life.[10]

Titus Brandsma classifies the mystic school of Carmel halfway between the abovementioned two viewpoints. To me, this position appears to be a fundamental characteristic of the school of Carmel, which has to do with the latter’s history. Initially hermits with a monastic-contemplative background, the Carmelites became a mendicant order, active in spiritual care and pastoral work. The concepts of contemplation and action, mysticism and asceticism, hermits and mendicants living in communities reveal a basic tension that can be found in the documents of the Order and in its history up to the present day. It is a very fertile and reviving tension when it is endured, dealt with, and lived out, and is not removed unilaterally.

Already in 1937, Titus Brandsma complained about a phenomenon that has substantially increased since then: ‘At the present an excessive use is made of the word mysticism.’ He believed that it was caused by a misconception:

“It would be quite incorrect to regard mysticism as primarily enjoyment; such enjoyment is to a great extent paired with suffering, which, however, is gladly borne out of love of God and, with God, of neighbor. This suffering is intense, not only for the soul, but also for the body, and serves to purify and detach from all earthly pleasure.”[11]

John of the Cross criticized mystical phenomena and most of all the thirst for mystical experiences for the same reason. To those who seek privileged experiences and revelations, God may say,

“If I have already told you all things in My Word, My Son, and if I have no other word, what answer or revelation can I now make that would surpass this? Fasten your eyes on Him alone, because in Him I have spoken and revealed all, and in Him you shall discover even more than you ask for and desire.”[12]

For John of the Cross, when considering religious experience, the surmounting of human dependency on religious experience is the objective. This dependency on religious experience, over time, enslaves and impedes the maturing of faith in particular. John speaks of spiritual avarice when he says,

“Sometimes many beginners also possess great spiritual avarice. They will hardly ever seem content with the spirit God gives them. They become unhappy and peevish owing to a lack of the consolation they desire to have in spiritual things.”[13]

The fixation of humans on their own pleasure or on tangible consolation leads to stagnation of further spiritual growth. The path to liberation and growth is therefore described by Johannes as a weaning process and as a crisis experience. Rising above the childish fixation on the ‘consolation experience’ is a part of the coming-of-age in one’s relationship with God. In this way, mysticism leads to faith—plain faith, which no longer demands the vehicle of experience.


Mysticism in religions

This does not mean that spiritual experiences should not be taken seriously. On the contrary!

I find some remarks that Titus Brandsma made in his article very remarkable against the backdrop of time. In 1937, the Church was isolated and had reached an impasse after Pope Pius X had issued the oath against modernism in 1910, which had to be taken by all office holders in the Church and which rejected any opening for modern scientific knowledge, including theological insights, under penalty of excommunication. At the time, Titus Brandsma wrote in his article: “Thus, mystical phenomena in other religions are to be respected, because they not seldom indicate an exalted ascent of the human spirit to God.”[14] This viewpoint was unusual, even potentially dangerous, for a Catholic theologian in the 1930s; after all, as Cyprian of Carthage said: Extra ecclesiam salus non est – outside the Church there is no salvation. Only the Second Vatican Council, in Nostra aetate, would recognize what Titus Brandsma had already established in his article:

“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.”[15]

Despite all positive recognition of mystical experiences inside and outside the Church, a critical discussion is nevertheless necessary, in particular in view of any accompanying symptoms.

“In some mystical conditions the mystic is unresponsive to the usual stimuli of the senses and entirely removed from ordinary life. …This leads to visions which can have a three-fold character: perception by the exterior senses in which there is danger of hallucination in merely apparent mystical conditions; perception in the imagination, in which there is danger of purely subjective imagination; finally, a purely intellectual vision, an enlightening of the understanding, in which there is least danger of being misled, according to St. Teresa.… ”[16]

And: “Likewise, in general the Church credits only a private character to the mystical life and its phenomena…”. In addition to this, Karl Rahner said:

“God is talking to us in many different ways. It is not confirmed, that the important messages are given within the visions. They are part of the gospel and they sound in the voice of the church in their normal proclamation. And sometimes the Holy Spirit is also working through the Theologians and spiritual movements of the church without having any visions. The people who are in favor of revelations and visions should not forget (what happens occasionally): The poor and marginalized people are certainly the appropriate places where someone can meet Christ himself. In the sacrament and in the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is offered to everyone, God has his most genuine presence. The cross is the purest grace and love the highest charisma.”[17]

Titus Brandsma picks up on the theme of discernment of spirits, which is necessary in order not to be misled in any case, because in the oldest document of the New Testament, in 1 Tess 5:21, one can read: “Test everything; hold fast what is good!” Although favorably disposed towards mystical experiences, Teresa of Avila is very clear:

“The good or the evil does not lie in the vision but in the one who sees it and in whether or not she profits by it with humility; for if humility is present, no harm can be done not even by the devil. And if humility is not present, even if the vision be from God they will be of no benefit. For if the favor which should humble a nun when she sees she is unworthy of it makes her proud, she will be like the spider that converts everything it eats into poison; or like the bee that converts it all into honey.”[18]

Teresa takes a very pointed view here, as her comparison makes clear that, in the end, what is decisive is not where an experience comes from or what its contents might mean, but solely what effect it has, what fruit it bears.



Titus Brandsma’s article has important consequences for the spiritual life. The discernment effort primarily concerns a theologically clean differentiation between creating a good atmosphere, a religious feeling or religious experience, spiritual exercise, and a spiritual experience or an experience of God. In line with tradition, it needs to be noted that sober-mindedness and faculty of reason are essential critical authorities in the process of becoming a Christian. Doctor of the Church Teresa of Ávila, as often, aptly puts it in a nutshell in her appreciation of theological insights: “May God deliver us from foolish devotions!”[19]

The art of mysticism in everyday life consists of making room and leaving scope also for the unexpected and the unplanned. God cannot be ‘imported’ or ‘evoked’, as he is already present. A personal experience of God in the sense of becoming conscious of the reality of God in the human person is and remains a gift. So we should distinguish between makeable and not makeable. As a matter of principle, encounters with God are not makeable and therefore cannot be manipulated. There is no method, no rite, no way in Christianity that can guarantee or produce an encounter with God in the sense of a personal experience.

The spiritual teachers in the Carmel, in Christianity, and beyond emphasized and still emphasize the necessity and importance of ascesis, that is, a persistent and consistent training or practice in spiritual life. This life requires form and shape.

What is required are not elaborate forms of prayer nor a multi-level contemplation course or something similar but basically very simple exercises such as ruminatio, that is, turning over words from the Scripture in one’s mind time and again, what is called “die ac nocte in lege Domini meditantes et in orationibus vigilantes” in Chapter 10 of the Carmel Rule: “All are to remain in their cells or near them, meditating day and night on the law of the Lord and being vigilant in prayers, unless otherwise lawfully occupied.” To remain in one’s cell, to consider the cell as an essential place to search for God and to gain self-knowledge – it is a spiritual exercise not to run away from this challenge.

What is decisive is not the exercise itself, even less whether it is spectacular or difficult, but the determination and regularity with which it is done. It is thanks to this regularity that this exercise starts to bring about change in the sense of transformatio. Titus Brandsma considers this also as the not necessarily spectacular mission of the Carmelites:

“We are not called to do great, remarkable, much-discussed things in public life. That would be inconsistent with the simplicity that we Carmelites wish to practice. However, it is our task to do ordinary things in a great way, that is, with sincere intentions and giving our all. We do not wish to stand out and to be cheered because of achievements that people of the world usually think highly of. We wish to be notable for our simplicity and sincerity only.”[20]

The art of spiritual life can be found in openness to what the future holds; perhaps, at times, persevering through difficult trials and yet remaining calm, enjoying assured peace and the gift of experiencing an encounter with God. Christian spirituality exists substantially on the premise that God, and consequently man, remain a mystery and are not to be limited to a precise self-seated experience, in whichever form this may be. Therefore, the aim of Christian mysticism is not just the union of the human person with God but integral human development, the maturity of human existence. This includes an increase of critical, rational consciousness, from a Church point of view, both inward and outward, that enables one “to test everything and hold fast to what is good” for the sake of the mystery of God and the dignity of people.


  1. This article is also published as: Michael Plattig, ‘Titus Brandsma. Mysticus in het alledaagse leven’, in: Anne-Marie Bos (red), Titus Brandsma. Spiritualiteit dichtbij in veertien teksten, Baarn 2018, 42-51.
  2. Bruno Borchert, ‘The mystical life of Titus Brandsma’, in: Carmelus 32(1985), 3-13, 3.
  3. Borchert, The mystical life, 9.
  4. Titus Brandsma, ‘Mystiek’, in: De Katholieke Encyclopaedie, Vol. XVIII, c. 199-206, 199.
  5. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, 1,7; 1 (The Collected Works of John of the Cross, Washington 1979, 418).
  6. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, II,5,3; 1 (The Collected Works of John of the Cross, Washington 1979, 115f).
  7. Karl Rahner, ‘Mystik – Weg des Glaubens zu Gott’, in: Georg Sporschill (Hrsg.), Horizonte der Religiosität. Kleine Aufsätze, Vienna 1984, 11-24, 24.
  8. Karl Rahner, ‘Erfahrung des Heiligen Geistes‘, in: Schriften zur Theologie Vol. XIII, Einsiedeln 1978, 226-251, 241.
  9. Titus Brandsma, Godsbegrip, Nijmegen-Utrecht 1932, 26.
  10. Brandsma, Mystiek, 201.
  11. Brandsma, Mystiek, 203.
  12. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel II,22,51 (The Collected Works of John of the Cross, Washington 1979, 180).
  13. John of the Cross, The Dark Night I,3,1 (The Collected Works of John of the Cross, Washington 1979, 302).
  14. Brandsma, Mystiek, 200.
  15. Nostra aetate (28 October 1965), 2
  16. Brandsma, Mystiek, 204-205.
  17. Karl Rahner, Visionen und Prophezeiungen. Zur Mystik und Transzendenzerfahrung, Freiburg 1989, 79.
  18. Teresa of Avila, The book of her foundations 8,3 (The collected works of St. Teresa of Avila, Volume Three, Washington D.C. 1985, 140).
  19. Teresa of Avila, The book of her life 13,16 (The collected works of St. Teresa of Avila, Volume One, Second revised Edition, Washington D.C. 1987, 130).
  20. Titus Brandsma, Fragmenten (Bruno Borchert (ed), Mystiek Leven, Nijmegen 1985, 38).


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