In my opinion, the question

English translation of ‘De vraag waarin’ (Niagara Falls, 1935)

by Maurits Sinninghe Damsté

 


In my opinion, the question

Niagara Falls, 1935[1]


In my opinion, the question as to whether the pinnacle of the mystical life ought to be sought after in either the enlightenment of the intellect or in the love of the will, can, regarding the Carmelite school, first of all best be answered by not contrasting too starkly qualities which are most intimately united in human nature − as they also are in the nature of God, in Whose image and likeness mankind was created − and which are one, in spite of the distinction between them. The Carmelite school considers mystical union to be the perfection of human nature rather than the particular perfection of its capacities. The Carmelite school is pleased to adopt many assertions from the school which considers the illumination of the intellect as the apogee, but it just as pleased to accept many assertions made by the school which emphasises the love and the satisfaction of the will. Especially in the highest phases of the mystical life, it views the merging of both capacities, their mutual assistance and support, and their intimate and continuous cooperation, to such an extent that it considers the question as to which of the two is higher, and to which of the two should be handed the crown, a rather unpleasant one.

While writing this, I am listening to the roaring and the rushing of Niagara Falls. In a most magnificent way, this cascade reveals to me how water, subjected to the law of gravity, and following the nature of a liquid, flows towards the lower areas of the earth. In my [2] fatherland, the Low Countries on the Sea, the Netherlands, there are no waterfalls. Full of wonder I gaze at the rushing waters, which continuously plunge from the high riverbed above into the riverbed which suddenly lies metres below. What is exactly the beauty, the truly most beautiful aspect, of this natural wonder? Perhaps a soul inclined to, or schooled in, metaphysics, could lose itself in the contemplation of the water’s wondrous potential to be attracted to the earth’s much greater mass. If the water had not possessed this very particular potential pertaining to its nature, this urge towards the earth’s centre of gravity, the waterfall would never have existed. If the water did not have its liquid form, it would not splatter into droplets and become like an avalanche of snow. If, in its particles, it were not receptive to the absorption and reflection of the light, the mass of water would not glisten like crystal, and the rainbow would not lie at our feet. If the water did not have the resistance that it possesses, it would not thunder in our ears when we dare stand in the immediate vicinity. Water is also beautiful back home. But here in this magnificent, unique cascade it manifests itself in all its splendour and majesty.

Not everyone, however, views the Falls this way. Most do not. Thousands admire it without considering the water’s potential, without ever having [3] heard about this. They do not come here to see the splendour of the water, to admire the richness of its nature, but for the grand, imposing sight of the continuously approaching waters, suddenly plunging down with thunderous vehemence, only to then spray upwards in clouds which descend as rain metres away, and then fall into the foaming, chasing river. They listen to the roaring and rushing and cannot get enough of that wild music. They delight in the dancing of colours that is played out in the water, not only by the rainbow, which stands at its centre when the sun is shining, but also by the colours taken on by the water, depending on whether it rushes less or more over the rocky cliffs. Here it is emerald green; there it is white as silver and elsewhere pearly grey; at other places it still reveals the dark background of the rocky cliffs.

Now, one can indeed say, there is good reason, that the first manner of contemplating this famous waterfall is on a much higher plane than the second, that the intellectual contemplation offers a nobler satisfaction than the latter, which could be called more sensory, but we stand before it all the same as people who possess both faculties and in whom both faculties wonderfully assist and complement each other. We would much prefer to see both ways of contemplation merge and strengthen and confirm each other. Both object as well as subject require unity here, not separation. It goes beyond doubt that the less contrast we make here, and the more we let the said faculties, which are so intimately dependent on each other, cooperate in our contemplation, the higher and nobler and richer and more complete delight we will taste in our, indeed composite, nature.

Now, perhaps people will say that I have used a completely wrong image. At issue was the cooperation between the will and the intellect, and now I have given an image in which the cooperation between the senses and the intellect manifests itself.

I first of all believe that this example also teaches much regarding the relationship between the intellect and the will. It demonstrates that we should not so much keep in view the contrast, but much more the unity of the faculties in our composite nature.[2]

However, there is something else. I will return to the water pouring itself out before me. It is also an image of our nature. This amazing waterfall is visited by millions for its incomparable beauty. I myself prefer to contemplate the deeper level of this awe-inspiring natural phenomenon. Not only are eyes and ears fascinated, but much more so my intellect, which reflects upon what has been placed in the water by God. I do not only see the richness of the water’s nature, its immeasurable potential, but I see God working within the work of his hands and the revelation of his love. Nevertheless, also my ears and eyes are fascinated and again and again I return to see and to hear. Many a moment for me, it is this last pleasure which has the upper hand.



  1. This text was written in August 1935 in the Carmelite monastery nearby Niagara Falls. The NCI preserves the typescript on ‘Mount Carmel College. Carmelite Fathers. Niagara Falls, Ontario’ stationery, 4 pages A5, without title. In the summer of 1935, Titus Brandsma visited America. He was invited by the Catholic University of Washington, by Mount Carmel High School, Chicago and by Mount Carmel College, Niagara Falls, to teach Carmelite mysticism.
  2. The typescript erroneously has the singular ‘heeft’.


Translation: Maurits Sinninghe Damsté

© Titus Brandsma Instituut 2020