Journalistic apostolate. Titus Brandsma reads Geert Grote

Comment (English) on ‘Geert Groote’

by Marinus van den Berg

 



Journalistic apostolate. Titus Brandsma reads Geert Grote

Comment on ‘Geert Groote’ by Marinus van den Berg.[1] For the original text see: Geert Groote, for the English translation of relevant fragments see: Geert Grote.</i>


In the Saturday edition of the Catholic regional daily newspaper, De Gelderlander of 22 October 1938, the first of a series of six articles about Geert Grote appeared on page 13, from the pen of Titus Brandsma, in the feature Van Ons Geestelijk Erf (From Our Spiritual Heritage). The author was not named. The regular readers, including amongst others many male and female religious, secular priests and the usual interested laity out of the city and from the surrounding countryside, will have certainly known that the Carmelite Titus Brandsma was the writer. He was, after all, the one who in previous instalments of the cited feature had signed his articles with his initials T.B. As was the case with the majority of the pieces which had previously appeared in the newspaper, the instalments about Geert Grote were an edited account of lectures for a broader public which he had given in the previous weeks. In 1940, Titus Brandsma again used parts of the text published in De Gelderlander for a speech in the Grote of Lebuïnuskerk in Deventer during the commemoration of the six-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Geert Grote.[2]

In the very first sentence of the opening paragraph of the first article, Titus Brandsma makes clear that it is not simply about Grote as a historical and archaic person, no ‘his name still points to a programme’. Grote was for him an outstanding person in history who founded a new movement with ‘an individual place in the history of the spiritual life.’ In his time he was a reformer, but what he set in motion, ‘still exerts its appeal’. Reading between the lines, and also in thought and word, Titus Brandsma revels what Geert Grote meant for him and for his contemporaries, and can still mean for many.

Subsequently he uses language which can be understood by a wide audience, which points to Grote’s new movement, the Modern Devotion. Brandsma sees it as

a new school of thought in the perception of the Catholic Faith which placed particular emphasis on the humanity of Christ and also therefore in the Christian religion; the adaptation of piety, prayer and virtue to human nature as a key condition for it to flourish was advanced through it.[3]

He then provides clarification about the relationship between Ruusbroec and Geert Grote. According to Titus Brandsma, Grote was certainly influenced by Ruusbroec, but to call him only a pupil, in the way that some will, is a step too far for him. In this matter he does not mention any names and neither does he point to the characteristic differences between Ruusbroec’s movement and that of Geert Grote ‘whereby … this should occupy its own and separate place.’ The discussion does not appear to belong to the journalism circuit but in the scientific.

More important for Titus Brandsma are the ‘points of contact’ between one’s own time and that of Grote. He signals in both periods a longing for a life that points more to the deed than reflecting on it. The static and atomistic notion has, in his opinion, made way for a more dynamic and mechanistic. By this he means that people devote less attention to ‘how it is or should be’ than to the question of what human nature is urging men to do, with the consequence that there is less appreciation for reflection and theoretical knowledge. Next to the intellect, next to knowledge comes to the fore, so he says, ‘the striving, the desire for, the will as a major factor in our actions.’ In this framework he invokes Schopenhauer as the one who replaces ‘In principio erat verbum’ with ‘In the beginning was the deed’ as a fundamental basic truth. Titus Brandsma does not replace the word by the deed but gives each their own place. For understandable reasons he does not involve himself with Schopenhauer’s arguments for a paradigm change, though in his lectures he will certainly have given some attention to this.

The source of Schopenhauer’s notion brings Brandsma back to Geert Grote as the university student in Paris [where] he became acquainted with a transformed view in philosophy. The until that time accepted, strongly analytical, intellectualised vision such as that to be found with Eckhart, acquired alongside this increasing appreciation of aspects which are characteristic of human nature, derived from William of Ockham: the human will and the deed. This shift in attention led to greater attention towards ‘sensory experience, over reflection, a higher appreciation of human kind’s earthly nature, more recognition for the indirect leading of God in the world, independently created by Him.’


Journalistic apostolate

In his inaugural speech address in 1932, Titus Brandsma states that the image that the person makes of God is not static but changes according to time and place. This image, adapted to the modern time, is characterised by the intuitive sense that God dwells in us, and in all other elements of nature. According to him, this insight needs to come to expression in people in their behaviour. The fact is that God desires to be contemplated in the ground of our being and revealed in our acts. [4] This changed vision, he thus formulates, has led to many beautiful manifestations.

From early on he saw his public role as a form of apostolate, particularly of the printed word’[5]: through the writing of articles about cultural, social, political and religious subjects; through giving lectures and through speeches at special occasions, such as commemorations and religious gatherings. But he also saw as part of his public role his task as censor of De Gelderlander. All of this under the motto: ‘If only the good is done’. [6] This came even more to the fore in personal encounters, witnessed by many people, friend and enemy. More than once, the appearance of the writer Brandsma is viewed as a parallel to that of Geert Grote. It seems that he identified with his vision and appearance after the ‘conversion’.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, Titus Brandsma had already started to test out journalistic work within the Carmelite Order. Thus, between 1906 and 1909, as editorial secretary of Van Neerlands Carmel, a monthly journal for the whole of the Carmelite province, he wrote a great many articles. [7] An article written by him about Baptista Spagnoli of Mantua had appeared earlier. In this, the future writer and speaker already makes himself known in a programmed pronouncement:

Whoever desires to exercise influence must ensure he has the right to do so; whoever strives towards determining relationships, to helping to shape society, to exert influence in everyday matters, must be able to obtain material which is as good as, or even better than, that of his rivals. [8]

A critical stance resounds in this pronouncement in what was then a fossilised Catholic world. [9] During his studies in Rome (1906-1909) he also published articles in daily newspapers and journals. [10] From 12 May 1935, Titus Brandsma was ecclesiastical adviser of the Nederlandsche Roomsche-Katholieke Journalisten-Vereeniging (Dutch Roman Catholic Association of Journalists) and in that way a journalist amongst journalists. He was a man with a great deal of experience ‘[who] … had been at the very conception of a number of journals, … had been editor-in-chief of a newspaper and [wrote] articles for numerous regional and national newspapers.’ [11] According to Crijnen, he shows himself with his need to get involved with everything and everyone by accepting every invitation, by taking his seat on one after the other board, just like many Catholic emancipators, a child of his time. [12]


Role model of an about-turn

According to Titus Brandsma, Geert Grote the man and his movement can be viewed in the same way. That Grote can be regarded as the ‘Father’ of the Modern Devotion does not mean that the Modern Devotion was revealed as a personal discovery on his part: both Grote, as well as the movement, are in fact children of their time. Certainly, Geert Grote is worthy of merit, in that he understood his time and where there was need, responded to this. [However,] Brandsma makes no perfect person of Geert Grote: he may well have been a renewer and reformer [but], at the same time, he is unmistakably someone who shared in the failures of his time. His power lies hidden in the fact that he distanced himself from them and then fought them.

It is useful ¬̶ once again Titus is an apostle of his own time ̶ to view Grote in this time and to view ourselves in him, both in order to learn much from him, and also to get to know his movement with [its] significant representatives such as Gerard Zerbolt of Zutphen and Thomas à Kempis. People should not follow him unthinkingly but assume the good ‘with adjustment to the characteristics of our time’, the good that in his time ‘evoked so much glorious new life.’ Therefore, only the final twelve years of his life deserve particular appreciation, given the fact that as a student Grote led ‘least of all an edifying life’.

There now follows a sketch of Grote’s life. In this, Titus Brandsma devoted attention to his origins, his schooling in Deventer and Paris, his lawless worldly life and his pursuit of ecclesiastical positions. In Paris he studied together with Hendrik Eger van Kalkar, ‘in God’s hand the man who led him back to God.’ In between times, Brandsma explains to the uninitiated what ‘benefices’ mean and how these are acquired. He also mentions Grote’s probable study in Prague where he would have met his principal co-worker and future successor Florens Radewijnsz. According to Brandsma, the conversion of Geert Grote occurred in phases: in Paris there was the encounter with a good friend, Hendrik Eger van Kalkar, in Prague he began to reflect on the meaning of life, during his subsequent sojourn in Cologne (possibly with the Carthusians), pressure was exerted on him to direct his life differently. It appears that a reunion with Hendrik Eger van Kalkar in Utrecht was decisive for him. This encounter took place around 1372 and led to a radical about-turn. Titus Brandsma sees in this a manifestation of God’s encroachment on Geert Grote which can be compared to the radical transformation of the apostle Paul, although he does not explicitly state this. Grote distances himself from everything directed to the exterior which, on the one hand, leads to the usual derision in his birthplace and, on the other hand, acknowledgment and recognition when he makes his parental home available to those in need. In this way he creates the possibility for others, women and men, young and old, to be able to live a life, in imitation of the first Christians.

The definitive conversion of Geert Grote was a process which took place during a lengthy stay in the Carthusian cloister Monnikhuizen near Arnhem with Hendrik Eger van Kalkar, in the meantime, having become prior in this Carthusian house. Titus Brandsma points, in passing, to the key role of the Carthusians in later periods of church history. [13] He compares the role played by the Carthusian cloisters in the past with that of the retreat houses in his own time. Just as Geert Grote withdrew from the world to reflect on his calling, so were Catholics also inspired to do so in the first half of the twentieth century, and then return to their active day-to-day life.

Although Geert Grote had withdrawn from Deventer for a long period of time, this did not mean that he had fully closed himself off from the world. Alongside the silence of the Carthusian house ‘he was also drawn to the apostolate, for the conversion of others.’ According to the Carthusians his strength also lay there. When he lived in his foundation in Deventer, a biographer writes that such a positive influence emanated from there, through his words and example. [14] His influence, to live in imitation of Jesus Christ and the first Christians, appeared not to be restricted to his immediate environment. Other places in present day Holland, Utrecht, Gelderland and Overijssel also called on him as preacher ‘for the reforming of the world through a new and until that time, unknown life’. According to Titus Brandsma, Geert Grote was also conscious of his calling as preacher and reformer. ‘He was radical enough to stand in opposition to the world and strong enough to defy its ridicule and condemnation, to do it intimately in the true spirit of union with God’. Grote traced this back to the years of spiritual formation in Monnikhuizen. Titus Brandsma describes this transformation in words of Jacobus de Voecht, a Modern Devotee, as follows:

He arrived there [= in Monnikhuizen] as a repentant sinner, he left it as a mystical observer, burning from love and glowing with fervour to share that fire which burned in him, with others. [15]

He goes on to narrate how Geert Grote

Intensely practised abstinence and mortification in order to cast off and uproot all failings, which he possessed; how he subsequently applied the same intensity to practicing the virtues, which he had to make his own, and eventually ascended into the contemplation of divine mysteries. [16]

Grote set down his plans and decisions for reforming his own life, not only for himself but also for the following[17] of the Brothers and Sister of the Common Life and those who are inspired by them. How that was given shape in the practice of daily life is described extensively by Titus Brandsma in a section about the ‘more intimate part of the Geert Groote’s life.’ Where others had previously chosen to place the emphasis on Grote’s deeds in history, he deemed it

of the greatest importance to know the inner man, who exercised such great influence. There lies the mystery of his influence. There we see him before us as the convert, determined to first fundamentally reform himself before setting out to preach to others. There we see how deeply he was convinced of the longing, to set the eternal over the temporal, the divine over the human and thus to evoke a conversion in himself and then, as much as possible, in others. And the latter was not driven by a desire to judge others, but chiefly so that others might share in the glory of a more spiritual life, to enable others to taste the sweetness of an intimate association with God. [18]

In these words, with which Titus Brandsma closes his article of Saturday 5 November 1938, we can recognise a parallel with the unrestrained energy and the passion of Titus Brandsma as journalistic apostle of his time.


  1. Translation of: Marinus van den Berg, ‘Journalistiek apostolaat. Titus Brandsma leest Geert Grote ’, in: Anne-Marie Bos (ed), Titus Brandsma. Spiritualiteit dichtbij in veertien teksten, Adveniat, Baarn 2018, p. 76-83.
  2. Rudolf van Dijk has collated a list containing 155 instalments of articles from the feature Van Ons Geestelijk Erf. He notes that in the archive copies of the series of articles in the Titus Brandsma archives in the Dutch Carmelite Institute in Boxmeer, notes are made in pencil in the margins of the first five instalments about Geert Grote which show the parts (with small additions) that Titus Brandsma used for his speech in Deventer on 16 October 1940, with the title Geert Grote. Zijn keer naar de Heer.
  3. Titus Brandsma, ‘Geert Groote I’, De Gelderlander, 22 October 1938 Fragment I
  4. Ton Crijnen, Titus Brandsma: De man achter de mythe. De nieuwe biografie, Nijmegen 2008, p.191-192.
  5. See Antoine Jacobs, Kroniek van de Karmel in Nederland 1840-1970, Hilversum 2017, p.596.
  6. See Joan Hemels, ‘Als het goede maar gebeurt’. Titus Brandsma: Adviseur in vrijheid en verzet. With an introduction by Kees Waaijman, Kampen 2008.
  7. Crijnen, Titus Brandsma, p.61.
  8. In: De Katholieke Gids: Maandschrift voor het Katholieke Nederlandsche Volk 16 (1904), 747-775.
  9. Crijnen, Titus Brandsma, p.62.
  10. For the journalistic experience which Titus Brandsma undertook for his departure to Rome and criticism of some of his articles, see Crijnen, Titus Brandsma, pp. 61-67; for Oss as the school for journalism, see idem, pp. 108-110.
  11. See Crijnen, Titus Brandsma, p.251.
  12. See Crijnen, Titus Brandsma, p.13.
  13. In the first contribution to Van Ons Geestelijk Erf he had already written about Nicolaus van Esch who was of great influence on Petrus Canisius. See De Gelderlander of 30 April 1938, 7 May 1938, 14 May 1938, 21 May 1938 and 28 May 1938.
  14. See Titus Brandsma, ‘Twee berijmde levens van Geert Groote’, in: Van Ons Geestelijk Erf 16 (1942), pp. 5-51, notably pp. 20-22. This is an edition of the Latin biography with a translation/paraphrase in Dutch. A series of articles under the same title appeared earlier in De Gelderlander: 1 February 1941 (p.16), 8 February 1941 (p. 2), 15 February 1941 (p.3) and 22 February 1941 (p.6).
  15. Titus Brandsma, ‘Geert Groote III’, De Gelderlander, 5 November 1938 Fragment III
  16. Titus Brandsma, ‘Geert Groote III’, De Gelderlander, 5 November 1938 Fragment III
  17. In Dutch, ‘Navolging’ refers to the book of the Imitation of Christ
  18. Titus Brandsma, ‘Geert Groote III’, De Gelderlander, 5 November 1938 Fragment IV

Translation: Susan Verkerk-Wheatley/Anne-Marie Bos

© Titus Brandsma Instituut 2019