O Jesus, when I gaze on You

Comment (English) on ‘O Jezus’

by Kees Waaijman

 



'O Jesus, when I gaze on You'

Kees Waaijman [1]


‘It is perhaps difficult to imagine, but in the German camps and the ghettos of the Second World War, poetry played a great role.’[2] From testimonies of those who survived, it seems that they ‘drew comfort and strength from the silent recitation of poetry which they had previously learned by heart’.[3] Thereby, sound, rhythm and simplicity played an important role.

The poem ‘O Jesus’, which Titus Brandsma wrote in the convict prison of Scheveningen, adds an extra personal dimension to this: inner devotion (devotie). The poem is for many people a comfort. After it was smuggled out of the prison, it was widely circulated. It is translated into many languages.

Two manuscripts of ‘O Jesus’ have been preserved, which can be found in the Titus Brandsma archives in Boxmeer. One manuscript is furnished with an inscription: ‘Before the image of Jesus. In prison. 12/13 Feb. 1942’. The other has no inscription, but a dedication: above left is ‘MR’, ‘to Mary’. Furthermore, this version is signed with the initials ‘T.B.’: ‘Titus Brandsma’.

The poem consists of five stanzas of four lines, with a rhyme-scheme of two by two (aabb). In both versions the stanzas are marked off from each other by small horizontal dashes. The first manuscript has no signature, but under the last stanza there is a horizontal dash with a small diagonal line.

We describe the first version with the inscription. This version shows three deletions (in the third stanza), which do not appear in the later version. In addition, there is a very small deviation: the fourth stanza begins in the first version with ‘O’ and in the second with ‘Oh’. We return to this later.


The inscription

The inscription above the poem consists of three elements. Firstly, the spiritual setting: ‘Before the image of Jesus’. Secondly, the political setting: ‘In prison’. Finally, the date: '12/13 Feb. 1942'.

We begin with the date. Titus wrote the poem in two days: 12 and 13 February 1942. A few weeks before (27 January) he had written ‘My cell’, in which he describes how he transformed his prison cell 577 into a cloister cell.[4] This letter, which strikingly describes the atmosphere in which Titus wrote the poem, alludes to The Imitation of Christ, as referred to in the motto: ‘Cella continuata dulcescit. The more that you faithfully inhabit the cell, the more it becomes a delight’ a quotation from the chapter ‘concerning the love of solitude and silence’.[5] The cell functions here as a protection against ‘human company (chatter and human perspectives) and as a space for encountering Jesus: ‘Shut the door behind you and call upon Jesus, your beloved. Remain with him in your cell, because no-where else will you find such a great peace’. Titus very much appreciates this advice from Thomas á Kempis. He draws from it the strength to cheerfully endure ‘the solitary life in a silent cell’.

Regarding the political setting ‘In Scheveningen’, after his arrest on 19 January in Nijmegen by the Sicherheitsdienst, Titus Brandsma was transported to Arnhem from where, the following day, he was transferred to his cell in the convict prison of Scheveningen, the so-called Oranjehotel (House of Orange hotel), established for political prisoners. He arrived there in the evening. Here, Brandsma wrote amongst other things, his political defence, his biography of Teresa of Avila, some letters and the poem ‘O Jesus’.

The poem places itself ‘Before the image of Jesus.’ This is the spiritual setting of the poem. Titus Brandsma speaks about this in ‘My cell’. The chessboard which he finds in his cell, he wraps in brown packing paper, on which he fixes three small illustrations from his breviary.

Thus, right in front of me, I have the image of Christ on the cross, certainly not in full, but nevertheless, a beautiful bust with the wounds of the Sacred Heart, moreover by Fra. Angelico. Next to this on the one side, I have placed St. Teresa with her saying Mori aut pati (to die or to suffer); on the other, St. John of the Cross with his Pati et contemni [to suffer and to be scorned][6]

He puts this triptych on his small folding table: ‘a very small altar, or whatever people want to call it’.


The opening line

The opening line ‘O Jesus, when I gaze on You’ evokes the atmosphere of contemplative attention: seated silently ‘before the image of Jesus’, Titus Brandsma keeps the loving gaze directed to Jesus on the cross. In spirituality this is called ‘devotion’, intimate dedication. Here, three aspects are interwoven with each other.[7] Firstly, ‘allow the image to ignite the devotion’. Secondly, ‘do not remain with the image itself, but directly from that, raise the spirit to what it presents’. Thirdly, be led into ‘the divine union of the soul with God’.[8]

The form of address ‘O Jesus’, with which the poem opens, is a lament which expresses the heart of devotion. Titus calls on the name of the one to whom his attention – in and through the image – is directed, and in the lament ‘O’ he expresses the intimacy of his attention. In the ‘O’ of devotion, John of the Cross heard the following nuances of meaning: instinctive expression, appreciation, loving regard, saying more than is possible with words, great longing and with urgent pleading.[9] We also see this in the four-fold ‘O’ in the poem of Titus.


Once more alive, that… that…

Titus prayerfully explains what is happening there whilst he gazes: ‘Once more alive…’ Characteristic of devotion is that it causes one to ‘rise up out of tepidity’ and ‘awakens love’.[10] Therefore, Titus says: ‘Once more alive…’. The experience teaches that love easily fades. The ‘gazing’ awakens love ‘once more’ to ‘life’.

Two ‘that’ sentences succeed the main clause. The first ‘that’ sentence describes the movement of love coming from Titus: ‘that I love You’. The second describes the counter movement coming from Jesus: ‘And that Your heart loves me too’. Titus experiences reciprocal love.

As well as reciprocity, Titus feels ‘special friendship’, which for him is an unexpected plus: 'moreover as your special friend’. A ‘special friend’ points to more than reciprocal love. Titus says of Hubertus Driessen: ‘You have been much more than a teacher, You have been a father and a very special friend to me’.[11] For Titus, the ‘special nature’ of this friendship lay in the ‘communally’ shared ideal of caring for each other’s spiritual well-being: ‘Good friends should mutually care for each other to keep the good spirit alive, to strengthen that spirit, so that the value of friendship is not lost’.[12] In ‘O, Jesus’ the special nature of the friendship arises out of the mutually shared suffering.


Suffering shared in friendship

Via the indicated pronoun ‘that’, the second stanza aligns itself with the first: ‘Although that calls me to suffer more/ Oh, for me all suffering is good’. A friend asks for the courage to suffer, a ‘special friend’ asks for ‘the courage to suffer more’, certainly when it concerns the friendship with Jesus who bears the suffering of humanity. Titus experiences the co-suffering with his suffering as good, ‘For in this way I resemble You / And this is the way to Your Kingdom’. Whoever suffers with his friend, is like him. Thus, the disciples of Jesus ‘resemble’ Him who had gone before them on the way of ‘suffering’.[13]

This solidarity in suffering leads into his Kingdom: it is ‘the way to Your Kingdom’, the Kingdom of peace, where Jesus as suffering servant is the king of peace. In this way, Titus has learned to know Jesus: ‘the breast is to show his divine Heart, which with all that slander and all that suffering still burns in love for those who tortured Him to death’.[14]

Friends desire to ‘resemble’ each other, they do not wish to see their friend standing there all alone, they wish to share the lot of their friend. In this spirit Titus says: ‘Oh, for me all suffering is good’. No stoical resignation, no equanimity. Friends bear each other’s suffering, through which ‘all suffering’, which in itself is evil, is ‘good’ for ‘me’ as a ‘friend’.


The union with God

The third stanza continues with the motif of suffering which, in the triptych on the small folding table of Titus, is present in the figures of Teresa and John of the Cross with the mottos: ‘to die or to suffer’ and ‘to suffer and to be scorned’. Is this a glorification of suffering: ‘Oh, for me all suffering is good’, ‘I am blissful in my suffering’? No, a spiritual logic is at work here: in suffering shared in friendship is the way of the good; bliss is the ultimate flowering of the good; this is the union with God. Who in friendship shares the suffering with his friend, dispels the suffering from his consciousness: ‘For I know it no more as sorrow’. The friend ‘knows’, that his friend has taken his suffering seriously. It no longer belongs to him alone. His friend also bears it.

The ‘special quality’ of the friendship emerges here: in the ‘most ultimate elected lot, / that unites me with You, O God’. Titus struggled with this double superlative (‘most’ and ‘ultimate’). This appears from the crossing out, where he changes: ‘But the most ultimate elected lot’ into: ‘It is the ultimate elected lot’. But he revises this later and once again undoes the crossing out. The double superlative therefore remains and makes the election of the ‘special friend’ the most special.

However, what is of most importance here is the ultimate goal of the way: the union with God. After all, this is, as we have seen, the heart of all devotion. The suffering reaches beyond the awareness of itself and can – as in ecstasy – only call out: ‘O God’. So, the final piece of editing goes as follows: Titus changes ‘my God’ into ‘O God’. The second time in the poem that we hear ‘O’.


O, leave me here

The fourth stanza begins with the third ‘O’ and via the demonstrative ‘here’, connects with the situation which has developed in the previous stanza: ‘O, just leave me here silently alone, / The chill and cold around me.’ This ‘here’ has two sides.

The first is the outside: here ‘in prison’, which is ‘around me’: ‘O, just leave me here silently alone, / The chill and cold around me’. Titus notes in his prison letter that it can be ‘very cold’ in the winter. But this does not need to change for him: ‘Just leave me here’. The change in the second version of the poem harmonizes with this resigned stance: from ‘O’ to ‘Oh’, out of which speaks a certain resignation.

The inside is more important: here ‘before the image of Jesus’. At this point in the poem the motif ‘with me’ begins to resound: ‘And let no people be with me, / Here alone I grow not weary’. The solitariness (twice ‘alone’ in this stanza) serves the interiorization of the bliss which was received in the shared suffering of the friendship. In that there is ‘with me’ no place for ‘people’. They would break into the process of interiorization, of which Titus cannot get enough, the reason why the ‘here alone’ does not become ‘weary’. For this reason, the pleading lament ‘O’ of the first version: the interiorization of a silent and solitary bliss, ‘more than words can say’.


Your presence makes all things good for me

Solitariness is the place where Titus can expose himself to the bliss of the suffering shared in friendship. This is thematised in the final stanza.[15]

Just as in the first stanza, Titus addresses Jesus by his name: ‘For Thou, O Jesus, art with me, / I have never been so close to You’. For the fourth time we hear ‘O’, now intimate and tender. In ‘My cell’ Titus says:

I am already completely at home there, in that tiny little cell. I have not yet become bored, on the contrary. I am alone there, o yes, but never has Our Beloved Lord been so close to me. I can sing out with joy, that once again, He has allowed Himself to be completely found by me, without me being with people or people with me. He is now my only refuge and I feel safe and blissful. I want to stay here for ever, if He so decides. I have rarely been so blissful and satisfied.[16]

For Titus the meaning of ‘Jesus with me’ and ‘never so close to me’ lies in the suffering shared in friendship as a way to Jesus’ Kingdom, leading to the union with God which reaches a climax in the last two lines: ‘Stay with me, with me, Jesus sweet, / Your presence makes all things good for me’. Three times ‘with’ in one stanza (in Dutch even five times)![17] Prayerfully, Titus explains the inner closeness in the reciprocity: ‘You with me, me close to You’, whereby the presence inclines towards ‘Your presence’, that is to say: Your (from out of You) being with me. This closeness ‘makes all things good for me’, an echo of the second stanza: ‘Oh, for me all suffering is good’.

Titus, on his ‘stool’, before the crucified Jesus, lost in loving attention, experiences mutual love and special friendship (stanza 1). ‘That’ is the place where his suffering is transformed in the suffering of Jesus and vice-versa, for Titus the ultimately elected lot which ‘unites’ him with God (stanza 2-3). ‘Here’ the solitude of his cell is transformed in the inner closeness of his friend (stanza 4-5). The occupying power defines the course of events ‘in prison’, but this far ‘here’, in the cell of Titus ‘before the image of Jesus’, its influence does not extend.



  1. Translation of: Kees Waaijman, 'O Jezus, als ik U aanschouw', in: Anne-Marie Bos (red), Titus Brandsma. Spiritualiteit dichtbij in veertien teksten, Baarn 2018.
  2. J.H. de Roder, 'Het schandaal van de poëzie', in: Het onbehagen in de literatuur, Nijmegen 2001, 23.
  3. Idem, 28.
  4. Titus Brandsma, ‘Mijn cel’. Dutch Carmelite Institute (manuscript) TBA 26-05.000. Also published in: Mijn cel. Dagorde van een gevangene, Tilburg 1945 (eleventh edition) pp. 9-16.
  5. Thomas van Kempen, Navolging van Christus, Kampen 2008, Book I, chapter 20.
  6. ‘Mijn cel’, manuscript, 3-4.
  7. K. Waaijman, ‘Heilige beeldvorming – zou Titus zich verzetten?’ In: Titus Brandsma. Herzien – herdacht – herschreven, Baarn 1993, 98-107.
  8. Juan de la Cruz, Subida al monte Carmelo, III, 33.1; 36,2; 37,2.
  9. Juan de la Cruz, Llama de amor viva, I, 2.
  10. Subida al monte Carmelo, III, 35.2 en 8.
  11. In the contribution which Titus wrote for the ‘Album Amicorum Hubertus Driessen’ (1937). Available in the Dutch Carmelite Institute, (typescript) TBA 27 17.001 1-13.
  12. Titus Brandsma, ‘De Bloem in de Zon’, Dutch Carmelite Institute (typescript) TBA OP-113.07.
  13. Titus Brandsma, Met Jezus wij. Foreword by A. Tanquery, Het lijden vergoddelijkt, Parijs etc 1934, i.
  14. Titus Brandsma, ‘Ons Vredesgeheim’, in: Nieuwe Tilburgsche Courant, 27 October 1928, front page, column 2.
  15. The word 'Omdat' is a slip of the pen and during the writing is changed by Titus into ‘Want’.
  16. Mijn cel, manuscript, 4.
  17. In the original Dutch poem the word ‘bij’, which means ‘with’, appears also in the composition of ‘nabij’ which means close by, and ‘bijzijn’ which means presence or being close by.


Translated from the Dutch by Susan Verkerk-Wheatley and Anne-Marie Bos (April 2018)

© Titus Brandsma Instituut 2018