Blessed Solitude

scheveningen1The picture above is of the beach at Scheveningen (near The Hague, The Netherlands). I took it six or seven years ago when I was still living in England and on a trip to visit some friends. I don’t know a lot of ways to link Scheveningen into the theme of Christian contemplation, but there is one path which I know and which I find very much worth looking at.

Blessed Titus Brandsma spent an important period of his life at Scheveningen. It was where he was taken upon arrest by the Nazis. Due to his defence of the rights of Jewish children and his defence of the rights of the Catholic episcopacy and Catholic press to oppose racialist propaganda and ideology, Titus, as a leading public figure, was taken by the Nazi police in wartime Netherlands and sent to a room in a hotel which had been converted into a prison cell for political prisoners; his cell was without windows, without control of the light switch, and without much at all.

Yet Titus finds a home. By the help of faith and hope, he turns the morbid opportunity into joy. In one of his first letters from his prison cell, Titus writes:

2TitusBrandsmaBeata solitudo! I am altogether at home in this tiny cell. Though I am there alone, our good Lord was never closer to me than he is now.

He has lost his freedom. He cannot move more than a couple of metres. He has no natural light and no control of his artificial light. He is fed little and communicates little with the world… And yet he makes his cell his home. In fact, he reflects that, what he could not get of Carmelite solitude in the world, busy as he was with the affairs of a troubled and war-bound European culture, he was able to find in his confinement at Scheveningen.

In fact, this was a constant theme of Blessed Titus; it did not spontaneously appear when he was arrested. He often said, “Cella continuata dulcescit, a cell becomes sweeter the more continually and faithfully it is lived in.” In addition, he had always written and spoken of a reality of a cell within one’s heart. I’m not sure if he knew of Saint Catherine of Siena’s cell within her heart, by which she carried a holy silence and solitude around with her through the world, but Titus Brandsma had the same idea: He made a place within himself, hidden away from the world and its pulls and pushes and confusions and distractions, into which he could withdraw, no matter where he was, to converse silently with God; it was an interior space where he could be alone with the Alone, despite not being physically alone.

Of course, Titus knew that he needed actual time and space alone with God, too. That is what he found in that morbid converted hotel room at Scheveningen. His sense of an interior cell gave way to a sense of an exterior cell, which he could find comfort in despite providence’s radically challenging circumstances. Likewise, he could never have survived, with Christian joy, either providence or the exterior cell, if he had not developed his interior cell.

Silence and solitude: These are necessary. We must make time and space for them. And yet more importantly, we must build them into our heart, so that wherever we are, we can be alone with God and pull the strength of our action from that contemplative silence. The very silent regard in our heart will cry out, as one deep calls on another, for greater space and time in silence with God (so long as our duties and our acts of charity do not require otherwise). The involution of causes results. More interior silence calls for, as much as duties and communion allow, more exterior silence. More exterior silence calls for more interior silence.

Titus Brandsma, an active Carmelite living a contemplative life in the world, knew this well.


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