Lessons Learned

by Fr. Antony Lester, O.Carm

Lessons learned
Let me share a true story with you. You may well have heard of Blessed Titus Brandsma and, if you have been to Faversham in recent years, I am sure you will have seen the beautiful icon of him in the outer shrine. Titus was a Carmelite friar from the Netherlands, and he died a martyr’s death in Dachau concentration camp during World War II. Well, of course, he wasn’t the only priest or religious to fall foul of the Nazi regime, and there was another Dutch Carmelite there with him called Brother Raphael  Tijhuis; it is Raphael that this story concerns. How do I know it is true? Because I was there, not in Dachau but in Rome in the mid 1970s. I had been sent with my fellow student friars to study in Rome and Brother Raphael was a member of the Carmelite Community there. Raphael was one of the ‘stable’ members of the community. This doesn’t mean that others were unstable, but that whilst international students came and went, Raphael belonged to that group of friars for whom that community was their permanent home. 

Now I’m sure that you know how it is. You set off on the day having a reasonable expectation of what lies ahead, and by the end of the day something unforeseen has happened which changes things and you are left with a permanent memory. Initially we were somewhat in awe of Brother Raphael – after all, he had been in Dachau with a saint of the Order! As we grew to know him, though, we found a very down-to-earth and normal man with a mischievous sense of humour. We were aware that sometimes he cried out in his sleep, but in the daytime there was no sign of the way in which memories of darker days stayed with him.

Back to the story… Raphael had allowed it to become known that he wouldn’t say no if we student friars suggested taking him out for a beer! So, a small group of English and Irish students pooled our meagre resources and the invitation was duly given. Brother Raphael accepted and a time was fixed. When the day came we took off our habits, thinking that casual dress was the order of the day. Down came Brother Raphael in his habit – much to our embarrassment!

How would it look, what would people think of a friar in a bar dressed in a habit? One of the older students, being braver than the rest of us, asked if he was sure he wanted to be dressed like that. Lesson one coming up: “Brothers”, he said, “never be ashamed of the habit!” So off we went to a German bar around the corner. We ordered our beers and, when the time came to pay, Brother Raphael stepped in and said to the barman that we were all friars so had very little money, and wouldn’t it be a good thing if he waived the cost and gave us the beer on the house! Well, if you think going to the pub with a friar in his habit was embarrassing, it was as nothing to the embarrassment of having him ask for the beer for free! Lesson two coming up: when we protested, Raphael said “Brothers, never be ashamed to beg!”

Originally printed in Carmelite News (Autumn 2015)