Our escape from Indonesia was followed by a traumatic year. For about five months we were stuck in Thailand. When we were finally repatriated to the Netherlands, we found a country largely in ruins and recovering from the disastrous famine of 1945.
For some time my grandparents on my mother’s side gave us shelter in a village called Baarn. When my father secured a job in Utrecht, we were accommodated in a small flat in de Bemuurde Weerd. The apartment was a pigeon hole situated over a busy dairy shop and opposite the place where the river Vecht leaves the canal system of Utrecht to flow north. The sluices made a racket day and night, but once we got used to it, it did not rob us of our sleep.
We survived our exposure to the Dutch primary schools. I will tell you more about this later.
It was during this time – my brother Carel was twelve and I eleven – that the two of us decided to study for the priesthood in a seminary for missionaries. To people today it seems incredible. At that time though it was normal for children leaving primary school to decide on their future careers. We chose to serve God. It still puzzles me to explain how this came about.
During our stay in Thailand, we had got to know an Italian missionary who visited our camp from time to time to celebrate Mass for us. Carel and I volunteered to be mass servers. Learning the Latin prayers for the responses was a real challenge for me, but I managed. Talking to the priest was extremely difficult though he was a nice person. On one occasion he took a whole group of Catholics for an outing to his parish headquarters out in the jungle.
It became a memorable day. The army had promised to lend us a truck, but when that did not turn up, the priest marched us to a main road. There he waited for a public bus. He stopped the bus and talked to the driver and passengers explaining that he required the bus to take his guests to his mission station. To our surprise, they all agreed. Cheerfully men and women, still carrying bags of shopping, chicken and bundles of clothes vacated the bus . . . In the village itself we were shown round the houses built on stilts, the floors inside looking impeccably clean and polished. Youngsters like Carel and I played with the village children in the nearby river, wrestling and splashing each other without being able to speak the same language.
Even before the war Carel had dreamed of becoming a priest. I saw myself as a future surgeon. The experience in Thailand confirmed Carel in his ambition and, rather than joining one of the Dutch dioceses, he chose to go out to the missions. He examined the various missionary orders and finally settled for the Mill Hill Missionaries, a society founded in England that recruited half its work force from the Netherlands.
When Carel decided to sign up as a student in the minor seminary at Hoorn, I did not know what to do. Until that time we had always been bosom friends who shared everything. Now our paths would diverge. Also, it upset me to think that Carel was choosing a nobler option that I was: he was going to serve God while I would be pursuing a selfish career. In the end I surprised everyone by declaring that I too wanted to become a missionary. It caused a lot of consternation all around. However, as good Catholic parents my father and mother did not want to stand in the way of our priestly vocation, even though my mother kept protesting – quite rightly – that it was cruel that the two of us would have to leave home so young, after having missed a normal family life during the previous five years.
In spite of all that, both of us traveled by train to Hoorn accompanied by our mother and entered the St. Boniface Missionary College on a wet September day 1947. I was 11 years old at the time. When my mother left to go home late that afternoon, I cried as I had never cried before. It took Carel and me weeks to get over the separation from our family. Our college followed the curriculum of a gymnasium and functioned also as a boarding school. All our teachers were priests. Our daily routine reflected the spiritual goals that inspired us.
With hindsight I realize that the priestly vocation Carel and I felt was greatly influenced by the traumas we had experienced during the war. The German psychologist Eugen Drewermann counseled many priests and religious who had chosen their spiritual careers as young boys or girls soon after the war. In his books[i] he documents the unconscious motivations that drove many of them and their parents: guilt for having been spared while others died, fear of God’s punishing hand if His invitation was ignored, feeling personally responsible for having to setting the world right. “The war did produce many zealous priests and religious”, he says, “but not without unrecognized psychological distress”.
My training for the priesthood took twelve years moving to ever higher colleges. I spent four years in Hoorn, two in Haelen, two in Roosendaal and the final four in Mill Hill in north west London. It is not my intention to bore you with the many smaller incidents and adventures that occurred in those various colleges. I want to highlight some major changes that affected me.
The first one concerns my commitment to God.
Whatever the human origin of my vocation may have been, a real conversion took place in me. The famous Bishop Nico Stam, pioneer in East Africa, lived at that time in our college. He told us wonderful stories of the challenges that faced him during the early 1900s. On one occasion he left with a train of 70 carriers to visit an unexplored area in present-day Kakamega. He found village after village devastated by trypanosomiasis, popularly known as sleeping sickness. He nursed the sick and comforted survivors. Some of his carriers too caught the virus and died. The rest fled. In the end Stam came back to his head station all alone. His example inspired me. And so did that of the Belgian missionary Damien de Veuster who volunteered in 1873 to look after a leprosy colony on the island of Molokai. He died 16 years later after having contracted leprosy himself.
The fervent sermons of Jaap Zuijdervliet who was Rector at the time also fired me with enthusiasm. He quoted God saying: ‘Since you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I am going to spit you out of my mouth!’[ii] It made me think. As a result I solemnly decided to commit myself one hundred percent unreservedly utterly and wholeheartedly to lifelong service as a Catholic priest and missionary. I confided to my spiritual director, Father Bruins: “I want to be radical in my commitment to God. Absolutely radical.” I did not realize, of course, that a radical is often a man with both feet planted firmly in the air . . . My commitment though was serious enough.
Falling in love
To my intense sorrow Carel, my dear brother and best friend, suddenly died. Cancer of the lungs and bones. He wasted away in a couple of months. We had always shared our deepest secrets, and as intimately as ever during the three years we shared our priestly training. His loss shook me. I threw myself with even more determination into preparing myself for a life of selfless service.
A period of intense spiritual reflection and deepening followed. I became engrossed in a mystical exploration. I wanted to discover the dimension of God, immerse myself in it, plunge myself into its mysterious universe of light and darkness. Parallel to my studies, about which I will say more in the next chapter, I devoted most of my time to prayer and to reading spiritual classics such as The Interior Castle by Theresia of Avila and the Ascent of Mount Carmel by John of the Cross. I tried to rigorously put into practice the demanding steps of inner and outer asceticism they prescribed.
It is difficult to describe the intensity of this inner search that carried me through the final years of my priestly formation. Rigorous self examinations. Regular retreats. Long periods of meditating on my knees in my room. Hours and hours of ‘presenting myself to God’ in churches that were dimly lit and smelling of incense. Much of this has remained with me as a lasting awareness of the reality of the divine in our baffling and astounding universe. But, looking back to that time, I now recognize an element of unreality in my obsessive devotion.
The truth is that I had fallen in love with a phantom lover whom I called ‘Jesus’.
Jesus of Nazareth, I believe, revealed to us that God is Love. He was the Word God spoke to us, the Image of the invisible reality we call God. But fastening my affections on him as if he were a human person in my here and now was unreal. He was like the phantom lovers millions of women embrace in their day dreams while reading their monthly Mills & Boons romance. Falling in love with him, I was in a way trying to fathom my love for God the creator and ultimate meaning of all that exists.
To get the gist of what I am saying, listen to us extract from my spiritual diary dated 1 May 1956.
“My dearest, dearest Jesus! The aim of my life is to love you as passionately as possible. All I possess, my talents and gifts, my whole body and everything I own, I entrust totally to you. Show me, your humble friend, how to speak only words pleasing to you, how to focus my thoughts on no one else but you, how to ensure that all my actions start with you and are completed in you. Grant that I may spend each moment of the day for you, so that I will think, say or do nothing that does not spring from my love.”
I suppose that falling in love with Jesus, I was in a way trying to fathom my love for God the creator and ultimate meaning of all that exists. It still made the expression of that love as an adoring love affair with another man dreamlike and slightly weird – remembering of course that I was not gay and that any physical contact with Jesus was always far removed from my mind.
“I no longer live for myself but only for Jesus. In everything that happens, the only element of interest to me is its significance for Jesus. Jesus is my only source of strength. Trusting him I can do whatever is required. Jesus may do with me what he likes. He knows how I can show my love best – even if that is through suffering and hardship.” (5 November 1956)
“To love someone means to seek what is good for the beloved, to render him services, give him pleasure, enjoy his being happy. Loving someone means seeking one’s own happiness in the person one loves . . . That is why I want to seek my own happiness in Jesus, appreciating his gifts, admiring his qualities, desiring to get to know him more intimately and wanting no one else but Jesus.” (13 April 1957)
“Oh Jesus, I look forward to meeting you in heaven, to see you there face to face and to continue loving you . . .”
My unnatural love affair with what I now call ‘phantom Jesus’ stands out more clearly against the background of the almost complete suppression of normal sexual feelings in me. After all, as a young man of 23 years of age, as I was at my priestly ordination, I should have experienced a natural attraction to women. Instead, all sexual feelings were expunged.
To begin with, I had smothered any form of bodily sexuality. An act of self-gratification or masturbation was considered a mortal sin, and effectively it never happened to me. I had not been given a proper sex education either by my parents or by superiors in the various seminaries I attended, in spite of me asking for it once or twice. I had no access to adult novels, romantic films or the kind of pornographic literature that helps teenagers discover sex in our time. In the final college I attended, in Mill Hill, I joined a small group of art enthusiasts. For one of our discussions we used a book of classic paintings but Father Duyvestein, our master of discipline, had first solicitously covered all Rembrandt’s nudes with sticky paper . . .
We were also constantly told to avoid any social contact with women. I was considered fortunate because I had no sisters and one’s sisters’ female associates were marked as posing a special risk to future priests. We were, after all, trained to become celibates. Friendship or intimacy with any woman was firmly discouraged. Here are the points I noted after a coaching session I received in 1956.
“Be wary of women. Respect all – at a distance. Always hands off. Never fondle or kiss any woman even if she is still a child. Don’t call adult women by their Christian name. Be aware of the risks involved in visiting a woman at home, in corresponding with a woman or talking to her privately. Avoid being alone with a woman anywhere. Be short and business-like in any dealings!”
With hindsight I now realize that the affectionate love I felt towards ‘my phantom Jesus’ actually substituted for what should have been a natural relationship with a woman. One incident could have opened my eyes – but sadly it did not.
I had gone on a short holiday to Paris with my father. We visited the Musée de l’Art Moderne. In a department of 19th century French paintings I suddenly came face to face with a frontal nude.
It was a large canvass. A life-size young woman boldly stared at me. I took in her tall slender figure, her two taut breasts with delicate red nipples, the navel on her slightly bulging stomach, the tuft of pubic hair that did not fully hide her female genitals, her two well-built thighs and legs slightly apart. I found her breathtakingly beautiful. But there was more than the thrust of her naked body. I recognized in her face, the folds of her skin, her posture, a femininity, a tenderness, an invitation to intimacy that was utterly new to me.
My father walked back from another room and saw me looking at the painting. “If it’s too much for you, just move on”, he said. His remark reminded me of the fact that I was wearing a black clerical suit including a Roman collar, and others were watching me. So I did move on. But inside I still reeled from the impact of meeting that young naked vulnerable woman.
In fact, the encounter came to nothing. I duly reported it to my confessor as a temptation. I was too much caught in the brainwashing of that period to grasp the potential importance of the event: an ordinary woman challenging my fascination with a fantasy lover . . . It is only much later that I learned to distinguish my reaching out to God from the rather dubious devotion to Jesus as a lover. I had come across the same phenomenon in the life of religious sisters who saw themselves as ‘brides’ of Jesus, their ‘spouse’. Many sisters still make their final vows dressed in a white nuptial dress and consider their commitment to a religious order as a ‘spiritual marriage with Jesus’. In all this they follow traditional imagery such as abundantly described in Alphonsus de Liguori’s spiritual treatise The True Spouse of Jesus Christ (1760).[iii] However the danger of overplaying this metaphor is real.
This was forcefully confirmed for me, years later, when I saw the film Thérèse by Alain Cavalier which had received the Jury Prize Award in 1986. The film presents Saint Thérèse of Lisieux as a warm blooded young girl who is both a mystic and passionately in love with Jesus, her phantom lover. The film brings out the mysterious dimension of seeking God. It also oozes sensuality. It climaxes in a scene in which Thérèse, already fatally ill, heaves up and down in bed as she experiences a sexual orgasm crying out to Jesus. It even hints at the possibility that the well-known doubts of Thérèse before death may have been due to her realizing that her ‘Jesus’ was a phantom . . .
I saw in Cavalier’s perception of Thérèse remarkable parallels with my own spiritual search during the time of my priestly training. As an agnostic Cavalier probably underestimated the validity of true mysticism. At the same time he put his finger on the fantasy romance that may go on in a person’s imagination under cover of a spiritual search.
I know now that, falling in love with Jesus during the period of my priestly formation, I was in actual fact trying to fathom my love for God the creator and ultimate meaning of all that exists. That is the element I should treasure and confirm.
The Apostle Paul had a point when he wrote:
“An unmarried man can devote himself to the Lord’s affairs, all he need worry about is pleasing the Lord; but a married man has to bother about the world’s affairs and devote himself to pleasing his wife. The same applies to an unmarried woman . . .”[iv]
Policemen too, politicians and business tycoons have more time when they do not have a family. Yes, there should be room for some priests and religious who leave everything “for the sake of the Kingdom”.[v] But Christian ascetic tradition has infused an unhealthy ingredient into this way of thinking. It frequently has presented God (or Jesus Christ) as a rival to an ordinary human lover. St Alphonsus keeps hammering it on our consciences: “God is a jealous lover. He does not tolerate rivals . . .” What kind of God is he talking about? Surely the ‘Father’ Jesus revealed to us does not compete on that level. The choice between a human lover and ‘divine lover’ is a false dichotomy. Enlightened Christian understanding will precisely make us discover the extra depth of God’s love in and through a human partner.
It would take me a long time and a tortuous journey to come to that realization.
[ii] Revelation 3,16.
[iii] Extract: “The state, then, of virgins consecrated to Jesus Christ, and who are entirely devoted to his divine love, is of all states the most happy and sublime. They are free from the dangers to which married persons are necessarily exposed. Their affections are not fixed on their families, nor on men of the world, nor on goods of the earth, nor on the dress and vanities of women. To appear like their equals, and to please their husbands, married persons must wear rich apparel and costly ornaments; but a virgin consecrated to Jesus Christ only requires a religious habit which will cover her body. In her, vanity of dress or the decoration of her person would be a scandalous exhibition.”
[iv] 1 Corinthians 7,32-35.
[v] Matthew 19,27-29.
John Wijngaards, My Story – My Thoughts, Seeking love