Monday 10 April 2023

John Bradburne Soldier, Poet, Pilgrim - Father Gerard Skinner - CTS Biographies

John Bradburne: Soldier, Poet, Pilgrim
CTS Biographies
Father Gerard Skinner
Catholic Truth Society
ISBN 9781784697525
CTS Booklet B777

John Bradburne Soldier, Poet, Pilgrim - Father Gerard Skinner - CTS Biographies

Over the last 5 years I have reviewed almost 350 volumes from the Catholic Truth Society. I stumbled upon them while researching works by a specific author. And I love these books and booklets. All the biographies in across a few series have the CTS Booklet B### format. I loved the books in the CTS Biographies and have read over 75 to date; this is the first CTS book from Father Gerard Skinner. I have enjoyed all of these books and booklets and have benefited from reading them. This volume is another excellent read, in a wonderful series! 

The description of the book is:

“Remembered by those who knew him for his humility, simplicity, joy and friendliness, John Bradburne followed the example of Christ, pouring himself out in love of the lepers he served, unwilling to abandon them even to save his own life.

The life of John Bradburne reflects a struggle familiar to many people today: if you want to find God you need to search. Bradburne’s search, his life’s pilgrimage, took him from his birthplace in Cumbria through India, Malaya, and Burma during his soldiering years, and finally to Africa where he at last found God and his own sacred calling amongst the lepers in Mtemwa, Zimbabwe.

Led by a faith that he often expressed profoundly and poetically, John Bradburne followed the example of Christ, pouring himself out in love of the lepers he served, unwilling to abandon them even to save his own life as the violence of the Zimbabwean struggle for independence closed in around Mtemwa.

Remembered by those who knew him for his humility, simplicity, joy and friendliness, John Bradburne offers a striking example of authentic holiness in the modern, conflict-stricken world.”

And the chapters in this little volume are:

The Way of a Pilgrim 
Early Years 
War: A Gurkha in India and Malaya, a Chindit in Burma 
Searching for God – England 1945-1950 
Daily Life in the Leper Camp 
No Greater Love 

The two prayers contained in the book are:

A Prayer For The Universal Recognition Of The Servant Of God John Randal Bradburne
Novena Prayer For The Introduction Of The Cause Of John Randal Bradburne

I highlighted several passages during my first read of this book. Some of them are:

“John Bradburne’s pilgrimage of life took him from the hills of Lancashire to a leper camp in Africa. The path that he followed had so many twists and turns that no one could have predicted where he would ultimately find and live his God-given vocation. It seems that many of those whose lives he touched were aware that John Bradburne was, at the very least, different. A visitor to the leper camp at Mtemwa, where Bradburne dedicated the latter part of his life, recalled: “The love of God shone through John Bradburne.””

“Was he eccentric? He was eccentric in the sense that he was unusual, quite different from others in his way of life. His simplicity, joy, openness, and friendliness made us reflect on our attitudes and way of life. His most remarkable trait was that he was truly human, immensely human. There was something very beautiful in this quality of humanity that he had. He laughed at himself, he refused to take himself seriously, but at the same time I felt that he must have struggled long to become what he truly was: himself. His great quality, which I have also felt in the presence of other holy people, was that in his company you felt good. He was neither frivolous nor hail-fellow-well-met, but quite simply positive, affirmative, interested in you for what you were, what you had to say, what you did.”

“According to his sister, Mary, the young John was absent-minded and carefree: “The term ‘free spirit’ was never more appropriate to anyone than to John.” She later recalled: “He was never ‘run of the mill’. And he devoted himself to things like home-life, birds, pets and adventurous undertakings.” All this was combined with a passionate and sensitive nature that could be expressed in being loving but also in outbursts of anger.”

“Despite his father’s religious calling, John was not noticeably devout or even particularly interested in religion at school. Every day ended with prayers led by the boarding house prefects and there were morning and evening prayers on Sundays. Christianity was taught as an academic subject but the emphasis was less on faith but rather on personal moral conduct.”

“The delirium brought about various religious experiences, one of which John later identified as being about the Blessed Virgin Mary. After ten days, as the British were evacuated from Sumatra, Bradburne was able to walk again.”

“A letter that he wrote to his parents soon after seems more like a haphazard stream of consciousness. Be that as it may, Bradburne’s letter was not without meaning. “I believe,” he wrote, “that having touched rock bottom, my reason is now surely founded on a desire for two things: honesty and simplicity.” He then mentioned the prayers of St Ignatius of Loyola and the Apostles’ Creed.”

“Briefly, he became entranced by the religions of India but it was his intuitive and emotional response to music, not least the sacred music of J.S.Bach, that he recognised as the catalyst for his emerging faith. Then, on 23rd May 1943, he wrote to his parents, “My life is dedicated to Christ once and for all.””

“Dom Raphael Stones, a monk of the steadily rising Buckfast Abbey, who had lost an eye during World War One and served as a chaplain during the Second World war in Bengal and Burma (now Myanmar), prepared Bradburne for being received into the Catholic Church. In return for his meals, Bradburne assisted the monks with odd jobs, tending their vegetable garden and the cemetery. He still needed an income so found work as a bricklayer.”

“I wanted to be sure of salvation. I came to the conclusion that there could not be more than one true Church that Christ had founded, and by the Grace of God I got there. There was in me a great desire to belong to a society which could embrace a maximum, and not an exclusive minimum of people on their way to Heaven. The influence of India and four and a half years in the East stirred my mind a good deal. I was deeply influenced by a friend of mine [John Dove] with me in the army out there.”

“Exmouth. There he became a popular schoolmaster, not least because of his humour and kindness, teaching eight to ten-year-olds general subjects. One pupil later wrote: “Have you ever known a saint? I have, I think. For a brief period one of our teachers was John Randal Bradburne.””

“Back at Buckfast, Dom Raphael advised Bradburne to find a job but before doing so he and John Dove decided to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Dove later recalled how initially, Bradburne had found, “so much ceremony,” in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be, “rather over-bearing.” Yet, having travelled to the shrine by sea and train, the two friends joined a pilgrim group led by a Benedictine who advised his hearers to “[allow the Mother of God] to show herself,” to them in her own way. Dove noted that Bradburne heeded this advice and, “it later led to a close and extraordinary bond.””

“The Feast of Christ the King was of paramount importance to him, as he related in an interview in 1965: “My concern for the Jews dated chiefly from my thinking about the Gospel of that feast – ‘Art thou the King of the Jews?’ I thought what a pity that he is not since he was born in Judah.” In over 150 poems he wrote of his dedication to Christ the King and, at the time of his conversion, spoke of how he hoped that he would be worthy of dying the death of a martyr for his king.”

“Exhilarated as he was by the Holy City, Bradburne also endured darker emotions, at one point writing to John Dove: “My soul’s a desert just now, and I had today a fearful go of black depression and doubt. But I am learning to recognise these attacks not as signs of failure but of victory and progress.””

“A few months before his father’s death, in the parish church of Palma, Bradburne had an intense spiritual experience that drew him to dedicate himself to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a dedication that grew steadily until his death.”

“When Archbishop Godfrey was staying at Hare Street House, John would often serve his Mass and seek him out for conversation, seeing the archbishop as a holy man, “always up the mountain with God.” When the archbishop was not in residence, Bradburne would make his way to Buntingford, two miles away, for the early morning Mass before returning to work for the morning. He would sometimes lock himself away for a week at a time for prayer and meditation. At other times he would practice on the harmonium in the house’s chapel, wherein Robert Hugh Benson was buried, or spend time reading Benson’s novels.”

“For someone almost intrinsically incapable of dealing with bureaucracy John persevered in filling in the forms and undergoing medical tests and producing references so that, finally on 6th August 1962, the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, John Bradburne set off for the Franciscan Mission of St Mary at Wedza in Southern Rhodesia.”

“Whatever assistance the Irish Franciscans had been hoping to receive from Bradburne, they soon discovered that it would not be forthcoming. He was immensely impractical, could not drive and showed little interest in learning the local language, Shona. He was likeable and clearly was fascinated by the diversity of the natural world in which he had been immersed but was unsettled by the hustle and bustle of the busy missionary station.”

“Bradburne’s ‘example of poverty’ was greatly admired. Stories, such as when he gave an old woman his only blanket after all her belongings had been destroyed in a hut fire, and how he gave away his shoes, walking barefoot for months, were remembered long after he left Ganda.”

“It would be unsurprising if some of the stranger aspects of Bradburne’s behaviour were not the result of undiagnosed post-traumatic distress that had exacerbated his consistently natural yet somewhat quirky behaviour. An example of his unusual character is that, seeking solitude, Bradburne actively encouraged a swarm of bees to take up residence in a hive under his desk. He loved the bees but was also more than aware that others were happy not to enter his room as he typed his poetry with the bees flying freely around him.”

“Having returned to his little room at Silveira House and to his routine of singing The Divine Office, Bradburne once again set out to help the running of the mission in such ways as he was able. In March 1969 a good friend of his, Heather Benoy, invited Bradburne to join her as she set out to investigate a leper camp eighty seven miles north-east of Harare. Benoy had heard accounts of atrocious conditions at the camp and wanted to discover whether the reports were true. The camp was called Mtemwa, a Shona place name that could be translated as ‘you are cut off’.”

“Benoy could not believe what she was now hearing and begged Bradburne to at least return with her to explain the situation to Fr Dove and collect his belongings. Finally, Bradburne acquiesced, and agreed to return. Bradburne was in emotional turmoil. Back in Harare he talked through his conundrum with John Dove who later recalled his friend’s words at the time: You know, I don’t think that I could be very useful at Mtemwa because I’ve never been a boy-scout. I don’t know anything about medicine, and they are in a very, very poor and serious state. They are dying of neglect. They have been treated appallingly. At any rate, I’m a reject, they are rejects, so I think we will understand each other… And so I go down on that ticket.”

“Upon arriving at his new home, Bradburne set about learning the names of the seventy eight lepers at the camp and introduced himself to Dr Luisa Guidotti and the religious sisters who were stationed at the All Souls Mission eleven miles north of Mtemwa and were responsible for the medical needs of the camp. Two weeks after arriving at the camp, Bradburne wrote frankly to his mother about the stresses and strains of his new life, admitting to having just downed a triple brandy after a particularly trying day but asking her to pray hard, “that drink NOT my consolation be.””

“A priest that was based near Mtemwa and who became a close friend of Bradburne, Fr David Gibbs, recorded that a typical day for Bradburne would start at dusk with the chanting of The Office in his hut. Throughout the night, if not attending to a dying or very sick leper, he would pray and meditate and, “when the Muse came”, write poetry. Early in the morning he would run a mile, “just to keep fit,” before washing and going to open the chapel. A morning service would follow where prayers were offered, the scriptures heard and Holy Communion distributed, Bradburne also playing the organ for the service.”

“The exciting thing about John was that he was in a sense unmortified, he would let go, but he was always drawn back on to the path up to God by love. He was brought to sanctity, if one may use the term, not by hard discipline but by his longing, his love for God. One might say that John’s big-hearted love covered a multitude of sins. The Lord left him with enough ‘failings’ to keep him humble – pride, anger, passion – all of which, incidentally, were used in defence of the lepers.”

“Given the authenticity of his life of prayer and poverty, a friend of Bradburne, Fr Seán Gildea OFM, Superior of the Franciscans in Zimbabwe, arranged for Fr Dove to officially clothe Bradburne in the Franciscan habit. Fr Gildea would often say that John Bradburne was, “more Franciscan than the whole lot of us put together.” “I gave John the Franciscan habit,” Fr Gildea wrote, “because he was living a Franciscan life, was committed to St Francis and made the values of St Francis present; prayer, love, poverty, generosity, joy, deep faith […] I could go on.””

“During the following years, John Bradburne’s reputation of being a holy man steadily increased. In 1980, accounts began to be assembled to form a biography and in 1983 Fr John Dove published his own testimony to his friend, Strange Vagabond of God: the story of John Bradburne. Many articles have been written about Bradburne and some documentaries made. In 1995 the John Bradburne Memorial Society was established in Britain.”

“A further sign of the effulgence of John Bradburne’s sanctity is the annual pilgrimage to his grave that spontaneously flowered among the people of Zimbabwe. In 1999, fifteen thousand pilgrims were present for the twentieth anniversary of Bradburne’s death and, on 1st July of that year the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Roman dicastery charged with investigating the lives of those being considered for canonisation, gave permission for the cause of John Bradburne to proceed, Bradburne from then on being acknowledged as a Servant of God.”

I do not recall encountering the name John Bradburne before seeing the announcement from the CTS about this as a new release. As soon as I read the description I was captivated and desperately awaited the release date. When it was late being published I was checking every day for the release. I can definitely see the comparisons to both Charles de Foucauld and Damien of Molokai, both of whom I have a devotion to. This is a fascinating read. I knew nothing about Bradburne when I began this book. It is deeply moving story. I know I will return to this and likely look for other sources about this man. His story will encourage, surprise and challenge readers of all ages. 

I hope that the few quotes above will inspire you to pick up this excellent volume and give it a read. I find that almost every time I read a book from the Catholic Truth Society I find 2 or three others I want to read. I have an ever growing wish list of eBooks, books in print, and books out of print from the Catholic Truth Society I want to track down. I greatly enjoyed reading this volume. I found this story deeply moving and also personally challenging. I learned a lot about Bradburne and about myself. This is another excellent read, in a great series. It is another great Biography from the Catholic Truth Society. 

Note: This book is part of a series of reviews: 2023 Catholic Reading Plan! For other reviews of books from the Catholic Truth Society click here.

Books by Gerard Skinner:
Newman the Priest - Father of Souls
The English Vicars Apostolic (1688-1850)
Dominic Barberi
The Pallium: A Brief Guide To Its History And Significance
Father Ignatius Spencer: English Noble and Christian Saint

Books in the CTS Great Saints Series:
Antonio Rosmini - J.B. Midgley
Bernard of Clairvaux - J.B. Midgley
Benedict Patron of Europe - J.B. Midgley
Charles Borromeo - J.B. Midgley
Dominic - J.B. Midgley
Elizabeth of the Trinity The Great Carmelite Saint - Jennifer Moorcroft
Francis de Sales - J.B. Midgley
Gemma Galgani Gem of Christ John Paul Kirkham
George: Patron of England - J.B. Midgley
John Baptist de La Salle - J.B. Midgley
John of the Cross - Jennifer Moorcroft
John Vianney - J.B. Midgley
Louis Marie de Montfort His Life, Message and Teaching - Paul Allerton SMM
Martin de Porres - Glynn MacNiven-Johnston
Patrick Missionary to the Irish - Thomas O’Loughlin 

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