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Diane Curran

Ms Curran holds an MA in Spiritual Direction from the Weston School of Theology and a Certificate in Spiritual Direction from the Center for Religious Development (she has served on its staff).  She offers spiritual direction in Salem, MA and facilitates a spiritual formation seminar for lay ministers at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

Things have come full circle for me tonight in that I was first introduced to Etty back in the late-eighties, by Sr. Alice Le Ferrier who was on staff here, and who did a Saturday Book Day on An Interrupted Life.  Alice was exploring the meaning of suffering, and she had found Etty to be a rich resource on that topic.  I was moved by Alice’s presentation, bought the book, read it three consecutive times, and gave it to several friends as gifts.  In my own formation as a spiritual director, Etty’s writing was the focus of one seminar in which we all took her on as our theoretical directee.  In time, I ended up co-facilitating that seminar at CRD for a few years until it closed. 

     Needless to say, I have read this book too many times to count, yet with each and every  reading I’ve seen something new of Etty’s spirit — of her unique affirmations of truth, beauty, and life’s meaning — which were named and claimed right in the midst of the systemic deprivation, doom, and destruction of the Nazi regime. 

     While EH’s Interrupted Life is not a memoire, per se, it does fit well with the overarching theme of Illness and Grief in the Contemporary Memoir in that it is a journal of one young Jewish woman’s experience and reflection that occurred during a period which was completely ill and full of grief.

     What we’ll do tonight is:

  • first, hear some background on Etty to provide a context for her writing,

  • and then, get a sense of the landscape of her inner life and development by seeing how three attitudes or movements of grace helped her to cope with the overwhelming amount of loss and grief, which she had to endure as the ever-tightening noose of Nazi occupation stripped her of her everyday rights and ultimately deprived her of her life.

My hope is that you will fall in love with her, rare person that she is, and that her journey will somehow help you with your own.

     Here goes then. These words have the feel of someone about to spring off a high diving board for the first time, or else put her two skis together and head straight downhill without poles.  These are the words of a risky and courageous beginning, a digging in of one’s heels to get lift-off and to move forward.

     With these three brave words, Etty Hillesum starts a search for the essential as she begins her journal of rigorously honest and nuanced self-reflection.  Later she will describe her journal writing as a giving of myself to myself, a yielding to myself that’s more than myself… another kind of love.  But in her initial entry, we meet a conflicted, confused, and self-absorbed young woman who assesses herself as accomplished in bed, blessed enough intellectually to fathom most subjects, to express myself clearly on most things, and a match for most of life’s problems.  And yet, deep down something like a tightly wound ball of twine binds me relentlessly, and at times I am nothing more or less than a miserable, frightened creature, despite the clarity with which I can express myself (p. 3).

     This is the same young woman whose final journal entry (19 months and 8 notebooks later) states, We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.

     Within that short time span, something happened to Etty that transformed her from a neurotic to a mystic.

     Esther, or Etty, Hillesum was born in Holland in 1914.  Her father, Louis, taught classical languages and her mother, Rebecca, was a Russian, whose Slavic temperament brought a good dose of dramatic chaos to the home.  Theirs was a tempestuous marriage.  Etty had two brothers.  Jaap became a doctor who distinguished himself by discovering a vitamin, and Misha became a gifted musician.  He also suffered from psychosis.  Etty received her undergraduate degree in law, and she was on the faculty of Slavonic Languages at the University of Amsterdam, where she began to study psychology.  As you can see, she was a member of a rather gifted and talented family.  Although they were not practicing Jews, the Hillesums lived in and were part of a Jewish community in Deventer (in East Holland). 

     When we meet Etty at the start of her journal, it is March 9, 1941, and she is 27.  Holland had been invaded by the Nazis the previous May; Jews are already being deprived of their jobs, property, and rights.  Etty is living, as she has for the past four years, a rather bohemian existence in the spacious home of Hans Wegerif, a 62 year old gentile widower.  She is something of a manager for his household, which includes his 21 year old son Han, a cook named Kathe, and two boarders: Bernard, a social democrat, and Maria, who is a nurse.  Etty is also the elder Wegerif’s lover.  His home, which overlooks the main square in Amsterdam, provides an urban haven for E to live with a congenial circle of friends and to tutor her students who come there from the university.

     One month before her journal begins, Etty, who was suffering from bouts of depression, turmoil, and physical distress, sought the therapeutic help of one Julius Spier, a protégé of Carl Jung who specialized in chirology (the reading of palm prints). Spier emerges in her writing as a psychically gifted and compelling figure, whose experimental therapy includes some eccentric practices, such as wrestling, stroking, and kissing patients.

     Etty is intrigued, then captivated by Spier; she soon becomes his assistant, his secretary, his intellectual partner, and eventually, his lover.  Despite their age difference (Spier being in his 50’s) they discover that they are soul mates, able to share deeply, to encourage and challenge each other’s inner growth, and to delight in life’s simple pleasures.  Spier and his group of friends offer Etty a stimulating and provocative milieu in which she blossoms and thrives.

    Spier is the major catalyst who opens Etty to remarkable psychological and spiritual growth.  She records that he has uncanny ways of healing people. He miraculously pulls the puzzle pieces within together and makes them fit. 

     Etty explicitly trusts and never loses faith in Spier’s integrity and powers to heal.  His personal practices of meditation and prayer inspire Etty to look to her own soul and to discover what is hidden there, as the world around them becomes an increasingly menacing place. 

     Etty’s rigorous search within never becomes an escapist’s flight from reality, but rather, as we shall see, it develops into a wide-eyed, conscious embrace of all that life offers. 

     In July of 1942, her brother Jaap, in trying to protect her from being deported, attains a secretarial position for Etty on the Jewish Council.  After two weeks of “hell” working where she sees Jews helping Jews to be sent to their deaths, Etty resigns her post, only to volunteer as a social worker at Westerbork Transit Camp.  Here, Dutch Jews who have been rounded up are processed for deportation to the various Nazi concentration camps. 

     Etty deliberately chooses not to save herself by going into hiding, but instead to stand in solidarity with her people who are being systematically exterminated.  She serves the women, teens, and children of the camp from a depth of compassion – nursing their wounds, listening to their fears, soothing their souls, and eventually suffering their fate. 

     In late summer of ’42, Etty’s health breaks down and she returns to Amsterdam for medical attention and bed rest.  Fortunately, she is at home with Spier when he dies of natural causes that September.  Since Spier has brought her soul to birth, Etty resolves more than ever to do the same for others in the camp.  She returns to Westerbork with a deeper sense of purpose to be there for everyone as the listening heart of the barracks until she - along with her family - is transported to Auschwitz on September 7, 1943.  En route to Poland, she flings a postcard addressed to a friend from the train.  It reads, We left the camp singing.  On November 30, 1943, a Red Cross report states that Etty Hillesum was put to death by means of the gas chamber.

     Before leaving for Auschwitz, Etty sent her eight notebooks to a friend whose father was a writer.  This move was Etty’s only hope for being published.  Writing was her heart’s burning desire, and she acutely felt a need to bear witness to her place in history. 

     Forty years went by before the brother of her friend stumbled upon these abandoned journals, deciphered the tight scrawl, and immediately took action to see that they were published. 

     By the mid-1980’s, Etty’s writings were widely read and discussed.  Many articles have been written about her life, time, and transformation.  The consensus is that her unconventional spirituality, based upon immediate experience of God rather than mediated through a religious tradition, identifies Etty as a truly modern model of lived theology.

     Those are the basic facts which we know of Etty’s life.  Her journal gives us much more information about what went on internally than what happened externally.  She has a true gift for pulling us right into her most personal inner world. 

     Etty begins with the intention of looking for meaning, for what is essential to being fully human — for what is essential for life even as the world around seeks to destroy her.  She wants to probe, question, examine, and vie with all of her thoughts and feelings.  As she does so, Etty gradually makes room for everything to be considered in the light of sheer honesty and naked vulnerability.  Nothing in her life is to be excluded from consideration and reflection. 

     Soon into her writing, it becomes apparent that Etty is a highly passionate woman, who, as she says, is “erotically receptive.”  For her, the body and soul are one.  She fully embraces her embodied existence and allows it to open her to all of her experiences and feelings without muting or numbing any of them. 

     Some may judge and discount her as ‘morally messy’ when they read about her abortion and her firm conviction that she is faithful to two men at once, but it is important to see that Etty lives outside of the strictures of a religious moral tradition.  She is not conditioned by many of the shoulds, oughts, and oughtn’ts that come with most religious formation.

     In fact, I believe that it is precisely her sensual openness toward all of life that predisposes Etty in such a way that she is probably freer than most of us are to welcome palpable experiences of God and to bear a heartfelt compassion for and solidarity with her people, which become the two hallmarks of her soul.  Etty’s passionate nature definitely comes to inform and enhance her entire spirituality.

     A second predisposition, which is important to Etty’s spiritual growth, is her ability to enjoy solitude, to keep myself to myself for a while.  She is never happier than the hours she spends alone at her desk (my true hub) reading, reflecting, and writing. 

     The authors who feed Etty’s soul are the likes of Rilke, Dostoevsky, Jung, and St. Augustine, no spiritual light-weights. 

     Etty has a native capacity for real depth, and once she embarks on her adventure toward wholeness with Spier and her journal, she insures that she has time for the important, life-giving activities which feed soul at her beloved desk.  It is in nurturing herself there that an awareness of her inner life begins to stir and then to awaken. 

     Here I’d like to identify awareness as the first of three essential attitudes or movements of grace which helped Etty to cope with loss.  Let’s see where awareness takes her.

     Etty starts to pay attention, question, and reflect on what she reads, what she thinks, the way she thinks, what she feels, what she sees, and what is true.  It is precisely in her capacity to see the truth and to bear it that Etty awakens to a sense of the sacred, to the Holy Presence abiding deep within her.  This is something completely new for her.

     At first she is extremely shy about using the name God or expressing what happens in times of meditation.  She finds such disclosure far more intimate than writing about love making.  Yet, as she stays with the daily practice of turning inward and listening to her inner voice for a quiet half-hour, she becomes more attentive to and more directed by what she does come to call God.

There is a really deep well inside me.  And in it G dwells.  Sometimes I am there, too.  But more often stones and grit block the well, and G is buried beneath.  Then He must be dug out again (p. 44).

Attentiveness to a sense of God discovered within soon motivates Etty to identify and actually dig out those obstacles which do block the well to God. In other words, awareness instinctively leads E to a purifying process.

     Hesitant at first, she is able to catch glimpses of new possibilities — of new freedoms that come with dropping her baggage — and from there she experiments with those possibilities, notices what happens, and grows. 

     While there are elements of adventure in the process of shedding obstacles to God, Etty finds the actual work of detachment as highly demanding in terms of attention and effort.  It is no easy task to tease out, face, and release her romantic fantasies, her illusions, ideals, assumptions, and attachments.  Etty views this grueling process as a small war within, where, not only her own personal issues (vanity, greed, and possessiveness), but also the huge questions of her time (Why is there such suffering, hatred, and destruction in the world?) are simultaneously being fought and wrestled to the ground.

I really see no other solution than to turn inward and to root out all the rottenness there.  I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we have first changed ourselves.  And that seems to me to be the only lesson to be learned from this war.  We must look to ourselves and nowhere else (84).

     Growing awareness of God’s felt-presence within her begins to compel Etty to kneel.  This physical gesture - unfamiliar to Jews and to Etty - comes to express Etty’s relationship with God.  At first she resists the compulsion and describes herself as the girl who could not kneel.  Then one day it completely surprises her to find herself kneeling on a rough coconut mat in the bathroom.  Here she is a self-conscious kneeler-in-training.  Another time, she automatically drops to her knees in the living room among the bread crumbs, telling God all of her anxieties.  One night, Etty kneels by her small bed and reflects,

A desire to kneel down sometimes pulses through my body, or rather it is as if my body had been meant and made for the act of kneeling.  Sometimes in moments of deep gratitude, kneeling down becomes an overwhelming urge, head deeply bowed, hands before my face.  It has become a gesture embedded in my body, needing to be expressed from time to time (p.105). 

Elsewhere she notes: Forced to the ground by something stronger than intimate act of love that cannot be put into words… except by a poet (74).

Eventually Etty internalizes this posture when she learns that she can pray anywhere, anytime by kneeling within herself and by listening — or hearkening — to the depths of her soul wherever she may be.

     As we can see, awareness gradually familiarizes Etty with the sacredness of the holy ground deep within her.  In other words, her meditation ripens into contemplation.  Etty experiences things in her depths that feel more real than the ‘reality’ around her.  Awareness of God’s presence there leads Etty to a sense of being held — of knowing a profound inner safety even in the face of real threat. 

     I feel like a little bird tucked away in a great protective hand (195), she writes from her desk at the Jewish Council after receiving an envelope which she thought contained her orders to report to the deportation camp.

     Let’s look together at our first selection of Etty’s journal entries. 

     Notice her realistic appraisal of what is happening around her, as well as a genuine sense of deep inner safety that is occurring within her.

Saturday morning, 7:30 … I went to bed early last night, and from my bed I stared out through the large open window.  And it was once more as if life with all its mysteries was close to me, as if I could touch it.  I had the feeling that I was resting against the naked breast of life, and could feel her gentle and regular heartbeat.  I felt safe and protected.  And I thought, How strange.  It is wartime.  There are concentration camps.  I can say of so many houses I pass: here the son has been thrown into prison, there the father has been taken hostage, and an eighteen-year-old boy in that house over there has been sentenced to death.  And these streets and houses are so close to my own.  I know how very nervous people are, I know about the mounting human suffering.  I know the persecution and oppression and despotism and the impotent fury and the terrible sadism.  I know it all.

And yet — at unguarded moments, when left to myself, I suddenly lie against the naked breast of life, and her arms round me are so gentle and so protective and my own heartbeat is difficult to describe: so slow and so regular and so soft, almost muffled, but so constant, as if it would never stop (p. 135-136).

While what she calls “reposing in herself” — or awareness — attunes Etty to her richest resources within, it holds tremendous repercussions for what is happening with regard to life from without.  Able to touch and taste a profound “peace that the world cannot give” in prayer strengthens Etty over and over again to cope with all that she must encounter as life disintegrates around her.  She puts it this way: I allow myself to be led, not by anything on the outside, but by what wells up from deep within (78-79).

     Being led from within enables Etty to come to terms with and to accept what is happening from without.  I’ll identify acceptance of realityan acceptance which is rooted in faith — as another attitude which helps her to deal with loss and grieving.  This second attitude (acceptance of reality) can really be seen as a progression of the first attitude (awareness), only it is turned outward and applied to external events.

     Etty’s faith, which undergirds this acceptance, is a far cry from notional, doctrinal, or creedal beliefs.  As has been mentioned, hers is a faith born and raised in felt experiences.  It begins when Etty reflects that her best moments occur in times of deep acceptance of things, people, and events just as they are — and not as she would have them be (and God knows there is a lot going on around her that is not as she would want it).

When she experiments with acceptance of reality, or letting things reveal their own worth, she notices a feeling of flow — that is, a life-giving experience of peace, freedom, clarity, and confidence — all of which enable her to meet reality’s demands.  She describes it as:

A feeling of being at one with all existence.  No longer: I want this or that, but: Life is great and good and fascinating and eternal, and if you dwell so much on yourself and flounder and fluff about, you miss the mighty, eternal current that is life.  It is in these moments – and I am so grateful for them – that all personal ambition drops away from me, that my thirst for knowledge and understanding comes to rest, and that a small piece of eternity descends on me with a sweeping wingbeat.  True, I realize that this mood will not last, that it will probably be gone within half an hour, but I have nevertheless been able to draw new strength from it… If only I listen to my own rhythm and try to live in accordance with it (72-73). 

     From here, Etty discovers that her external life is not composed of random, accidental events, but rather, it is held — and it unfolds — significantly, as an organic destiny.  She finds she is at last mature enough to accept her destiny, to take it upon herself, to bear it forward, and to let it flourish (131).  That is a terrible, sacred, inner, serious, difficult, and at the same time inevitable task (133).  I make myself confront everything which crosses my path (45).

     Reality happens, and reality must be dealt with, requiring her to stay in tune with and to utilize all of her resources from deep within.  She finds her best stance toward outer reality as one of receptivity, of a spaciousness that allows room for everything: for the ebb and flow of moments of joy, beauty, kindness, delight, and love, as well as for moments of sadness, sorrow, struggle, anxiety, and rebellion.  Her desire to live more flowingly–- which grows in and through her struggles with inner demons — helps her to keep on moving and not to cling or get stuck by totalizing any one state – making it (especially the agony of the Occupation) all there is to life.  Moments pass through her.  She feels them, releases them, and allows them to become part of the stream.  Life continues, clarity is gained, and her strength is preserved.  In this way, Etty finds she is not dissipated or scattered in futile fears and sorrows.

     Giving real sorrow its due space and shelter within — and bearing it with courage and honesty — is what Etty sees as causing the whole world to lessen in sorrow.  On the other hand, refusing to harbor one’s suffering, and allowing it to turn into hatred and revenge, pushes it outward and inflicts a multiplication of sorrows upon the entire earth (97).  To Etty, each must do his/her part by learning to give authentic suffering a home within, a place where sorrow may become transformed into peace.  She sees this as an essential work of every human soul.

     A major problem with her people and her age is that of being totally unprepared for or unschooled in authentic suffering.  A reactive rejection of suffering, mostly through fear, stunts people’s growth in resiliency, strength, and faith. Faith and faithfulness become increasingly important to Etty.  As her faith grows, she becomes adamant that no one thing will ever impede the eternal stream of life felt deep within.  She sees the necessity of faith being a consistently lived choice.  If we are to have any faith at all, we must have faith all the time (186).  And this means living from minute-to-minute in the here and now, and to keep moving with the stream of life. 

     Jesus’ words, “The day is sufficient unto itself,” are a mantra, a way of life to her, especially when she is tempted to give into a million useless fears that itch like a plague of fleas as the threat of death draws closer.

If one burdens the future with one’s worries, it cannot grow organically (173).

As she drops her expectations of the outer world and places all of her faith in the God whom she experiences and relates to within, Etty becomes surprisingly contented and appreciative of life’s gifts (even in the deportation camp): a geranium in the sunlight, birds on the roof, a smile from a friend all bring a flood of richness and gratitude to her open heart. She identifies her contentment as rooted in God, and she holds,

All that matters to the last moment is that life has meaning and beauty and we have realized our potential and lived a good life (163).

Etty’s faith, embedded in her acceptance of reality, develops into a firm confidence that her inner resources will never fail her.  Come what may externally, she is convinced that everything will be all right in the end.  This confidence gives her a clarity and a freedom to live in the now, the only place where the stream of life is flowing.

     We’ll take a look at the second journal selection to get an idea of what her faith-filled acceptance of reality looks like vis-a-vis what is happening in the world around her.

3:45 in the afternoon … It is possible to suffer with dignity and without.  I mean: most of us in the West don’t understand the art of suffering and experience a thousand fears instead.  We cease to be alive, being full of fear, bitterness, hatred, and despair.  God knows it’s only too easy to understand why.  But when we are deprived of our lives, are we really deprived of very much?  We have to accept death as part of life, even the most horrible of deaths.  And don’t we live an entire life each one of our days, and does it really matter if we live a few more days or less?  I am in Poland every day, on the battlefields, if that’s what one can call them.  I often see visions of poisonous green smoke; I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with the piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for everything in a single life.  For belief in God and for a miserable end.  When I say that I have come to terms with life, I don’t mean I have lost hope… No.  It is a question of living life from minute to minute and taking suffering into the bargain.  And it is certainly no small bargain these days… Suffering has always been with us, does it really matter in what form it comes?  All that matters is how we bear it in our lives…  I know the pale little faces of many, many worried people, I know it all, everything, every moment, and I sometimes bow my head under the great burden that weighs down on me, but even as I bow my head I also feel a need, almost mechanically, to fold my hands.  And so I can sit for hours and know everything and bear everything and grow stronger in the bearing of it, and at the same time feel sure that life is beautiful and worth living and meaningful.  Despite everything.  But that doesn’t mean that I am always filled with joy and exaltation.  I am often dog-tired after standing in queues, but I know that this too is part of life, and somewhere there is something inside me that will never desert me again (p. 152-153).

     So far we have seen how Etty’s awareness allows her to discover the precious resource of God’s presence within and how that carries over to an acceptance that, by remaining in the now, she can cope with anything life brings her from without.  Where do such courage, clarity, and confidence bring Etty?  They brings her to the third attitude, a disposition which grows in, through, out of, and simultaneously with the first two dispositions, and which helps Etty to cope with grief and loss in a truly wise and grace-filled way.  I’ll identify that attitude as one of compassionate love. 

     This is a love that expresses the way God is with her. Urges to love generously arise in Etty soon after she begins to kneel.  We hear this desire in her prayer: Oh Lord, let me feel at one with myself.  Let me perform a thousand daily tasks with love. But let every one spring from a great central core of devotion and love (70).

     When she is beginning to listen to her deepest self in prayer, Etty is also coming to value listening to others so that she can become attuned to them and find out what they can take in and cope with (102).  In other words, her sensitivity to the otherness of God brought with it a sensitivity to the otherness of the people around her.

After Etty makes peace with her destiny as not including marriage to the man whom she loves with all her heart, she realizes that her whole being has become one great prayer for him — and for more than Spier — for all others as well, she says (165).  Etty reflects on how it is through suffering that she learns to share love with all creation.  The price of this compassion is high, much blood and tears – and, she finds, it is well worth it (147).

All the strength and love and faith in God that one possesses, and which have grown so miraculously in me of late, must be there for everyone who crosses one’s path and who needs it (167).

Her prayer and compassion extend even to the Gestapo soldiers who suffer, because there are no boundaries between people who are hurting. (156). 

     Etty also sees that she cannot at all afford to hate, despite the rampant injustice all around, because hating would make her just like the Nazis.  It is the evil in man that needs eradication, not man himself (86).  This distinction prevents Etty from ever blaming God for what is happening in the world.  The evil in human hearts, which stems from unresolved pain and ignorance, is what causes all of the senseless harm in the world.  Humans keep adapting to atrocity, and without their standing up to protest, the horrors only continue (96).  But God is not responsible.  In fact, God who is mighty is quite vulnerable and powerless to change things.  You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last (178).

     Etty can hold the difficult tensions of a deep moral outrage for the regime which treats humans so cruelly, sheltering God within, and not becoming personally hateful.  I hate nobody.  I am not embittered, and once the love of mankind has germinated in you, it will grow without measure (180-181).

     This is the flowering of Etty’s soul: it is expressed in her clarity of vision and her freedom of response. The world outside may be atrociously unjust and menacing, but Etty is not in any way conditioned or programmed to react in kind.  She does not have to hate and thereby increase the world’s woes.  She sees what is going on and makes a clear-sighted, free response from her deepest self.  Etty chooses to love, despite everything happening around and to her. They can kill her body, but not her soul.  And that is her resolution, her final answer, to the questions of both her inner and her outer life: to choose to love from deep within her soul no matter what happens on the outside: to accept and to forgive all she encounters, to eradicate all judgments of fellow humans - including the Nazis, to help and to serve those who cross her path, to keep her soul immersed in the stream of life, and, above all, to protect unto death her human dignity which houses God. 

     Etty ardently desires to love every human being, because she sees the God whom she knows, loves, and desires to help as buried in each person, just as she discovered God buried within herself. We’ll look at the third journal entry, which was written from her sickbed in Amsterdam, shortly after Spier died, when Etty was longing to return to the camp.

Late afternoon.  I don’t ever want to be what they call ‘safe,’ I want to be there (Westerbork), I want to fraternize with all my so-called enemies, I want to understand what is happening and share my knowledge with as many as I can possibly reach – and I can, if You will only let me get healthy, O Lord (p. 223)!  [My inner and outer worlds] are equally strong in me.  I so love being with people.  It is as if my own intensity draws what is best and deepest right out of them; they open up before me, every human being a new story, told to me by life itself.  And my eyes simply read on joyfully.  Life has confided so many stories to me.  I shall have to retell them to people who cannot read the book of life itself (p. 226).

Sometimes I might sit down beside someone, put an arm around a shoulder, say very little and just look into their eyes.  Nothing was alien to me, not one single expression of human sorrow… I am not afraid to look suffering straight in the eyes.  And at the end of each day there was always the feeling: I love people so much.  Never any bitterness about what was done to them, but always love for those who knew how to bear so much although nothing had prepared them for such burdens (p. 227).

Compassionate love for God and people took over Etty’s life to the end.  Her last journal entry expresses her inner state most movingly:

Sometimes [my soul] bursts into flame w/in me…all the friendship and all the people I have known this past year rise up in overwhelming number and fill me with gratitude.  Though I am… bedridden, every minute seems so full and so precious.  I am grateful to You for having given me this life… I am lying here trying to assimilate just a little of the terrible suffering that has to be endured all over the world… When I suffer for the vulnerable, is it not for my own vulnerability that I really suffer?  I have broken my body like bread and shared it out among men.  And why not, they were hungry and had gone w/out for so long… (p. 231).

     Within nineteen months, Etty had lost her freedom to move about Amsterdam, the right to buy most foods, her work as a tutor, her home, her friends, her soul mate, her family, her accustomed rights to privacy and cleanliness, her health, and, ultimately, life itself.  How did she cope with these catastrophic losses and the subsequent grief of these losses? The answers, I believe, are found in her attitudes that radically opened her to the mystery of God:

  • First, in her awareness, which ultimately led to contemplation and a sense of safety deep within.  No one is in their clutches who is in Your arms (178).

  • Second, in her acceptance of reality, an acceptance which was grounded in faith that her inner resources would never fail her. 

  • Third, in choosing to love, generously and tirelessly, despite living in a monstrous culture of fear, hatred, and death. 

     In the end, Etty’s lived-experience shows us that grief accepted, borne, suffered, and transformed within the human heart can bring peace and strength, not only to the soul, but to the whole world.  And she shows us that all that has been lost becomes found within the heart that chooses to love.  We carry everything within us… Everything we need is within us... (154).


On the Difficulty of Discourse on God

Pierre Deghaye

Translated by Romeo J. Bonsaint

The God of Jacob Boehme manifests himself in his Word, and man re-expresses the divine Word in the names he utters, not only in spirit, but also in the spoken word. One could bestow no greater power on human discourse, which in the work of the mystic-thinker is his writing. We know the design of this work is ambitious, more especially as it is expressed from an apocalyptic perspective: Boehme’s conviction is to write at a moment when the consummation of the Mystery of God is at hand.

     Adam gave names to all creatures and Boehme believes that the omnipotence of language exists forever. Simply, language performs according to the birth of him who utters speech. If a vile spirit speaks, speech is malevolent and baleful and it is a dead word. If it is a spirit born of God, the act of speaking will reveal genuine and true being to all things named. The upright person gives authentic expression to the created order. His mouth articulates each thing in the same manner as the Word emanated from God at the moment when he created It. It is in having this power, says Boehme, that we recognize whether we are children of God. It is from this claim that we are gods in whom God discloses himself.

     The person who gives names to things in such manner has recovered the practice of primordial language which Adam had and which remained the privilege of his posterity, until the time of the Great Flood. Boehme calls this Natur-Sprache, and assumes authority from the initiation he received through this idiom of authentic language.On the level of the noble soul, the power of human speech and the knowledge accorded to man are one. Boehme evinces the confidence of the one who found the pearl of great price, symbol of the hidden truth of the same claim as the philosopher’s stone, and who transmits it to those who experience need.


Élisabeth Leseur and Madeleine Delbrêl (part 2)

Reginald D. Cruz, CFX

After her conversion, Madeleine began to discern a powerful personal draw to a life of contemplation. Initially, she thought that she could achieve this by living as a Discalced Carmelite or Trappistine nun. But after years of serious consultation with Abbé Lorenzo, she discerned that what the Spirit was asking from her was to realize this call within the very society where “God found me.” With several of her women friends, she responded to this summons by immersing herself in the life of ordinary people, especially those who have been marginalized not only by the wealthy but by the Church itself. It just so happened that the poorest and most marginalized in Parisian society were located in Ivry, a commune in the southeastern suburbs of Paris known as the city’s “Red capital” because of the overwhelming number of communists and their sympathizers who resided there. In 1933, Madeleine and two of her friends moved to Ivry. However, they did not settle there with any intention of converting or even religiously influencing their neighbors:

We did not come with many plans. What we sought was the freedom to live shoulder to shoulder with men and women of every walk of life, with those who were our neighbors in time, with the same years on our calendars and the same hours on our clocks.

Like Élisabeth, Madeleine took pains to negotiate her life of Christian commitment with the militant atheism of the people around her. On one occasion, Madeleine prepared the body of a deceased communist neighbor but absent-mindedly arranged the flowers on his chest in the form of a cross. His wife and political allies loudly scolded her for this act. On realizing her mistake, Madeleine earnestly apologized and rearranged the flowers in a circular manner.


Romeo J. Bonsaint, SC

As we grow older we are more apt to ask ourselves what is really meaningful for our life. We may question the meaning of past events, the meaningfulness of the future.  Occasionally the questioning will be more proximate and personal:  Is my life meaningful?  Has what I have done amounted to anything of value?  Does it ― do I ― make a difference?  Such questions are value-laden. We are questioning/evaluating our worth.  Elias Norbert relates these questions of meaningfulness to the way we will ultimately face dying itself:

The way a person dies depends not least on whether and how far he or she has been able to set goals and to reach them, to set tasks and perform them.  It depends on how far the dying person feels that life has been fulfilled and meaningful ― or unfulfilled and meaningless.  The reasons for this feeling are by no means always clear ― that too is an area for investigation that is still wide open.  But whatever the reasons, we can perhaps assume that dying becomes easier for people who feel they have done their bit, and harder for people who feel they have missed their life’s goal, and especially hard for those who, however fulfilled their life may have been, feel that the manner of their dying is itself meaningless. (The Loneliness of the Dying, p. 62)

     We posit the following, then, as a fundamental principle: that what we create and contribute to the world is ultimately based on what we have received.  The principle is exemplified in Jean-Dominique Bauby’s exemplary response to the events that changed his life so dramatically.  The creative act of memoir writing emerged from a situation he did not choose and certainly might have refused to accept to work with.  Instead, he received and worked courageously with what was given.  Receptivity of this kind is an innate form of spiritual potency that, hopefully, one learns to activate with humility through the providential experiences of one’s life.

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Marie Turcotte

As a college student in a large university setting towards the end of the Vietnam War, I debated and argued and philosophized about the meaning of life and used Job to explore the concepts of justice, evil, piety, wisdom and faith vs. reason. I came up with more questions than answers, among which was, “Why do innocent people suffer?” It seemed an appropriate and relevant question at the time, given the devastation that was taking place in Southeast Asia.

     The question of suffering was to take on even greater relevance in the next few years as I continued my nursing education and found myself at the bedside caring for men and women who were suffering. I am not referring here to expected and short-term discomfort or pain that accompanies diagnostic procedures and specific therapeutic interventions, but to that deeper, unnameable pain which stems from such experiences as fighting an endless and losing battle with chronic illness or confronting the devastation of traumatic injury which forever changes the course of one’s life. This is not pain of a purely physical nature, but has psychic and spiritual dimensions as well. How often I saw the question formed in the eyes of those for whom I cared: “Why did this happen to me?” “What have I done to deserve this?” I had no answer. Many years later I was to ask these same questions of myself: at the height of a successful professional career I was afflicted with a chronic pain condition and subsequently lost my job and a way of life I had spent a lifetime building. My relationships changed as did my social life, my family life, and ultimately, my spiritual life. I suffered.

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Last updated: 11/25/10.