After a few years of studying theology, I learned that whenever we were reading Holocaust literature for class, it would be necessary for me to warn my husband ahead of time. I was absolutely miserable to live with when reading Holocaust literature, and he deserved fair warning. I became so entrenched in the accounts of the horrors possible by humanity that my attitude toward existence was utterly tragic. That was until I read the Diary of Etty Hillesum, who taught me a different way of facing human suffering and tragedy.
At the beginning of Etty’s diary she describes herself as being in a state of “spiritual constipation.” In fact she is like many today who come to spiritual direction: she longs for something and doesn’t know what it is. For a long time she does not name that which she seeks, but still resolves to dive into a relationship with it saying: “I think I’ll turn inward for a half an hour each morning and listen to my inner voice. Lose myself. You could also call it meditation. I am still a bit wary of that word. But anyway, why not?” Yet, already she has a profound connectedness to the spirit of God through her connectedness to humanity. Throughout her diaries she often speaks of her love for all mankind, even to the extent of loving those who hate her. At a time when Germans were systematically exterminating people Etty is able to say “if there were only once decent German, then he should be cherished despite that whole barbaric gang, and because of that one decent German it is wrong to pour hatred over an entire people.”
As time passes Etty’s work brings her steadily into an open relationship with God. She acknowledges that there are people who seek God with their eyes turned heavenward outside themselves, and there are those who bow their head and bury it in their hands. “These,” she says, “seek God inside.” She equates her image of God to a deep well inside herself where God dwells. But often stones and grit cover the well and God is buried. Only when she digs God out is she able to also dwell there. As the process of “digging God out” unfolds, Etty’s diary begins to be weaved with short, spontaneous prayers like, “Lord, grant me a little humility,” and eventually they lengthen and her journaling takes on a more concerted effort at conversations with, or letters to God. She writes, “when I pray, I hold a silly, naïve, or deadly serious dialogue with what is deepest inside me, which for the sake of convenience I call God.”
What is most beautiful for me about this process for Etty is that though she experiences God within herself, as her journey continues she gradually begins to recognize God outside herself and knows that though she often desires seclusion in her spiritual journey she must seek God among people, out in the world. She recognizes that she cannot change anything in her world unless she changes herself, and lets her love for humankind take over rather than her hatred for what is in human beings that makes us want to destroy one another. This desire to take the God she experienced inside and spread it in her sick and twisted world, I believe, is what made it possible for her to work so hard at Westerbork without regressing into despair. In fact it would almost seem that as Etty’s life became worse and worse, her experiences of God became more and more mystical. When her surroundings were virtually void of any manifestation of God, she is able to step outside her environment and her sickly body and let her spirit rest in happier places and times. Over and over, despite the evil she is surrounded by, she writes, “I still find life beautiful and meaningful.” It is hard to imagine how someone could regard themselves as being “rich” at Westerbork, but Etty does. Even when she questions God’s seeming lack of interest in doing anything about their suffering, she is still able to proclaim “My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue”…when I lie in my bed and rest in you, oh God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer.” Like any of us Etty’s experiences of God has its peaks and valleys, its presences and its absences, but in the end her faith is rooted deeply and securely in God
When I read an author’s journal and get a glimpse into their deepest thoughts and also their everyday life occurrences, they really almost become like a friend to me. Though I knew the tragic end that would occur as I finished this book, and even though I purposefully read the last pages every so often just to prepare myself, I couldn’t help but weep in despair for my friend Etty at the end. Even though she was able to find beauty and meaning in her life, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with anger and resentment on her behalf.
In my own life, I’ve been lucky enough to have a few of the tangible and beautiful experiences of God that Etty describes in her journal. Mine differ however, in the fact that those experiences have never arisen out of tragedy and suffering as heinous as the Holocaust. So though I felt a connectedness to Etty, it was one in which I pitied her and mourned her life. My husband, saw such an obvious irony in my misery, that he couldn’t help but step in. He said to me “Lori, here you’ve had incredible experiences of God, and simultaneously read a book where the author describes experiencing the same thing, yet you cannot empathize with her’s. Prayer is powerful, what makes you think you can’t pray through time, pray for Etty?” And it suddenly became apparent to me that I could, that my God is big enough to exist outside time and space as I perceive it.
I am quite able to pray for Etty, to pray with Etty, and to feel a communion with her spirit the way that I feel a communion with the spirit’s of those closest to me in this life. Once I was able to let go of the anger I felt Etty should’ve had in her world for her life situation, I could instead rejoice in her life. There is a time when anger is right and just, otherwise we would sink into indifference over evil. But eventually there always comes a time when we must take refuge in hope.
So that we, like Etty, can “leave the camp singing.”