Spiritual Mentors: Etty Hillesum

I met a remarkable person about ten years ago in two too-short collections of her letters and journal entries. 2014 is the centennial of her birth. She died when she was only 29. As I read from the two books which contain her writings, my heart simultaneously breaks and soars. My tiny gift to her memory and legacy is to pass her enormous gift on to others who may not yet know of her.

In the context of the late 1930s and early 1940s, she was a young woman with modern attitudes. Her professional endeavors were intellectual ones, in research and psychology. Her lifestyle was decidedly outside the narrower views of morality which predominated in Western cultures of the time. Perhaps it was the untypical themes in her life before the rise of Nazi Europe that were the fertile soil in which the great spiritual fruits of her life were able to grow. My only hope here in this offering is to pique the interest of some to spend more time with her in her writings and, in so doing, know something new and more of the God that Etty came to adore.

aa hillesum 1

In 1941, Etty Hillesum, then a 27-year-old Jewish woman living in Amsterdam, began to write a journal, portions of which were finally published in 1983. The journal covers the period from March, 1941, to October, 1942- not a very long time. But, with the Third Reich in Europe at the time serving as a terrifying backdrop, the journal records the spiritual transformation of a somewhat self-absorbed intellectual into someone in deep communion with the God of her understanding. Etty has been called the Mystic of the Holocaust, but any attempt, however well intended, to categorize her spirituality is diminishing of it.
Her writings span that time period from when the Nazi oppression in the Netherlands began to worsen, and continue through to her family’s relocation to Westerbork, a holding camp for various “undesirables” being shipped weekly to Auschwitz in Germany. The last record we have of her writing is a postcard she threw from the train which carried her from Westerbork to Auschwitz. It was found by some farmers along the train’s route and mailed and mailed to the address penned on it by Etty. On the postcard were written her words, “We have left the camp singing.” Odd words, one might conclude, to have been written by someone who knew well what that train ride to Auschwitz meant. But they were words written after months of profound and wonderful discoveries about God, even in the midst of circumstances that were destroying the faith of many others.
As she had months earlier watched the intentional and cruel destruction of the Jewish ghetto in Amsterdam, she wrote in the journal she kept at the time:
“The jasmine behind my house has been completely ruined by the rains and storms of the last few days, its white blossoms are floating about in muddy black pools on the low garage roof. But somewhere inside me the jasmine continues to blossom undisturbed, just as profusely and delicately as it ever did. And it spreads its scent round the House in which You dwell, oh God. You can see, I look after You. I bring you not only my tears and my forebodings on this stormy, grey Sunday morning, I even bring you scented jasmine.. I shall try to make you at home always. Even if I should be locked up in a narrow cell and a cloud should drift past my small barred window, then I shall bring you that cloud, oh God, while there is still the strength in me to do so.”
After several months at Westerbork, where conditions became more and more crowded and more deplorable as more and more Jews were passed through its gates, Etty wrote these words of almost unimaginable meaning:
“You have made me so rich, oh God, please let me share Your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue. .At night, when I lie in my bed and rest in You, oh God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer.”

Etty, her parents, and a brother and sister died at Auschwitz in November, 1943. The diaries and journals written by Etty before and during her time at Westerbork were not discovered until 1981. They have been published under the title An Interrupted Life-The Diaries of Etty Hillesum. The book has since been translated into 14 languages and deserves to be read by many others for years to come. Others, many others, need to know that, even in the worst of circumstances, it is possible to leave “the camp singing.”
________________________________________________________________________
Here are some other quotations from Etty Hillesum’s journals. They are part of a spiritual feast, served by Etty, which will be nourishment for spiritual seekers for generations to come:
“ALAS, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”
“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.”
“We have to fight them daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies.”

~~ aa Etty-Hillesum(Books: Etty Hillesum- ‘An Interrupted Life’, Pantheon, 1983 and ‘Letters From Westerbrook’)

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One year ago, right now: Sitting, Singing, and Watching Mom as the dying finally came to an end

It was obvious by the time that Robbie and I got to the Care Center in Wichita Falls that Mom had physically moved to the final level of life before there is nothing left to do, but let go. She was moved to the Serenity Room, a pleasant room, quietly lit and furnished, and set aside from the other occupied rooms of the Center.

After several hours of being there together with her, Robbie left to drive the sixty miles back to Jacksboro, expecting to come back in the early morning. I planned to spend the night with Mom; we both thought, based on the guesses of the hospice nurses, that Mom had probably another twelve hours or so to go.

Inch by inch, synapse by synapse, Mom had begun dying at least eight years before that day. Friends from Ohio would call my brother and me and tell us they were concerned about Bea. Finally, Mom called me in the Spring of 1994 to tell me herself that she thought it was time that she stop driving a car. In itself, that was a great gift; I’d helped several families in the past with the tumultuous decision, sometimes necessarily involving deception, to get the car away from a mentally failing parent. Mom was making that part of the journey easy for us, but since I didn’t want her to change her mind, I flew to Ohio the next day, made arrangements there with her friends to watch over her, and drove the car back to Texas.

Several months later my brother and and me and our families moved Mom out of the house she had lived in for fifty years, five of them alone. It was a time of mourning for a great old homeplace for all of us, and we “left our mark” by burying a box full of momentos in the front yard. My brother buried a baseball bat, and I buried my high school graduation tassle, along with stubs of pencils and tractor tire valves Dad had carried in his pockets and a Christmas brooch mom had been given by an old friend (Mrs. Byers, for those who remember her).

We moved mom to an assisted living center in Alabama, but after two years there she began wandering into other people’s rooms, and could no longer be depended on to turn off the stove, so we moved her to more affordable assisted living apartments near Robbie and me in Texas, where she lived until July of 2009. She spent her days there walking the halls, looking for her hearing aid, and singing to herself in a strange guttural but rhythmic groan which she claimed was old hymns she remembered (“Mom, you’re singing too loud, shhh!” And would shhh for about 15 seconds and then begin again). We’d pick her up and take her to church, to restaurants for lunch, and to our house for gatherings when our children would visit. We tried so many times to help her make cookies or a pie or cakes, but finally gave up when we admitted to ourselves that that great passion of hers had ended. (I have dreamt about her rhubarb pie, and can even make a reasonable facsimile of it, but it is not hers.)

She liked our dogs a lot. (Who wouldn’t?)

But each day more and more of Mom was going away. She would ask about the “nice preacher” at church (me) and she would wonder when her mom (who died in 1990) was coming. She would call me “Ike” (my dad), Robbie was always “Karen” (her other daughter-in-law), and the pictures of six beloved grandchildren on her wall became the pictures of six strangers. She sometimes sat all day by the window looking out at the grass and the trees and the skies and I am grateful her mind moved into that particular mode of rest.

In July of ’09, Mom fell, with a broken hip, and here is where the story takes me into the only episodes of personal regret I have about the end-of-life experiences with Mom:

I gave her over to the “System” which is different, far different than what I call the Way. The Way is the way of the universe, the way of nature, the way of God. It the way that life is affirmed as life is meant to happen- a beginning born of love, a life lived in reflection of that love and other loves, and then a death, when the living/loving part of life is finished. The System, oppositely, has evolved from our human and demented notions of death as an unnatural state of ultimate illness, which is shaped and enhanced by a medical system full of many kind and skilled people, all of whom need paid, and are paid by a digitally-fueled power plant of insurance, Medicare, and- can I get a witness?- greed.

I gave her to the System when I should have had the calm, the sense, and the advice to allow her to step onto the Way. On the way of the Way she would have gone to a hospice, been bedridden, cared for, and allowed to experience the reason that causes poppies to grow on the earth: morphine. There would have needed to be no pain as infection would have set into the broken hip and eventually spread to her body, which, in all likelihood, would then have caused her to die of pneumonia. It would have lasted about a week to ten days. She wouldn’t have known what was happening. Robbie, my brother, Karen, or I would have been with her constantly.

But, she was in the hospital for about seven days instead, during which she twisted, and turned, pulled at her catheters and I.V.s constantly, got angry at me, Robbie for hurting her, trapping her, doing things “my Lord Jesus would never do to anyone!” Ancient religious fear, learned from shouting evangelists as a child, rose in her consciousness like an infection, and broke. It broke through a lifetime of unselfish service service to others, through years of Sunday School teaching with young people who loved her, through countless visits to older, forgotten women in the community, through so many hymns sung around the piano with her mother, Pap, and sisters, through a lifetime lived in the love of God, and it broke my and Robbie’s hearts. “Is the devil doing this to me?”

She went from the hospital to an Alzheimer’s care unit nearby where she lived the rest of life- eight more months. She walked around there, all day, every day, looking for her young brothers and sisters and her mom and dad. She would eat a little, lose more weight, remember almost nothing, walk some more, fall often from her bed near the floor surrounded by pads, poop in her clothes, complain (but kind of nicely) about much, and then the phone call, and the move to the Serenity Room.

Where she was, at last, serene again. For the final eight hours of her life she was awake, on her side, still, and without pain. Her face was no longer confused and I stayed in front of her as much as I could. I knew she was dying and I wanted more than anything for her to be with one who loved her. I talked to her about who was waiting for her, about Dad, Denny, Robbie, Karen, Joshua, Darcy, Sarah, Emily, Lizzie, and Bob (the last grandchild she remembered). I drew pastels of her which are too difficult to look at and I sang to her- “Amazing grace.”

“It’s Ok, Mom, go now. I love you, I love you, we love you. Dad is waiting, Grandma is waiting…go.”

And, one last breath..eyes still open, seeing me, seeing others..and she was gone. Almost exactly a year ago, to the hour as I write this.

Yes, I wish she could know her great-grandaughter Charlotte was born a couple weeks ago and that her great-grandchild in Australia will be born a few weeks from now, and maybe she does know. Charlotte and the still-unnamed child are the Codas to Mom’s life well-lived.

But such is life, and such is death, and she was on the Way once more, as we are on the Way..

Tao Te Ching #30, war songs

Mine eyes have seen the glory

of the coming of the Lord

He is trampling out the vintage

where the grapes of wrath

were stored but now

are turned into land mines,

and buried.

On the third day

(or the second or the fifth,

or maybe some day years from now)

some unsuspecting chump

will step on a long-forgotten mine,

rise,

and ascend into heaven

on the loosed lightning of TNT,

in a smear of furious death.

I believe in the Holy Spirit:

I’ve seen him in the watchfires

of a hundred circling camps.

And I believe in the holy catholic church-

they’ve builded him an altar in the morning dews and damps.

I believe in the communion of saints

and the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of bodies,

(even blown-apart ones)

and life everlasting.

Even though

Our god

Our god

Our god is marching on.

other reactions to the TTC: http://taochow.wikispaces.com/

Tao Te Ching #29, gods and birds

Drawing a picture of the bird outside my window

gives me no control (none at all) over him.

No matter that the scarlet and ecru of the bird’s wings

are perfectly blended in an imagined water-color

flurry of feathers..

the bird is gone, flying away from the sound of my

commanding voice,

and beyond the reach of the prayers

with which I plead to the God of my bidding,

for the bird’s return.

Either God is not listening, or

I am irrelevant in Creation’s

thrusting toward tomorrow.


The bird doesn’t need me.

Nor, it seems-

at least in the way I believed it to be so-

does God.


I am free now to enjoy both.

Unencumbered by chains.

Tao Te Ching 28, Snake

Without the canyon,

there would be no river.

And without the river,

the canyon is not.

They are One.

It is the words I choose

that tear apart their Wholeness.

It is my inability to know One,

that causes me to imagine Two.

This is a confusion that does not exist for the

snakes,frogs,muskrats,beetles,turtles,

mosquitoes,dragonflies,ducks,grebes,

and nematodes

thriving within their known Universe.

They are unaware of the violence I do

to their world

with my thinking.

 

see other responses: http://taochow.wikispaces.com/

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 3

I leaned against a tree-

does the kind matter?-

and I looked up

and up and up

to where the bird songs

were being sung.

While I couldn’t see the birds themselves,

I gave them my hopes and visions

as nesting material,

or as food for their chicks.

They will know better than me

how best to use them, if at all.

 

I took their acceptance of my intrusion

into their home,

as a kind of gratitude,

for our shared canopy

in the Creation that is

always beginning.

Things without names preclude titles for them, too

There is no name that I am aware of for this:

When an adult has a baby- a little baby, a 2 month, 3 month, maybe 6 month old baby..

When an adult- and it doesn’t matter, woman or man- when an adult

has a little baby in their lap and the baby is a little bit awake or not at all,

the adult will softly wiggle, almost without thinking, the first knuckle of their little finger into the baby’s fist.

There is no name for that wiggling of the little finger into the smaller much smaller hand,

nor has there been, nor will there be..

there shouldn’t be, mustn’t ever be

because to name that moment or minute or whole naptime (it doesn’t matter)

to name that time would be to shrink, subdue, even subjugate that time into meanings

understood only (maybe) by the adult so squeezed when, in fact,

the baby- no matter how small, even a day, even an hour- has begun with the adult

to change

history;

to make all things

new.

Because that’s how important such an encounter is, even one like this that is nameless.

The adult and the baby..

(stop here and remember, not with your mind but with the skin of your little fingertip, the last time that wiggle-then-squeeze happened. If your fingertip doesn’t remember then bring the memory up from the ancestral imagination that you were born with and that was unlocked the first time forever when you squeezed that impossibly warm handful of someone’s little finger however many years ago that was. Either way, remember without words, without meaning, just feel).

The adult separates the softclenched baby’s fist with a softmaneuvering fingertip. Why?

Because the wave spills onto the beach and reaches into the sands there as deeply as it can;

Because flower petals spread in the heat of the sun to gather as much sunlight as possible;

Because the crow lifts its head then it its wings to the updraft blowing to nowhere but lifting joy.

That’s why: it is the only reason why it has to be the only way it is that humans can be.

A stillpoint in the history of the universe. Touch, squeeze………

now..and pause.

Pause, don’t breathe for a moment. Pause.

The dance ends and the dance begins, the dance of everything that was, becomes the dance of everything that will be and both halves of eternity rest now in this moment where stories end and stories begin and where spirit wiggles and spirit squeezes and it is a single action that reverberates in all that is

including God.

Or maybe that single action-wiggle/squeeze, squeeze/wiggle- is God,

or maybe not.

There is no word that I am aware of for this.1

1 The difference in the ages of the participants in this..dance, shall we call it?..means this: not much. The adult, thus squeezed, will never separate from the baby squeezing and will, if asked, if the need is known, if privileged to, die even violently rather than know the baby is to be harmed in almost any way if such sacrificial action does not occur. Adults so touched, part of the eternal stillpoint, will lose part of themselves- their indefinable wordless selves- forever, willingly, in the baby’s fist and the baby, even without the cognitive ability to recall anything specific about the adult, or even know that the warmth squeezed was an adult will, nonetheless, hold that adult within the deepest part of their historic memory, that part of memory which belongs to the ages and always will.

@David Weber, December,2010