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’)

Advertisements

Intimacy with Creation I

Image

The great task is to walk among wild things and

resist

naming them.

To let go of maple, bee, cloud, vine, dandelion, winecup, dragonfly, and squirrel

is to give oneself over to the intimidating, attractive, green, blue, red, high, far, close, toothy, wet, alluring

and be

with..

instead of apart.

It is to allow the language of here, beside to replace the chatter of knowledge and subjugation.

It is to become present, now

and listen without expectation

and feel without the need to define.

It is to see and to be seen

in silence

and a new kind of love.

The Womb of God

(This was the message I gave last Sunday. I know it’s a long read, but new birth never happens all-of-a-sudden. I’ve decided to continue adding the occasional “message from Sunday.”)

(Update, October, 2014: Six years later, this still says what I mean,,)

The Womb of God

One of my favorite biblical authors is Abraham Heschel who, in 1962, wrote the definitive book on the prophets, called The Prophets. He described the time period around 400-500 B.C. when some of the great Old Testament prophets had begun to write and speak in alarming, revolutionary, and largely unlistened-to ways (I’m going to paraphrase just a little, because his words can be difficult at times):

Heschel wrote of that time- “Religion had declined not because it had been successfully argued against, but because it had become irrelevant, dull, oppressive, uninteresting. When faith is replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crises of today are ignored because of the remembered splendor of the past; when faith becomes an inherited heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority and rules rather than the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.”

Part of my personality- my vision of the world, the universe, God, and all things and beings contained therein- is summarized in that statement. I listen to and read other preachers, so many other Christian teachers and thinkers, and I end up feeling lonely sometimes, embarrassed even because what I see and believe seems so different from what I hear being proclaimed as God’s Truth, God’s Word by almost everyone else, including many of my own denominational colleagues. And that sometimes leads to a kind of situational depression on my part. I wonder if I am wrong, and if I am even being fair in sharing some of my deepest insights and doubts and wonderings with you because they so often seem to run counter to what is considered orthodox and traditional in Christian thinking and doctrine.

That is this preacher’s burden. Robbie, primarily, and some others of you catch the brunt of that odd depression from time to time, maybe too often. But I hope all of you also hear and feel- underlying that confusion and what is a very real sadness at times- I hope you also hear a real hopefulness on my part. I don’t believe Jesus intended to lead us in circles around and around in 2000 year old cultural realities and perceptions. In fact, I think that following Jesus is God’s way of leading all people, in all times, out of the Bronze Age that religion had irrelevantly, dully, oppressively, and uninterestingly become stuck in, and into an always-being-made-new Creation.

~~

I sit by the ocean watching the waves in early morning moonlight and think about these things. I walk beside the evening’s incoming tide, watching the records of that Creation in the scampering of sandpipers and the 200 million year old ballet of pelicans. I stand on Carolinian sand dunes blown into existence by winds which blew across the continents of Africa and South America long before there was a human present to scratch boundaries of ownership across them. Around me are pairs of ragged claws, as T.S. Eliot called them, crabs scuttling in and out of their ancient habitats, in and out of holes dug among the tangle of vines, the cacti, the wildflowers, and the swaying salt marsh grasses.

One morning, as I am making what is for me a jaw-dropping discovery that the horizon is not a perfectly straight line, but a series of barely discernible ups and downs of tidal risings and forming waves, like letters, words, and sentences- a kind of oceanic story being written in circles around the globe, and on that morning that story is punctuated a mile offshore with two large spouts of water. A whale.

That same morning, a little later, dolphins- 3 of them- appear near my son and daughter and others, ten yards away, jumping from the water in perfect, almost friendly formation. Then, later that same day, two sharks- small ones- appear just beside the shore, gulping the small fish caught in a temporary lagoon caused by receding tides. Those who are swimming leave the water quickly, but are unable to stop watching this scene, an unchanging scene, a wild and eternal scene older even than the time of dinosaurs.

I watch episodes like these shoulder-deep in the water, or from my sandy seat atop a dune, or hunkered down beside the water’s edges where waves born in the meeting of Caribbean currents and sub-Saharan winds are wetting my feet as my toes curl into the million and millions of tiny worn shards of ancient shellfish, now grains of sand. Other shells lie all around me, saltwater shelters abandoned by ten thousands of mollusks and crabs, shells which one day, wave after wave after wave away, will also be pummeled into the granular debris of other beaches, other shores.

I am caught up again and again in the transcendence of moments and minutes, of time and eternities. All that is around me on this shore- on any shore, and on beyond these shores to the mountains far behind me and the plains and rivers and lakes and fields beyond; all that is around me, beside and behind me, over me and under me, from the verdant green of every flower, to the forests of trees beyond them in the Great Smoky mountains, from those creatures in the seas which are too small to be seen, to sharks and whales, to crabs and the pelicans, the gulls and sandpipers, to each and every animal that burrows, flies, swims, crawls, slithers, or hunkers down near the waves watching it all- all of it, all of them, emerged in their primary, first forms from the ocean. Life- all life- has been born in these salty wet depths. All life has surged upward and outward and forward from this womb of God, this birthplace of an always new Creation.

Above me, and I cannot look elsewhere now, the morning sun is rising between scattered gray, yellow, and white clouds moving from east to west in massive air currents I cannot feel, but only see. Clouds formed by the endless evaporation of water from the ocean’s surface in response to the 10 billion year old sun’s invitation to rise toward its light and warmth. Clouds which, when laden with the many tons of hydrogen and oxygen atoms formed into molecules of water, attracting each other, joining together and spilling in heavier-than-air raindrops on the lands over which they pass. Gentle spring rains or summertime deluges, the ocean pours through them onto lands beyond, where the grasses absorb them and grow. And then the oceans are eaten in their now green and leafy incarnations by cows. And dairy farmers gather the now milky white drops of the ocean together into pasteurization vats and stainless steel tank trucks, some of which, not far away, will be made into ice cream.

Lick the ice cream and savor the ocean’s journey onto your lips. Taste the ocean’s always new and endless Creation on your tongue. We are a part of it. It is a part of us. The boundaries of difference among living things are blurred and obscured by the commonalities of our origins. Our own saltwatery blood pulses in rhythms begun by the oceans and the moon in gravitational, tidal dances, and I am overcome, again. I put my earphones on and listen to the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” as I watch and wonder in gratitude and humility and I raise my arms in the same form in which I earlier saw the whale’s spouts, and I listen, and I try to sing, because I must. I must.

It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

When I come back up to the house and onto the porch my son and his girlfriend are sitting there drinking coffee and Joshua asks me, with a tinge of worry, I can tell- “Daddy, what in the heck were you doing down there?” (I didn’t think anybody would be out of bed yet!) “What in the heck were you doing down there with your arms in the air?”

And I tell him, “Becoming sane.”

~~

Psalm 24:

1 The earth is the LORD’s, and the fullness thereof, and all who live in it;

2 for he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the waters.

I need those words. I need those words to wash over the curse of my own jabbering ego; I need those words to clean and scour the false priorities I schedule for myself constantly. I need those words, in waves crashing against my pride, I need those words to remind me that, at the bottom of everything I am nothing, but that me and you and every living thing are a part of the whole of everything. We are the intricately, intimately related parts of the earth’s fullness thereof. And we are loved very, very, very, very, very, very, very much.

Matthew 5 from ‘the Message’, verse 3: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

4″You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

5″You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

6″You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

7″You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

8“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

Here’s the truth the ocean was drowning me in that morning, and during those days there. Here’s what I can see so much more clearly now- what Jesus is able to lead me, and all of us toward, if we are following him.

Continuing in Matthew 5, verse 13: “David, Let me tell you why you are here. (No, my name is not really there. But there’s a white space there- insert your own name in it!) David, let me tell you why you are here. (Do it, let Jesus talk to you here) David, Joey, Sarah, Nancy, Manuel, let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.

Verses14-16: “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.

So, I cannot be quiet. I dare not be quiet. If I feel the saltwater kiss of God on my lips, what else can I do but share that caress in these ways available to me, with you? I must continue to shout that I can learn almost as much about God from a wildflower field as I can from the first chapter of John. I must admit without embarrassment that I learn as much about the active presence of Jesus in a roomful of sentenced-to-life convicts as I do from the letters of Paul.

And I must stop being ashamed or otherwise discombobulated, when I tell you or others, or even admit to myself that an hour beside the ocean, lost in the eternal mysteries of blue-green waters tinged with golden sunlight, is better than any sermon, any day. Even this one.

So, on a gray Friday morning a week ago, August 15, the day after Sarah and Travis’ wedding, I got up, almost as usual before everyone else, walked down the catwalk across the dunes, sat on the last step, and wrote what follows. I didn’t know then if I would ever share it with anyone. Having read these words of Jesus just now, though, I know that I must:

August 15, 2008, Holden Beach NC

Abba, Father..

Through the smallness of my words, I cannot explain to anyone, least of all to myself, who or what you are.

Through the inadequacies of language and grammar, whatever I write leaves so much unwritten that it might be better to tear this blank page into a thousand pieces, lift them to the wind and, as they are blown across the beach say “There, there is God.”

But if I don’t write something, right now, I might cease to breathe.

I know that Genesis says humans were created in the image of God, but I think we have done a much better job of recreating God in our own image. I would rather watch the image of God I see in these pelicans, or in these scampering sandpipers, than think about the image of God which fueled the hundreds of slave ships which crossed these waters in front of me.

My heart soars as I watch the image of God in this rising sun, and know what the ancient biblical writers could not have known: that this is one of a trillion sun-stars, and a fairly minor sized one at that. I see God better in the golden explosion of these early morning, sun-reflecting clouds better- infinitely better- than I do when I read the church-blessed history of the “godly” men who came to these shores 400 years ago with ships full of guns, germs, and plans to baptize and bless the “savages” who had lived here 6000 years on land they called “Father” near the waters they called “Mother.”

My heart aches as I think about the Japanese trawlers chasing down with high powered, 21st century harpoons the whale I saw yesterday, because a Japanese god wants whale oil burning in his temples. And my heart breaks when I think of the creature-killing weapons-testing happening beneath these waters because an American god says “My country, right or wrong, my country.”

It is the man-created images of God which infect my soul, not this billions year old image in front of me! The truest maps of creation are written on the backs of these seabirds, and in the God-writ words on the horizon. I can taste God here in the spray of saltwater. I can hear God in the symphonies of the sun and moon and the harmonies of the ceaseless waves. I can see God in paths of crabs and the nests of sea turtles. And I can touch God here, simply by lifting my hands.

Hallelujah!