A sermon preached in King’s College Chapel, Sunday 29 January 2017
Etty Hillesum lived from 1914 to 1943. A Dutch Jew, she died like so many in the Holocaust. She is known today because her diaries and letters from the last two years of her life, which run to over 400 pages, were published in 1981 (in English in 1999 by Persephone Books) as ‘An Interrupted Life’. It is a book that offers profound insights, not only for the historian of the period, but also to anyone who is interested in spirituality.
Etty was fascinated by the question of how to live a good and balanced life, whatever the circumstances. In 1941, she began to practice meditation – though confessing herself ‘wary’ of the word. She soon found that it was ‘not so simple’ and that before one can be peaceful, ‘A lot of unimportant inner litter and bits and pieces have to be swept out. Even a small head can be piled high inside with irrelevant distractions’ (p33). She writes about the aim of meditation being ‘to turn one’s innermost being into a vast empty plain, with none of that treacherous undergrowth to impede the view. So that something of ‘God’ can enter you, and something of ‘Love’ too’ (p33).
She occasionally felt drawn to a cloistered life, but recognised that it was not right for her.
Sometimes I long for a convent cell, with the sublime wisdom of centuries set out on bookshelves all along the wall and a view across the cornfields … and there I would immerse myself in the wisdom of the ages and in myself. Then I might perhaps find peace and clarity. But that would be no great feat. It is right here, in this very place, in the here and now, that I must find them. But it is all so terribly difficult, and I feel so heavy-hearted (p44).
Alongside what you might call this spiritual planning and longing, her experience of prayer is that it has a surprising and spontaneous quality. Catching herself making an unkind observation she prays, ‘Lord, free me from all these petty vanities. They take up too much of my inner life, and I know only too well that other things matter much more than being thought nice and charming by one’s fellows.’ (p141).
Although candid, Etty is rather uncomfortable about aspects of her spiritual longing and desire. Like many modern people she found the word ‘God’ a difficult one to know how to use. But if the existence and nature of God were a puzzle to her so too was the question of how to relate to God – and this expressed itself in a curious bodily form; in particular in her feelings about kneeling. Indeed she came to see learning to kneel as a hugely significant part of her life-journey, writing of herself as ‘the girl who could not kneel but learnt to do so on the rough coconut matting in an untidy bathroom’ (p74). Six months later, on Good Friday 1942, she wrote that, ‘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’ (p129).
This is an intriguing theme for us to come across in the season of Epiphany when the story of the magi who travelled to worship the Christ-Child is our guiding spiritual light, and our eyes naturally drift to Ruben’s great painting for inspiration. Perhaps we should allow ourselves a moment to reflect on our use of gestures of reverence – pausing, bowing our heads or bending our knees, and recognising in an unhurried moment God’s transcendent loving-kindness made known in the person of Jesus Christ, and entering into some kind of communion with God through an act of obeisance.
It is obvious that Etty’s journals were written under the shadow of occupation and fear, and the increasingly overt and brutal persecution of her community. Her prayer-life and spirituality developed as things got worse and she struggled to cope with life in the Westerbork concentration camp.
In fact, as time went by there rose up within her a conviction that, despite all the squalid horror and cruelty around her, life is always good and beautiful. In both her diaries and her letters she is a profoundly articulate witness to the capacity of the human spirit to transcend the snares of gloom and to be refreshed and renewed. ‘God is not accountable to us, but we are to him!’, she asserts with the surprise of a spiritual Eureka moment (p183). ‘I have already died a thousand deaths in a thousand concentration camps. I know about everything and am no longer appalled by the latest reports. In one way or another I know it all. And yet I find life beautiful and meaningful. From minute to minute.’ (p184). Later she records saying to a friend with whom she has been discussing ‘all the ultimate questions’: ‘But you know … like a child I still feel life is beautiful, and this helps me bear everything… You see, I believe in God.’
It would be wrong to suggest that Etty was an orthodox Jewish woman or to appropriate her as an ‘anonymous Christian’; her faith-status, so to speak, is deeply ambiguous. And yet it is perhaps this ambiguity, together with the honesty of her writing about the relational tangles of her life, and her acute and pressing awareness of what she calls ‘the ocean of human suffering’ (p158) that make her an especially helpful guide to spiritual seekers today. And we, in this Chapel, might well ask ourselves what it means to ‘worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’ when we cannot help but be aware of the ocean of contemporary suffering, and when we are so unsettled about the way on which the political structures are reforming themselves in our time; and doing so largely, it seems, on principles that are a long way from those inspired by love, justice, truth and peace. These are values that Christians and Jews and many others would attribute to God and, as Provost Whichote so memorably put it in the seventeenth century, they are qualities that we should propose to ourselves as matters of ‘practice and imitation’.
And the question of spirituality, the question with which Etty Hillesum so articulately wrestles, is this: how do we do that? How do we make justice, truth, mercy and peace both the core of our inner being and the hallmarks of our actions?
The quest to live in this way is what we rightly call spirituality, and in Etty’s book we can see the progress of one young woman along just this journey. Let me conclude this brief introduction to this fascinating and illuminating character by quoting in part the words in her diary that summarise a prayer that, as she puts it, she babbled out the previous evening while cycling home through the cold and dark.
God take me by Your hand, I shall follow You dutifully, and not resist too much. I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can. But now and then grant me a short respite. I shall never again assume, in my innocence, that any peace that comes my way will be eternal. I shall accept all the inevitable tumult and struggle. I delight in warmth and security, but I shall not rebel if I have to suffer cold, should You so decree. I shall follow you wherever Your hand leads me and shall try not to be afraid. (p77)
Etty died in Auschwitz on 23rd November 1943, but through her writing her spirit lives on to encourage and console us as we prepare ourselves to face whatever challenges and trials may unfold; she was not a perfect person by any means, but she was thoughtful, deep, articulate and courageous, and her testimony shines out as transfiguring light from a time of deep, deep darkness.