A reflection on Etty Hillesum, by Tim Summers
The following is an extract from the letters of Etty Hillesum, the contemplative who was murdered at Auchwitz.
"Then suddenly it drops away, all of it, and a benevolent tiredness enters the brain, then everything feels calm again, then I am filled with a sort of bountifulness, even toward myself, and a veil envelops me through which life seems more serene and often much friendlier as well. And 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 realise 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.”
Etty's diaries and letters describe a process of transformation from inner turmoil, during her young adulthood, to maturity and wisdom and, as the Nazi persecution intensified, spiritual awakening. "Those two months behind barbed wire have been the two richest and most intense months of my life, in which my highest values were so deeply confirmed. I have learnt to love Westerbork."
Last week I quoted Dostoevksy's monk Zosima, telling his deathbed story of how, 50 years earlier, his brother experienced a death of ego in the months before his physical death. What remained to Zosima's brother, when his sense of distinctness and importance, ambition and grievance and the need to fight, fell away? What remained was love -- love for all people and all creation.
One great mystical insight seems to be that we humans, in our deepest heart, are full of love. It only requires that we get free of the accretions of self to find, deep within us, this core of love -- that same love that "moves the sun and all the other stars." Such a vision might come to us at the oddest time, unsought by us, before the clouds return. Many a saint and sage has been started on the spiritual path by just such a spontaneous experience, before spending a lifetime in meditation trying to recover the feeling!
But it is this experience that mystics in all traditions describe: the feeling of being "at one with all existence" as Etty Hillesum puts it. This is the insight of Zosima's brother, expressed in different words in the harshest possible time and place. Etty was writing as a Jew under the Nazis during the Second World War. But in the face of deadly threats, imprisonment and impending death, she records her growing experience of boundary-less love, oceanic in its breadth and depth, her feeling of unity with everything -- even her persecutors.
Was this not also the insight constantly animating Jesus, as summed up in His words from the cross: "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do"?
The above image is a portrait of Etty Hillesum in 1940.