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Coming to Terms with Life and Love

Choosing Love in a Time of Evil

Coming to Terms with Life and Love
Tuesday, May 18, 2021

I have been deeply moved by the wisdom of Etty Hillesum (1914–1943) for quite some time, and found myself returning to her journals many times over this past year. She died at Auschwitz at the age of 29, but her deepening relationship with God in the last two years of her life led her into great solidarity with those who suffered and to loving God even in her enemies. Living at the Westerbork transit camp, first as an employee of the Jewish Council and later as an inmate, Hillesum did everything in her power to help others. Here are excerpts of her wisdom:

I kneel once more on the rough coconut matting, my hands over my eyes, and pray: “Oh, Lord, let me feel at one with myself. Let me perform a thousand daily tasks with love, but let every one spring from a greater central core of devotion and love.” Then it won’t really matter what I do and where I am. . . .

We human beings cause monstrous conditions, but precisely because we cause them we soon learn to adapt ourselves to them. Only if we become such that we can no longer adapt ourselves, only if, deep inside, we rebel against every kind of evil, will we be able to put a stop to it. . . .

Etty Hillesum knew that the banality of evil makes it harder to recognize, and easier to adapt ourselves to it. As the war continued, she fully accepted the “cruciform nature of reality” and chose to love ever more consciously:

By “coming to terms with life” I mean: the reality of death has become a definite part of my life; my life has, so to speak, been extended by death, by my looking death in the eye and accepting it, by accepting destruction as part of life and no longer wasting my energies on fear of death or the refusal to acknowledge its inevitability. It sounds paradoxical: by excluding death from our life we cannot live a full life, and by admitting death into our life we enlarge and enrich [life]. . . .

We could fight war and all its excrescences by releasing, each day, the love that is shackled inside us, and giving it a chance to live. . . .

All that matters now is to be kind to each other with all the goodness that is in us. . . .

And there is only one way of preparing the new age, by living it even now in our hearts. . . .

I love people so terribly, because in every human being I love something of You [God]. . . .

Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.

Reference:
Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941–1943; and, Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 70, 96, 155, 95, 164, 185, 198, 218.

Story from Our Community:
How does a little girl make sense of her mother dying when she was 3? Or her father marrying a person who murdered him a few years later? For me, Fr. Richard’s words “If you don’t transform your pain, you transmit it” is a matter of life or death. Meeting Jesus again at 40 took the blinders off and unveiled the tapestry of my storyline—redemptive suffering, salvation, a loving Father, unconditional love, eternal perspective, a purpose, and new beginning. The truth will set you free. —Linda D.

Image credit: Chaokun Wang, The creatures dream 生灵之梦 (detail), 2017, photograph, Wikiart.
Image inspiration: A single deer under gray skies stands in a seemingly hopeless position. And yet . . . it is grounded, positioned to face what is before it, leaning forward into the wind. How have contemplatives who have come before us remained grounded and active in the face of oppressive systemic evils? How do we?
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