Etty Hillesum

Mystics and Non-Dual Thinkers: Week 5

Etty Hillesum
Friday, August 14, 2015

I only came to know and appreciate Etty Hillesum (1914-1943), a Dutch Jewish woman, after 1981 when her journals and letters were first published. Etty’s diaries describe German-occupied Amsterdam from 1941-1943. Though Etty had the opportunity to stay in Amsterdam, she chose to go to Westerbork concentration camp, to “share her people’s fate.” She was transferred to Auschwitz in September 1943 and died that November.

Etty never fully identified as a Christian or religious, but her personal writing reveals a mystic, someone who had a deep awareness of her own inner life and her union with others and God. She easily weaves in and out of prayer, exploring the mundane and ordinary—setting the table, teaching Russian—the erotic and romantic, and her human longings and fears. We witness an evolution of faith and growing maturity in her diaries. Etty struggles with sexual attractions, emotional neediness, and self-consciousness. Gradually she becomes able to simply observe herself and those around her without attaching to desires for particular outcomes, even for her loved ones’ safety or her health.

Etty learned from her teacher and lover, Julius Spier, the expression “reposing in oneself” and used it to describe her love of life and equanimity with self and circumstances: “I repose in myself. And that part of myself, that deepest and richest part in which I repose, is what I call ‘God.’ . . . ‘As if I were lying in Your arms, oh God, so protected and sheltered and so steeped in eternity.’ As if every breath I take were filled with it and as if my smallest acts and words had a deeper source and a deeper meaning. . . . [One’s body] can love and hineinhorchen—‘hearken unto’—itself and unto what binds us to life. . . . Truly, my life is one long hearkening unto myself and unto others, unto God.  And if I say that I hearken, it is really God who hearkens inside me. The most essential and deepest in the other. God to God” (204).

As powerful as Etty’s inner experience of God was, she could move outward and work for the well-being of the “bundles of human misery, desperate and unable to face life. And that’s when my task begins. It is not enough simply to proclaim You, God, to commend You to the hearts of others. One must also clear the path toward You in them, God, and to do that one has to be a keen judge of the human soul. A trained psychologist. Ties to father and mother, youthful memories, dreams, guilt feelings, inferiority complexes, and all the rest block the way. I embark on a slow voyage of exploration with everyone who comes to me. . . . Sometimes they seem to me like houses with open doors. . . . I promise that I shall try to find a dwelling and a refuge for You in as many houses as possible. There are so many empty houses, and I shall prepare them all for You, the most honored lodger.” [2]

Gateway to Silence:
“If we go down into ourselves, we find that we possess exactly what we desire.” —Simone Weil

References:
[1] Etty Hillesum, translated by Arnold Pomerans, foreword by Eva Hoffman, An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 204.
[2] Ibid., 205.

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