Friday, February 15, 2013

The Most Profound Thing That Etty Hillesum Ever Wrote

This is the most profound thing that Etty Hillesum ever wrote:

"I see no alternative, each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others. And remember that every atom of hate we add to this world makes it still more inhospitable."

(The above was embedded in a long entry dated September 23, 1942.)

Jesus' once asked why we look at the splinter in our brother's eye when we don't notice the log in our own eye. That saying of Jesus hasn't gotten enough emphasis.

I know too many people that express slander and hatred freely and without conscience. It springs from original sin and ignorance of course, and some people are simply delusional. And sadly, quite a number of people like this are devoutly religious. Just as numerous are people who blindly believe and then repeat every slanderous allegation they hear. People like this are too numerous to deal with. 

The only thing that we have any hope of having real control over in our lives is ourselves. The only hope we can ever have of changing others, is that our own lives be a witness to the truth. 

I am not comfortable with Etty's choice of the word destroy. (though critics say that the translation is horrendous.) God does not want us to be self-destructive. Reform would have been a better choice of a word. We have to reform our own lives--our own hearts, minds, and souls, before we can ever have any chance of changing others. If we don't, then we are hypocrites, and simple observation of people shows that there is nothing like hypocrisy to dissuade people from something. If you want change, as Ghandi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Otherwise, we are nothing more than a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.


Etty Hillesum was a secular, assimilated Jew living in Amsterdam who died in Auswitch in 1943. The diary was written after the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, while the Nazis were persecuting the Jews and shipping them off to concentration camps. Etty had a degree in law and then studied Russian language and literature. On her own, she read philosophy, psychology, especially, Carl Jung, and poetry, especially Rilke. She was a patient,  personal secretary, and physical intimate of the psychoanalyst Julius Spier, also a Jew. He introduced her to the gospels and the writings of St. Augustine. Etty had several opportunities to escape the Nazi persecution, Instead she insisted on serving her fellow Jews to the very end and chose to suffer the same fate as they. Her last letter was a postcard tossed from the window of the train as it left for the Aushwitz concentration camp.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Resurrection of the Body, a Messy Idea Indeed...

The following is the first paragraph of an essay by Michael Novak. I found it worth pondering.
I've noticed among undergraduate students a difficulty accepting that Christians actually hold to the old Jewish belief of resurrection of the body and not to the Greek's, "immortality of the soul." Whether this issue arises while discussing Jesus' resurrection or the afterlife, I find myself explaining that Christians believe it is intrinsic to human beings to be physical in some way. Even if our current bodies are not prepared for permanence, Jesus' resurrection still indicates some sort of continuity, which Paul contemplates in the First Letter to the Corinthians. In our imaginations, the immortality of the soul is a less messy idea, if comfortably vague. When talking with my students, however, I argue that the idea of resurrection has more satisfying complex claims to make, wrapping together fundamental beliefs about being human, about the cosmos and the doctrine of Creation and our relation to our environment.  
- Michael Novak, The Man in the Mirror. America Magazine. Nov 12, 2012

The rest of the essay is a description of Novak's experience of having his facial appearance radically altered as a result of skin cancer.

Pope Benedict XVI Cites Etty Hillesum

On Ash Wednesday, in his general audience, the Pope mentioned Etty Hillesum.  If you read the context of his talk, Etty is in good company!   The Pope and I think alike! 
I also think the figure of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch woman of Jewish origin who died in Auschwitz. Initially far from God, she found Him looking deep inside herself and wrote: "There is a well very deep inside of me. And God is in that well. Sometimes I can reach Him, more often He is covered by stone and sand: then God is buried. We must dig Him up again "(Diary, 97). In her scattered and restless life, she finds God in the middle of the great tragedy of the twentieth century, the Shoah. This young fragile and dissatisfied woman, transfigured by faith, becomes a woman full of love and inner peace, able to say: "I live in constant intimacy with God."

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Through Peace to Light -- a Prayer

Today, while visiting my parents, I discovered that in the book my mother is currently reading, for a bookmark, she was using a transparent, plastic protector containing a small scrap of paper that had turned brown with age. The front of it read:

I do not ask my cross to understand,
   My way to see;
But that in darkness just to feel Thy hand
  And Follow Thee.

On the back was written in my mother's hand,  "Saint Joan of Arc / May 30, 1941." My mother said that it is the one prayer that always works. She explained that the prayer never fails to bring to awareness the presence of Jesus--making everything all right again (restoring faith and hope).

My mother is 81 years old, and she recalls that when she was about 10, she and some other girls visited a church, Saint Joan of Arc, in Jackson Heights (in Queens, New York City), and it was there that she found the prayer, tore it off from whatever paper it was on, and saved it. Since she not only saved it but wrote the date and location, it must have made a very strong imprint on my 10 year-old mother. Her own parish was Saint Bartholomew in Elmhurst (Queens also), and my mother recalls that the reason for the visit was that three of the churches in the area had organized a prayer pilgrimage that involved praying at all three churches. But my mother said that due to their age, she and the other girls only visited the one other church.

With a quick Google search, I discovered that the prayer is part of a poem that was written by an Englishwoman, Adelaide Anne Procter, (1825-1864).  I am not sure if the title of the poem is a reference to a particular line of scripture, but the body of the poem is based on Isaiah 40:28-31.

Per Pacem Ad Lucem

 I do not ask, O Lord, that life be
    A pleasant road;
 I do not ask that Thou wouldst take from me
    Aught of its load;

I do not ask that flowers should always spring
    Beneath my feet;
I know too well the poison and the sting
    Of things too sweet.

For one thing only, Lord, Dear Lord I plead,
    Lead me aright--
Though strength should falter, and though heart should bleed--
    Through Peace to Light.

I do not ask, O lord, that Thou shouldst shed
    Full Radiance here;
Give but a ray of peace, that I may tread
    Without a fear.

I do not ask my cross to understand,
    My way to see;
Better in darkness just to feel thy hand
    And follow Thee.

Joy is like restless day; but peace divine
    Like quiet night:
Lead me, O Lord,--till perfect Day shall shine
    Through Peace to Light.

Adelaide Anne Procter was the favorite poet of Queen Victoria.  She was the second most popular poet in England, after Alfred Lord Tennyson. She was a friend of Charles Dickens, who published many of her poems in the publications that he controlled, and he also wrote the introductions in some of the books that contained her poetry. She was very active in charitable works. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "Miss Procter was of a charitable disposition: she visited the sick, befriended the destitute and home- less, taught the ignorant, and endeavored to raise up the fallen ones of her own sex. She was generous yet practical with the income derived from her works. In 1859 she served on a committee to consider fresh ways and means of providing employment for women; in 1861 she edited a miscellany, entitled "Victoria Regia", which had some of the leading litterateurs of the time as contributors and which was set up in type by women compositors; and in 1862 she published a slender volume of her own poems, "A Chaplet of Verses", mostly of a religious turn, for the benefit of the Providence Row night refuge for homeless women and children, which, as the first Catholic Refuge in the United Kingdom, had been opened on 7 October, 1860, and placed under the care of the Sisters of Mercy."

Incidentally, the book my mother was reading was Rediscovering Catholicism, by Matthew Kelly. At my brother Matthew's parish, they were giving the book out for free. He did not have time to read it, so he gave it to my mother.