I still remember when the Lord gave me the grace to attend a lecture about her. Even my going to the venue for me proved challenging. I felt as I am heading to a labyrinth. Yet the effort was immensely rewarded!
The lady I am talking about is nowadays globally famous. Hers was a spiritual journey supported by her confessional letters and diaries that clearly attest her religious awakening within a horrible context of Jewish persecution by the heartless Nazi occupants in Amsterdam. Finally, she was deported and killed in the terrible Auschwitz concentration camp. History calls her by name: Esther “Etty” Hillesum.
The great relevance of Etty’s life for you and me stands in the fact that she was slowly led in her search for order in her life as the awful events of World War II evolved. Yes! Etty let God find her in those hellish circumstances of complete hatred and abhorrent injustices. Etty practically lived what the Serbian Orthodox holy man, Elder Taddeus Vitnovica, teaches: “Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture. If our thoughts are peaceful, calm, meek, and kind, then that is what our life is like. If our attention is turned to the circumstances in which we live, we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts and can have neither peace nor tranquility.”
Etty had an extremely troubled upbringing. She confessed: “I think my parents always felt out of their depth and as life became more and more difficult they were gradually so overwhelmed that they became quite incapable of making up their minds about anything. They gave us children too much freedom of action, and offered us nothing to cling to. That was because they never established a foothold for themselves. And the reason why they did so little to guard our steps was that they themselves had lost the way”.
Thanks to the positive influence of people like Han Wegerif, and, especially, Julius Spier, Etty was, slowly slowly, led into a new home wherein, through her friendship with these loving people, she started experiencing what it means to live into a warm human community. It was thanks to the love of these people that Etty was gradually introduced to the spiritual world. That world, with the transcendent God as its author, which greatly helped her to see “Heaven in Hell”.
Her deep relationship with God made Etty understand that God is infinitely good and that He is never to blame with what goes wrong in our world. She writes:
“I am ready for everything, for anywhere on this earth, wherever God may send me, and I am ready to bear witness in any situation and unto death that life is beautiful and meaningful and that it is not God’s fault that things are as they are at present, but our own. We have been granted every opportunity to enter every paradise, but we still have to learn to handle the opportunities. It is as if I shed further burdens from moment to moment, as if all the divisions there now are between men and nations are being removed for me. There are moments when I can see right through life and the human heart, when I understand more and more and become calmer and calmer and am filled with a faith in God that has grown so quickly inside me that it frightened me at first but has now become inseparable from me”.
However we can only best handle the opportunities given to us by God to enter every paradise by prayer.
“We must abandon our concerns to think of the others, whom we love. I want to say this: we must keep at the disposal of anyone we meet by chance on our path, and who needs it, all the strength and love and trust in God that we have in ourselves and that lately are growing wonderfully in me. Either you think only of yourself and your own preservation, without regard, or you distance yourself from all your personal desires and surrender. For me, this surrender is not based on resignation, which is a death, but is directed where God sends me by adventure to help as much as I can”.
Real prayer leads us to action which seeks and searches always for God’s order in our lives and in those of others!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap