Etty Hillesum

I have come across Etty Hillesum. She is one of the examples used by Oliver Davies in his Theology of Compassion. The fascinating thing about her is that she is a natural mystic. Her religious background is agnostic – a nominal Jew – until the Germans began their extermination process in Holland. She reminds me of one girl I taught, whose name I have now forgotten, who was also a natural mystic with no religious background at all. I am looking forward to reading Etty’s diaries. The other interesting thing is that her mysticism leads her, not to solitary contemplation, or a rejection of all things worldly, but to immerse herself in the terrible suffering of her fellow Jews. She wants to be the seeing, caring, compassionate heart of the concentration camp, articulating, praying and witnessing.

I am also reading Thomas Merton’s journals and find it very interesting to compare his experience with Etty’s. He never uses one word where ten will do and is very pious in a Catholic sense – big on the Sacred Heart and Our Lady. It is interesting to see how, as he gets older, his prayer life becomes simpler, darker and more barren. Not that I have anything against devotion. It just never appealed to me. It always seemed to me as though it got in the way, like a lot of gaudy tinsel and fancy wrapping paper when the important thing is to get at the present underneath. Except that the box is empty and there is no present underneath – nothing that can be expressed or talked about. Merton loves all the monastic ritual, especially the sung Office. And he has his devotions but it is an imposed and acquired spirituality, put on, like the habit, when he entered the monastery. This is the early Merton. Later, he sees through the superficial externals and sets out into the desert of his solitary hermitage. That is why I am so interested in Etty’s spirituality. She knows nothing of theology, or ritual, or devotion. It is a spirituality immersed in people and relationships, in powerlessness and suffering. There are no ecclesiastical externals, no theologically determined rules about what is and is not correct. It is a discovery of God within herself and within the helpless suffering of her people.

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