Etty Hillesum wrote her diaries and letters surrounded by the shadow of the Holocaust and her writings describe an extraordinary inner journey or spiritual transformation based on self-reflection and a drive towards her own truth which led to an increasing dependence and love of God. Etty understood the interweaving of the spiritual and the psychological and her insights reflect this: ‘My protracted headaches: so much masochism; my abundant compassion: so much self-gratification’.
Where Etty, despite the appalling context in which she writes, is similar to the others whom I have used (Carl Jung, Roberta Bondi and Harry Williams) is her courage to follow the thread of her own experience and this inexorably led her towards God. It led her to surrender, despite everything, in gratitude for all that was given her; a profound self-acceptance and acceptance of others; and a conviction of life as meaningful with an inward beauty and rightness. She could feel the inner harmony of the world, despite the outer disharmony.
Etty begins in this way: ‘I’ll “turn inward” for half an hour each morning before work and listen to my inner voice. Lose myself. You could also call it meditation…But it’s not so simple, that sort of “quiet hour”. It has to be learnt… let this be the aim of meditation to turn one’s innermost being into a vast empty plain, with none of that treacherous undergrowth to impede the view. So that something of “God” can enter you, and something of “Love” too … the love you can apply to small everyday things.’
Shortly after writing this Etty writes of the increasing numbers of arrests, the terror, the concentration camps and the arbitrary dragging away of people. ‘We seek the meaning of life, wondering whether any meaning can be left. But that is something each one of us must settle with himself and with God. And perhaps life has its own meaning, even if it takes a lifetime to find it. I for one have ceased to cling to life and to things.’
Struggling with the fear and the ‘suffering of mankind’ she writes, ‘I feel like a small battlefield, in which the problems, or some of the problems, of our time are being fought out… Life itself must be our fountainhead, never something or someone else.’
Later she writes on her need to accept herself and transform the inner heaviness into light. She muses on what it might be like in a convent perhaps she could feel peace and clarity but resolves that: ‘it is right here, in this very place, in the here and now, that I must find them.’
Early in her diary she writes:
There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then he must be dug out again.
I imagine that there are people who pray with their eyes turned heavenward. They seek God outside themselves. And there are those who bow their head and bury it in their hands. I think that these seek God inside.