Notes from Underground – March 2021
"In its simplest form, contemplative action is the capacity to act without re-acting – to act, not from a place of compulsion or rivalry, but freely, with courage, creativity, and compassion. This is how we participate in the ongoing work of Creation."
In its simplest form, contemplative action is the capacity to act without re-acting – to act, not from a place of compulsion or rivalry, but freely, with courage, creativity, and compassion. This is how we participate in the ongoing work of Creation. The contemplative activist sees in wholes. Gone are the artificial divisions of “us and them.” The end of all action is union, co-union, communion. If the past year teaches us anything our world could use a few more contemplative activists.
This month we turn to Etty Hillesum for guidance. In my view, Etty was a 20th-century saint. She voluntarily went to Westerbork concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, to “share her people’s fate.” She was killed in Auschwitz in 1943 at 29 years old.
Here is the final sentence of the diary that survived her. “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.”
How does an incredibly talented, but deeply troubled soul, who grew up in a chaotic household with no religious conviction, become a contemplative activist of the highest order?
Etty was anything but conventional. She first learned to pray, not in synagogue or church, but on her bathroom floor. This strong-willed woman, who “refused to kneel” to anyone, eventually discovers herself kneeling freely and in constant dialogue with God, who she experienced as a “vulnerable presence.” She learned that “one can pray anywhere, in a wooden barracks just as well as in a stone monastery, or indeed anywhere on this earth where God, in these troubled times, feels like casting God’s likeness.”
If you have not read, Etty’s, An Interrupted Life, I highly recommend it, though reading Etty for the first time is like doing a double shot of whiskey in one gulp. Her confessional letters and diary are a shock to the system. Her rapid transformation from a self-conscious, needy and tumultuous spirit to the balm of Christ in the midst of utter hell is hard to fathom. For most of us this sort of thing takes a lifetime and comes only in glimpses, but for Etty great love and great suffering speed up the process.
Her soul shines through the pages of her diary with unfiltered and sometimes searing immediacy. However, if she was a saint (as I believe) it wasn’t because of her moral piety. She refused all forms of fake goodness. For example, she had the most unusual relationship with her therapist, turned lover. In fact, he played an important role in her spiritual awakening, introducing her to the Bible, Augustine, Rilke, and Dostoyevsky. Perhaps because of her unconventional life, her writings never achieved the same level of popularity as Anne Frank. This is unfortunate because Etty is a 200-proof mystic and model of Christ-likeness.
By the time Etty chooses to share the fate of her people at Westerbork, she has found the sound of the genuine in her soul (see last month’s reflection). It’s at this point that her writings take on a spiritual clarity and vitality fired in the kiln of what she called “naked reality.”
Here is one example. Just prior to being transferred to Auschwitz and suffering the most deplorable conditions, she wrote this prayer.
You have made me so rich, oh God, please let me share out your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue. Sometimes I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on Your earth, my eyes raised toward Your heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude and that is my prayer…I may never become the great artist I would really like to be, but I am already secure in You, God…all my creative powers are translated into inner dialogues with You. The beat of my heart has grown deeper, more active, and yet more peaceful, and it is as if I were all the time storing up inner riches.
By some huge act of grace, Etty maintained her interior freedom and dignity to the end. Without denying the barbarity of Nazi terror, she could see and act upon the indestructible beauty of the world and God’s presence in all things.
Some have suggested her brand of contemplative action was too passive in the face of evil. Maybe. And yet, she managed to affirm her own humanity and the humanity of those around her, including those who were intent on killing her. Perhaps her critics do not know how radically subversive joy can be, or its power to make all things new. “For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Heb.12:12). It’s nearly impossible to imagine, and dangerous when taken out of context, but while being transported to Auschwitz, she managed to slip her last surviving note out of the train. It was later found by a Dutch farmer in a field. It read, “We left the camp singing.”
I’m sorry if that sounds too domesticated, like Etty had given up. My sense is that Etty was anything but tame. Like the Holy Spirit who empowered her, Etty was wild and free.
Though it sometimes terrifies me, I am praying that the Spirit of Christ that empowered Etty continues to empower us. How else can we see and celebrate Good News in hard places?