Academic journal article Magistra

Attentive to Transcendence: The Life of Etty Hillesum

Academic journal article Magistra

Attentive to Transcendence: The Life of Etty Hillesum

Article excerpt

Is there a mystery which beckons beyond present reality, a something (or someone) that is greater than the self, more than the human, more than anything creation can contain? What would make humans suspect that there is such a reality? Are there any clues in human experience which would warrant such a belief? If there truly is a self-transcending rhythm or, as T. S. Eliot puts it, a "music heard so deeply/That it is not heard at all,"(1) is there any way to become attuned to it so that we could live in greater harmony with what is deepest within us?

Indeed, notes of the transcendent melody echo throughout the centuries and resound in people who dare to place themselves at the disposal of a life-giving rhythm greater than themselves. Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman living in Amsterdam in the early 1940's, is one of these mediators of the transcendent in the world. Her commitment to discover that which was deepest in her, and to face the sometimes frightening discords which seemed to obscure the melody, was motivated by a desire which reached far beyond her own self.

Struggling through setbacks, obstacles and diversions, she came to a realization that what was deepest within her was intimately linked with transcendent reality. Thus, she interpreted the source of her being truly "at home" as being intimately connected with God:

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.(2)

From her life in Amsterdam, to the labor camp, to Auschwitz, she underwent a dramatic transformation in what it meant to live and love with authenticity.

The Etty Hillesum who began her diaries at age twenty-seven in 1941 was a woman torn by conflicting forces. Through her written reflections, one first meets an intelligent, passionate woman imprisoned by erotic drives, self-consciousness and waves of depression. The restrictions on Dutch Jews and forebodings of concentration camps in Poland played a minor role in her life at this time because of the war she continually experienced raging within her. She described her own state: "I long for something and don't know what it is. Inside I am totally at a loss, restless, driven, and my head feels close to bursting again" (Diaries, 18-19).

Yet it was precisely at this desperate point in her life that she began the discipline of what she called "working on herself" as she declared:

[M]y awareness is growing apace and everything that was locked up in my head until now in the shape of precisely worked-out formulae is about to flow into my heart. But my exaggerated self-consciousness will have to go first -- I still enjoy this in-between state too much (Diaries, 9).

Despite any embarrassment or pain or feeling of destitution, her desire to discover the truth beckoned her "to live fully, outwardly and inwardly, not to ignore external reality for the sake of the inner life, or the reverse..." (Diaries, 24). It was the decisions which flowed from this resolve to be attentive that constituted her life. She shifted from a narcissistic self-consciousness to a reflection on self that was passionately centered in her desire to live an authentic human life.

This kind of attentiveness was not an exercise reserved for times of tranquility. Rather, it was an activity that permeated all the patterns of her life and came to grips with successes as well as breakdowns. It was spurred by a desire for what was of value rather than for what merely satisfied at the moment. She regarded forebodings and intuition as part of the data from which to draw, but practiced "mental hygiene" in organizing the data, lest she drown in imagination and emotions. When she thought she was about to collapse under the weight of her own sufferings and the pogroms taking place around her, she did not dismiss her feelings but squarely encountered them.

In the ensuing struggle, she discovered that many of her desperate questions gave way to a deep sense of the order and meaning in life. …

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