"Stay in the present as much as possible," a wise friend advises me; postpone thinking of tomorrow. He and I keep learning from each other the basic spiritual value of mindfulness.
For some reason, I thought about this not in relation to my own anxieties but to the way Etty Hillesum faced the Holocaust. In 1999, I wrote an article on her spirituality, noting that this courageous woman, whose life ended at 29, deserved to be better known; that is still true.
Esther (Etty) Hillesum was a cultivated, assimilated Dutch Jewish woman, who worked in Amsterdam as a translator and teacher, but her real aim was to be a writer. Before leaving to join her fellow Jews on their way to what would be their deaths at Auschwitz in 1943, she kept a diary that has been published as An Interrupted Life. There we see her, like so many others, struggle with a lack of confidence in writing, yet growing, page by page, more eloquent as her faith in God becomes stronger through her writing.
She records her day-by-day experiences with fear and loneliness and love, refusing to focus on what might lie ahead, savoring the present in her own quiet little corner of the world. Finding safety in the silence of wordless prayer, she writes, "Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two breaths, or the turning inward for five short minutes."
Etty Hillesum was never published in her lifetime, but her luminous spirit can inspire anyone interested in writing as a key to the inner life. This is something she creates with words, with the desire to "describe the silence and the stillness." Writing is a form of prayerful meditation which keeps her sane while the world outside her little apartment is exploding with madness. She turns inward in what she calls "an uninterrupted dialogue with God."
"We must become as simple and wordless as the growing corn or the falling rain. We must just be." Her diary records the birth of a poet who senses the silent presence of God within her. As a result, she can write: "a hint of eternity steals through my smallest daily activities...I am not alone in my tiredness or sickness or fears but at one with millions of others of many centuries and it is all part of life."
In my article I compared her to Simone Weil, who also displayed the tough inner spirit of a courageous mystic. Etty writes, "In a labour camp I should die within three days. I should lie down and die and still not find life unfair."
Her final words, written on a postcard that she tossed out the train window as she and her family were taken away: "we left the camp singing." Apparently, others testified, she kept up the spirits of her fellow victims.
Among the many riches in this diary and letters, two things: an intense savoring of the present moment, giving prayerful attention to each hour of each day; and a growing sense of God dwelling in her heart: "I repose in myself. And that part of myself, that deepest and richest part in which I repose, is what I call 'God'."
Etty Hillesum does not hold God responsible for the evil she is caught up in. She says, rather, that "we must help You to help ourselves." In her writing, like that of St. Augustine and Rilke, her favorite poet, she often talks directly to God.
Although she had abundant reasons to be terrified, Etty Hillesum faced her greatest fears with the courage of amazing grace.