Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.
My friend, fellow writer, AIDS volunteer and chaplain Pat Hoffman gave me a copy of Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life during the early years of the AIDS crisis in southern California. She thought Etty’s diaries witnessing the Nazi takeover of her native Holland and the deportation of Jews to German death camps might speak to the experience of the prematurely interrupted lives we were beholding.
As I read, Etty also spoke to my sexuality, my writing, and my progressive faith. Unbound by religious trappings, subsequently claimed by both Jews and Christians, this young Jewish woman wrote, “When I pray, I hold a silly, naïve or deadly serious dialogue with what is deepest inside me, which for convenience sake I call God.”
As the editor of her letters, G. K. Garlaandt explains in the introduction, “Her mysticism led her not into solitary contemplation but squarely back into the world of action. Her vision had nothing to do with escape or self-deception, and everything to do with a hard-won, steady and whole perception of reality.”
Etty claimed a sense of equilibrium in the face of virulent madness as she wrote, “I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for everything in a single life. For belief in God and for a miserable end.”
And, as she anticipated being transported to Germany and its concentration camps, she boldly prayed:
Dear God, these are anxious times. Tonight for the first time I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene of human suffering passed before me. I shall promise You one thing God, just one very small thing: I shall never burden my today with cares about my tomorrow, although that takes some practice. Each day is sufficient unto itself. I shall try to help you, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that you cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well.
Speaking about Etty Hillesum this past Sunday as an example of “Our Lives as Sacred Texts,” I was reminded that today, November 30, is the anniversary of her death at Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of 29. And this is the eve of World AIDS Day, December 1.
Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen advised against comparing the intensity of one’s suffering with that of others, explaining, “Your suffering is your own.” Yet Etty’s interrupted life shares a continuum with other interrupted lives, just as her words speak to my own vocation of writing:
Such longing to jot down a few words! Such a strong sense of: here on these pages I am spinning my thread. And a thread does run through my life, through my reality, like a continuous line. … It’s not so much the imperfect words on these faint blue lines, as the feeling, time and again, of returning to a place from which one can continue to spin one and the same thread, where one can gradually create a continuum, a continuum which is really one’s life.