Archive for Spiritual Joy

Are you a sacred activist?

Are You a Sacred Activist?   Take the Quiz!

  • Do you have a burning desire to change the world or make a difference?
  • Is there a cause or issue that breaks your heart?
  • Are you devoted to a spiritual practice such as prayer or meditation?
  • Are you concerned about the environment, social justice, non-violence and personal wellness?
  • Are you seeking for deeper meaning in your life?
  • Do you believe love is the essence and creative force of life?
  • Are you anxious about the current state of the world and looking for a way to pitch in?

If you answered YES to two or more of these questions then you are being called on to become a Sacred Activist – what author Andrew Harvey defines as a humble and divine agent of change to birth a new world of compassion, peace, justice and harmony.

In his new book, The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism, Harvey sounds an urgent clarion call to all who care deeply about the future of humanity and of the planet. “We need to not only fix the existing system but radically transform it so we no longer, by our choices, threaten our lives or the lives of millions of species.”

Harvey’s book reveals how the large-scale practice of Sacred Activism can become an essential way for preserving and healing the planet and its inhabitants. Harvey believes the current crisis at hand drives us towards the positive practice of justice, equality and harmony with nature such as the new movements towards ecological sustainability, social justice and non-violence, the advent of new alternative forms of technology and energy, and more.

In his book, Harvey offers seven powerful laws for Sacred Activism and he shows that neither the noble, pragmatic work of the activist nor the passive spirituality of the individual is enough to change the world. These two must be fused to become an unstoppable force of transformational love and compassion in action to affect meaningful change –beginning with ourselves.

This year Harvey officially launched The Institute for Sacred Activism , which offers a year-long global curriculum for implementing his philosophy and vision and is dedicated to continuing the tremendous work of extraordinary ordinary people such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and Desmond Tutu. Each of these individuals rose up to meet the challenges of their time with great spiritual grace and integrated inner contemplation with decisive action.

For more information on how you can become a Sacred Activist or purchase a copy of The Hope: a Guide to Sacred Activism, visit:

Reprinted with permission, published in the September 2009 issue of Spirit Seeker Magazine,  Also found at The New Consciousness Review at


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Introduction: Spiritual joy

By Mack Winholtz

A time of suffering comes to every life. It may come in the form of a serious illness or the death of a loved one; in the ending of a relationship that has been central to our lives; in the unraveling of a vocation to which we deeply aspired; or it may come in the form of natural disaster or war. When this passage of suffering comes to our lives it helps to have guides who have traveled that path before us, and whose lives and words can help show us the way.

Following are brief stories of five such people who, as a result of World War II, faced unavoidable suffering or felt compelled by conscience to take actions that led to their suffering. A time of suffering represents a critical juncture in our lives because, depending on how we respond to it, suffering can shadow our lives with sorrow, bitterness and despair. Or, as the lives of these five people show, suffering can be a catalyst for spiritual transformation—evoking a person’s inner capacity for courage, compassion, integrity, love and even joy. In his book New Seeds of Contemplation the Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes: “Spiritual joy ignores suffering or laughs at it or even exploits it to purify itself of its greatest obstacle, selfishness. Pain can serve him as another opportunity of asserting—and tasting—his liberty . . . Pain cannot touch this highest joy—except to bring it an accidental increase of purity by asserting the soul’s freedom.” Despite the diversity of their backgrounds and circumstances, the lives of these five individuals seem to offer confirmation of Merton’s words.

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Spiritual joy: John Griffith

Note: To read a KC Olive Branch interview with John Griffith, go here.

In July of 1942, John Griffith, the twenty year old son of a Methodist minister in North Carolina, was arrested by the FBI and taken to the county jail to await trial. Several weeks earlier John informed the Selective Service System that he would refuse to register for the military draft as required by federal law. In the months preceding his decision John did a great deal of reading and thinking, especially on the implications of Jesus’ teachings for war, and on nonviolent alternatives to war (which Gandhi was at that time demonstrating in India). He weighed a wide range of alternatives: perhaps enlisting in the Coast Guard (since that would presumably entail only defensive action), or serving as a medic in the military, or applying for alternative service as a conscientious objector to war, or simply refusing to register for the draft. In the end, convinced that “war is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus,” he decided that he must oppose war by refusing to cooperate with the Selective Service system. Having acted on this conviction, John recalls that on the day of his arrest, “when the steel doors clanged shut behind me, I felt peaceful and happy.” These words seem to exemplify Merton’s concept of spiritual joy.

Released on bail after his initial stay in the county jail, John went for a few days to a Methodist conference center in the mountains of North Carolina, and while there he experienced a kind of spiritual opening. In a letter he wrote later to his father he says, “I only know that something let loose inside me and that for the first time in months I knew what peace was.” John writes that he knew then “that I would not register under any imaginable circumstances. I felt then that I was at the place of personal commitment Gandhi asked of his followers, ‘When using non-violent resistance, state the minimum objective of your resistance and be prepared to die for it’.”

During his subsequent imprisonment, John showed this same level of commitment when faced with issues of integrity, such as his being assigned to a job involving the production of war materiel, and the demeaning or unjust treatment of prisoners by guards. Among the guards there were several, John says, “who seemed to feel it their patriotic duty to harass ‘draft dodgers’.” From time to time John and the other war resisters actively opposed prison policies or guard actions by using nonviolent tactics such as work strikes, non-compliance with rules and orders, and hunger strikes, knowing there would likely be consequences, sometimes including solitary confinement.

The first time John was sent to solitary confinement he encountered a windowless cell with a solid steel door in the basement of a prison building. There was no furniture (although “for eight hours at night the occupant of a solitary confinement cell was given a filthy, urine-stinking mattress along with a dirty army blanket”), and he subsisted on a diet of water and two slices of white bread a day. John’s father, who happened to visit him just after his first time in solitary confinement, wrote in his diary that John’s physical appearance was “shocking,” and added: “They have other ways to kill besides shooting.” But despite the physical duress, John seems to have born solitary confinement with equanimity, using the time “to exercise, recite Bible verses, sing songs, and meditate.” Although, as John notes, “the Hole” was known to cause “inmates to suffer minor nervous breakdowns” or even commit suicide, he was able to get through the experience “with a minimum of mental anxiety.” He recalls being “in great spirits” at the time of his father’s visit.

When John became eligible for parole after two years, he was told that a condition of his release was that he sign papers stating that he would obey all laws of the United States—which of course included the law requiring that he register for the draft. Although it put his release in jeopardy, John refused to sign the papers, and despite the threats of prison officials John was released anyway. However, several days after arriving at his parents’ home following his release, a parole officer appeared at the door. The officer presented John with a draft card and a document listing conditions of his parole and said if he didn’t accept them he would be arrested. John refused to accept the documents and told the officer “if he would just give me a few minutes to pack my toothbrush, razor and a few personal belongings I would be ready to go . . . But then the parole officer left. I never heard from another parole official.”

In the account of his experience, John wished to acknowledge that “what little I may have suffered in prison is totally insignificant” when compared with the totality of suffering experienced by millions during WWII. Yet it seems clear that John bore the measure of suffering with which he was entrusted with dignity and a peaceful heart.

[Source: John H. Griffith, “War Resistance in World War II,” in A Few Small Candles: War Resisters of World War II Tell Their Stories, Larry Gara & Lenna Mae Gara, eds. (Kent State University Press, 1999) pp. 98-129.]

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Spiritual joy: William F. Roberts

William F. Roberts was born to Episcopalian missionaries in China where he lived for thirteen years. In the spring of 1942 when he was required by law to register for the draft he was a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Yale University. He of course weighed his decision carefully, but in the end “there was no internal struggle or agony of decision; I realized, almost as a matter of course, that I must follow the path of a conscientious objector.”

Like John Griffith, William felt compelled by conscience to resist war by refusing to register for the draft. After he was sentenced and put in prison he struggled with the question of whether he should cooperate with the prison system, in part because it functioned in effect as the enforcement arm of the conscription system. He writes: “Internally, there was always the unresolved (and unresolvable) tension between the merits of working within the system despite its evils and of refusing to accept those evils. I could not look to logic for a solution to the dilemma, for perfect consistency in noncooperation with the evils of the system meant refusing to eat or to be more than a limp rag doll, and I rebelled against that extreme. My reaction to the dilemma was like a pendulum, swinging from one side to the other, never achieving a stable resolution of the tension. As I wrote in April 1943 from Ashland [Penitentiary]: ‘My desire to act with complete honesty toward my feelings at the time, regardless of the act’s consistency with the past, has led me a merry chase trying to keep up with myself’.”

Rather than trying to rely on reason alone to guide his course of action, William increasingly surrendered to what his heart led him to do. In a letter to his mother he described his reaction to harsh criticism directed at him by a man who had been a close family friend: “six months ago, I would have given him a very confident, lofty-sounding answer in terms of absolute principles to any question he would have asked. In the ensuing months my answers have sunk from the intellectual, theological plane to the depths of feelings.” These words are reminiscent of a verse from the Tao Te Ching which portrays a person who has achieved a degree of mastery of spiritual practice. An excerpt from the verse goes:

The master gives up
To whatever the moment brings…
He doesn’t think about his actions,
They flow from the core of his being.

After serving one year of his three-year prison sentence, William was unexpectedly released on parole to work in a Boston hospital. Although he was content with his work situation, he struggled with whether he could in good conscience cooperate in this way with the prison system; he felt uneasy in part because he had left behind in prison other war resisters who had become close friends and were continuing to bear witness to their opposition to war as prisoners. In a letter to a friend in prison he wrote: “I think it will make you happy to hear, Larry, that the longer I am out here the more strongly do I know that I shall not compromise at all with Selective Service to stay out of jail. It is not on as idealistic a plane as it was before prison, but it is lots deeper and more a part of me.” In a subsequent letter he said “things are happening inside me—maybe I’ll see you soon.” And finally he wrote to say: “Congratulate me, Larry—I am a free man! I sent, a few days ago, a letter to the parole board saying that I no longer consider myself on parole, that the obligations and implications of parole are no longer tolerable. This is no sudden decision—nor can I point to a moment in which the decision was made. I never decided—I have known within myself that this thing was inevitable for many weeks—and suddenly it was natural and right to go ahead with it, which I have . . . What I have found out during these seven months [on parole] is that a real life requires the ingredient of a basic honesty—in the same way that human life requires food. And now I feel freer than I have ever been.”

In response to his letter to the parole board, William was rearrested by the FBI and taken to the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, to serve the remainder of his sentence (with no credit for the seven months he served on parole). A year or two after his release from prison William became a Trappist monk.

[Source: William P. Roberts, Jr. “Prison and Butterfly Wings,” in A Few Small Candles: War Resisters of World War II Tell Their Stories, Larry Gara & Lenna Mae Gara, eds. (Kent State University Press, 1999) pp. 152-173.]

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Spiritual joy: Maximilian Kolbe

Another remarkable individual whose life illustrates the arising of spiritual joy in response to suffering is the Polish Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe. At the outset of World War II Father Kolbe, then age 45, was head of a monastery which was home to over 600 Brothers, over 100 seminarians, and the largest religious publishing center in Poland. Despite his prominent leadership position he is described by those who knew him as humble, soft-spoken and open-hearted.

Patricia Treece (author of A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz) says that when military invasion by Germany appeared imminent Father Kolbe spoke to members of the monastery: “[He] spoke on how to use suffering to benefit oneself and others; how to rejoice in spite of sufferings and trials and, even in them, how to remain free—hence fearless—in any circumstances; and the importance of loving and praying for one’s persecutors. Kolbe said: ‘My sons, a frightful struggle threatens. War is much nearer than one can imagine. Whatever happens, everything will be for our good. We are in such a position that nothing can do us any harm. The moral and physical sufferings will only help towards our sanctification. In short, we are invincible’.” On another occasion he said “it is only through suffering that we learn how to love. In suffering we reach a high degree of sanctity and, at the same time, bring our persecutors to God.”

With the invasion of Poland in September, 1939, Father Kolbe was arrested by German soldiers and placed in an internment camp. After several months he was allowed to return to the monastery but a year later, in February, 1941, Father Kolbe was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Pawiak Prison, which the Gestapo used for interrogation and sometimes torture of prisoners before they were consigned to concentration camps or were taken to be shot. At that time members of the clergy were the target of systematic repression in Poland; thousands were imprisoned, and hundreds were shot. In times of crisis the Polish people had traditionally turned to the church for guidance and spiritual strength, and the occupation authorities apparently sought to preclude any opposition from this quarter. In May, Father Kolbe and hundreds of other prisoners were put in railroad freight cars and transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Because he was a priest Father Kolbe was often assigned to the hardest work details under the most brutal guards. On one occasion Father Kolbe’s work squad was assigned to clear a section of swampland. A fellow prisoner recalls that Father Kolbe “was singled out to carry loads that were two or three times what nonpriests carried” and then ordered to run with his load. When he fell to the ground the guard “kicked him mercilessly in the face and stomach.” He was then beaten so severely with a rod that he was unable to move and had to be carried back to the barracks by fellow prisoners. In the face of such brutality Father Kolbe maintained his belief in the transformative power of suffering for oneself and others—he prayed for his oppressors that their hearts might be transformed, and he urged his fellow prisoners to do the same.

Many of Father Kolbe’s fellow prisoners were struck by the sense of calm and peace which they felt in his presence. During the tense period of time just prior to the outbreak of war Father Kolbe had told some of the Brothers at the monastery that “in spite of the anxieties and worries of each day, at the bottom of my heart is always a peace and joy I can’t describe.” Consistent with this, a man who shared a cell with Father Kolbe at Pawiak Prison said “his whole person exuded something so calm and soothing that we all clustered close to him.” And a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz recalls that when Father Kolbe was admitted to the hospital for a time with a serious illness “at night under cover of dark,” other prisoners crawled on the floor to Father Kolbe’s bed, “begging him to hear their confessions or seeking comfort.”

Like the other prisoners at Auschwitz, Father Kolbe suffered from malnutrition, yet he sometimes shared a portion of his own meager rations with other prisoners. He also secretly gathered small groups of prisoners together for prayer and spiritual support, and he heard the confessions of those who requested it. A fellow prisoner recalls that when prisoners asked to receive communion “Father would take his own piece of bread, bless it, and give us each a piece. He refused to let us pay him back out of our rations.” Religious practice was prohibited in Auschwitz, so Father Kolbe risked a severe beating or death for these actions.

Another former prisoner at Auschwitz recalls that “morally, things had really broken down. The struggle to conserve one’s life had assumed a form so brutal that it was very rare for a prisoner to aid another.” In the face of this Father Kolbe “urged us to persevere courageously. ‘Do not break down morally’, he pleaded . . . He assured us that, although not all would survive, all of us would conquer.” Father Kolbe “kept encouraging us not to be afraid of dying, but to have at heart the salvation of our souls.”

The ultimate demonstration of Father Kolbe’s convictions came one day when the deputy commander of Auschwitz ordered the 600 prisoners in Father Kolbe’s barrack to assemble in lines and announced that a prisoner from that barrack had escaped. As a reprisal for the escape the officer then walked down the rows of prisoners and began to randomly select a group of prisoners who were to be locked in “death cells” and starved to death. When a man standing near Father Kolbe (a former sergeant in the Polish army) was selected, he began to sob for the wife and children he would leave behind. Although Father Kolbe apparently didn’t know the man personally, he stepped out of line, approached the deputy commander and asked if he could be sent to the death cell in the man’s place. The officer consented, and Father Kolbe and the others were led away.

A fellow prisoner who had been assigned to a work detail in the cell where Father Kolbe was held recalled that Father Kolbe retained his composure throughout the ordeal and did what he could to comfort the other condemned men. He also recalled that Kolbe “looked directly and intently into the eyes of those entering the cell. Those eyes of his were always strangely penetrating. The SS men couldn’t stand his glance, and used to yell at him, ‘Look at the ground, not at us’.”

[Source: Patricia Treece, A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz (San Francisco, Harper & Row Publishers, 1982).]

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Spiritual joy: Jacques Lusseyran

Another exemplar of spiritual joy is Jacques Lusseyran, who was a high school student in Paris at the time the German army occupied France in 1940. Although he had been totally blind since age eight as the result of an accident, Lusseyran, who was then sixteen, decided to organize his friends and other students into an underground group to resist the occupation. Within a year the group numbered some 600 members who produced and distributed an illegal underground newspaper despite the risk of imprisonment, torture or death if they were caught. Lusseyran describes the mood of both surrender and joy he experienced in the resistance movement:

“Aside from Philippe, who had a family . . . I had not a single friend who had anything left to lose. They had given up literally everything except life. As a result there was not a trace of frivolity left in them . . . On my word of honor, the air was different where my friends were. There you could smell joy. Even when they were sad and talking about their own death, the smell of their talk was good and gave you a lift.”

Lusseyran was eventually betrayed by a pro-Nazi student who infiltrated the resistance group, resulting in the arrest of Lusseyran and other leaders of the group. During the intense interrogation sessions that followed, Lusseyran observed: “It was a fact that when I managed to forget their presence, when I forgot everything except what I found in the depths of my being, in the innermost sanctum of my inner world, in the place which, thanks to blindness, I had learned to frequent, and where there is absolutely nothing but pure light—when this happened the SS did not wait for my answers; they changed the subject. Then, naturally, they didn’t know what they were doing, and I knew it hardly any better.”

What Lusseyran is referring to in this passage is that after he became blind he found that he could sometimes perceive the people and objects around him as light or as a subtle “pressure” that projected beyond the physical limits of the objects. When out walking he could sense the location of trees along the road as well as other objects such as walls, doorways and windows. But he discovered that this was possible only when he was inwardly very still, attentive and receptive; if he tried to control the experience or became impatient, he failed. “I had to let the trees come toward me, and not allow the slightest inclination to move toward them.” When he was able to do so, “then rocks and trees came to me and printed their shape upon me like fingers leaving their impression in wax.”

The experience of spiritual joy which Merton describes would likely be facilitated by the ability to free the mind from the grip of incessant thoughts, impulses and emotions—to drop into a place of inner stillness and receptivity—and this is precisely the discipline which Luceyran’s blindness required of him. Lusseyran found that the arising of negative emotions was an impediment to his “seeing.” “Still, there were times,” he wrote, “when the light faded, almost to the point of disappearing. It happened every time I was afraid . . . What the loss of my eyes had not accomplished was brought about by fear. It made me blind . . . When I was playing with my small companions, if I suddenly grew anxious to win, to be first at all costs, then all at once I could see nothing. Literally I went into fog or smoke. I could no longer afford to be jealous or unfriendly, because as soon as I was, a bandage came down over my eyes . . . all at once a black hole opened, and I was helpless inside it. But when I was happy and serene, approaching people with confidence and thought well of them, I was rewarded with light . . .” So, long before Lusseyran faced the ordeals of interrogation and imprisonment, he had developed a keen sensitivity to the arising of negative emotions and the ability to evoke a state of inner stillness.

Following interrogation, Lusseyran was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp.
One of the keys to survival, he discovered, was to live fully present in each moment as it arose, to “shut off the working of memory and hope,” for memory and hope consumed energy that was required for survival. “We had to live in the present; each moment had to be absorbed for all that was in it…. When a ray of sunshine comes, open out, absorb it to the depths of your being. Never think that an hour earlier you were cold and that an hour later you will be cold again. Just enjoy…. The amazing thing is that no anguish held out against this treatment for very long. Take away from suffering its double drumbeat of resonance, memory and fear. Suffering may persist, but already it is relieved by half.”

In the camp, disease and malnutrition were rampant, and Lusseyran himself became sick and was very near death. But at that point Lusseyran says he became aware that a will to live “had taken possession of me . . . and filled me to overflowing . . . Slowly I came back from the dead . . .” He recalled that “on May 8, I left the hospital on my two feet. I was nothing but skin and bones, but I had recovered. The fact was I was so happy that now Buchenwald seemed to me a place which if not welcome was at least possible . . . I was free now to help the others; not always, not much, but in my own way I could help. I could try to show other people how to go about holding on to life. I could turn toward them the flow of light and joy which had grown so abundant in me.”

Lusseyran was asked by his fellow inmates to visit the various blocks of prisoners each day to share whatever factual information was available about the progress of the war and to dispel rumors. (The guards allowed prisoners to hear German news reports; Lusseyran was fluent in German and “read between the lines” of those reports to infer what was actually happening. He also received information from time to time via a clandestine radio which the prisoners had hidden.) Lusseyran writes: “The remarkable thing was that listening to the fears of others had ended by freeing me almost completely from anxiety. I had become cheerful, and was cheerful almost all the time, without willing it, without even thinking about it. That helped me, naturally, but it also helped the others. They had made such a habit of watching the coming of the little blind Frenchman with his happy face, his reassuring words, that on days when there was no news, they had him visit just the same.”

[Source: Jacques Lusseyran, And There Was Light: Autobiography of Jacques Lusseyran, Blind Hero of the French Resistance (Parabola Books, 1998).]

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Spiritual joy: Etty Hillesum

Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman living in Amsterdam when the Netherlands was occupied by German troops in 1940. Although Etty did not survive the war, her diary and letters are a remarkable chronicle of spiritual transformation in response to suffering. The diary begins in March, 1941, when Etty, then age 27, was a student of Russian language and literature, having previously completed a degree in law. The early diary entries deal primarily with Etty’s search for a better understanding of herself and her calling in life, with her romantic life, her enjoyment of music and socializing with friends, and her love of nature, literature and poetry. The war and the treatment of Jews are scarcely mentioned in the first year of the diary. This changed abruptly in the early spring of 1942 when German repression of Dutch Jews escalated. As Etty notes in her diary, Jews were forced out of jobs and professions, restricted from many parts of the city, required to be off the streets by 8:00 p.m., required to wear a yellow star in public, etc. Jews were also forced to relocate from small towns into the city where they faced overcrowded housing and shortages of food. Then there was news that all Dutch Jews were to be deported to concentration camps in Poland and elsewhere, and a chilling report was heard on an English radio broadcast that 700,000 European Jews had died at the hands of the Nazis in the previous year. It became evident that the lives of all Jews were in peril.

As oppression of the Jews intensified, Etty took a clerical job with the Jewish Council in Amsterdam which offered assistance to Jews who had been uprooted from homes and jobs; however, she found the situation draining—not only the overwhelming deluge of desperate Jews, but a troubling apprehension that the activities of the Jewish Council were facilitating the efforts of the Nazis to deport the Jews. After several weeks in this setting, which she described as “midway between hell and a madhouse,” she volunteered to accompany the first group of Jews who were sent to Westerbork. Westerbork was a sort of transit concentration camp enclosed by barbed wire and guard towers where Dutch Jews were forcibly assembled before being loaded on trains bound for Auschwitz or other concentration camps in Poland.

Etty was assigned to assist people as they arrived at Westerbork by the trainload and was later assigned responsibility for the “hospital barracks.” (Although there were Jewish doctors among the inmates, there was little they could do without medical supplies and facilities.) Usually after a short stay at Westerbork people were loaded into freight cars which were bare except for a bucket in the center of the car, and each car was jammed with seventy people for the three-day journey to Poland. People were generally not informed until the middle of the night that they were to be on the train leaving in the morning.

Etty’s diary records the unfolding of these events, but it also traces the course of her inner life in response to these events. When the calamity facing Jews became clearly evident in early 1942, Etty initially struggled simply to face what was happening—in her words, to “take everything in.” “The threat grows ever greater, and terror increases from day to day,” she wrote in her diary. And she noted that “though my mind has come to terms with it all, my body hasn’t. It has disintegrated into a thousand pieces, and each piece has a different pain.” There were times when she felt “sick and confused…full of cold fear and uncertainty…” But at the same time she was aware that “something in me is growing” in a kind of “organic process,” “a growing sense of self-certainty.”

When Etty was able to summon her inner strength, she found that she could “bear everything and grow stronger in the bearing of it, and at the same time feel that life is beautiful and worth living and meaningful.” About the same time she wrote: “Something has crystallized. I have looked our destruction . . . straight in the eye and accepted it into my life, and my love of life has not been diminished . . . I have come to terms with life, nothing can happen to me . . .”

She also became aware of a “directive force deep down . . . a soundless voice that tells me what to do . . .” as well as “ . . . an inner regulator, which warns me every time I take the wrong path by bringing on a ‘depression’.” In this way she was guided to “remain honest and open with myself…and to do what my conscience commands…”

As the world around her disintegrated and prospects for her own survival dimmed, Etty’s interior life increasingly became the center of her existence. Nurturing the inner qualities of courage, integrity, love and peace gave a sense of meaning to her life, and she realized that these qualities could not only survive adverse conditions but grow stronger in response to them. Etty wrote in her diary that the past year, the year in which the crackdown on Jews occurred, was “my most beautiful year…because my life is increasingly an inner one, and the outer setting matters less and less.”

In a letter from Westerbork, written some months before she was deported to Poland, she said: “You know, if you don’t have the inner strength while you’re here to understand that all outer appearances are a passing show, as nothing beside the great splendor…inside us—then things can look very black here indeed.” With this understanding she rested in the assurance that “essentially no one can do me any harm at all.”

Etty’s relationship to suffering initially had been adversarial—a determination not to let her spirit, her aliveness, be broken by it. But she gradually came to an acceptance of suffering and death as an integral part of the experience of being alive, and recognized that suffering has the potential to stir compassion for others and to bring a greater appreciation for the preciousness of life. Too often in the face of suffering, she said, “we cease to be alive, being full of fear, bitterness, hatred, and despair . . .” The main source of this problem, she believed, is our thoughts and ideas about suffering rather than the suffering itself: “man suffers most through his fears of suffering.”

And Etty came to understand that “we have to accept death as a part of life . . .” This does not mean succumbing to hopelessness; in fact, she wrote, it sounds paradoxical but “by excluding death from our life we cannot live a full life, and by admitting death into our life we enlarge and enrich it.” “Living and dying, sorrow and joy…it is all as one in me,” she wrote, “and I accept it all as one mighty whole…”

Etty also became keenly aware of the interconnectedness of the interior life and happenings in the world. She wrote, “we carry everything within us, God and Heaven and Hell . . . the externals are simply so many props…which does not mean we cannot devote our life to curing the bad. But . . . we must begin with ourselves, every day anew.” In a letter Etty related a conversation she had with a friend at Westerbork in which she said, “we have so much work to do on ourselves we shouldn’t even be thinking of hating our so-called enemies…. each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others.”

Her own absence of hatred, Etty said, “in no way implies the absence of moral indignation,” but she was determined not to add to the hatred. “It has been brought home forcibly here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place.” “Ultimately,” she wrote, “we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves . . . and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.”

“Many feel that their love of mankind languishes at Westerbork,” Etty wrote, “because it receives no nourishment—meaning that people here don’t give you much occasion to love them . . . But I keep discovering that there is no causal connection between people’s behavior and the love you feel for them.” Love for others, Etty said, “is like an elemental glow that sustains you.”

Although Etty was able to accept with equanimity her own suffering, it remained deeply painful to her to witness the suffering of those around her: “I . . . know that one can only accept for oneself and not for others,” she wrote. But she developed an inner resilience which enabled her to cope with the suffering. In a letter she wrote, “the misery here is quite terrible; and yet, late at night when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk . . . along the barbed wire. And then time and again, it soars straight from my heart . . . like some elementary force—that feeling that life is glorious…”

However, Etty’s resilience was tested when her parents and one of her two brothers arrived at Westerbork as inmates. “Living in fear for your loved ones,” she wrote, “is something few can bear . . . I feel perfectly able to bear my lot, but not that of my parents.” It was at times difficult, she said, “not to be overwhelmed by pity for my parents.”

Etty’s resilience was particularly tested by the suffering of children. In a letter Etty told of a night in August, 1943, when, once again, hundreds of inmates were awakened during the night and told to prepare to board a freight train in the morning bound for Poland. What was most difficult to bear was “those tiny piercing screams of the babies, dragged from their cots in the middle of the night.” The suffering of the young children, some of them left abandoned when their parents were transported to Poland ahead of them, was also a source of great anguish. One child confided to Etty “how hard it is to die.” Another child, panic stricken, ran away to hide; although he was soon found, fifty more Jews were ordered onto the train as a reprisal for the boy’s action. And through it all there was the sound of the babies “whose pitiful screams punctuate all the frantic activity in the barracks.” “There was a moment,” Etty wrote, “when I felt in all seriousness that after this night, it would be a sin ever to laugh again.”

A few weeks later, the names of Etty and her family appeared on the list of those to be deported to Poland. This came as a particular shock to Etty since she had been informed earlier that same day that she and other remaining members of the Jewish Council would be staying in Westerbork for a while. After Etty’s departure, a friend of Etty’s at Westerbork wrote a letter saying, “for Etty it was a complete surprise . . . which did in fact literally strike her down. Within the hour, however, she had recovered and adapted herself to the new situation with admirable speed.” And just hours later he observed Etty on the train platform, “talking gaily, smiling, a kind word for everyone she met on the way.” Etty and her family all boarded the same train, and all died at Auschwitz.

[Source: Etty Hillesum, Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996).

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