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A Spirituality of Balance

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Ronald Rolheiser believes that something inside our DNA makes us want to possess whatever is beautiful and to have exclusively for ourselves whatever we love. It is hard to look at what attracts us and respond only with gratitude and admiration. Etty Hillesum gives us an honest expression of this in her memoir, An Interrupted Life. Etty eventually discerned that the answer lay in the admiration without seeking to own and the love without seeking to manipulate. Furthermore, Etty obtained an attitude of peace of soul. Although she was not free from the stress of the Nazi invasion, with herself being a Jewish woman, she found tranquility. Through God, she was able to let grudges and hurts dissolve through love and understanding, and found the capacity to live out the remainder of her days in harmony--with those with whom she disagreed and agreed with. There is an earthy and embodied dimension to Etty's spirituality. She described her romantic adventures with no more reticence than she reserved for descriptions of her prayer, which she developed an amazing capacity for. For Etty, everything--the physical and the spiritual without distinction--was related to her passionate openness to life, which was ultimately openness to God.

When Etty began her diary, the Germans have occupied Holland and are beginning to isolate the Dutch Jews. Jews are thrown out of their jobs, forbidden to buy in many shops, and kept out of parks and public places. But throughout the first part of the diary, we do not hear about the war or the suffering of Dutch Jewry. Instead, we learn about Etty's inner life; she talked about her studies, her desire to write, and her feelings about her parents, her friends, and her lover Julius Spier.

Then a change came over her writing. Thus far, she had used the word "God" casually, as most of us use it. "Thank God, " "God only knows," and so forth. Suddenly, on Tuesday evening, August 26th, 1941, comes this passage:

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. I imagine that there are people who pray with their eyes turned heavenward. They seek God outside themselves. And there are those who bow their head and bury it in their hands. I think that these seek God inside. (Hillesum 44)

Seeking God inside, this becomes the unifying theme of Etty's life and work. We do not know much about her religious background. She never mentions a Jewish education or any Jewish observances in her family home. We can guess that she is alienated from traditional religion and must find her own way.

She began with meditation in an effort to "simplify" her life. She listened to herself. She allowed herself to be led, not by anything on the outside, but by what welled up from within. "Praying is stretching to make enough room for silence." (Downey 12) Listening leads to a yearning to speak to God. But first she had to face her own discomfort and fear. "Last night...I suddenly went down on my knees in the middle of this large room...Almost automatically. Forced to the ground by something stronger than myself...I was still embarrassed by this act." (74) And later: "You need courage to put it into words. The courage to speak God's name." (74)

Over time, Etty did begin to speak. And she recorded many of her prayers in her diary. "God, take me by the hand," (63) she says. As the world around Etty disintegrates, prayer becomes her refuge. "The threat grows ever greater...I draw prayer round me like a dark protective wall, withdraw inside it...and then step outside again, calmer and stronger and more collected again." (133) "I feel safe in God's arms," she wrote. (176)

Why does she feel safe? "Somewhere," she said, "there is something inside me that will never desert me again." (153) She called it a feeling of indestructible resistance within. And finally, with greater clarity, she wrote: "I repose in myself. And that part of myself, that deepest and richest part in which I repose, is what I call 'God'." (204) Etty's religion, Etty's God, does not sound very much like "Baruch ata Adonai"--the God of Israel. It all sounds highly personal, mystical, focused on the self, and cut off from external reality. As she wrote in July of 1942: "My life is increasingly an inner one and the outer setting matters less and less."

But Etty was not cut off from the world. When she wrote these words she had a "protected" job working as a typist for the Jewish Council that organized deportations to the east. The next time we hear of her, she has voluntarily given up her job in order to join a group of deported Jews. She goes to Westerbork, a transit camp and the last stop before Auschwitz, to work in the hospital there. Somehow, her discovery of God has made her turn towards people. She so terribly loved people because in every human being she loved that "something" of God. She sought God everywhere in them and often she did find that "something" of God. "When we pray, we gradually begin to see that the spiritual life demands that we give our lives over to God." (Downey 12)

Rolheiser believes that spiritual maturity lies in the simple capacity to admire--to admire beauty, admire talent, and admire youth, without trying to possess them. "Whatever the expression, everyone is ultimately talking about the same thing--an unquenchable fire, restlessness, a longing...a congenital all-embracing ache that lies at the center of human experience and is the ultimate for that drives everything else" (Rolheiser 4). It takes years, and lots of restless sadness, to come to understand that. Real joy lies in being able to admire a thing or another, in focusing attention away from self, and in being able to enjoy the beauty and giftedness of others and nature without trying to possess them.

That is easily said and very hard to do. Our congenital metaphysics militates against it. Soul and the body resist it. We want to possess what is beautiful, press it against ourselves and make it our own. The heart wants to capture, possess, and control what attracts it. That is the way we are built.

And it is the reason, too, why we often find it so painful to experience beauty. Rather than filling us with joy, the experience of beauty often makes us sad and restless. Beauty attracts us, even stuns us sometimes, but, too often, leaves us with a bittersweet feeling. The experience of beauty, more often than not, leaves us restless and sad, incapable of joyful admiration. Etty articulated this very well:

Whenever I saw a beautiful flower...I longed

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