The Inspiration of Etty Hillesum

I’m just back from co-presenting a retreat day for volunteers and friends of City House, a nonprofit organization on whose board I sit that provides spiritual listening for people on the margins.  The theme of today’s retreat, which I co-presented with Janice Andersen, Director of Christian Life at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, was Hope in a Suffering World.

In a world groaning with pain, how do we, as people of faith, create hope?  How do we model life and love in the midst of suffering?  How do we help heal a suffering world.  As a way to think about such questions, we focused on two women who, albeit in different ways, model hope-filled responses to suffering: Etty Hillesum and Dorothy Day.  I thought I’d share here a few words of Etty’s, who Janice shared so beautifully about this morning.

Etty Hillesum’s writings were composed in the shadow of the Holocaust; yet her words are poignant ones for us given current events.  (“German” here stands for every group toward whom one is tempted to bear bad thoughts.)

It is the problem of our age: hatred of Germans poisons everyone’s mind…I had a liberating thought…if there were only one decent German, then he should be cherished despite that whole barbaric gang, and because of that one decent German it is wrong to pour hatred over an entire people.

Etty knew, as Dorothy Day knew, that

Love is the only solution.  Every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place…thus I believe childishly perhaps but stubbornly, that the earth will become more habitable again only through the love the Jew Paul described…Paul presents love as the ultimate condition for human redemption.

Love is the only solution.  It was true when Etty wrote those words in 1943, and it is true today.