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.

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Lust as Selfish Desire

Prompted by several friends who had read and recommended it, I finally read David Brooks’ The Road to Character.  There is much in it to reflect on.

There is also a I could write about the book, but here let me just share something Brooks discussed in his chapter on Augustine: lust.  We all know that Augustine had something of a sordid youth before turning to God and so doubtless your first thought on reading “lust” was the young Augustine’s sexual behavior.

Brooks makes the important observation that, although we tend to use the word “lust” to refer to sexual desire, a “broader, better meaning is selfish desire.”  Here is description of lust in action:

If you organize your life around your own wants, other people become objects for the satisfaction of your own desires.  Everything is coldly instrumental.  Just as a prostitute is rendered into an object for the satisfaction of orgasm, so a professional colleague is rendered into an object for the purpose of career networking, a stranger is rendered into an object for the sake of making a sale, a spouse is turned into an object for the purpose of providing you with love….

We use the word “lust” to refer to sexual desire, but a broader, better meaning is selfish desire.  A true lover delights to serve his beloved.  But lust is all incoming.  The person in lust has a void he needs filled by others.  Because he is unwilling to actually serve others and build a full reciprocal relationship, he never fills the emotional emptiness inside.  Lust beings with a void and ends with a void.

Love and lust are very different things.  I think understanding lust in this broader sense highlights that difference.  And it helps us to be alert to when our expressions of love, in fact, shade into lust.

Update: Shortly after hitting “publish” on this post, I checked a couple of blogs written by friends. It turns out that my friend Richard’s post today also references Brooks’ The Road to Character. You can find Richard’s post, which talks about Brooks’ chapter on Dorothy Day here.

My Child….Love, Your Dad

One of the women who sees me for spiritual direction was recently away for a weekend retreat. One of the things she shared in our session this week was a prayer experience from the opening evening.

The retreat facilitator read to the retreatants something titled Father’s Love Letter: An Intimate Message from God to You. My directee gave me a copy of the handout which was distributed to them, where the text is in the form of a letter addressed to “My Child” and signed “Love, Your Dad…Almighty God.” The letter is a compilation of a number of paraphrased Bible verses (including from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament).

Reading the letter, I can understand why the woman who shared it with me was so powerfully moved by the experience of hearing God say

You may not know me, but I know everything about you…..In me you live and move and have your being, for you are my offspring. I knew you even before you were conceived. I chose you when I planned creation. You were not a mistake, for all your days are written in my book….It is my desire to lavish my love on you…If you seek me with all your heart, you will find me. Delight in me and I will give you the desires of your heart….Come home and I’ll throw the biggest party heaven has ever seen. I have always been Father and will always be Father. My question is: Will you be my child?

I was able to find a copy of the full letter online, which you can find here. The site has a written, video and audio version of the letter. It includes the various Bible verses from which the lines come.

I encourage you to listen to, rather than read, the letter. To hear God say those words to you. And revel in them.

Jesus Speaks: The Great Commandment

Yesterday was the fourth (and penultimate) session of the Fall Reflection Series I am offering this fall at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.  As I’ve already shared in my posts following the first three sessions, the reflection series is titled Jesus Speaks and it is designed to deepen our appreciation of fundamental Christian teachings drawn from the words of Christ. Each session includes a talk, time for individual reflection and some sharing of the prayer experience. In the first three weeks we focused on the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes and the Eucharist. (And we began our session today, as we usually do, by inviting the participants to share about their experience this past week reflecting on the Eucharist.

Today our focus was on Jesus’ response when he is asked which commandment is the greatest. Jesus responded,

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

I began my talk by pointing out that neither aspect of this twofold commandment was new to the people of Jesus’ time; both are rooted in the Torah. I then offered some thoughts about each of the two aspects, including what is challenging to them in us. I ended by talking about a precondition to our ability to grow in our adherence of the command to love God and love one another: our embrace of God’s unconditional love for us.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 27:01.) A copy of the the handout I distributed to participants for their prayer this week is here.

Our series ends next week with a focus on our commissioning to proclaim the Gospel.

Love the Stranger

Syria’s civil war has been called the worst humanitarian disaster of our time.  Thus far more than 11 million people have been displaced (in addition to almost a quarter of a million people, many civilians, dead).  More than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million urgently needs humanitarian assistance.

Numbers like that are scary.  And they are too big to be effectively addressed with anything less than a worldwide solution.  No one can sit back and say “Not my problem.”  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminded us earlier this week hat “nothing in our interconnected world is a long way away…Never before have John Donne’s words rung more true: ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.'”

We are, as Rabbi Sacks said being summoned to “love the stranger”:

I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Then I realised that it is easy to love your neighbour because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers”, resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now. A bold act of collective generosity will show that the world, particularly Europe, has learned the lesson of its own dark past and is willing to take a global lead in building a more hopeful future. Wars that cannot be won by weapons can sometimes be won by the sheer power of acts of humanitarian generosity to inspire the young to choose the way of peace instead of holy war.

Addressing the crisis is all of our responsibility.

Love Bade Me Welcome

Flipping through a book of poetry earlier today I came across a poem of George Herbert’s I have always loved.  In some collections is it titled simply Love.  It is a good reminder of God’s constant invitation.
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

Contemplation on the Love of God

Last night was the final session of the monthly program Christine Luna Munger and I have been offering through St. Catherine’s University this year, Now What? Deepening Your Ignatian Retreat Experiences.  The program was aimed at people who have had some experience with the Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius through a weekend preached retreat, a retreat in daily living or some other format and designed to – as the title suggests – help them deepen the insights and experiences of those retreats.  Over the year, we’ve reflected on desire, individual and social sin, discernment and some of the core meditations of the Exercises.

Our topic last night was the Contemplation on the Love of God that ends the Spiritual Exercises. The Contemplatio provides what one author called “ in highly condensed form the very kernel of the Exercises,” a “kind of coherent synthesis with, simplified and in a concise form, may be used in daily life as an ideal containing various elements scattered here and there in a hundred and one particular truths.” One author called it not only a summary of the Spiritual Exercises, “but of perfection itself.”

The idea of the Contemplatio is that the culmination of all the divine actions is gift. The culmination of the divine actions lies in the love they draw from humans. Importantly, love cannot be forced. It is not that we can simply tell ourselves to love like God. (We’ve said this before: this is not just a question of will. “Tomorrow I will love like God all day long.” It doesn’t work that way.) Yes, we can work to overcome the challenges that make it hard for us to love like God. But the Contemplatio wants us to realize that love emerges spontaneously from consciousness – one realizes what God is doing to love him or her and that realization itself enables us to do what otherwise would be impossible – to be so caught up in God, to be so attracted and drawn by what God does, that we love. Love is not forced, it is evoked.

I was reminded as I spoke last night of something Archbishop Flynn said at the racism panel at Lourdes on Sunday.  When someone asked what steps one can take to remove racist attitudes, the Archbishop said that the key was more deeply internalizing God’s love for us.  If we truly understand to the depth of our hearts how much God loves us, we will more naturally love others – regardless of their race or other circumstances.  That is precisely what Ignatius is trying to help us understand in this meditation.

You can find an online version of the Contemplation on the Love of God here.