At night as I lay on my plank bed surrounded by women and girls … who often told me during the day, “we don’t want to think, we don’t want to feel, otherwise we are sure to go out of our minds,” I was sometimes filled with an infinite tenderness, and lay awake for hours … and I prayed,
“Let me be the thinking heart of these barracks.”
—from the diary of Etty Hillesum
This week marks the presidential order in 1942 that led to the internment of Japanese Americans. It’s the one-year anniversary of the killings of high school students in Parkland, Florida. In a season of “emergencies” both real and imagined, of walls and separation, of hatred and division, we mourn the suffering and loss of so many to violence, injustice, and the lack of moral imagination. I know I’m not alone in struggling to live faithfully in the face of it all.
Through the gift of a friend, I’ve found guidance and encouragement in A Life Transformed, a biography including the diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum. A radiant and challenging voice, Etty was born in a secular Dutch Jewish family, growing up in her twenties in Amsterdam during the Second World War.
Living a self-described life of personal chaos, insecurity and disorder, on the precipice of the Holocaust Etty had a powerful experience of convincement and transformation. Without any formal religious background, she learned to pray through direct spiritual experience. Etty was driven to her knees in prayer on the rough floor of an untidy bathroom. This moment reordered her life toward the ground of reality she discovered within her, a presence she came to call “God.” She came to volunteer as a caregiver—and to bear witness—in a transit camp from which thousands of Jews and those deemed “other” were loaded onto trains for Auschwitz. In time, her whole family was forced to board one of those trains—including Etty.
In the face of terror and dehumanization, Etty chose to cultivate an inward freedom. She dedicated herself to safeguarding deep within the resilient hope beyond despair, grounded in Love. Faced with lies, oppression, and evil, she chose to live as if the Truth is true. She found refuge in that knowing, in the active practice of what she calls the “thinking heart” of God. Her witness calls me to consider how I—how we—might live in ways that more fully bear witness to the truth of Love she discovered and trusted until death and beyond.
In a moment of shattering recognition, she prayed:
Dear God, these are anxious times. … We must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. There are, it is true, some who, even at this late stage, are putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safekeeping instead of guarding You, dear God. And there are those who want to put their bodies in safekeeping but who are nothing more now than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings. And they say, “I shan’t let them get me into their clutches.” But they forget that no one is in their clutches who is in Your arms.
I’m increasingly convinced that one of the greatest gifts we can offer to the condition of our world today is the quality of grounded love that we cultivate and bring into relationship. We can love and feel and hope for those who are unable as yet to love and feel and hope—and we can do this for each other when we’re the ones unable to love and feel and hope. We can strive to protect our cherishing of divine presence within each person—and in ourselves—in the face of the countless voices that would close the ears of our hearts to Grace.
The growing resonance of that loving and feeling and hoping can open the way for new breakthroughs, fresh possibilities, bold emergences in our communities, cultures, and institutions. In Etty’s words: “Somewhere deep inside me is a workshop, in which Titans are forging a new world.”
Etty’s presence and practice as the “thinking heart” of the transit camp barracks calls me me to question my own capacity and commitment to Love. Her testimony challenges me to renew my participation in relationship with fresh intention and initiative. I hear the echo of Etty’s midnight prayer: to be an instrument of presence, to bring forth this radical, witnessing, self-aware, resilient loving even in the midst of unimaginable suffering—and I’m drawn to imagine how that resonance might be more fully expressed in my own life, and in our corporate life as Friends.
Might we find the courage to be thinking hearts of the voyage on which our own desperate, divided society is sailing? Might we discipline ourselves to be the thinking heart of a demonstration; of a workplace, of a family crisis; of a chance encounter on our daily commute; an intervention with an addicted friend, neighbor or stranger; a vigil at a detention center or a bedside? Through patience and dedication, might we be the thinking heart in the worship of our local meeting, radiating love and witnessing presence to all who surround us?
I give thanks for all the ways members of our Quaker communities are working alongside so many others in this powerful practice of presence, and I give thanks for the Spirit provoking us to deeper Love. Wherever we might encounter God in ourselves and one another—may we remember Etty, and her witness to the power of the thinking heart. And may we, like her, be filled and freed by the infinite tenderness that is stronger than death.
In faith and service,
New England Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers)
P.S.: Again this year, New England Friends are partnering with New York Yearly Meeting for a weekend retreat, March 29-31. It’s an opportunity to gather with Friends from across the northeastern United States who are called to nurture the wholeness of the local meeting community, cultivating this resonance of resilient love.
If it sounds like this opportunity might be right for you or someone in your local meeting, contact Honor Woodrow, clerk of NEYM Ministry & Counsel, to explore participating, or speak to your local meeting’s Ministry & Counsel/Worship, who have received more information.
P.P.S.: I hope you had a chance last month to watch the invitation to the “video plenary” series from Lisa Graustein. This month—with links later in this newsletter—Lisa offers three more short videos with different ways of engaging with New England Quakers’ repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.
Whether you plan to attend Annual Sessions this August or not, these videos are intended to help us all engage with the ways the Spirit is working among Quakers in New England, inviting us to grow in Love and carry that Love into the world.