Etty Hillesum's Little Way for a Secular Age

As a Doctor of the Church, St. Thérèse of Lisieux is surely the privileged expression of the Little Way for our times. Yet, there is another Little Way, that of the twentieth century Dutch Jew and Holocaust victim, Etty Hillesum. In the final Ash Wednesday address of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI challenged his audience to notice God’s grace at work in “social and cultural milieus that seem engulfed in secularization.” Highlighting the life of Etty Hillesum, Benedict remarked, “In her disrupted, restless life she found God in the very midst of the great tragedy of the twentieth century: the Shoah.” Indeed, in our secular age, he added, “we may not be surprised to discover modern-day mystics and unconventional instances of contemporary sanctity that fall outside the framework of traditional hagiography.”

Born in the Netherlands in 1914, Etty Hillesum—an assimilated Dutch Jew—was the oldest of four children in a well established middle-class family. Though they were part of the ethnic Jewish community, they did not participate regularly in Jewish religious practices. Etty was reared in a house permeated by both intellectual and artistic genius and profound mental illness.[1] Her vivacious demeanor, her erotic pursuits and struggles, and her spiritual pluralism make her relatable to many sojourners in the secular age.

When she wrote her journals—later published as An Interrupted Life—Etty was living in Amsterdam where she worked as a Russian tutor. Her life in Amsterdam revolved around two communities: the household of Han Wegerif, where she lived, and a group of women devoted to the Jungian-influenced psychologist Julius Spier and his practice of a kind of psychotherapy. For a time, she had ongoing intimate relationships with both Wegerif and Spier, the latter being the more captivating and transformative relationship in her life. In fact, Etty considered herself “accomplished in bed,” just about “seasoned enough” to be “counted among the better lovers.”[2] Her journals reveal, however, a slow pruning of her urgent eros into something closer to selfless agape, as she navigated the perils of coming of age in Nazi Europe. Richard Galliardetz rightly notes that even though Etty embraced a variety of Christian writings, it is “misleading to characterize her as a crypto-Christian, as many Christian admirers of her thought have been inclined to do.”[3] She drew on a variety of religious, philosophical, and poetic sources, above all Rainer Maria Rilke.

This point granted, it still seems plausible for a theologian to discern vestiges of Trinitarian love at work in a broken, interrupted, unfinished life such as Etty Hillesum’s, presuming from the perspective of a Catholic theologian that the Trinitarian God of love continually breaks into history. It is fitting to discern in compelling examples of religious experience the possibility of (1) sanctifying grace—the consoling, complacent love that offers true rest, and (2) the habit of charity—the kind of apostolic sanctity that habitually orients one to enact God’s love in the world.[4] Human beings are, after all, continually being stirred by the Spirit in their ongoing existential and religious questioning.[5]  

Contemplative Rest in God

It is possible to discern in Hillesum’s journals something akin to the sanctity simpliciter of Thérèse of Lisieux. As the Jewish situation in Amsterdam worsened, Etty developed a more intimate, loving relationship with God. We witness in her journals a transition from her speaking of God in the third person to an I-Thou encounter: “You have made me so rich, Oh God, please let me share out Your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You.” Reflecting on her life in the camp, “At night too, when I lie in bed and rest in You, oh God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer . . . I may never become the great artist I would really like to be, but I am already secure in You, God.”

This loving rest in God is captured by a key image in her journals—that of kneeling. Etty described herself as “the girl who could not kneel” but who would later become a “kneeler in training.”[6] She writes: “The girl who could not kneel but learned to do so on the rough coconut matting in an untidy bathroom. Such things are often more intimate even than sex.”[7] The language that animates these passages—“you/thou,” “kneeling,” “love,” “intimacy”—expresses the kind of graced being-in-love that elevates the human quest for self-transcendence.

Hillesum embraced the challenge of being attentive to the present as she faced death in the midst of the great atrocities of the twentieth century:

Life is difficult . . . In the past I would live chaotically in the future, because I refused to live in the here and now. I wanted to be handed everything on a platter, like a badly spoiled child. Sometimes I had the certain if rather undefined feeling that I would “make it” one day, that I had the capacity to do something “extraordinary,” and at other times the wild fear that I would “go to the dogs” after all. I now realize why. I simply refused to do what needed to be done, what lay right under my nose. I refused to climb into the future one step at a time . . .

She develops the thought further:

 . . I no longer think of the future, that is, I no longer care whether or not I shall “make it,” because I now have the inner certainty that everything will be taken care of. Before, I always lived in anticipation, I had the feeling that nothing I did was the “real” thing, that it was all a preparation for something else, something “greater,” more “genuine.” But that feeling has dropped away from me completely.[8]

In the place of constantly anticipating the future, which began to take on for Hillesum a sense of doom that she would be a part of the mass extermination of Jews under Hitler, she continually reflected on the meaning of the quotidian and the beauty of love:

Every minute of this day seems one great gift and consolation, a memory I shall carry within me as an ever-present reality . . . What matters are the concerns of daily life . . . the main thing is that even as we die a terrible death we are able to feel right up to the very last moment that life has meaning and beauty, that we have realized our potential and lived a good life.[9]

Similar to Thérèse of Lisieux, the journals of Hillesum reveal an ongoing ascetical process of pruning herself of the desire for greatness, what Balthasar called the “demolition of great deeds.” She oriented her attention to the little things. Just as Thérèse desired to be a missionary, warrior, and priest, Hillesum desired to be a great writer:

Wash your hands of all attempts to embody those great, sweeping thoughts. The smallest, most fatuous little essay is worth more than the flood of grandiose ideas in which you like to wallow . . . The subject right before you is more important than those prodigious thoughts on Tolstoy and Napoleon that occurred to you in the middle of last night, and the lesson you gave that keen young girl on Friday night is more important than all your vague philosophizings. Never forget that. Don’t overestimate your own intensity; it may give you the impression that you are cut out for greater things than the so-called man in the street, whose inner life is a closed book to you. In fact, you are no more than a weakling . . . Keep your eye fixed on the mainland, and don’t flounder helplessly in the ocean.[10]

As Hillesum’s spiritual quest deepened, she became more committed to simplicity of speech and lifestyle, discipline in work, faithfulness in the little things, and finding God in the midst of the concreteness of her life:

Sometimes I long for a convent cell, with the sublime wisdom of centuries set out on bookshelves all along the wall and a view across the cornfields—there must be cornfields and they must wave in the breeze—and there I would immerse myself in the wisdom of the ages and in myself. Then I might perhaps find peace and clarity. But that would be no great feat. It is right here, in this very place, in the here and now, that I must find them. But it is all so terribly difficult, and I feel so heavyhearted.[11]

When she translated Russian, she felt, for example, that she must write another Brothers Karamazov. But she asks reflectively why she feels she has to achieve such noble deeds: “All I need to do is to ‘be,’ to live and try being a little bit human . . . and that’s probably why I accumulate knowledge, out of a desire to be important.” She asks God instead for the “knowledge that leads to wisdom and true happiness and not the kind that leads to power.”[12]

Etty grows in her commitment to the little way, to a resting simplicity and a commitment to the concrete details of daily living:

To become simple and to live simply, not only within yourself but also in your everyday dealings. Don’t make ripples all around you, don’t try so hard to be interesting, keep your distance, be honest, fight the desire to be thought fascinating by the outside world. Instead, reach for true simplicity in your inner life and in your surroundings, and also work. Yes, work. It doesn’t matter at what.[13]

Habit of Charity: “A Balm for All Wounds”

Hillesum’s contemplative being-in-love with God is intimately connected to her love and care for others in a dire moment of history. I focus here on three dimensions of the habit of charity: (1) her concrete care for the victims of Nazi violence; (2) her return of good for evil; and (3) her embodied transformation of eros into agape.

If Thérèse wanted to be a “balm of consolation” and “love at the heart of the Church,” Hillesum desired to serve as a “balm for all wounds” and to be “the thinking heart of the barracks.” Her journals reveal a turning point in July 1942, as she realized more clearly the severity of the Nazi program against the Jews in Amsterdam.

As she grew more independent of her relationship with Spier and more deeply engaged in the spiritual practices of reading, reflection, and intimate prayer, she was “confronted with the realities of war and her responsibility to become socially active and involved.”[14] She accepted a position as typist with the Jewish council, an organization overtaken by the Nazis to help move Jews out of the country. Hillesum accepted the position with the hope of doing some good in the midst of persecution.

A few weeks later she volunteered to be sent to the transit camp at Westerbork, which entailed “living on the campsite and in an environment of cramped and noisy quarters, hospital and prison barracks, deprivation and food shortages, illness and lack of hygiene, and in the constant company of death.”[15] The deep prayer life nurtured in solitude in Amsterdam enabled her “to become an embodied presence of compassion, dispensing simple words and gestures of consolation and love”—a “balm for all wounds.”[16]

Second, Hillesum embodied the habit of charity in her embrace of the return of good for evil. Her attitude towards the enemy is one of the more remarkable and controversial dimensions of her journals and letters. Tzvetan Todorov strongly criticizes Hillesum’s approach to evil and the enemy.[17] He finds her fascinating and even admits that when we read her “we feel in the presence of someone whom we would want to spend time with, to count among our friends, to love.”[18] Nevertheless, Todorov is convinced that her approach ends up contributing to the kind of “fatalism and passivity” that lent itself to “the murderous project of the Nazis.”[19]

He identifies in Hillesum’s writings an indifference to things outside the self, an acceptance of evil, and even at times a preference for suffering. In fact, he thinks her navigating of evil and suffering often resembles stoicism, quietism, and even Taoism—a religious tradition to which she does refer. Though she prefers “ordinary virtues (caring) to heroic virtues (war),” she goes further in a way that proves to be disturbing to Todorov: “Instead of doing something about the causes of evil, she is content to be ‘the balm for all wounds.’ She lives not in resignation but rather in joyful acceptance of the world and thus of evil as well.”[20] “And this is why,” Todorov adds, “despite her uncontestable nobility, I cannot commend her position to the downtrodden of the earth.”[21]

Todorov’s criticisms should be considered carefully. An eclectic spirituality that combines Christian and Taoist imagery is bound for ambiguity. That said, it seems possible to discern a key dimension of the habit of charity as it is expressed in the Christian tradition in the Sermon on the Mount and the Law of the Cross—the command to return evil with love. While there are many legitimate moral responses to a mass atrocity like the Shoah—Dietrich Bonhoeffer discerned after all that it was legitimate for a Christian to assassinate Hitler—Hillesum’s little way of fighting against hatred embodied the habit of charity in history.

One finds in Hillesum, to draw on Girardian language, a mature transformation from envious to pacific mimesis. Even if there are other ways of dealing with the horror of the Nazis, as Todorov indicates, this does not nullify her mimetic spirituality of committing to the sustained work of overcoming hatred and scapegoating. For example, she writes,

It is the problem of our age: hatred of Germans poisons everyone’s mind . . . I had a liberating thought that surfaced in me like a hesitant, tender young blade of grass thrusting its way through a wilderness of weeds: 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.[22]

Hillesum saw no other solution in the midst of her concrete circumstance than “to turn inward and to root out all the rottenness there.” “I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we have first changed ourselves,” she writes.[23]

Her developing spirituality of returning evil with good is captured in her encounter with a young Gestapo officer, who verbally abused her. The real import of the story, according to her, was not that she was wronged but that she “felt no indignation,” and instead a “real compassion.” She wanted to ask him: “Did you have a very unhappy childhood, has your girlfriend let you down?” Recognizing that the officer looked harassed, sullen, and weak, she reflected: “the blame must be put on the system that uses such people. What needs eradication is the evil in man, not man himself.”[24]

This dimension of the habit of charity was given pointed expression as she lay upon her bed in Amsterdam listening to Bach. Cognizant that “any minute now a piece of shrapnel could come through that window,” she still felt “so peaceful and grateful”:

All disasters stem from us. Why is there a war? Perhaps because now and then I might be inclined to snap at my neighbor. Because I and my neighbor and everyone else do not have enough love. Yet we could fight war and all its excrescences by releasing, each day, the love that is shackled inside us, and giving it a chance to live. And I believe that I will never be able to hate any human being for his so-called wickedness, that I shall only hate the evil that is within me.[25]

Hillesum repeatedly contemplates the beauty of life in the midst of horror. This involves an incipient embrace of the Law of the Cross as the humble way to freedom—a resistance to the perpetual temptation to nurture hatred:

Life is beautiful and I value it anew at the end of every day, even though I know that the sons of mothers . . . are being murdered in concentration camps. And you must be able to bear your sorrow; even if it seems to crush you, you will be able to stand up again, for human beings are so strong, and your sorrow must become an integral part of yourself, part of your body and your soul, you mustn’t run away from it, but bear it like an adult. Do not relieve your feelings through hatred, do not seek to be avenged on all German mothers, for they, too sorrow at this very moment for their slain and murderous sons. Give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears his grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate.

She warns as she continues the thought:

But if you do not clear a decent shelter for your sorrow, and instead reserve most of the space inside you for hatred and thoughts of revenge—from which new sorrows will be born for others—then sorrow will never cease in this world and will multiply. And if you have given sorrow that space its gentle origins demand, then you may truly say: life is beautiful and so rich. So beautiful and so rich that it makes you want to believe in God.[26]

Finally, as her journals attest, Hillesum also began to learn “the kind of love that is closer to selfless agape than to urgent eros and that combines deep sympathy with calm detachment.”[27] One witnesses in her journals an elevation and transformation of her erotic desires into agapic commitments.

As Richard Gaillardetz suggests, “Her journal presents the reader with a flawed woman who nevertheless embodied ‘passionate living’ in both of its senses: erotic passion, and the willingness to suffer.” Both capacities reveal her willingness to be vulnerable in a climate of fear and hatred. In her concrete life, it seems quite plausible that her “remarkable capacity to face suffering and death for the sake of others” cannot really be separated from her experience of the erotic. “For both authentic sexual intimacy and suffering demand the embrace of powerlessness and vulnerability that lie at the heart of passionate living.”[28] Passion can give rise to compassion. And, compassionate living is, in the words of Etty, “trafficking in the divine.”[29]

[1] Annemarie S. Kidder, introduction to Etty Hillesum: Essential Writings (Maryknoll: Orbis: 2009), 9.

[2] Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941–1943 and Letters from Westerbork (New York: Holt, 1996), 3.

[3] Richard R. Gaillardetz, “Sexual Vulnerability and a Spirituality of Suffering,” Pacifica 22 (February 2009): 78.

[4] In chapter 7 of my book The Givenness of Desire: Concrete Subjectivity and the Natural Desire to See God (Toronto: Toronto, 2017), I draw on the work of Robert M. Doran, The Trinity in History: A Theology of the Divine Missions, vol. 1: Missions and Processions. (Toronto: Toronto, 2012) and Neil Ormerod, “The Metaphysics of Holiness: Created Participation in Divine Nature,” Irish Theological Quarterly 79.1 (2014): 68–82 to develop a systematic theology of the saints. In that chapter, I develop a longer conversation with St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Etty Hillesum.

[5] Pope John Paull II, Redemptoris Missio, §28.

[6] Hillesum, op. cit., 74.

[7] Ibid., 61.

[8] Ibid., 19.

[9] Ibid., 163.

[10] Ibid., 9–10.

[11] Ibid., 36.

[12] Ibid., 46–7.

[13] Ibid., 68.

[14] Kidder, introduction to Etty Hillesum: Essential Writings, 15.

[15] Ibid., 15.

[16] Ibid., 16.

[17] Tzvetan Todorov, Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (New York: Holt/Metropolitan, 1996)

[18] Ibid., 198.

[19] Ibid., 209.

[20] Ibid., 208.

[21] Ibid., 209.

[22] Hillesum, An Interrupted Life, 11.

[23] Ibid., 84.

[24] Ibid., 86.

[25] Ibid., 95.

[26] Ibid., 97.

[27] Hoffman, foreword to Hillesum, An Interrupted Life, x.

[28] Gaillardetz, “Sexual Vulnerability and a Spirituality of Suffering,” 86.

[29] Gaillardetz, “Sexual Vulnerability and a Spirituality of Suffering,” 89. Dante masterfully exhibits this transformation of eros into agape in Canto 9 of the Paradiso. See his discussion of Cunizza, a woman known as a promiscuous child of Venus. Cunizza later in life transformed this dominant eros into a commitment to compassion and social concern. See also James Collins, Pilgrim in Love: An Introduction to Dante and His Spirituality (Chicago: Loyola, 1984), 226ff.

Featured Image: Etty Hillesum sometime in the 1930's; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.


Randall S. Rosenberg

Randall S. Rosenberg is Dean of the College of Philosophy and Letters and associate professor of systematic theology at Saint Louis University. He is the author of The Givenness of Desire: Concrete Subjectivity and the Natural Desire to See God.

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