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How to protect our inner life through the presence of God

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Etty Hillesum - The catholic weekly
Etty Hillesum circa 1940.

Much has been written about a young Dutch woman Etty Hillesum—you can find her diaries in a book called An Interrupted Life. Her life and example has much to say to the person seeking God in these the day of our time.

She was born Esther Hillesum on 15 January 1914 in the Netherlands. Her father Louis was an academic. Etty received her love of books and learning from her father; her Russian mother Rebecca was a tempestuous woman given to flights of imbalance.

Both of Etty’s brothers were gifted and intelligent. They were all non-practising Jews.

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It would be true to say that in Amsterdam where she was studying, her life was one of immorality, instability and deep searching.

A lasting influence at that time was psychologist Julius Spier. It was through him that she found herself, and ultimately God. In fact it was he who led her to the Scriptures and prayer.

In 1940 Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands and so began the acceleration of the systematic persecution of the Jews in that country.

Etty was initially not involved, but when her family were transported to the camp in Westerbork, she chose to join them. She died at Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of 29.

I have given you only the barest outline here, because I really just want to introduce you to someone whose life of prayer influenced her living and that of those around her in a time and place of utter despair.

Etty has something to say to our troubled times as well. Her life of prayer was basically four years of living consciously in the company of God, speaking to him and, as a result, seeing him in everything and everyone, good and bad around her.

She would say that her prayer was the rest one takes between two deep breaths.

Try it yourself sometime. Take a deep breath then slowly say God. Then take another and do the same, and another and so on. You will be amazed at how it consciously grounds you in the presence of God.

That presence shone a light within and around Etty’s mind and heart. She began to see herself, others and life, as she had not before.

It led her to make the observation that a person really should turn inwards and destroy in oneself that which we think we ought to destroy in another.

In her spiritual life there was total rejection of hatred. She always thought well of each person, including her oppressors.

Etty believed that every atom of hate we put into the world makes this world an even more inhospitable place.

Prayer will do that for us too. It will show us where we are sowing seeds of hate; it will lead us into our inmost selves where God lives, and we too will see things we have never seen before.

We too will understand that which has so far eluded us. Prayer will shine a light on everything in our lives that is at odds with God, and we won’t be able to bear it. We will have no choice but to strive for and live in peace as Etty did.

For her, the interior life was real and needed to be protected; the stance in each one of us to stay true to what we know to be good and right, to keep believing in the deep and abiding personal love of God, that speaking kindly to another at all times is right, that being taken for a fool sometimes will do no harm in the long run, if it preserves another’s dignity, to keep trying after we have failed in love, to acknowledge that the precepts of the Beatitudes are worth living.

This interior life was for her the dwelling place of God. Beautifully, she actually told God that she could see that he needed her help in protecting this dwelling place and he did, as he does with us.

Perhaps we, like Etty, can look at the ways in which we can protect the dwelling place of God within ourselves. Why not check out Etty Hillesum and let her show you.

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