A balm for all wounds

I had a few spare minutes before driving to work this morning, so I picked up the book that I was too tired to finish last night: Etty Hillisum:  An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork.  Etty Hillisum was a Jewish young woman, an avid reader, a tutor in Russian, who lived in the Netherlands.  The book is her diary and collection of letters of her last year in Amsterdam and her time in a Westerbork labor camp, ending with a postcard thrown from the “transport” train to Poland.  Records show she died in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943.

I marveled at her written words which revealed how, over the last two years of her life, she grew in her spiritual faith.  Starting from someone who didn’t know how to pray, she read the bible, both Hebrew and  Christian scriptures, and had a powerful sense of the joy of life and of the presence of God, even in the most inhuman and tragic circumstances.   Trusting in God’s love, she was motivated by a deep compassion for all people, refusing to harbor bitterness or hatred in herself, even in the ugliness of war.

Ultimately, we have one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace and to reflect it towards others.  And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubles world.

 She was brutally honest about her failures in life; her clear confessions and self-awareness were a good Lenten companion.  But along with acknowledging the wrong within herself, she was also radically contemplative at her core, aware of God’s indwelling in the quiet center of her life at all times.  Here is a quote from when she was still living in Amsterdam but surrounded by the anxiety of people whose freedoms were being taken away:

 Despite the many people, the many questions, the varied studies, one must always carry a great silence within one, a silence into which one can always withdraw, even in the midst of all hustle and bustle and in the midst of the most animated conversations.

She felt called to extend compassion to others, even volunteering at one point to go to Westerbork so that she could be with her suffering people and offer some measure of care and compassion.   The last words in her diary are:

We would be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.

It is Maundy Thursday as I write this.  Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you, to love one another as I have loved you.”  We remember again how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and gave his life in a horrible death for the world.  He is a profound outpouring of God’s love. He is God’s embodied love.

I am also carrying around the mental picture of one Jewish woman who in the last years of her life enfleshed the heart of Jesus’ commandment to us.  Tonight, after sharing holy communion and as the psalm is being sung, I will gratefully think of Christ’s self-giving love, a balm for all our wounds.    While the altar is stripped and silence falls upon the gathering, I will also think of Etty Hillisum, daughter of God, committed to selfless acts of love, confident in God’s care, tossing her last postcard from the moving box car.