Harkening Within

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Etty Hillesum in 1939

Seventy-five years ago on November 30th, a young Dutch Jewish intellect died at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her legacy of love and reconciliation, as described in her ten diary notebooks and the many letters that she wrote, continues to inspire people around the world. Etty Hillesum (1914-1943) was only 29 years old when she died, but during her short lifespan she managed to live a life of contemplative spirituality and practice in a world that seemed to be falling to pieces around her.

Hillesum grew up in a non-religious home of intellectuals. Her parents were both teachers – her father taught the classics and her mother Russian literature. Hillesum had two younger brothers, both very talented but mentally unstable. She describes having grown up in a “chaotic and sad situation … a madhouse where no human being can flourish.”

Hillesum received university degrees in Dutch Law and Slavic languages. She loved reading literature and was a remarkably talented writer. In 1937, she took a room in a house in Amsterdam, and in 1941, met the psycho-chirologist Julius Spier, who soon became her therapist. Spier had been in analysis with Carl Gustav Jung for two years, and it was Jung who recommended that Spier open a practice.

“I keep being drawn toward Jung”

Hillesum’s inner and outer journey actually began through Jungian psychotherapy. It was probably Spier who advised Hillesum to start keeping a diary, a practice that she found therapeutic as well as a way to nourish her literary talent. However, her notebooks were destined to become valuable chronicles, not only of her psychological and spiritual development, but also of the fate of the Jewish people.

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Pages from Etty Hillesum’s diary.

I very much urge everyone to read her diaries and letters, which have been published in 18 different languages and speak more than ever to our contemporary times. Hillesum was able to poetically recount the daily challenges of her inner and outer life – her personal and spiritual psychosynthesis. Her writing is highly accessible, intimate, imaginative, and full of  subtle ironic humor. Woven along with her own story is the story and circumstances of others she observed, as together they struggled to live under the terror of German occupation.

Hillesum’s spirituality does not fit neatly into any one dogma or institution. Born Jewish in a non-practicing family, she read Jung and loved German poet Rilke and the Russian novelist Dostoevsky. She drew inspiration from St. Augustine and the Bible. When she arrived at Camp Westerbork, the transit camp in the eastern region of The Netherlands, she had both the Koran and the Talmud in her bag. During the last months of her life at the camp, she wrote how she was “cleaning toilets and reading Meister Eckhart.”

“I want to share the fate of my people”

In the end, Hillesum refused to escape Nazi persecution, despite friends offering her multiple opportunities to hide. “I want to share the fate of my people,” she said. Hillesum felt her vocation was to use her skills with people and words, to care for the most vulnerable and to chronicle what she called “their adventures.” In July 1942, she volunteered, through the Jewish Counsel, to go to Camp Westerbork to work in the department of ‘Social Welfare for People in Transit.’ She wrote at that time:

“I will wield this slender fountain pen as if it were a hammer. And my words will have to be so many hammer strokes with which to beat out the story of our fate. A piece of history…”

In the camp, in addition to writing in her diary and letters to friends, she cared for the elderly and sick, and visited people in the hospital. Throughout this time, she refused to hate, calling it a “sickness of the soul.” Hillesum wrote:

“It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it still more inhospitable… I try to look things straight in the eye. Even the worst crimes, to discover the small naked human being amid the monstrous wreckage caused by man’s senseless deeds.”

“God is what is deepest and best in me.”

In the end, her personality was able to synthesize into a radiate presence, full of Love and Light. Part of her practice towards achieving inner awareness and strength was hineinhorchen, the German word for “to harken to.” She reflected:

“What I do is hineinhorchen (it seems to me that this word is untranslatable). Harkening to myself, to others, to the world. I listen very intently, with my whole being, and try to fathom the meaning of things.

…God is what is deepest and best in me… It’s really God who harkens inside me. The most essential and deepest in me harkening onto the most essential and deepest in the other, God to God.”

In my introduction to Roberto Assagioli’s prison diary, Freedom in Jail, I reflect on how such an experience of the deepest Self can paradoxically occur while in prison – an experience confirmed by Assagioli and Hillesum, as well as Viktor Frankl. Assagioli was a friend and colleague of Frankl’s. Since Hillesum’s diaries were only published in 1981 seven years after Assagioli’s death, he would not have known her.

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Camp Westerbork during World War II.

All three shared the initial experience of acceptance with regard to their state of imprisonment. Acceptance brought them an inner freedom. And this inner freedom mysteriously invoked higher realizations and deep wisdom. While spending time in Camp Westerbork barracks, Hillesum tells us about being:

 “… jam-packed [into] hangers of drafty slats, under a lowering sky… And there among the barracks, full of hunted and persecuted people, I found confirmation of my love of life … Not for one moment was I cut off from the life I was said to have left behind. There was simply one great meaningful whole.”

“Let me be the thinking heart…”

During the three months she spent living amongst the “mud, overcrowding and people arriving every day in truckloads”, she vowed to become the “thinking heart of the barracks”:

“At night, as I lay in the camp on my plank bed, surrounded by women and girls gently snoring, dreaming aloud, quietly sobbing and tossing and turning, 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 letting all the many, too many impressions of a much-too-long day wash over me, and I prayed, ‘Let me be the thinking heart of these barracks.’ And that is what I want to be again. The thinking heart of a whole concentration camp.”

The last line of her preserved journals, reads: “We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.” On the day she left for Poland, she had in her rucksack a bible and Russian grammar. Hillesum managed to write a postcard and drop it through a crack of the cattlecar. The card was found by a farmer who sent it onto the addressee. On it, Hillesum wrote:

“We left the camp singing…”


An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941 – 1943. Trans: Arnold J Pomerans. London: Persephone Books, 1999 (Reprinted 2007).

Books, Books and More Galore!

 

At first glance, you might think that life coaching, shamanic soulfulness, short stories about Japan, and a textbook on psychosynthesis might not have much in common. But they do! All have come into my hands (literally) during the last year in the form of books, and I would like to share them with you now.

In addition, I am planning to publish a series of short books based on my blogs. So this list ends with a preview of my first book in the series. But before we peek inside all these book covers, I would first like to introduce you to a wonderful new resource… Continue reading

The Bamboo Whisk

Tea Bowl with Tea

Today we celebrate the Celtic festival of Samhain, when the division between this world and the otherworld is at its thinnest, allowing spirits to pass through. Christians celebrate November 1 as All Saint’s Day and November 2 as All Souls. To mark this numinous time of year, I would like to share a story about Kikuchi-sensei, my Japanese tea ceremony teacher. A longer version of this story was originally published in Ascent Magazine, Issue 36, Fall 2007


The morning I went to the mortuary to see Kikuchi-Sensei, a cold wind whipped around the medieval cobblestone streets of the tiny Umbrian village. She had been fighting cancer for nearly a year and had finally surrendered at the age of 79. Dressed in a pale cinnamon kimono, she appeared so tiny in the lacquered coffin, framed by wild spring flowers that her daughter had picked from their garden, Sensei’s face was strong and peaceful; her mouth, set in her soft, unlined skin, was ready to break into one of her rare, indulging smiles.

Since Sensei had refused visitors during her treatment, I had just managed to accept life without our weekly tea ceremony lessons. But looking upon her still, frail frame, I hardly felt ready to surrender her forever. As I stood by her coffin, in my heart I thanked her for all she had taught me during the years we had spent together. I felt tremendously honored to have known her. Continue reading

When No Money Talks

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Assagioli’s writing about his time in jail.

One of my favorite anecdotes from Assagioli’s time in prison is when his prison money was running out. He wrote in intimate detail about this experience in his book Freedom in Jail, under the chapter “An Incident and a ‘Test’”.

From the time of his arrest, Assagioli’s wife Nella was making sure that there was enough money in his prison account to warrant his receiving special treatment. In 1940, Regina Coeli prisoners could buy a more comfortable, private cell and more varied and higher quality food. Continue reading

The Prodigal Daughter

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Detail from Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”.

I have always loved the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), yet at the same time, struggle with it. The story seems so male in context. A young man returns home repentant and humbled after squandering his inheritance on a life of debauchery. His father is moved with pity, and runs to welcome his son home, clasping him in his arms and kissing him.

“Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. We will celebrate by having a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.”

Meanwhile the elder son who always slaved in the fields and obeyed his father grows angry and refuses to enter the celebrations. But the father says:

“My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.”

What would the story of the prodigal daughter be, and what would her return to the welcoming mother reveal? Continue reading

Snapshot of the Philosophical Library

Note that this blog is an excerpt from my published article: A Snapshot of the Philosophical Library: Florence, Italy, 1922)


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George Davis Herron in 1900.

While conducting research, I often become like Alice and Wonderland, chasing rabbits down the garden path. Most recently, I came across a fascinating book, written by George David Herron (1862-1925), an American clergyman, lecturer, and writer from Indiana. In his book The Revival of Italy, published in 1922, Herron has a beautiful passage describing Roberto Assagioli as the inspiration for the Biblioteca Filosofica. (Philosophical Library) in Florence.

A lively center of philosophical discussion, the Philosophical Library was started around 1903-1905 by those studying theosophy. Wanting to deepen their understanding of Oriental philosophy, library members loaned books, organized classes, conferences and published a bulletin.

Assagioli was one of its more frequent visitors.[1] The Philosophical Library’s intent was to create a “free university for philosophical and religious studies” where the public could come and learn more about the current cultural movements such as Pragmatism, Idealism, and Modernism in a non-academic setting. Continue reading

In Compagnia (Part II)

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Two of the youngest gnocchi makers.


August is here again, and as part of our summer break, I offer you a story I wrote about making gnocchi for our village festival. This is long story for a blog and comes in two parts. To read Part I, click here. I hope you enjoy it and your summer!


I had been on my feet all morning rolling strings of dough and cutting them into bite-sized gnocchi, when someone arrived with a tray of sliced prosciutto crudo on fresh bread and thimble-sized cups of strong black coffee. Both never tasted so good!

But truly, my inspiration and energy only arose from the compagnia of the women around me. At one point, I was standing next to Eleonora, a young woman who had spent seven years in Boston and New York studying music. She started singing “Close to You” by the Carpenters and we sang together for a while, with me helping her with the lyrics. Then suddenly Adelaide threw up her arms and waved them around as she sung, and the rest of the women joined in. She then recited a short poem that she had just invented:

Chi al mare e chi al monte
A fare gnocchi, ci sono tonte
.

Some are vacationing at the beach, others in the mountain sun.
Those who make gnocchi are the stupid ones.

Continue reading