“Your Deepest and Best” ~ Rev. Melanie Eyre
This week, Rev. Melanie will be discussing how to be our best even when faced with difficult people and situations that throw us off our center.
A revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the Deaf and hard of hearing.
Prayers, readings and songs from this week’s service are also provided below.
Community Circles Discussion Guide – View & Download
PRAYER FOR COMMUNITY – adaptation from a prayer from the Jewish tradition
For cities and towns, factories and farms, flowers and trees, sea and sky—
We give thanks for the world and its beauty.
For family and friends, neighbors and cousins—
We give thanks for friendship and love.
For kind hearts, smiling faces, and helping hands—
We give thanks for those who care for others.
For wisdom that teaches us how to live—
We give thanks for those who help us to understand how to live in peace and wholeness.
And for making us one family on earth, the children of One God—
We give thanks to God, who made all people different, yet alike.
Prayer by Lama Surya Dass
We who need help, pray for the healing of our physical,
emotional, and spiritual pains and difficulties.
Source of blessings and power,
heal us, empower us, and bless us.
We realize we cannot do it alone,
and we ask for blessings from all those
who have the power to help, elevate, and heal.
We ask for help from the sacred that is above us.
We ask for the support of those around us,
Our friends, families, and communities.
We pray for the wisdom to find ways to help ourselves.
We ask for guidance to help us ease our way and heal our hearts.
May we open ourselves to the mystery that is beyond us,
The source from which we are never apart.
May we be happy and whole.
May energy pour through us for the benefit of one and all.
May we dance and lift up our hands and our hearts in praise and rejoicing.
“Your Deepest and Best” with Rev. Melanie Eyre
Nov 15, 2020
Welcome and thank you so much for joining us. Today we are continuing our series on gratitude, on living with an ever-present awareness that life is a blessing. Sometimes, that’s easier than at other times.
In the last week or so I have spent quite a bit of time just being very down, feeling off balance. I don’t know if you ever had moments like that but if you have then you know what I’m talking about.
As I was thinking about it I realized that the source of my discontent in large part was disappointment and disillusionment over the actions of others. This is so silly because I know I really cannot control the actions of others but at the same time I found myself being very upset at the way I observed people acting- whether they are people in the news or people coming to my attention in other ways. I saw just way too many incidents of people being hurtful to others, and it burdened me. Some of you may have felt the same at times.
So as I wondered how to move myself off of this feeling, it struck me that I should gather some wisdom from people who have been in way worse circumstances than me. At the end of the day I may be disappointed but I’m still fine. Down through the years there have been so many people who have suffered injury, violence and even death at the hands of others and yet have managed to maintain their humanity, their optimism and even their joy.
Rev. Chris Kell spoke a while back about building a spiritual toolbox, and for me one of the wonderful tools available is drawing wisdom from the lives of inspirational people. I’d like to talk about one of them today.
Her name was Etty Hillesum, and you may have heard of her but it’s equally likely that you have not. However, her name deserves to be remembered, as she was an extraordinarily wise, articulate and courageous young woman. She came of age in the late 1930’s, was swept up by the Nazi purge of Jews in the city of Amsterdam and throughout the Netherlands, and died at the age of 29 in Auschwitz. Most of her writings were not uncovered for over 40 years, but gradually they have come to light and have been translated and publicized.
The resource I used for this talk was Patrick Woodhouse’s work entitled “Etty Hillesum – A Life Transformed.”
I really encourage you not only to learn more about Etty Hillesum, but to learn from her. I have come across few people who walked a path of such transformation and lived a life of such luminous joy and grace in the face of unremitting horror. In Etty’s case, she didn’t really walk her path – she didn’t have a lot of time, so she ran it.
So, who was she? Etty was born in 1914 to Jewish parents in the Netherlands, but was not raised with any particular religious focus. She described her childhood as chaotic and ungrounded, leading in her early years to experimentation with radical political philosophies, sexual adventurism, and a general bohemian bent. She was smart, articulate, and so curious.
In her early life, she realized she had to find a way out of the groundlessness of her early years. She was driven, as she put it “to come to grips with myself.” She didn’t turn to religion or spirituality at first, but went into psychotherapy to find out more about her inner life.
In early 1941, she entered into a highly unusual therapeutic relationship with a German therapist named Julius Spier. Back then codes of conduct apparently were few and far between, and their therapeutic relationship veered from the combative to the intimate to the downright strange, including occasional wrestling matches.
However, what Spier did was honor and listen to what she was saying and feeling, and give her permission to do the same for herself. It was a radical gift. She wrote “what I am looking for is my own truth”, and with Spier she began to find it.
It was not an easy journey. She had bouts of depression, despair, anxiety. She wrote that she hated herself, that the best thing would be to go throw herself into a canal.
However, at the same time, she was learning to, as she put it “stop and listen to myself” and “to sound my own depths”. This was a young woman completely unfamiliar with her own inner life, with little control over her chaotic and churning emotions. However, she was committed to the truth, and determined to find out who she was. She never lost that true north, and indeed that drive is what made the difference.
What is so extraordinary about Etty Hillesum’s journey is, first, the depth and illumination of it, but also the fact that she was able to travel this path in such a brief time. She entered therapy in early 1941, beginning her journey of self-realization. Within two years, she transformed into a deeply spiritual being who, even in the midst of the worst that we can do to each other, refused to hate. She simply refused, and when she refused to hate she found she also did not fear, even though she clearly saw where she was and what was coming. When she didn’t let fear shut her down, she kept her ability to see beauty, to experience joy and gratitude, and to love without reservation. In so doing became a beacon of light and hope to so many desperate and fearful souls in those camps.
It is this journey that draws me. I am in awe at the courage and determination of this young woman. As we watch her walk this path, through her diaries and letters, we see a person who is absolutely committed to seeing clearly whatever reality is before her, and that reality was getting darker and darker. On June 14, 1941, she writes: ‘More arrests, more terror, concentration camps, the arbitrary dragging off of fathers, sisters, brothers. We seek the meaning of life, wondering whether any meaning can be left.’
At the same time, she was finding her own inner life, her deep resources. She wrote that the chaos can still overwhelm her at times, ‘as if I were on a great grey ocean’, ‘but on the bottom there are hills rising, elevations taking shape, the appearance of form’. She later wrote: ‘I draw on an ever-deeper inner certainty … Time and again I have had to learn how spacious the heart can be, and time and again I have had to reclaim that space.’
What was happening here? A transformation was beginning from an awareness of emotions and motivators, her thinking mind, to an understanding of the depths beyond. She learned to move beyond words to the deeper truth beyond. She wrote:
Just now, when I was sitting on the dustbin in the sun out on our stony little terrace, with my head leaning against the washtub and with the sun on the strong, dark, still, leafless branches of the chestnut tree, I had a very clear sense of the difference between then and now … … In the past, I took in the tree and the sun with my intellect. I wanted to put down in so many words why I found it so beautiful, I wanted to understand how everything fitted together, I wanted to fathom that deep primitive feeling with my mind … In other words, I wanted to subject nature, everything, to myself. I felt obliged to interpret it. And the quite simple fact is that now I just let it happen to me … As I sat there like that in the sun, I bowed my head unconsciously as if to take in even more of that new feeling for life. Suddenly I knew deep down how someone can sink impetuously to his knees and find peace there, his face hidden in his folded hands.
In this moment, she grasped the power of contemplation, of listening, of simply being. She went on to explain ‘You must live and breathe with your soul … If you live by your mind alone, yours is but a poor existence.’
In this she is very modern. She came to this understanding not through any religious tradition, but through the experience of her own life, her own relentless drive to understand who she was. Learning she was so much more than her thinking mind.
As she explored this new contemplative way, she found herself unexpectedly finding refuge in prayer. What a shock! She actually described herself as “the girl who could not kneel” and yet “who learned to pray.”
She describes prayer as a practice she first tentatively tried, with embarrassment, but which became the rock she could not do without. In early July of 1942, after the Nazis had enacted a new string of anti-Jewish measures in Amsterdam, she wrote ‘This morning I suddenly had to kneel down on the rough coconut matting in the bathroom, my head bowed so low that it nearly rested on my lap.’ ‘I could remain like that for days,’ she writes, ‘my body like the safe walls of a small cell sheltering me right in its middle.’ Her very body, in the act of prayer, became a sanctuary.
As you might expect, Etty’s view of God arose not from any religious training but from her experience on her journey, what she called her “soul landscape.” She saw this inner ground of her being as “what is deepest and best in me”, and she began to call it God. She understood that the deepest and best in her also lay in others – a bond, a belonging to others and all of life. Her understanding of God came not from any theological study, but from her own lived experience.
So what were the ramifications of this journey for Etty, as the Nazi noose tightened all around her?
One unexpected gift of this new awareness, this new ability to be and listen, was strength to weather the growing threats around her. Instead of disowning the negative, she learned to integrate it, and carry it with her, without disabling fear. She could still see beauty, feel joy.
While in Westerbork, the transit camp for Jews being sent east, she wrote:
The misery here is quite terrible; and yet, late at night when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire. And then, time and again, it soars straight from my heart – I can’t help it, that’s just the way it is, like some elementary force – the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent, and that one day we shall be building a whole new world.
She became able to preserve and even enlarge her own inner space, through solitude, through prayer, and through her relentless focus on truth. She did not let herself be distracted, but maintained what Woodhouse calls a discipline and watchfulness over herself.
As her inner life deepened, she grew increasingly certain that in the depths of each of us is a wellspring of love and goodness. In the midst of the depredations and dangers of Amsterdam in 1942, this truth dawned. In a world in which seemingly everyone else hated, she refused, because she saw what is the truth of each of us. She never stopped trying to see each human face beneath, as she put it, “the ugly masks of war.”
It was this conviction that enabled her to maintain her humanity, to defeat fear, to continue to love. Let me give you her words:
How strange. It is wartime. There are concentration camps. Small barbarity mounts upon small barbarity. I can say of so many of the houses I pass: here the son has been thrown into prison, there the father has been taken hostage, and an eighteen-year-old boy in that house over there has been sentenced to death. … I know about the mounting human suffering. I know the persecution and oppression and despotism and the impotent fury and the terrible sadism. I know it all … And yet – at unguarded moments, when left to myself, I suddenly lie against the naked breast of life, and her arms round me are so gentle and so protective, and my own heartbeat is difficult to describe: so slow and so regular and so soft, almost muffled, but so constant, as if it would never stop, and so good and merciful as well.
That is also my attitude to life, and I believe that neither war nor any other senseless human atrocity will ever be able to change it.
She also found she could not blame God. She was a daily reader of the Hebrew Psalms, and as she studied them and saw so clearly the world around her, she came to believe that God was not here to save her, and indeed could not even do it. There is too much pain to believe that God could deliver the Jews from what was happening and what was to come.
And yet, she could not live without an ongoing awareness of God, an unbroken connection to her source. And in her fearless surrender to that truth, she came to understand that her job was not to seek delivery from God. Instead, it was to cherish and protect the God presence within her and never let it go. Without that, she lost everything – her humanity, her joy, her compassion, her connection with others. She recorded a prayer to God, in which she said, “We must defend your dwelling place inside us to the last.” She understood how vulnerable that presence was, as she saw so many lay it aside in the face of fear and death.
She wrote that there were “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.”
It was due to this fierce commitment to safeguard her open heart, the deepest and best in her, that she refused to hate. If she surrendered to hate, and to fear, she would suffer far greater damage than the worst the Nazis could do to her. She
Etty ultimately was deported to the Auschwitz death camp, where she died in November of 1943. To the end, she maintained her courage, her ability to share love and healing. As her train departed Westerbork for Auschwitz, she dropped out the train window a letter to a friend in Amsterdam, which was later found by some farmers and delivered. It read, in part, we left the camp singing.
The last chapter of Woodhouse’s book is entitled “A Woman for our Time.” In it, he observes how timeless is her message, and how needed it is now. He writes “First, she interrupts our scepticism about faith, and she invites us to believe again. Second, she interrupts our narrow assumptions about religion itself, and she invites us to pray. Third, she interrupts our easy hatreds of our enemy, and she invites us to see. Finally, she interrupts our despair about the future, and she invites us to be courageous.”
Through it all, Etty Hillesum continued to affirm life. She insisted that behind every mask of hate was a vulnerable, human heart, and we could only begin to see each other when we put hate aside. When we can do that, we honor and preserve our own humanity, refusing to hate, finding we have no fear. In that way, we live our deepest and best.
I have done such a limited job of telling you about this extraordinary life, this amazing journey. I encourage you to read further.
Thank you for listening. I’d like to close with a reading by Linda Wendt.
As the Nazis tightened their grip on Amsterdam and the reality of her future began to dawn, Etty Hillesum found a peace within herself, and a joy in all of life. She wrote:
… I am filled with a sort of bountifulness, even towards myself; … And a feeling of being at one with all existence. No longer: I want this or that, but: Life is great and good and fascinating and eternal, and if you dwell so much on yourself and flounder and fluff about, you miss the mighty eternal current that is life. It is in these moments – and I am so grateful for them – that all personal ambition drops away from me, that my thirst for knowledge and understanding comes to rest, and a small piece of eternity descends on me with a sweeping wingbeat.Etty: The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941–1943
“Love, Love, Love, Love” ~ Traditional round
“Nothing More” written by The Alternate Routes
This service aired on November 15, 2020.