Spiritual Maturity: The Case of Etty Hillesum (1)

Etty Hillesum was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943, age 29.

Posted Sep 21, 2011

Invasion and violation:
Etty Hillesum was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of 29, but not before she attained remarkable spiritual maturity. Her astonishingly revealing personal diaries and letters record that, over only about thirty months, her life was completely transformed. These valuable documents were eventually published, almost forty years after her death.*

Etty Hillesum

Conditions of severe, especially prolonged adversity offer considerable opportunity for spiritual growth. Greater suffering could hardly be imagined than that of people persecuted by the Nazis in the 1930's and 1940's. The German army invaded and occupied the Netherlands in May 1940. This violation of everyday normality and regular social functioning had effects at the deeply personal level on individuals too. Etty was one of these.

She was born into a Dutch Jewish family in 1914. Her father taught classical languages and was a school headmaster. Her mother was originally from Russia, having fled to Holland after violent, homicidal attacks on the Jews living there. Both parents and Etty's brothers, Jacob and Michael, were alive as she began her diaries in March 1941. An intelligent woman, with university degrees in law and Slavonic languages, Etty was at the time studying psychology and giving Russian lessons, living independently of her family in South Amsterdam,

Intent upon self-development:
At the age of twenty-seven, Etty was already independent-minded, preferring to think things through for herself; but she was only superficially confident. In her first diary entry she wrote, "Deep down something like a tightly wound ball of twine binds me relentlessly, and at times I am nothing more or less than a miserable, frightened creature."

Intent on self-development in a troubled world, she is searching for love and wholeness, aware that she is growing as a person and eager to do so. Her quest for personal integrity led her to consult an unconventional Jungian analyst, Julius Spier. Etty described him as, "A fifty-four year old in whom the struggle between the spirit and the flesh is still in full cry". Burdened by inhibitions, a sense of shame and a tremendous fear of letting go, she wants him to, "Bring order to my inner chaos, (and) harness the forces now at loggerheads within me."

Etty's Diaries & Letters

Spier advises engaging in spiritual practices: reading philosophy, poetry and scripture, meditating, reflecting and praying. Etty reads the New Testament of the Bible as well as the Old, the words of Gustav Jung, and the wisdom of the poet Rilke, taking to heart his advice in particular, from his ‘Letters to a Young Poet', "To go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise."

Within a short time, Etty reports progress, now hoping to become, "An adult, capable of helping other souls who are in trouble". "The struggle itself", she says, "Is thrilling".

Sexual and spiritual love:
Etty is attracted to Spier, but he has a fiancée living in wartime safety in London. This is part of her inner conflict. Spier helps her see that love of mankind is greater than the love of one man. Nevertheless, Etty initially finds this hard to accept.

Because Spier is also attracted to Etty, the situation is complicated. The temptation to engage sexually is there, but both are trying to be noble. Etty desires friendship, as she puts is, "In its deepest and fullest sense". She admits that part of her wants him to claim her as the only one, and to say he will love her for evermore; but at the same time she suspects, deeper down, that there is no such thing as eternal love. She feels possessive, but also writes that she neither wants Spier forever, nor as the only one in her life. It feels like a kind of test on her path to personal and spiritual maturity.

Etty already seems increasingly self-aware. She has become an observer as well as participant in her own development; writing a little later, for example, "Truly this spiritual contact (with Spier) gives me much greater satisfaction than the physical one."

Describing her personality as growing stronger, she later adds, "There is a sort of lamentation and loving-kindness as well as a little wisdom somewhere inside me that cry to be let out. Sometimes several different dialogues run through me at the same time, images and figures, moods, a sudden flash of something that must be my very own truth". Truth and the mature, selfless love she says she needs to fight for within herself, "Belong to the realm of the soul".

The bigger picture:

Pages from Etty's Diaries

Although described in an intimate way, Etty also connects her personal journey with the grim circumstances of life around her under Nazi occupation. "You must remain your own witness", she writes, "Marking well everything that happens in this world, never shutting your eyes to reality. You must come to grips with these terrible times." She reveals her increasing self-confidence by adding, "I sometimes feel like a post standing in a raging sea, lashed on all sides by the waves. But I am firmly moored, and the years have helped to weather me."

Etty's love of nature, which she is able to appreciate with a deep, contemplative intensity, is another of several factors contributing to this firm mooring. Applying this powerful reflective ability to herself is also very useful, but it is a skill she knows she needs to develop. As she writes, "There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then he must be dug out again."

At the outset, Etty is independent-minded, apparently past the third, 'conformist' stage and into the fourth ‘individual' stage of faith development, but she is also troubled and still therefore questing. She is seeking a deeper, more universal truth on which to base her security and functioning, both in terms of intimate relationships and in the broader sphere of what is happening around her. So far, we can see that she has reached a transition point, moving already towards ‘integration' stage five. As we shall see, Etty eventually reaches the final ‘universal' stage six.

Copyright Larry Culliford

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

Larry's books include ‘The Psychology of Spirituality', ‘Love, Healing & Happiness' and (as Patrick Whiteside) ‘The Little Book of Happiness' and ‘Happiness: The 30 Day Guide' (personally endorsed by HH The Dalai Lama).


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