...a time must come when I am alone with my experience, belonging to it, reshaping it' (Rilke, Letters, 1902-1906).
'Yes: to belong to one's experience. And to transform it. That is my great yearning as well. We must carry our experience within us, place it at the centre of a quiet space within us and hearken to it there' (Etty Hillesum, 1942).
Red and yellow roses, Rilke and Dostoevsky, sexual desire: the material life of 'the girl who could not kneel, but who learned to do so on the rough coconut matting in an untidy bathroom'. Etty Hillesum 'traced the contours' of a demonic age in Europe, in its midst discovering within herself a 'centre...growing firmer by the day'. Hers was, in every sense, a religious existence, recorded amidst growing barbarity in 1940s Amsterdam, and ended in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943. Hillesum possessed a deep commitment to occupying a certain place in a chaotic world, a determination to 'bear witness where witness needs to be borne...', allowing her interior life to carry the tumultuous agonies, and the everyday joys, of wartime society, and accepting the task of bearing within herself certain fundamental but fragile realities. This 'hearkening' to her innermost self, as the place where gift and agency were made manifest, was never a matter of mere solipsism; as Carl Jung had taught her, 'once a person has a centre, all external impressions can find an anchorage there'. 'All this has nothing to do with being introverted', Hillesum maintained, 'all my senses are focused on the outside reality, and what they observe there they convey to the centre, which may thus be said to be reinforced by every new impression'. The challenge to any contemporary dichotomy between 'religion' and 'spirituality' should be clear: the woman who could write, amidst all the atrocities of her time, of 'living one's life with God and in God and having God dwell within', was the same woman who saw as basic to her daily existence the physical commitment of waking, kneeling, and praying.
Religious lives are premised on ‘taking time’, what the great Anglican theologian W.H. Vanstone termed ‘the passivity of waiting’. For Etty Hillesum, the ‘self’ was the site within which certain universal realities could ‘find a home’ over the temporal course of an earthly life. ‘God’, though frequently described as a ‘deep well within’, was never merely a shorthand for self-reflection; rather, ‘God’ was an encountered Other, an acknowledgement of whose pervasive reality could be ‘forced’ on a human person through reflection on the pattern of their life history. ‘Life can educate one to a belief in God’, wrote Wittgenstein in 1950; for both Wittgenstein and Hillesum, religious lives were material existences, in which patterns of activity – kneeling, praying, silent contemplation – were embraced in order that something of the ineffable reality of God could be made accessible in the shared realm of language. Religious lives are ‘bound’ to God, committed to discerning the reality of an uninvited, encountered ‘otherness’ at every level of perception, thus exploring the contours of a new landscape revealed through patient attendance to self and world. The material practices of religion are firstly responsive to divine ‘pressure’ or imperative (recall Hillesum’s remark that she felt at times that her body was ‘made for kneeling’), and secondly constitute the ‘necessarily gradual and complex outworking of the wider landscape’ sensed and discovered as the ‘self’ is reconfigured in relation to what escapes simple description or labelling. Religious lives thus make manifest what cannot be reduced to mythology or translated into logical proposition: the discovered, encountered need to be the place where certain realities are borne, carried, and allowed to generate further responses within the world, much like painting or poetry.
For Hillesum, amidst the horror of twentieth- century genocide, this took the form of an extraordinary commitment to being the ‘site’ of God’s creative love, even at the centre of a concentration camp. ‘At this moment I know that I have a task in life’, she wrote, ‘I shall have to live through everything...I shall become a chronicler of our adventures. I shall forge them into a new language...’. And whilst she very concretely contributed to the improvement of the life of her fellow inmates, Hillesum never lost sight of her foundational motive, her innermost reality: ‘Let me be rather than do’, she wrote, recalling of her fellow prisoners that ‘I would now and then discover in each one of them a gesture or a glance that took them out of themselves and of which they seemed barely aware. And I felt I was the guardian of that gesture or glance’. Hillesum was the ‘thinking heart of the barracks’, who dedicated her life to chronicling the tragic contours of her environment, to being drawn further into the suffering around her that she might ever more closely become the site where God’s creative reality could emerge. Her life was, in those last years, given over to being a ‘sign’, nurturing within itself a reality which did not compete for space with other realities in the world, but which could only be made manifest through her; this, for Hillesum, was the reality of God’s love, to which her every movement and action became a testimony and theatre.
A discipline of looking and watching. A commitment to living at the interface of sensed environment and human response. The ‘passivity’ and patience of waiting. This is the ‘grammar’ of religious life, which seeks ‘not simply to describe an external reality, but to modify over time the way self and world are sensed’. There is, as Vanstone puts it, a shift from a utilitarian awareness of material reality (‘what is useful for me here and now?’) to ‘a sense of responsibility for it’. And it is this which poses a decisive challenge to certain kinds of secularism, as much in relation to the possibility of art, beauty, and tragedy, as to the possibility of religious narrative. For it would be fair to say that a particularly crude strand of functionalism has successfully pervaded the basic assumptions of a great deal of contemporary thought, from the advancement of ‘neuro-aesthetics’ to the popular fascination with technological solutions to complex socio-economic problems. Such perspectives risk propagating a naïve image of the human subject as a mere receptor of determined environmental data, and suggest as possible a single, static ‘description’ of the world, exhaustive of all material reality, and final in its determination of a ‘correct’ reading of the universe. It is this which the religious habit of life stands against, conscious always that what confronts me is never exhausted by my perception of it, never simply defined by my subjective awareness, just as my own subjectivity is never wholly in my possession. Against the ‘view from nowhere’ articulated by secular modernity, religious traditions, in various ways, seek to realign the metaphor of ‘knowing’ from a labelling of static categories, to a participation in musical performance. To ‘know’ is not simply to receive and process external data; it is to re-enact in a different mode what is sensed to confront the self from outside, with the awareness that what may be perceived is to a great extent a consequence of the relation of self and world within the thinking subject.
Thus, for the religious believer, ‘there is the sense that the world gives itself to be understood in the very moment when we realise that describing it simply in terms of how it relates to me, let alone serves my interest, is an inadequate or actually untruthful perspective’. What the religiously observant subject desires is the ‘unfolding of truth’ through the discipline and obedience of daily practice, such that what the world is to me is routinely problematised, stretched, and challenged. The site of coincidence between human subjectivity and external stimuli is preserved, revisited and transformed; our experience of the world, which in turn colours and shapes our ongoing interaction with it, is held up to become the object of contemplation. And, slowly, and not without a little discomfort, our own ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ grows, for the religious believer, into something of that infinite and perfect perspective of God. The life of the religious believer is given over to the commitment to embody the infinite patience and love of God in looking at what has its own integrity and presence.
Secular modernity may have inculcated the idea that ‘we can edit God out of the language and leave our social world unchanged’, yet the example of Etty Hillesum and many others should give us pause for thought. What Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and many other traditions preserve is a commitment to an open and generative world, in which identity can never be closed and exclusive, and no word is ever ‘final’ in any narrow and political sense. Etty Hillesum’s life was a task: to embody, nurture, and protect God’s love and freedom, which, as wholly other to worldly process, claims no stake in the ordinary negotiations of human society. Yet precisely as responsive to the wholly other, Hillesum’s life stubbornly refuses to attempt a premature foreclosure of conversation; no situation, not even the most appalling suffering of the Holocaust, can simply have the final word in the life of the universe. Indeed, precisely because of her vocation as the ‘guardian of the glance’, Hillesum enters ever more deeply into the suffering all around her, mindful that, at the very epicentre of an earthly hell in which humans were robbed of all dignity, the reality of God – and thus the infinite dignity of humankind – remains and finds a home in the world. Her life becomes an invincible challenge to hegemonic power, proving that history is not simply the palimpsest of victors, but the arena for infinite meaningfulness and ultimate relation.
The twenty-first century faces unprecedented challenges in matters of identity, coexistence, and plural society. The Arnoldian retreat of the Sea of Faith has been accompanied by a violent resurgence of fundamentalist religion, to which a widespread reaction has been the insistence on an ever-more secularised public sphere. Yet, if a basic characteristic of fundamentalism is its desire to foreclose debate and interpretation by imposing final forms of words, then secularisation can hardly represent an alternative; government cannot be reduced to technical solutions of resource redistribution, and the practice of politics can never simply concern negotiations of power. Any genuine alternative to a closed, exclusive, and defensive world must regard the taking of time, and the commitment to contemplation which are basic to religious lives, as of central importance to human society. To be ‘religious’ in a world such as ours is not, then, primarily a matter of holding certain beliefs and ideas in mind; at its core, it concerns a discipline and obedience which regards our environment as shared, inexhaustible, and infinitely worth our patience. It seems that, in an age of fearful, egotistical, and violent politics, we must indeed ‘carry our experience within us, place it at the centre of a quiet space within us and hearken to it there’. Its transformation may provide our only hope.