Re-inventing the language of prayer

Like Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum lived in Amsterdam during the German occupation. Like Anne Frank, she kept a diary. And like Anne Frank she died in a concentration. But unlike Anne Frank, she was not a teenager; she was 29 when she died in Auschwitz in 1943. Her diaries cover her spiritual journey during the two years 1941-43 while living as a marked woman in Amsterdam. Etty had the same courageous spirit to question God that Jews have always possessed as far back as the prophets of the Bible who constantly questioned and even challenged God. 

On 16th of July 1942, she began her evening entry with, “Have You any other plans for me, oh God?” It is not necessary to know the context in her life that prompted that question. What she went on to write that evening could have been written by people today, especially those who work in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic in hospitals and other care facilities. She wrote:

…amid all the gloom and the bustle, I was able to read a few Rilke letters, to continue living my own life. Despite the deadly fear I saw in all those faces. All those faces, my God, those faces! I am going to bed now. I hope to be a center of peace in that madhouse. I shall get up early in order to brace myself. “Oh God, what are Your plans for me?” 

Our hearts go out to those who work in places where they see the faces of fear and dying. Let us pray every day for the nurses, the doctors, the first responders, all who work in the ‘madhouse’ of coronavirus pandemic. Can you see why Etty speaks to me, and hopefully also you? In times of stress we almost have to re-invent our language, especially our language of faith and prayer. Yes, repeating the same tropes doesn’t quite match the situation. Etty also felt this need. She wrote three days later on July 19th:

Indeed, I shall have to invent an entirely new language to express everything that has moved my heart these last few days. “I haven’t finished with You by a long chalk, oh God, or with this world. I want so much to go on living, and shall undergo everything that is imposed upon us. These last few days, oh God, these last few days!”

I dedicate the above excerpts from Etty’s diary to those who are on the frontlines of the pandemic. Among all of us today they are the ones who can most understand where Etty’s words come from. When she wrote the above diary entries she had started working in a Jewish Council in a department of “Social Welfare for People in Transit”. So she in her own way was on the frontlines of what her people were going through. ‘Transit’ usually meant transit to a death camp, of course. She and her family joined a ‘transit’ a year later. 

A day later than the above entry she wrote a morning prayer. I need to quote it here without any comments from me. It speaks to every one of us. And it can be the prayer of every one of us, especially in these days.

“Oh God, times are too hard for frail people like myself. I know that a new and kinder day will come. I would so much like to live on, if only to express all the love I carry within me; carry into that new age all the humanity that survives in me, despite everything I go through every day. And there is only one way of preparing for the new age, by living it even now in our hearts. Somewhere in me I feel so light, without the least bitterness and so full of strength and love. I would so much like to help prepare for the new age and to carry that which is indestructible within me intact into the new age, which is bound to come, for I can feel it growing inside me, every day. —

Yes, God, I am faithful to You, through thick and thin, I shall not succumb, and I still believe in the deeper meaning of life. I know that I must go on living and that there are such great uncertainties in me, and … and you must think it incredible, but I find life so beautiful and feel so happy. Isn’t it strange? I wouldn’t dare say so to anybody, not in so many words.”

(All the above quotes are from Etty, The Letters and Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943. Complete and Unabridged, pages 496-97)

Perhaps you and I can also dare to speak words to God that we wouldn’t say to anyone else. That’s what prayer allows us to do. May you dare to unveil yourself and your fears and hopes in your prayers today! Stay well, and pray for those who are not well or are helping those who are not well. God bless you.

One Reply to “Re-inventing the language of prayer”

  1. Such an amazing prayer at the end – “Yes, God, I am faithful to You, through thick and thin, I shall not succumb, and I still believe in the deeper meaning of life. I know that I must go on living and that there are such great uncertainties in me, and … and you must think it incredible, but I find life so beautiful and feel so happy.” Amazing.

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