Etty Hillesum, the young Jewish woman killed at Auschwitz who wrote beautiful diaries of life in Amsterdam, wrote movingly of finding beauty amidst suffering.
most of us in the West don’t understand the art of suffering and experience a thousand fears instead. We cease to be alive, being full of fear, bitterness, hatred, and despair. God knows, it’s only too easy to understand why. But…I am in Poland every day, on the battlefields, if that’s what one can call them. I often see visions of poisonous green smoke; I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for everything in a single life…. I sometimes bow my head under the great burden that weighs down on me, but even as I bow my head I also feel the need, almost mechanically, to fold my hands. And so I can sit for hours and know everything and bear everything and grow stronger in the bearing of it, and at the same time feel sure that life is beautiful and worth living and meaningful. Despite everything.
Etty was not a Christian, but she intuits something at the heart of the gospel: a transformation of our attitude toward suffering. Instead of experiencing “a thousand fears,” we learn to go where there is suffering because it is there that one will find unexpected grace. Grace (gratia, “gift”) overflows abundantly when we allow ourselves to act as Christ. In our ever-deepening conversion as Christians, we develop the virtue of courage to do the great good, even when it will bring suffering.
Image by Arno Kramer under Creative Commons license: “Disturbed Life.” Monument in remembrance of Etty Hillesum.