Year A

5th Sunday of Year A

In the research today about leadership there is much discussion about whether leadership it something innate or something learnt – i.e. are we born with qualities of leadership or are these skills that we can develop as time goes on and as circumstances call forth. In many ways, it is a question of and/both rather than either/or. Yes, some personalities have a natural instinct for leadership but if this is not refined then it cannot become effective; others never feel comfortable with roles of leadership but with time and with coaching they can learn how to lead.  However, the single most significant factor in leadership is neither the natural ability nor the skills. Rather, it is motivation.[1] Do I want to be a leader? If I never want to be a leader then no amount of natural capacity or learnt skill will be of much use. If I do want to be a leader then I will harness what capacity I have and take the opportunity to develop this ability. Our motivation is the key.

What motivates us? Or perhaps to put it another way, “What am I in love with?” The late Jesuit Superior General, Pedro Arrupe (1907-1991) would say, “What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”[2] With who or what am I in love with? Where is my passion? It is this that animates my life, gives it colour and creativity. It is the salt in my life, what gives it its flavour. Our motivation is linked with our intentionality, that is, what we intend for our life. What do we want of our life? And it is our intentionality, what we intend for our life, that influences our choices. And our choices can be either dark or luminous. They either lead us to freedom or they take us into captivity in one kind or another. They either open us out to others or they imprison us into ourselves. They either draw us out into beauty or they spiral us into distortion.

Over these last weeks, as the world remembers Auschwitz seventy-five years after its liberation, I have been especially struck by this aspect of our intentionality and its implications through the example of the young Jewish woman, Etty Hillesum who died in Auschwitz in 1943, at the age of just 29. Etty grew up in Amsterdam, a colourful young woman from a chaotic family background. Yet out of her dysfunctional pedigree, Etty discovered within herself an interiority which led her to the most remarkable choices in her life – a refusal to hate the Germans who occupied her land and terrorised her people; a refusal to hide from persecution even though opportunity presented for her to do so; and a willingness to give of herself to spread joy amongst those she chose to be with in the concentration camp of Westerbork in the north of Holland, before being finally transported with her whole family to their death in Auschwitz. We know of her because of the journals and letters that she wrote over a two-year period from 1941 to 1943, now published as “An Interrupted Life.”

In 1941, she describes how she began to practice what she calls a harkening unto herself, a deep sense of attention to all that was going on inside her, an attitude that would transform everything about her

I’ll ‘turn inward’ for half an hour each morning before work and listen to my inner voice . . . But it’s not so simple, that sort of ‘quiet hour’.  It has to be learnt . . . So let this be the aim of the meditation: to turn one’s innermost being into a vast empty plain, with none of that treacherous undergrowth to impede the view.  So that something of God can enter you, and something of ‘Love’ too.

It was this choice of hers to find her inner landscape that became the ground for a new vision of her exterior world, and, ultimately, her refusal to enter the logic of hate. She writes, “it is the problem of our age: hatred of Germans poisons everyone’s mind . . . I had a liberating thought that surfaced in me like a hesitant, tender young blade of grass thrusting its way through a wilderness of weeds: if there were only one decent German, then he should be cherished despite the whole barbaric gang, and because of that one decent German it is wrong to poor hatred over an entire people.” “I know that those who hate have good reason to do so,” she wrote. “But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and easiest way? It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place.” 

Her disavowal of hate gives her the freedom to see with piercing clarity the situation in which she had discovered herself: “A large group of us were crowded into the Gestapo hall, and at that moment the circumstances of all our lives were the same. All of us occupied the same space, the men behind the desk no less than those about to be questioned. What distinguished each of us was only our inner attitude.”

It was Etty Hillesum’s inner attitude that enabled her to be the leader she became in the camp at Westerbork. She became their “thinking heart” as she describes herself, and in so doing she was able to shed light in the midst of unspeakable darkness, to be a luminous presence the darkness could not extinguish. She did this not by overcoming the Nazi horror, but by offering an alternative to the brutality and in the smallest ways – by a gesture, a smile, an act of kindness. As she wrote, “To be unobtrusive, and very insignificant, always striving for more simplicity. Yes, to become simple and to live simply, not only within yourself and but also in your everyday dealings. Don’t make ripples all around you, don’t try so hard to be interesting, keep your distance, be honest, fight the desire to be thought fascinating by the outside world. Instead reach for true simplicity in your inner life and in your surroundings, and also work. Yes, work. It doesn’t matter at what.”

Though she was not Christian, Etty is a living example of what Jesus teaches us about salt and light. 

“Yes, life is beautiful, and I value it anew at the end of every day, even though I know that the sons of mothers . . . are being murdered in concentration camps. And you must be able to bear your sorrow; even it if seems to crush you, you will be able to stand up again, for human beings are so strong . . . Do not relieve your feelings through hatred . . . give your sorrow all the space and shelter in yourself that is its due, for if everyone bears his grief honestly and courageously, the sorrow that now fills the world will abate. But if you do not clear a decent shelter for your sorrow, and instead reserve most of the space inside you for hatred and thoughts of revenge – from which new sorrows will be born for others – then sorrow will never cease in this word and will multiply. And if you have given sorrow that space its gentle origins demand, then you may truly say: life is beautiful and so rich. So beautiful and rich that it makes you want to believe in God.”

In the very context in which the death of God seemed so certain, here this young woman celebrates God’s presence. Her attitude to life transforms into a luminous presence. She is both salt and light in the world distasteful and dark.  And she assures us what is most good, most beautiful, most true – lives damaged, re-shaped, and given in love to others.[3] What can give more light and flavour to our world than these?


[1] I take this insight from an unpublished presentation by Professor Lester Levy, adjunct professor at the University of Auckland Business School since 2003.

[2] From Finding God in All Things: A Marquette Prayer Book, Marquette University, 2009.

[3] I have taken this phrase from Patrick Woodhouse, “Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ad7MjP7grCo

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