To identify the kind of ‘change of heart’ we come across in Etty Hillesum’s diaries, we may need to think outside our normal circles
Not that there is anything wrong with John the Baptist – or the sort of change of heart he had in mind when he pleaded with his contemporaries to start living differently because God’s special messenger was coming. Our Scriptures use the Greek word metanoia for what John was advocating. Literally, in a secular context, it might mean ‘to remark after the fact, to change one’s mind, have regrets’. The connotation of ‘remorse’ is often there. In fact, we frequently translate metanoia as ‘repentance’. That is, we have become ac- customed to associating John’s call for a ‘change of heart’ with acknowledging one’s sins pre-eminently, and letting ourselves feel guilty. Mind you, being sorry for our sins is hardly a bad thing.
John, however, was advocating a lot more than having us try to take ourselves in hand. Like Jesus himself, he was there to open us up to the idea of ‘God’s kingdom’ – that is, to the much bigger notion of letting God himself rule in us. Just occasionally metanoia is ex- pressly used with this wider meaning in mind. Paul, for instance, uses the term metanoia eis theon, being turned ‘towards God’, when speaking to the elders at Ephesus (Ac 20: 21). This is to propose something very radical. And also something that is total. To call it merely ‘a change of mind’ would risk trivializing it entirely. Because here there is the posi- tive connotation of ‘conversion’; and of the kind of inner upheaval where God is allowed to become the controlling force in us.
The kind of Scriptural passages that come to mind for describing this situation are Old Tes- tament ones. In the second part of Isaiah, for example, composed when the Jews were in exile, the prophet consoles the people: they have been punished, their guilt has been atoned for, and now they are to ‘prepare in the desert a way for Jahweh’ – a straight high- way across the wastelands. Because ‘the glory of Jahweh’ is about to ‘be revealed and all humanity will see it together’ (Is 40: 3ff). Similarly Jeremiah, from the same period, speaks of Israel having found pardon in the desert and survived the sword. And now, Jahweh out of his everlasting love for his people, is rebuilding. ‘There is hope for your future after all’, God’s prophet declares. (Jer 31: 2ff, 17).
In Etty’s diaries, we certainly see her lamenting ‘the chaos’ she saw she was in. And she had regrets, because she was wise enough to know that some of this was of her own mak- ing. But, most especially, the diaries speak to us of her conversion – the turning that only love can bring us to, where God becomes powerfully present, and where she knows her- self to be whole again and finds a new future. In this situation one can see the modalities of God’s creation becoming real to her in a new way. Other people become her brothers and sisters. And even though evil turns out to be everywhere around her, she finds in her God the strength to be hopeful, and to live positively. The seeming ordinariness of this young woman’s existence previously only serves to highlight the depth of the change in- volved in her rediscovery of God.
In a foreword to a recent life of Etty’s, Archbishop Rowan Williams wrote that the diaries offer ‘exceptional witness to the dawning of God in someone’s consciousness’.
But, let us give the final word to Etty herself. In early September 1943, as she was leaving Westerbork Camp, she wrote on a postcard, and slipped it through the slats in the cattle car where she was. In pencil, she had written these words:
- Opening the Bible at random I find this: ‘The Lord is my high tower.’ I am sitting ” on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother, and Mischa ” are a few cars away. In the end, the departure came without warning. On sud” den orders from the Hague. We left the camp singing . . .
Dutch farmers later found the postcard, and its message, somehow, comes down to us.
Have you ever had a conversion-experience? Would you share it with us?
Bernard Lonergan once described religious conversion as ‘multi-! ! dimensional’. What sort of factors might help it to happen, do you think?