Recently I wrote about the remarkable Etty Hillesum who died in Auschwitz in 1943. In so many ways she reminds me of the American poet, Emily Dickinson, who, like Etty, belonged to no church, but learned to follow her own inner promptings. At the height of one great religious revival meeting, when almost everyone felt impelled to step forward and ‘give themselves to Christ’, Emily held back. As she wrote in a letter at the time, ‘Christ is calling everyone here. All my companions have answered, even Vinnie, my beloved sister, and I am standing alone in rebellion, and growing very careless … They have all been seeking and they believe they have found; I can’t tell you what they have found, but they think it is something precious. I wonder if it is?’
And so Emily stayed away, knowing that in silence and solitude she must go on seeking ‘oppositely for the Kingdom of Heaven’, so deep was her instinct to be true to her inner self, rather than conform. ‘I am out with lanterns looking for myself,’ she wrote at this period, while many of her poems carry the image of a boat adrift. Similarly Etty wrote in her diary, ‘I slip through the grey ocean and eternity like a narrow boat,’ and, a few days later, threatened by a deep depression: ‘ Once again I have been redeemed by an image – sailing like a ship through my year of days – saved me from being torn apart and cast to the winds. A sudden poetic image liberates me.’
Eventually, like Emily Dickinson, Etty Hillesum came to experience the rich voyage that awaited her:
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses, past the headlands,
Into deep Eternity.