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What to pack for the journey

Several years ago, I made a retreat with Jan Richardson, Methodist minister, author, and artist. One writing prompt I received was about Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman as she prepared to go to a labor camp at Westerbork. Westerbork was the “last stop” on the way to Auschwitz.

Etty Hillesum

She would be allowed only one suitcase. Etty writes, “Tonight I dreamed I had to pack the case. I tossed and turned, fretting about what shoes to take – all of them hurt my feet. And how was I to pack all my underwear and food for three days and blankets into one suitcase or rucksack? And I had to find room somewhere for the Bible. And if possible for Rilke’s Book of Hours and Letters to a Young Poet.

The writing prompt Jan provided was “What would you pack for such a journey? What book(s) would you take as companions on your way?”

It was a powerful reflection writing what I would take and how I would say goodbye to those I loved.

However, because I had read An Interrupted Life, Etty’s diaries (1941-43) and letters from Westerbork, I reflected not only on the physical things I would pack. (By the way, I had brought a book by Rilke to this retreat.)

Inspired by Etty’s account of how she lived her life in the concentration camp, I wrote the spiritual gifts I would pack for the journey. I think those words have meaning for the current journey we are on in dealing with the coronavirus because times like this bring out both the best and worst in humanity.

This is what I wrote:

I’m beginning to have a small sense of how hard it was to leave, much less to face and endure the horrors of the concentration camp. Most of all Etty, I would hope to pack for the journey:

  • Your spirit of solidarity with others who were suffering and your decision not to claim a special privilege for yourself,
  • Your inner strength to resist hatred amidst such tragic, hateful circumstances,
  • Your ability to maintain an inner wholeness and sacred space for God to dwell,
  • Your wisdom – where does a twenty-some year old get such wisdom,
  • Your dedication and persistence in planting the seeds of nonviolence
    your ability to hold on to beauty in the midst of ugliness,
  • Your conviction that the smallest act of love makes a difference, and
  • Your sense that you could give whatever you had to give in any circumstances.

Etty died in Auschwitz on November 30, 1943.

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Sister Donna Butler

Sister Donna Butler has been a Sister of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for more than 60 years. Sister Donna has served in elementary education, parish ministry, diocesan social justice, as well as the Congregation’s liturgy office, archives department and social justice outreach. She also administered as the director of the Providence Volunteer Ministry. Sister Donna currently volunteers in outreach with Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College students.

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  1. Marianne Ridgell on April 19, 2020 at 7:35 am

    Donna, thank you for such a beautiful and thoughtful reflection. I have wanted to read the book you mentioned, An Interrupted Life, and now I am motivated further to do this.

  2. Donna Liszewski on April 19, 2020 at 10:35 am

    Donna, I just finished reading Etty’s journal this week. It was a good challenge for me at this time. I was grateful to get your post and found your list to be compelling. Thanks for sharing

  3. S. Denise Wilkinson on April 20, 2020 at 6:30 am

    Thank you, Donna. The writing promt motivates me.

  4. Joan Richards on April 20, 2020 at 10:01 am

    Thank you, Donna. Such beauty amidst the suffering, death, and horror.

  5. Mary E Heins on April 21, 2020 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks, Sr. Donna. What a perfect post for these times. Food for thought, indeed!!

  6. Mary Tomlinson on April 21, 2020 at 1:53 pm

    Thank you, Donna. Much food for thought. Good grist for me to ponder what would I take.

  7. Sister Editha Ben on April 24, 2020 at 10:34 pm

    Thanks, Donna. Your blog inspired me. I am sitting down to reflect and write down what to bring as I continue the journey.

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