Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Summer Reading

I just by chance picked up Michael Plekon's book, Hidden Holiness. It is a beautiful and evocative reflection on the meaning of "sainthood" in our time. Plekon, an Orthodox priest, draws on a variety of sources from both the Eastern Orthodox tradition, ancient and modern, as well as some unlikely modern figures from across Christian traditions and even outside them, such as Etty Hillesum.

Hillesum was a Dutch Jew who died in the Holocaust. Discovering her story and Plekon's reflections on her life alone (which draws from Rowan William's meditation about her) is worth picking up the book. Here is a prayer found in Hillesum's writings from the concentration camp:

"You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. There are, it is true, some who, even at this late stage, are putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safekeeping instead of guarding You, dear God. And there are those who want to put their bodies in safekeeping but who are nothing more now than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings. And they say, 'I shan't let them get me in their clutches.' But they forget that no one is in their clutches who is in Your arms. I am beginning to feel a little more peaceful, God, thanks to this conversation with You. I shall have many more conversations with you. You are sure to go through lean times with me now and then, when my faith weakens a little, but believe me, I shall always labor for You and remain faithful to You, and I shall never drive You from my presence. (12 July 1942) - Hidden Holiness, p. 32.

And then, Rowan Williams:

"Remember that for Etty, the self's 'safeguarding' of God is inseperable from that careful attention to what is given room in the self's encounter with itself: making space for sorrow without it being crowded out by anger or hate, is bound in with the self's hospitality to God. 'God is in safe hands with us despite everything,' she wrote, in September 1943. She died in November. To see that what matters is not that you are - in any easy sense - safe in the hands of God but that God is safe in your hands is to turn upside down in consolatory version of faith, to stake yourself indeed on an 'eternal covenant.'" - Hidden Holiness, pp. 37-38.

This isn't a book about saints as extraordinary people distant from us, but about the way holiness takes shape in ordinary people in both mundane and extraordinary circumstances - and how such holiness is God's gift, a gift sometimes barely perceptible in the midst of suffering.

Perhaps it is this "sheltering of God" that is God "sheltering us" by desiring to make of even the utmost limits of human suffering an opportunity to be drawn closer to him.

This is a book well worth reading and praying over.

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