a reflection written by Jill Underdahl, CSJ.
In the context of contemplating the Spring Equinox, Etty Hillesum’s writing, Jesus, and seeds, Jill Underdahl, CSJ, wrote the following reflection “Seeds of Evolution in the Garden and Us.” – March 24, 2012
In the last two years of her life, from 27-29 years old, Etty Hillesum wrote extensive diaries about her interior life. Starting her diaries nine months after Hitler invaded her home country of the Netherlands, her writing encompassed her spiritual, social, and intellectual development until her family was sent to Westerbork and, ultimately, Auschwitz. On July 3, 1942 she wrote:
I must admit a new insight in my life and find a place for it: what is at stake is our impending destruction and annihilation…. They are out to destroy us completely; we must accept that and go on from there…. Very well then…I accept it…I work and continue to live with the same conviction and I find life meaningful…. I wish I could live for a long time so that one day I may know how to explain it, and if I am not granted that wish, well, then, somebody else will perhaps do it, carry on from where my life has been cut short. And that is why I must try to live a good and faithful life to my last breath; so that those who come after me do not have to start all over again.
“Seeds of Evolution in the Garden and Us”
I like seeds. They hold power and possibility. In my work with young adult spirituality with the Sisters of St. Joseph, we offer a Community Garden. Like everyone I participate in all the tasks of the garden, planting, cultivating, watering, harvesting, yet a role that is uniquely mine is to proclaim the wonder of seeds. Tuesday night gardeners will meet to plant black krim and san marzano tomato seeds. Sometime in the process of placing tiny, seemingly incidental flecks—smaller than a newborn’s fingernail—into dirt I will be moved to say, “Isn’t this amazing? These tiny little seeds will become plants that will produce hundreds of tomatoes!” When the red pepper plants germinate and first appear above the dirt like whale tales, I’ll celebrate with my colleague. When we ultimately plant the seedlings into the ocean of Earth, when the first blossoms appear, when we harvest the baskets and baskets and baskets of tomatoes, peas, beans, beets, and red romaine, I will undoubtedly proclaim the wonders. Some of the gardeners will smile and laugh—because my bursts of wonder—fulfill their expectations. Yet, it never ceases to amaze to me—even in pulling out the tired, dead plants in the encroaching darkness of October—that with careful tending and a relative healthy mix of light, water, and warmth the seeds become what they long to be—and we enjoy them.
Today through gifts of many scientists we understand that our universe and everything that exists and has ever existed in our universe originated from a single point of light. Some theologians helping us understand this scientific truth in light of the creative power of the Divine suggest that the single point of light is like the seed of everything. In that original seed of light we can see ourselves bound up together, interconnected, and immersed in the Divine milieu of creation.
Sometimes I meet with a friend to write. While together recently, I wrote about some of my reflections on the wonders of seeds. She suffered a miscarriage a few months ago. While sharing my writing with her, she asked, “What about the seeds that don’t take root?” We contemplated that together and thought about the death of her child, her grief and all those that responded to her grief in the context of evolution. How does she and how do we together align ourselves with the creative power of the Divine even in those painful moments of grief? Reading about Etty Hillesum and Jesus helps me further understand this.
In accepting her death, Etty grieved the shortness of her life and also saw how her remaining life—lived faithfully and well relating in kindness and compassion with her Jewish companions and the German soldiers alike—could seed the evolution of humanity amid the atrocity of the holocaust. What must Etty have believed about herself and her life? Jesus, too, commissioned the disciples and all who believe, to learn and carry on his mission of loving. What did Jesus believe about himself and his life in relationship with those that stayed with him and the generations of those that would continue to follow him?
Through our engagements with family, friends, local, and global communities, we are constantly ringing with the beauty and suffering of the universe. This week I felt like the equinox we experienced—holding equal parts of clarity and uncertainty, joy and grief, happiness and sorrow. Do you feel that way as well? Amid all of these realities how do we see ourselves as seeds of evolution? How do we develop the strength to bear the beauty and the suffering we encounter? How do we align ourselves with the creative power of the Divine? Jesus celebrates with his friends shortly before praying in agony. Etty Hillesum describes the “spring in her step” as she walks along the barbed wire. She writes, “The misery here is quite terrible; and yet, late at night when day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire. And then time and again, it soars straight from my heart—I can’t help it, it’s just the way it is, like some elementary force—the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent, and that one day we shall be building a whole new world. We may suffer, but we must not succumb.” (July 3, 1943).
Spontaneously, I visited my friend and her family. We have been friends since college. Married, she has three sons who are 11, 10, and 5 years old. When I walked in the house, the three boys ran to greet with me a group hug. After greeting me they dispersed to their previous activities. Marcel, who’s five, walked downstairs with his older brother. At the bottom, he looked up. Then, bounded back up the steps, hugged my legs, looked up at me, and said, “I love you.” And throughout that evening—when his parents and I remained at the dinner table conversing—Marcel would return with open arms simply to say, “I love you guys.” Marcel’s pure exclamations of love are the seeds we all possess. So, let us go now to cultivate and nurture them so that our love—the Divine’s, yours, mine, Marcel’s—can become what it longs to be.