Misery and Mission

“Your lessons are hard, oh God, let me be your good and patient pupil. I feel that I am one of many heirs to a great spiritual heritage. I shall be its faithful guardian.” – Etty Hillesum, killed in Auschwtiz on November 30, 1943

Today I am reflecting on the transformative impact of encountering misery – past or present – to discerning one’s path in life.

Confrontations with grave moral evils and injustices can be decisive turning points in a person’s life when he or she becomes summoned to personal responsibility with a sense of mission.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a prominent thinker and speaker on death and dying from the past century was propelled to her work through a pivotal visit to the former Nazi concentration camp called Majdanek.

Another story across which I came is that of Cardinal John O’Connor, who was the former archbishop of New York. In 1975, he visited the former Nazi concentration camp Dachau and had a transformative experience during which he became resolute about doing “everything in his power to protect human life.”

Many of my relatives did not understand why I wanted to go on a Holocaust study trip when I was 19. But, like so many others have found, this experience proved formative and decisive for me.

John Paul II knew the power of such encounters, particularly for young people.

During an address, he said:

Each of you, my young friends, will find in life some personal ‘Westerplatte.’ Some measure of tasks that have to be undertaken and fulfilled. Some rightful cause for which one cannot avoid fighting. Some duty, or necessity, which one cannot shun. From which one cannot desert. Finally, some order of truth and values, which must be held and defended, like this Westerplatte, within oneself and around oneself.”

Are we willing to face up to human misery and let it summon us to the responsibility of our mission?

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