My Best Historical Friend

On November 30th, my best historical friend, Etty Hillesum, perished in Auschwitz.

If you have never made friends with someone in a book, your life is incomplete.

Etty used to say this of Rilke and now I say it of her: “[S]he inhabits my life.”

Between the ages of 27-29, Etty, a Dutch Jew, kept a diary through which she demonstrated her incredible openness to reality and profound spiritual audacity.

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The Opposite of Social Distancing

Jozef De Veuster was a Belgian Catholic who asked God to be sent on a mission.

Having done his formation for the priesthood in Belgium, he was then sent to Honolulu and was ordained two months later.

He took the name Damien and began his priestly ministry in the Hawaiian Islands.

During Fr. Damien’s time, there was a public health crisis. Mortality rates were high due to infectious diseases for which there was no herd immunity. Chinese workers were suspected of having brought the disease to the islands. The outbreak was not well understood and experts were unsure as to how it spread, whether it could be cured, and whether transmission could be stopped. The government passed mandatory quarantine legislation, even sending some people to isolate in remote locations. The officials insisted that these were not prisons, but there was certainly not enough medical supplies or doctors and nurses. Some experts thought the lepers would be better off dead. One health official conjectured, “It would seem that even demons themselves would pity their condition and hasten their death.”

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Young People are Dying to Be Needed

Recently, in a discussion about the military, a friend of mine recalled receiving a letter when he was 18 asking him whether he would like to join the military in Belgium. This Canadian friend of mine had a Belgian grandfather, but had never visited the country. “After I received the letter from Belgium, it did make me wonder why I never received such a letter from Canada,” he reflected.

The military is not on most Canadians’ minds, particularly because Canada has one of the lowest rates of per capita military involvement in the world. According to this Macleans article, “[looking at] military personnel per capita […] leaves Canada the fourth-lowest number, with 0.0018 per person. In this instance, Canada is only beaten by India, Brazil, and China, whose large armed forces are eclipsed by their giant populations.”

Canadians are blessed to live in such a peaceful country with the best neighbour on whom we can rely for cooperation on our security interests. However, the meagre percentage of our population that serves in the military bespeaks a weakness in our cultivation of civic responsibility and even of the value of a noble patriotism.

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