St. Valentine’s Day seems to have been taken over by the greeting card companies, the candy-makers and the florists. Even when we live with people who know we love them, there is something special about a card or a gift of flowers to express the specialness of a relationship.
In Holland during World War II, there lived a woman who understood the need to speak words of love and to bring flowers to the one loved. A Dutch Jew, she was killed in Auschwitz in 1943 at the age of 29. Her name was Etty Hillesum.
As Etty’s world was crashing around her, she grew from a fearful, unsure youth into a courageous and confident woman. While circumstances of her life became more and more oppressive, her spirit became more liberated. What happened to change her? Etty fell in love with God, and that love carried her deeply into the pain of her people and freely into the arms of her God.
Etty was neither escaping from reality nor denying it. Religion was not a fantasy for her but a source of passion. She stood up to the suffering in her life and in the lives of all her friends and family. Believing that God still loved and that people were still lovable. She wrote in her journal: “To think that one small human heart can experience so much, oh God, so much suffering and so much love, I am so grateful to You, God for having chosen my heart, in these times, to experience all the things it has experienced.”
Etty’s God was more real to her than her closest friends were. She knelt before God, spoke to God, wrote to God and listened to God. Again in her journal: “Alone for once in the middle of the night. God and I have been left together, and I feel all the richer and at peace for it.” Etty lived with God.
Outside of Etty’s apartment grew Jasmine flowers, which she loved and lingered over in the mornings. Delicate and dazzling, they made her catch her breath with surprise. The jasmine became for her a symbol of beauty that no amount of evil could eradicate. “I am with the hungry and the ill-treated and the dying every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for everything in a single life. For belief in God and for a miserable end.”
As life became more desperate in Holland and as the threat of extermination in the death camps came closer, Etty’s passion increased. She longed to show her love for God; she trusted God, and she knew that God trusted her. After a storm had destroyed her jasmine flowers, she continued to believe that they still blossomed within her. She still carried the delicate flowers for her God.
“You (God) can see, I look after you, I bring you not only my tears and my forebodings on this stormy, gray Sunday morning, I even bring you scented jasmine. And I shall bring you all the flowers I shall meet on my way, and truly there are many of those. I shall try to make you at home always. Even if I should be locked up in a narrow cell and a cloud should drift past my small barred window, then I shall bring you that cloud, oh God, while there is still the strength in me to do so.”
The scent of jasmine was for Etty the symbol of trusting abandonment to God. To be the scent of jasmine is to be present in love to God for the sake of all the people of God. This Valentine’s Day let us speak words of love to those we love and bring flowers to them. Let us speak words of love to God and carry to God in our bodies the delicate scent of jasmine.
From “The Scent of Jasmine,” Liturgical Press. 1996, by Sister Patricia McCarthy. Sister McCarthy currently teaches Math at a Catholic School. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.