There is healing and authentic inspiration hovering over Alice Herz-Sommer. She was for many years the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, a pianist and educator from Prag. I know because
at the time of her passing at the age of 110 I was in charge of a Beethoven cycle, giving a series of lectures in the Berlin Philharmonic. As the news of her passing broke in February 2014, I changed my lecture for that evening and spoke about Beethoven from the perspective of Alice Herz-Sommer. She had been inspiring not only my work as a musicologist, but even more so my outlook on life as human being. I am learning from her to distinguish between what matters - and what doesn't.
Alice Herz-Sommer was a renowned concert pianist, born into a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague during the Habsburg Empire, who was imprisoned with her husband and son Raphael and sentenced to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt (Terezín), where until 1945 about 140,000 prisoners had lived - 38,000 prisoners perished and about 90,000 had been sent to Auschwitz and other death camps. When her husband was sent to Auschwitz, she never saw him again, as many of her extended family and friends. But Alice stayed her course, persisting daily in productive activity to the best of her abilities, surviving with her son these horrific circumstances in such a graceful, powerful way that her son later would talk about his „happy childhood“. Every day. She is said to have spent her final days playing music by Schubert and Beethoven. Documentaries give you a first insight, it pays though to get to know her life and work on a deeper level. Here is a first peek:
Alice Herz-Sommer often commented on what she called "a culture of complaint", marveling why it seems difficult for many to be consistently grateful for life. Her own life is a monument to the fact that joy is not the result of a happy life: Joy is the beginning, joy is the center, joy is life. Her hard, hard experiences with many losses along the way, including the passing of her own son a few years ago, had only the effect of deepening her respect for life itself. Music was her language in which to speak about it, joy was the method with which to lead her life - joy being an exhaustless resource. I trust that Alice Herz-Sommer might agree with the sentiment of the Psalmist, addressing Spirit, God: "Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.“
If a Holocaust survivor can teach us how to tap into the unfailing, bubbling well of joy - which always was and always is outside of the circumstances we live in, which is empowered by divine Love, the ultimate good, out of reach of any mortal constrictions - we can find inspiration and examine with forthright self-criticism what makes our experiences truly hard or difficult. Can we see where we stand, become soft and open for a little course correction here and there, and express a little more grace, self-discipline, and kindness every day? It helps to ponder this insight by Mary Baker Eddy , whose own graceful life stood the test of time:
„A radiant sunset, beautiful as blessings when they take their flight, dilates and kindles into rest. Thus will a life corrected illumine its own atmosphere with spiritual glow and understanding.“
Clearing the atmosphere
While studying in a Master’s program I spent several weeks during summer break working for Exxon in a bullpen or, as you might call it, an open-plan space office. At that time smoking was normal, and, with a few exceptions, everyone smoked. I didn’t smoke and felt uncomfortable in this environment. But I couldn’t quit, this was my job. Already on the second day I called on a spiritually -minded friend for some advice. It came in the form of these words from spiritual teacher and author Mary Baker Eddy:
„Never breathe an immoral atmosphere, unless in the attempt to purify it."
This resonated with me right away. I could see that I was not a victim thrown into circumstances I couldn’t control - I understood my real job to live in love and service, in short, to be a constructive force for good. I truly endeavored to serve good, instead of sticking out an unpleasant situation as a victim, even though it was with the help of God. I don’t want to be misunderstood: The adjective „immoral“ in the quote is not to be understood in a personal way! It also doesn’t mean something like „what would be nice but is forbidden“. My understanding of “an immoral atmosphere” is an atmosphere that rejects good, God; An environment that attempts to erode our right to “self-government, reason, and conscience” (Mary Baker Eddy); A circumstance that undermines our entitlement to be a thinker. Essentially, a context in which the ability to be an individual is subverted and the anguish of materialism is covered up by superficiality.
As I went to work the next day -- and the following thirty days -- I looked at it differently. I contemplated the omnipresence of Love, with its sweet fragrance of care and cooperation. I exercised mindfulness by becoming aware of the omniscience of Mind, the supreme intelligence of the universe. I honored Life as the sole source of spiritual being - everyone’s true being. After a while I took up my work, and it was only after I had completely finished my time there that I realized the issue had dissolved into clear air. It was erased from my attention. Since I doubt that suddenly everyone around me quit smoking (but, hey, why not?), it had something to do with my focus. I had entirely stopped wanting the others to stop smoking, which opened a place for me to live free from exterior impairment. I was cared for all along. It is as spiritual teacher Bicknell Young once said: "If we want a thing, the moment we stop wanting it, we will prove we have it. Because we have stopped denying its presence."
I cherish this experience. There is true empowerment in knowing that we can see a better plan for everyone wherever we are. A friend of mine, a professor for computer science, told me some months ago: ‘You either program your own software or you are being programed by the defaults and pre-sets of the software industry. There is nothing in between.’ Here is a spring board for a spiritual lesson, right? So in the line of this: Doesn’t the humility to let Love program all the minutiae of our lives make all the difference? And isn't here a realistic opportunity for bringing calm to work, provided by Love?
Who is writing?
In my work as Christian Science practitioner and writer I draw on listening to God and listening to people.
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