By Dag Hammarskjöld, Trans. Leif Sjöberg and W.H. Auden
Publisher: New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1973.
Never let success hide its emptiness from you, achievement its nothingness, toil its desolation. And so keep alive the incentive to push on further, that pain in the soul that drives us beyond ourselves. Whither? That I don’t know. That I don’t ask to know.
Dag Hammarskjöld was a Swedish diplomat who rose to the position of Secretary General of the United Nations, which he held from 1953 until his death in 1961 at age 56 in a plane crash. Respected, acclaimed, and honoured on the world stage, nominated for a Nobel Prize (which was awarded posthumously), one might assume he was the most worldly of men.
His deep spiritual life was revealed after he died when friends found his spiritual journal. Knowing that others would want to write his biography, he left instructions for this journal to be published, because it contained “the only true profile that could be drawn” and was on the vital subject of “my negotiations with myself – and with God.”
When Markings appeared in print, the world was astonished. The book makes no reference whatever to Hammarskjöld’s career or professional achievements. Instead it is a fearless description of his struggle to find union with God, in the midst of his own egotism, impatience, and other shortcomings. While carrying on his worldly functions, Hammarskjöld sought to remain focused on his highest priority: the life of the spirit. His hope was to live his life “so that my whole being may become an instrument for that which is greater than I.”
I found in the writings of those great medieval mystics for whom “self-surrender” had been the way to self-realization, and who, in “singleness of mind” and “inwardness,” had found the strength to say “yes” to every demand. … Love – that much misused and misinterpreted word – for them meant simply an overflowing of strength with which they felt themselves filled when living in true self-oblivion.
W.H. Auden, one of the translators, expressed disappointment that Hammarskjöld had never participated in institutional Christian religion. But Hammarskjöld believed with Rumi that “the lovers of God have no religion but God alone.”
Dag Hammarskjöld was raised in a privileged Lutheran family in Sweden. His father was prime minister. His mother came from a family of clergy. While Hammarskjöld never revealed the specifics of his spiritual path, we do know that he regularly studied the Bible and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. In his writing he calls his spiritual path “the Way.”
It is not we who seek the Way, but the Way which seeks us. That is why you are faithful to it, even while you stand waiting, so long as you are prepared, and act the moment you are confronted by its demands.
It is not sufficient to place yourself daily under God. What really matters is to be only under God: the slightest division of allegiance opens the door to daydreaming, petty conversations, petty malice—all the petty satellites of the death instinct.
The best and the most wonderful thing that can happen to you in this life is that you should be silent and let God work and speak.
Few spiritual writers have been as brutally honest as Hammarskjöld about how difficult the spiritual journey can be. He admits that the primary source of the challenge he faced was himself, not outward circumstances. His candour and insight are piercing. A few examples:
Your cravings as a human animal do not become a prayer just because it is God whom you ask to attend to them.
You cannot play with the animal in you without becoming wholly animal, play with falsehood without forfeiting your right to truth, play with cruelty without losing your sensitivity of mind. He who wants to keep his garden tidy doesn’t reserve a plot for weeds.
How dead can a man be behind a façade of great ability, loyalty and ambition! Bless your uneasiness as a sign there is still life in you.
In the face of spiritual challenges, nothing is more essential than to persevere.
Life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible – not to have run away.
Forward! Thy orders were given in secret. May I always hear them – and obey.
Forward! Whatever distance I have covered, it does not give me the right to halt.
Forward! It is the attention given to the last steps before the summit which decides the value of all that has come before.
The longest journey is the journey inward.
Hammarskjöld grasps that the official work he has to accomplish in the world is always to be done while remembering his true purpose.
“Thy will be done” – Admittedly you have allowed self-interest to supply the energy for your little efforts to assist fate; admittedly, to others you have tried to paint these efforts in the most glowing colours – no matter, provided only that you allow the final outcome to be decided entirely over your head, in faith.
“Thy will be done” – To let the inner take precedence over the outer, the soul over the world – wherever this may lead you. And lest a worldly good should disguise itself as spiritual, to make yourself blind to the value the life of the spirit can bestow upon life in this world.
Humility is a central theme in his diary, and he offers eloquent descriptions of what humility requires, and how much he needs to learn those lessons.
To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe. It is – is nothing … yet at the same time one with everything. It is in this sense that humility is absolute self-effacement… Yet for the sake of the task … to give … as the one who has been called to undertake it… Praise and blame, the winds of success and adversity blow over such a life without leaving a trace or upsetting its balance. Towards this, so help me, God –
“What?! He is now going to try to teach me?” – Why not? There is nobody from whom you cannot learn. Before God, who speaks through all human beings, you are always at the bottom class of nursery school.
If he wants to feel God’s presence, he has to learn to forgive.
Forgiveness is the answer to a child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean. The dream explains why we need to be forgiven, and why we must forgive. In the presence of God, nothing stands between Him and us – we are forgiven. But we cannot feel His presence if anything is allowed to stand between ourselves and others.
In the midst of his humbling, challenging journey, he keeps the joyful goal in mind:
For him who has faith,
The last miracle
Shall be greater than the first.