If I had a blog, today I would write about Corrie and Betsie ten Boom. For those of you who haven’t read The Hiding Place, Corrie, her sister Betsie, and their father worked in the Underground in Holland, during World War II, hiding Jews from the Nazis. In February 1944, a Dutch informant betrayed them and they were arrested and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Corrie was fifty-two years old, Betsie was fifty-nine and their father was eighty-five. The Jews they were hiding were not discovered during the raid and many of them survived thanks to the unstinting courage of those who maintained the Underground until the war ended, but Betsie and their father, Casper, died before the camps were liberated in 1945. Corrie was released due to an error in paperwork. Had that error not occurred, she would have been put to death the following week.
Of all the stories in The Hiding Place that inspire me, the incident that I use as a touchstone most often is the story of Betsie and the Fleas:
A few months after their arrival at Ravensbruck, Corrie, Betsie and a hundred other women were moved to a cramped, filthy barracks infested with fleas. The dirty straw that served as mattresses was alive with the creatures and within hours all of the women were covered in painful bites.
Corrie’s inner strength failed her and she wept, “Betsie, how can we live in such a place?”
Betsie thumbed through the contraband Bible, which they read from each day and Betsie read from First Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances…”
“‘That’s it, Corrie!” said Betsie, ” That’s His answer. ‘Give thanks in all circumstances!’ That’s what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks!’ I stared at her; then around me at the dark, foul-aired room.
“‘Such as?’ I said.
“‘Such as being assigned here together.’
“I bit my lip. ‘Oh yes, Lord Jesus!’
“‘Such as what you’re holding in your hands.” I looked down at the Bible.
“‘Yes! Thank You, dear Lord, that there was no inspection when we entered here! Thank You for all these women, here in this room, who will meet You in these pages.’
“‘Yes,” said Betsie, “Thank You for the very crowding here. Since we’re packed so close, that many more will hear!’ She looked at me expectantly. ‘Corrie!’ she prodded.
“‘Oh, all right. Thank You for the jammed, crammed, stuffed, packed suffocating crowds.’
“‘Thank You,’ Betsie went on serenely, ‘for the fleas and for–‘
“The fleas! This was too much. “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”
“‘Give thanks in all circumstances,’ she quoted. “It doesn’t say, ‘in pleasant circumstances.’ Fleas are part of this place where God has put us.”
And so we stood between tiers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.
For several weeks, the women of Barracks 28 conducted secret Bible studies, ever fearful that the guards would walk in and discover this expressly forbidden activity, but to their surprise, the guards showed no interest in the goings-on in that particular cell block.
Corrie continues: “One evening I got back to the barracks late from a wood-gathering foray outside the walls. A light snow lay on the ground and it was hard to find the sticks and twigs with which a small stove was kept going in each room. Betsie was waiting for me, as always, so that we could wait through the food line together. Her eyes were twinkling.
“You’re looking extraordinarily pleased with yourself,” I told her.
“‘You know, we’ve never understood why we had so much freedom in the big room,'”she said. “Well–I’ve found out.”
That afternoon, she said, there’d been confusion in her knitting group about sock sizes and they’d asked the supervisor to come and settle it.
“But she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t step through the door and neither would the guards. And you know why?”
Betsie could not keep the triumph from her voice: “Because of the fleas! That’s what she said, “That place is crawling with fleas!'”
This is the part of The Hiding Place I turn to when life seems to much to bear. Some days its ridiculously small troubles, some days legitimate tragedy, but if I can find the courage to set self-pity aside and find something to be thankful for, the ache in my soul lessens and I find an continuous list of things for which I am thankful. If I dwell on these, rather than on the ways life has cheated and abused me, my situation changes from impenetrable darkness to shades of grey and, in time, the light of hope shines through and I can see the path before me.
It is easy to give thanks for the big things: A promotion at work, the birth of a healthy child, or the remission of an illness, but the real power of thankfulness is found when there seems to be nothing for which to give thanks. The power does not lie in appeasing a jealous and demanding god or in uttering a magical combination of words. This is no abracadabra or ritual sacrifice, it is focusing on the goodness in our lives even if it is microscopic compared to the darkness that surrounds us. Focus on the light and the light will lead you home.