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Dag Hammarskjöld: The Longest Journey is the Journey Inwards

Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations second Secretary-General (1953-1961), was a devout Christian whose faith gave him the courage to lead the UN through some dangerous years of the Cold War. Writer, teacher and  bookshop manager, Carole O'Connor pays tribute to this remarkable diplomat and man of faith, who died prematurely in suspicious circumstances.

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“I don’t know who - or what - put the question.  I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer yes to someone - or something - and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life in self-surrender had a goal. From that moment I have known what it means ‘not to look back,’ and ‘to take no thought for the morrow’.”


Words of Dag Hammarskjöld written at Pentecost 1961, a few months before his tragic and untimely death. He consciously affirmed and surrendered in faith to something in the universe bigger than himself. This saying Yes illumined a Way, a path in life for him.


This is a moment that resonates for many people of faith, the memory of a pivotal moment whereby it is felt that something inside oneself that has been resisting, finally is let go of, and assent is given. This assent brings meaning, clarification about one’s own goals and strivings.


In March, Miroslav Volf spoke in Melbourne about human beings living in two distinct systems, that of faith and politics.  These systems overlap but are nevertheless distinct. To live authentically, a human being needs to give priority to the world of faith.  Volf says, “to be in creation is to be in reference to God.” This reminds me of Hammarskjöld in his work as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations (1953-1961). His biographer Roger Lipsey has put it well.

“Hammarskjöld knew two unlike worlds very well. The world of politics and political leaders, deception and honesty, violence and kindness, reflection and the search for solutions. And another world: a world of inwardness and prayer, of self-scrutiny and ancient wisdom, of periodic return to a centre of stillness surrounded by silence that nourishes, situates and restores.  In the first world, he was nearly always with people.  In the second, nearly always alone with his own person and his God. In both worlds he was a lifelong inquirer with initiative; it wasn’t enough to pass through, contributing cautious splashes of oneself here and there.  In the world at large, he strove to summon the best of himself, look carefully and imaginatively, and act as wisely as possible.”

When we observe his actions as UN leader, e.g. his passionate belief in personal dialogue with world leaders at critical moments in a nation’s history, we see this took immense courage and integrity on his part.  Hammarskjöld was breaking new ground for the budding organisation.  Though always strictly adhering to the UN charter, he helped forge and grow the unique character of UN nations at a particularly early and vulnerable stage of its development in the cold war.  Where did he get his insight from?  Where did he get his courage? What sustained and nourished him?


Given that we have, I think, a paucity of leaders with such depth today, I wanted to know more about him.  But also, how do each of us translate our inner dialogue, our ‘negotiations with ourselves and with God’ into our everyday world? For Hammarskjöld, as for me, that God is the Christian God, the centre of which is Love. It’s the Trinitarian God of Father/Mother, Son and Spirit. How can we with more conscious awareness transcribe our inner life in God, relationship with Jesus, into our own actions in our lives?


Dag Hammarskjöld was born July 29th 1905, the youngest of four sons. He grew up in a castle in Uppsala built by King Gustav Vasa in 1545, one of Sweden’s oldest and most historic castles.  Below the castle stands the school he attended. And on the other side is the brick gothic Lutheran Cathedral which he attended with his family. The Castle is ten minutes by foot from the University, and not far from the university library.  


Hammarskjöld’s family moved in soon after his birth, and lived there for almost quarter of a century, until his father retired as Governor of Uppsala. He continued to live with his parents when they left the castle. It was only at the age of 40, five years after his mother’s death, as he was about to transfer to the Foreign Office, that he established his own home.  Hammarskjöld had a privileged, and on one level cloistered childhood.

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