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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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Dag Hammarskjöld was both an idealist, and a realist. He believed that the world could be a better place, but was not naïve to the risks involved  in accepting the responsibility to make it so. His aspiration was for all nations, large and small, to work together with peaceful interdependence.


Hammarskjöld always worked hard and was totally dedicated to his professional responsibilities, particularly during difficult periods, e.g. as discussions became more difficult during the Congo crisis, he went to bed at 5am and was up working by 9am.  For rest and relaxation he liked to translate.  In June 1961, friend and artist, Bo Beskow, reports these words from Hammarskj


If I have one unsolvable problem to think of night and day, I can manage.  And even if I have two or three at the same time - but when they start multiplying my brain starts to boil.  I simply have to find something to translate.  But what?’

That what, became Buber’s I and Thou. That Hammarkjöld found translation a means of relaxation tells us something about him.  It was calming to translate words from one language to another, to move across languages,  ideas, worlds, ideas. He enjoyed seeing connections, bringing together that which is in disparate places. It is as if he was hard-wired to seek out the impartial position.  It is the fitting place of someone who is most comfortable working with the bigger picture as well as the fine details and who is working for world peace.


Markings, or Vagmarken in Swedish, has a certain meaning. They are trail marks, cairns - the piles of stones a climber leaves to mark his progress on an uncharted mountain. These piles of rocks aid the climber in his descent, so he should know his way and not lose direction. 


These words we encounter in Hammarskjold’s journal are the word shapes of a man who wanted to signify certain points in his life.  Why? He often felt he was pushing limits at the frontier of the unheard of, in Swedish vid gransen or det oerhorda - oerhorda, meaning, the unheard of, or, the ineffable, unfathomable, inapprehensible, hidden, latent, numinous.  The first thing explorers want to do when they enter an unknown landscape is to chart their course; map out the territory they are going through so they can find their way back. And also show others what they have discovered.


Markings is the record of a pathway through Hammarskjöld’s own life. It reveals a man who finds himself a little like Job, struggling and working through suffering out there in the wilderness of the white northern mountains with his God. Like Job, it’s the testament of a man who is attempting to live authentically in the times that he finds himself in, the spiritual struggles inside of himself.  Hammarskjöld constantly opens himself to self-scrutiny and cross-examination. 


Just as Markings kept his inner journey on track, he used the UN Charter to keep his role as Secretary General of the UN in check. During difficult times of conflict within the House, he always referred back to it as the place where he gleaned discernment and justification for his decisions. He drew strength from the charter in his work for  impartiality amongst all nations, particularly the smaller ones under threat by the super powers. We see this particularly in the later years with the aggressive, eroding stance taken by the Soviets.  Just as he let go in a spiritual sense, in Markings, to his Christian God, with the UN he would let go in terms of requesting the House as a whole to vote on contentious issues.  In both the private and public sphere he sought to walk a path that was being revealed to him, but also in some sense he was surrendering to.  He was both in control, and surrendering that control.  So both Markings and the UN Charter gave him signposts. Each was a compass, representing something to which he held himself accountable. 


I conclude with his own concluding words at Pentecost 1961: “Lead by the Ariadne’s thread of my answer through the labyrinth of life, I came to a time and place where I realised that the way leads to a triumph, that the price for committing one’s life would be reproach, and that the only elevation possible to man lies in the depths of humiliation (or humility).  After that, the word ‘courage’ lost its meaning, since nothing could be taken from me.


“As I continued along the way, I learned, step by step, word by word, that behind every saying of the hero of the Gospels stands one man and one man’s experience. Also behind the prayer that the cup might pass from him and his promise to drink it.  Also behind each of the words from the Cross.”


Full paper and quotes can be found on the Carmelite Library Blog.

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