My daughter, who is currently home from seminary, suggested that we read together Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison.” I happily agreed, since Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes of the faith. A Lutheran pastor and theologian who led an underground seminary in Germany during the Nazi period, Bonhoeffer was executed in 1945 for his role in a plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler. This book, compiled by his good friend, Eberhard Bethge, is a collection of the letters and papers that he wrote and received during his two year imprisonment. It is now considered one of the great spiritual classics of the twentieth century. As I re-read this classic, I thought I would share some reflections on the way. Here is the first.
What does a pandemic and an unexpected prison stay have in common? They both are unanticipated and unwelcome. They both test our faith. They both force new daily routines upon us. And, like Bonhoeffer, we don’t know how long our “prison stay” will last. For these reasons, I find that reading this book at this time to be particularly helpful. We may not be in prison, but we are all living through an unanticipated pandemic which is disrupting our daily life. While Bonhoeffer’s “interruption” is obviously more extreme than ours, the way that he responds to it has much to teach us. As he himself writes in one of his early letters, “I now have to practice myself what I have told others in my sermons and books.” And it is our our privilege, through these letters and papers, to witness him living out his faith in his extremely challenging circumstances.
The prologue to this remarkable book is actually an essay that Bonhoeffer wrote before his arrest. It is a letter to his co-conspirators in the resistance, “After Ten Years,” written in December 1942. There is a paragraph in this essay that I find remarkable, given when and where Bonhoeffer wrote this, entitled “Some Statements of Faith on God’s Action in History”. Here it is:
I believe that God can and will let good come out of everything, even the greatest evil. For that to happen, God needs human beings who let everything work out for the best. I believe that in every moment of distress God will give us as much strength to resist as we need. But it is not given to us in advance, lest we rely on ourselves and not on God alone. In such faith all fear of the future should be overcome. I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are not in vain and that it is no more difficult for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds. I believe that God is no timeless fate but waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.
Isn’t this an incredible statement of faith, at a very dark moment in time? And isn’t our challenge as Christians to live with this same faith today? To believe that God will let good come out of everything, including this pandemic. To let everything work out for the best. To have such faith in God that we do not fear the future. And to trust that even our mistakes and shortcomings are not in vain. And finally, to believe that God willingly responds to our sincere prayer and responsible actions.
What makes Bonhoeffer’s words and this book so compelling to me is not just this opening essay, but that it enables us to see him live out this faith even after he is imprisoned. In one of his early letters to his parents, in May of 1943, Bonhoeffer writes these words:
I now often think of the beautiful song by Hugo Wolf, which we sang several times lately: ‘Over night, over night, joy and sorrow come, and sooner than you thought, they both leave you, and go to tell the Lord how you have borne them.’ Indeed, everything depends on this ‘how’; it is more important than any external circumstances. It completely puts to rest the sometimes tormenting thoughts about the future.
Everything, Bonhoeffer insists from his prison cell, depends on this “how”. Joy and sorrow come to us all, in pandemics and in daily life. Everything depends on how we bear these joys and sorrows. And when we focus on this, it puts to rest the “sometimes tormenting thoughts about the future.”
I must say that I have had some of these “tormenting” thoughts, as I wonder what life will look like in the months to come, and as I come to terms with the reality that this pandemic is not going away anytime soon. These thoughts can be tormenting, just as Bonhoeffer’s thoughts about his future could be tormenting. But when we focus on how we are living in this moment, how we are accepting the joys and sorrows that are coming to us today, it can put to rest these otherwise tormenting thoughts about the future. In another letter written to his parents a short time later, Bonhoeffer writes:
What matters is being focused on what one still has and what can be done – and that is still a great deal – and on restraining within oneself the rising thoughts about what one cannot do and the inner restlessness and resentment about the entire situation.
Whether prison or a pandemic, it is easy to focus on what one cannot do, which inevitably leads to restlessness and resentment. Instead, Bonhoeffer reminds us to focus on what can be done. Even in prison, with visitors rarely allowed, Bonhoeffer finds that there is still much that he can do. He can, for example, read his Bible, exercise, pray, and write letters. Those are no small things. So, what can we do right now? We can at least do these same things, can’t we? And when we focus on what we can do, when we focus on the “how”, we are released from fear and anxiety and free to live out our faith in bold new ways.
Focusing on the “how” makes me think, too, of these beautiful words written by another of my spiritual heroes, Henri Nouwen:
Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and my resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.Henri Nouwen
Living by these questions, Nouwen’s “real questions,” can help us stay focused on how to bear our joys and sorrows, and how to live faithfully in the midst of whatever we are facing. And then, as Nouwen reminds us, we are invited to trust. Bonhoeffer writes of this trust, too, in that same letter that he wrote to his parents in May of 1943. He explains the importance of this trust so well, with this simple exclamation:
Oh, how our life indeed depends completely on trust, and how impoverished life becomes without it.
Indeed. Believing that God is with us now, bearing our joys and sorrows faithfully, sowing the seeds of faith, hope, and love in our corner of the world today, and then trusting that what we sow now will bear “many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.” This is what I am being reminded of as I read again Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison.”
All quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison” can be found in the Reader’s Edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison,” published by Fortress Press.