My daughter recently 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. The first can be found here: Letters and Papers from Prison – Part 1. Here is the second.
Part 2 of Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison” begins in August of 1943, when Bonhoeffer has been in prison for about four months, and continues to April of 1944. There continue to be a number of letters to and from his parents, but there are also now letters to and from his good friend, and the compiler of this book, Eberhard Bethge. These letters are some of my favorites. Here, then, are just a few highlights from these 240+ pages, along with some of my personal reflections.
From Bonhoeffer’s mother come these wise words:
Despite imprisonment you do have another weapon with which to help. Your intercession for those you carry in your heart and for our entire people. Can’t you perhaps help more through intercession than the rest of us, who exhaust ourselves often in vain trying to protect and to save?
I suspect that there are many times in my life when I get so caught up “trying to protect and to save” that I forget the best way to do that – through prayer. Being helpless can be a powerful way to be reminded of this. In fact, in Hallesby’s book, “Prayer”, he names helplessness as being one of two needed characteristics to prayer (the other being faith).
And here is one more pearl of wisdom from Bonhoeffer’s mother:
Life is often really unbelievable. The important thing is surely to be true to oneself nevertheless, not to lose oneself, and not to despair of humankind despite all its shortcomings.
I love these words! Thank you, Mrs. Bonhoeffer!
Analogy for Advent
In his letters to Bethge, Bonhoeffer is much more likely to “wax theological.” At the beginning of Advent, he offered these well-known words:
A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that – ultimately negligible things – the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”
As I think about this, it seems to me like this pandemic is also a good analogy for Advent. We are waiting, hoping, doing this or that, but ultimately the door to our “normal life” is locked and we cannot open it – it must be opened from the outside, which in this case means through a vaccine or some other way of living normally in the presence of this virus. What can this pandemic teach us about our salvation?
Christmas in a Prison Cell
When Christmas arrived, Bonhoeffer offered these profound words to his parents:
Viewed from a Christian perspective, Christmas in a prison cell can, of course, hardly be considered particularly problematic. Most likely many of those here in this building will celebrate a more meaningful and authentic Christmas than in places where it is celebrated in name only.
That misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment; that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn — a prisoner grasps this better than others, and for him this is truly good news.
And to the extent he believes it, he knows that he has been placed within the Christian community that goes beyond the scope of all spatial and temporal limits, and the prison walls lose their significance.
What an important insight! Christmas means, among other things, that “God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away.” As followers of Jesus, can we do the same? Turn toward those very places that the world believes too dark to enter, bringing the light of Christ to those places?
Bonhoeffer also wrote moving prayers for his fellow prisoners. Here is one of his prayers for morning:
God, I call to you early in the morning, help me pray and collect my thoughts, I cannot do this alone.
In me it is dark, but with you there is light.
I am lonely, but you do not abandon me.
I am faint-hearted, but from you comes my help.
I am restless, but with you is peace.
In me is bitterness, but with you is patience.
I do not understand your ways, but you know the right way for me. Amen
Here is a prayer for evenings:
Lord my God, I thank you that you have brought this day to an end. I thank you that you allow body and soul to come to rest. Your hand was over me and has protected and preserved me. Forgive all weakness of faith and wrong of this day and help me gladly to forgive those who have done wrong to me. Let me sleep in peace beneath your protection and preserve me from the assaults of darkness. I commend to you those dear to me, I commend to you this house, I commend to you my body and soul. God, your holy name be praised. Amen
These are prayers written for his fellow prisoners, but they could be prayed by us, too. They are simple, heartfelt, and profound.
This Life and Eternity
In several places Bonhoeffer reflects on holding in balance our desire for eternal life with our trust that God is present in this life. Here is an example:
The hymn reads, “that we may not forget / what one so readily forgets, / that this poor earth / is not our home”; it is indeed something important but is nevertheless only the very last thing. I believe that we are so to love God in our life and in the good things god gives us and to lay hold of such trust in God that, when the time comes and is here – but truly only then! – we also go to God with love, trust, and joy …
God will not fail the person who finds his earthly happiness in God and is grateful, in those hours when he is reminded that all earthly things are temporary and that it is good to accustom his heart to eternity, and finally the hours will not fail to come in which we can honestly say, “I wish that I were home.” But all this has its time, and the main thing is that we remain in step with God and not keep rushing a few steps ahead, though also not lagging a single step behind either.
What an interesting thing to ponder, and how remarkable that Bonhoeffer wrote about the importance of loving God in our life even while sitting in a prison cell! This poor earth may not be our home, but it is where we live right now, with God, every moment a gift.
Thou and It
Here is a quote from one of Bonhoeffer’s letters to Bethge that seems particularly helpful in our world right now:
We must stand up to “fate” – to me the “neuter” gender of this word is significant – as resolutely as we must submit to it at a given time. Only on the other side of this twofold process can we speak of “being led.” God meets us not only as Thou but also in the “disguise” of an “It,” so my question is basically how to find the “Thou” in this “It” (i.e., “fate”), or in other words – excuse me, I really find grease spots disgusting, but I can’t write this page over again, since then the letter will be delayed even longer! – how “fate” really becomes “the state of being led.”
First of all, isn’t there something funny and profound about Bonhoeffer writing these words about fate on paper that is stained with grease spots?! But the thought he offers here is quite profound – that we often meet God in the “disguise” of an “It.” If we think of this pandemic as an “It,” then how can we find the “Thou” in this pandemic? Or, as my seminary professor used to say, where is God in all this?
Reading the Bible
Here is a confession to Bethge that I also find to be meaningful right now:
Once again, I’m going through weeks without reading much in the Bible; I still don’t know what to make of this. It doesn’t make me feel guilty, and I know that after a time I’ll be ravenous for it again. Can that be considered a completely natural spiritual process? I’d almost say so … certainly there’s always the danger of some laziness there, yet one shouldn’t be anxious about it but trust that after a few swings the compass will point in the right direction again.
There is something so comforting about this honest confession! I suspect that we all have gone through times when it has been difficult to read much in the Bible. I know that I have. This pandemic has made it difficult for many of us to stick with our spiritual routines. If that is the case for you, Bonhoeffer offers here a wonderful word of encouragement – don’t be anxious about it, but trust that the compass will soon point in the right direction again.
Living in the Light of the Resurrection
In Bonhoeffer’s letter to Bethge that he expected to arrive around Easter he offers these well-known words:
Being able to face dying doesn’t yet mean we can face death. It’s possible for a human being to manage dying, but overcoming death means resurrection. It is not through the art of dying but through Christ’s resurrection that a new and cleansing wind can blow through our present world. This is the answer to the “Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth.” If a few people really believe this and were guided by it in their earthly actions, a great deal would change. To live in the light of the resurrection – that is what Easter means.
Writing them from a prison cell in between air raids and under the constant threat of death makes them all the more poignant and profound. Bonhoeffer clearly practiced his faith and truly lived his life “in the light of the resurrection.” It is one of the reasons we are still reading his words today, and one of the reasons why he continues to be one of my heroes of the faith.
I hope that as we continue to live through these challenging days, we can all “live in the light of the resurrection” until that new and cleansing wind, of which Bonhoeffer’s writes so movingly here, can blow through our present world.
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.