This is the hour of faithfulness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I continue to find encouragement in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison.” 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 (and discuss it with my daughter, who is a seminary student), I am sharing some of my reflections on the way. The first two reflections can be found here: Letters and Papers from Prison – Part 1, and here: Letters and Papers from Prison – Part 2. Here is my reflection on Part 3.

Part 3 of Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison” has the subtitle, “Holding Out for the Coup Attempt: April – July 1944.” Bonhoeffer was arrested on April 5, 1943 and executed on April 9, 1945, so this section of the book takes place midway through this imprisonment. As Bonhoeffer and his friends awaited an assassination attempt against Hitler, an attempt which would ultimately fail, Bonhoeffer continued to live out his faith. In John W. de Gruchy’s introduction to this book he writes of Bonhoeffer’s time in prison: “His prison cell became a hermitage in which the passing seasons of nature and the Christian year provided a semblance of structure to the loneliness and tedium of prison life, as did reading the Bible and the visits of his aging parents with parcels of food and books.”

As I continue to relate this book to the pandemic which we are living through, these words of Gruchy’s resonate with me. We are now in the third season of this pandemic, and we continue to make our way through the Christian year. The pandemic began in Lent, and we are now nearing the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of Advent. I never could have imagined that it would last this long, just as Bonhoeffer never expected his prison stay to last so long. I am not in prison, of course, and we are not in the midst of a terrible world war, but Bonhoeffer’s words continue to speak to this challenging time in which we find ourselves. 

On April 11, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote these words to his dear friend, Eberhard Bethge:

Yesterday I heard someone say that these last years have been lost years for him. I’m glad I have never for one moment had that feeling; I’ve never even regretted my decision in the summer of ’39 (to return from the United States to Germany). Instead, I am wholly under the impression that my life – strange as it may sound – has gone in a straight line, uninterrupted, at least with regard to how I’ve led it. It has been a continually enriching experience for which I can only be grateful. If my present situation were to be the conclusion of my life, that would have a meaning that I believe I could understand. On the other hand, all this might be a thorough preparation for a new beginning.

Can we see this pandemic and 2020 in the same way? Rather than a lost year, can we see this as a continually enriching experience for which we can only be grateful? It is a challenge, but one that Bonhoeffer, from his prison cell, invites us to undertake. A month later, Bonhoeffer continues this theme in a letter to Eberhard and his wife (Bonhoeffer’s niece), Renate:

I believe nothing that happens to me is without meaning, and that it is all right for all of us, even though it goes against our wishes. As I see it, I’m here for some purpose, and I only hope that I fulfill it. In the light of the great goal, all the things we have to give up, and the wishes denied, are not of much account.

Living a life of such purpose, focused on the “great goal” of seeking first God’s kingdom, helps us to look past our current “wishes denied.”

The Form of the Church

In some thoughts shared at the baptism of Eberhard and Renate’s son, Bonhoeffer shares a reflection about the mission of the church that still rings true today: 

Our church has been fighting during these years only for its self-preservation, as if that were an end in itself. It has become incapable of bringing the word of reconciliation and redemption to humankind and to the world. So the words we used before must lose their power, be silenced, and we can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and in doing justice among human beings. All Christian thinking, talking, and organizing must be born anew, out of that prayer and action. By the time you grow up, the form of the church will have changed considerably.

I have the sense that the church is being called to change yet again, and that this pandemic is hastening some of this change. But then again, isn’t the church always being called to change? As it has been famously put, ecclesia semper reformanda est – the church must always be reformed. Or as the hymn, “The Church of Christ in Every Age” puts it: “The church of Christ, in every age beset by change, but Spirit-led, must claim and test its heritage and keep on rising from the dead.” That is the challenge the church is facing in our time, too, as we navigate our way through this pandemic. But we shouldn’t think that this makes us unique. We can see the church doing this throughout history, and we can continue to learn from those who have gone before us, just as I continue to learn from Bonhoeffer’s wise words, written from his prison cell in Germany in the 1940’s. 

Trying My Hand at Poetry

This is also the time of Bonhoeffer’s prison stay when he began, as he put it, “trying my hand at poetry here from time to time.” I have shared a couple of these poems in other posts. Here, for example, is “Who Am I”? And here is “Christians and Heathens”.

While there is much more in this section that I could share, I will simply end with another of the poems that Bonhoeffer wrote in this section, in June of 1944, and a poem that I think sums up some of these themes in this section of the book. It is a poem entitled “Fortune and Calamity”: 

Fortune and Calamity

Fortune and calamity
that rush to strike us and overwhelm,
are at first
barely distinguishable
like heat and frost to the fingertips’ sudden touch.
Like meteors
hurled from far above the earth,
brilliant and threatening,
they steer their course over our heads.
Victims stand dumbstruck
before the rubble
of their lusterless, everyday existence. 

Grand and sublime,
destroying, conquering,
fortune and calamity,
invited and uninvited,
make ceremonious entry
into shattered people’s lives,
adorning and robing
those they visit
with solemnity and blessing. 

Fortune is full of horror,
calamity full of sweetness.
Inseparably both, the one and the other,
seem to issue from the eternal.
Great and terrible are both.
People from far and near
come running to see
and gape
half envious, half shuddering
at enormity,
where powers above the earth,
blessing and destroying,
in a confusing, forever entangled
earthly drama.
What is fortune? What calamity? 

Only time divides them.
When the unfathomable thrill
of sudden event
turns to tiresome, tortuous duration,
when the day’s endlessly dragging hour
finally unveils to us calamity’s true form,
then most people turn away,
disillusioned and bored,
weary of the monotony
of calamity’s familiar tune. 

This is the hour of faithfulness,
the hour of mother and lover,
the hour of friend and brother.
Faithfulness transfigures all calamity
and quietly envelops it
in gentle, celestial resplendence.

Such powerful words, inviting us to be faithful in these challenging times in which we find ourselves, and trust that our “faithfulness transfigures all calamity and quietly envelops it in gentle, celestial resplendence.” May this be our goal and our prayer.

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.

8 thoughts on “Letters and Papers from Prison – Part 3

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