New Year Thoughts from Bonhoeffer

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Bonhoeffer as a 20th Century Martyr, London, Westminster Abbey, July 2014

Von guten Mächten treu und still umgeben / Behütet und getröstet wunderbar / So will ich diese Tage mit euch leben / Und mit euch gehen in ein neues Jahr.

Surrounded, truly and calmly, by good Powers / Protected and comforted wonderfully / So I wish to live these days with you / And go with you into a new year.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tegel Prison, Berlin (1944)

On 28 December 1944, with little else to do in his cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer scratched out a quick birthday note to his mother. He hadn’t seen her–or his father, or his best friend Eberhard, or his fiancée Maria, or anyone, really–for more than a handful of visits since his arrest in April 1943, and now that the assassination plot he’s helped formulate had crumbled into failure, chances seemed slim that he’d see them again any time soon. If only the war would end, they surely must’ve thought. Then life would return. Dietrich and Maria would marry. The family would sing around the piano again.

“I have to write in some haste,” Bonhoeffer acknowledged after a short greeting in his letter. “. . . All I really want to do is to help to cheer you a little in these days that you must be finding so bleak.” Dietrich–a dutiful, loving son–thanked his mom for her life of sacrifice for her children, and stated his belief that the trials his family endured brought them closer than ever before. Indeed, the family shouldered great burdens. Mrs. Bonhoeffer had yet another son and a son-in-law in prison under the same charge as Dietrich: treason against the Führer. But the Nazis had little hard evidence as yet, and a losing war to keep them busy. So the Bonhoeffer boys sat in jail, and the theologian son wrote his mother.

I love Bonhoeffer’s humanness. I love that he was real and not at all as stoic and convinced as movies make him out to be. As far as heroes go, I guess I like the guarded ones who cry sometimes, because I’m guarded and I cry, so we speak the same heart, and I like that about people. I love the caution he penned when he told his mom, “My wish for you and father and Maria and for us all is that the New Year may bring us at least an occasional glimmer of light, and that we may once more have the joy of being together.”

An occasional glimmer of light. It would sound a bit depressing if not for context. A prisoner of the Reich held out hope for glimmers of light. He still believed in light, in spite of bomb raids and starvation and prison walls and lonely homesick achiness. He knew the sun wouldn’t always shine; he knew the course of nature required the sun to set and rise in patterns that sometimes left the world cloaked in darkness.

But he also knew about stars, and so he clung to hope for “an occasional glimmer of light” in spite of–well, everything dark the world knew at that moment of night.

In an earlier letter–this one to his best friend, Eberhard Bethge–Bonhoeffer pinpointed the light he hoped to catch glimmers of. After reading Dostoevsky’s classic Notes from the House of the Dead (and surely it took courage to read a book by a Slav in Nazi Germany), Bonhoeffer told Bethge, “I’m still thinking of the assertion, which in (Dostoevsky’s) case is certainly not a mere conventional dictum, that man cannot live without hope. . . . (H)ow great a power there is in a hope that is based on certainty, and how invincible a life with such a hope is. ‘Christ is our hope’ — this Pauline formula is the strength of our lives” (letter written 25 July 1944, Tegel Prison, Berlin).

And I say amen to the brave bookworm Bonhoeffer. Amen to the man who could rot in jail for the better part of two years and still speak of hope.

Perhaps I like Bonhoeffer because his words reach my own way of seeing the world. Light and hope mean Christ to me, and He means Light and Hope. I savor sunsets because of the beams that bounce off clouds to reflect radiant colors, and stars keep me going when little else can. When I see these bits of creation, I think about the tawny Carpenter’s hands that orchestrated it all–the perfect pierced palms acting in deft deference to the Father. I like to remember that Christ shined in a darkness that didn’t comprehend Him, just like I don’t quite comprehend how starlight pricks through the veil of atmosphere to glimmer in spite of the deepest dusks. Just like I don’t quite comprehend how humans in jail cells can hold on to hope in the darkness of war, death, and impending condemnation.

Fast forward again to Bonhoeffer’s  birthday/New Year message to mom, and to the poem he sent her as a present. I think it’s safe to say the link between the light-hope of Christ and analogies of night and day isn’t just something I’m reading in, based solely on my own bias. Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Lass warm und still die Kerzen heute  flammen,

Die du in unsre Dunkelheit gebracht.

Führ, wenn es sein kann, wieder uns zusammen.

Wir wissen es, dein Licht scheint in der Nacht.”

Which a German professor and I once translated as:

“Today let burn, warmly and calmly, the candles

That Thou brought into our darkness.

Lead us together again, if it can be.

We know it–Thy light shines in the night.”

Recently, a few young boys asked to interview me for a history project about World War Two rescue efforts, and they asked if I thought a certain rescuer would have done what he did if he’d known he’d lose his life. I think of this question with Bonhoeffer too as I read his letter to his dear mother, Paula. Would he have written what he did–his hopes for glimmers, his love for light–if he’d known a few months later Nazi guards at a concentration camp would drag him naked from his cell and hang him just days before the Allies freed his fellow inmates?

We can’t ever know. Life, unlike history, never plays in reverse.

But each New Year I think about Bonhoeffer’s poem, and perhaps my love for the guy tweaks my thoughts, but I gotta believe that he meant what he said about clinging to Christ in the dark and the light. I gotta think he believed that no matter what course the new year brought along, God would carry him, his parents, his fiancée, his friends. I gotta trust what he said, what he confessed with his life, and I gotta hang onto it too, because like Bonhoeffer, I believe that Christ and hope make life worth living, come what may.

“Gott ist mit uns am Abend und am Morgen,” Bonhoeffer closed his poem, “und ganz gewiss an jeden neuen Tag.” 

“God is with us in the evening and in the morning, and most assuredly in each new day.”

Whether the new year brings light in glimmers or beams, there is hope in the Light of the world.

Amen.

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