Bonhoeffer’s Late Spirituality: ‘Challenge, Limit, and Treasure”

[1] On February 1, 1941, Eberhard Bethge wrote to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his best friend, for Dietrich’s birthday on February 4: I offer my hearty congratulations and wish you a good and fruitful use of your powers, success in articulating your new insights, good stimulating friends, and good coffee and tea in your new year. Along with all this I wish for myself frequent opportunities for us to get together. And finally I offer you a summary thanks-perhaps I can do this in writing-for your care and faithfulness, your kind work for me, availability in all personal and professional needs, intellectual and spiritual generosity and partnership, sharing of neckties and shoes, imagination and encouragement. How shall I summarize? The secure feeling of knowing someone with whom counsel and solutions are to be found in all circumstances. Of course, you will think this is formulated much too broadly. [1]

[2] And by return mail, writing on the day of his birthday, having received this letter and spoken to Eberhard on the phone, Dietrich writes to his friend, Among other things, you wish me good stimulating friends. One can well wish such a thing for oneself, and it is a great gift today. And yet the human heart is created in such a way that we seek not the many but the one particular other and rest there. That is the challenge, the limit, and the treasure of authentic human relationship insofar as it touches the realm of individuality and is at the same time grounded fundamentally in faithfulness. [2]

[3] These lines outline not only a beautiful glimpse of human friendship but also what I see as central dimensions of the spirituality of Bonhoeffer’s final years. That is, his late writings reveal the challenge, the limit, and the treasure of his authentic Christian spirituality, insofar as it touches the realm of individuality and is simultaneously grounded fundamentally in faithfulness. I will point to several ways I see these themes opening in Bonhoeffer’s experience, drawing both from newly published letters and essays in DBWE 16 as well as from his prison writings. I. CHALLENGE :

[4] It can be hard for those of us born later to grasp just how difficult Bonhoeffer’s final years, 1940-1945, really were. As if all that had befallen Germany and Europe via World War I were not enough, by the 1930’s Nazi chaos had begun to dissolve human society itself: truth, stability, peace, the basic coherence of shared communal reality. And by 1940 and beyond the chaos had overtaken every dimension of life in full-blown war and the Holocaust. This was life in hell, for those on the front and for those on the home front in Nazi Germany. To live a truly Christian life in Nazi Germany was a challenge, to say the least. Bonhoeffer writes, “One may ask whether there have ever before in human history been people with so little ground under their feet – people to whom every available alternative seemed equally intolerable, repugnant, and futile.”

[3] And again, on the interior experience of living in such utter chaos: “It is peculiar and in fact shameful how staying in Berlin repeatedly takes away my spiritual breath
[Lebensluft], so to speak. You probably know the feeling.” [4]

[5] The longing for an ordered life Bonhoeffer has been cultivating since the mid-1930’s

[5] becomes even more urgent by 1940. In a world where chaos threatens to undo the primal structures of society, creation, and reality itself, a fundamental gift of God is simply that of the most basic ongoing ordering of things: space to breathe, a structure of prayer and communal life that points to the reality of God ordering and ruling all things still. Participation in divine order invites us into an entirely different reality than that of the dominant discourse, the vicious demonic ongoing blast of Nazism. Dietrich writes to Eberhard, I rejoice here [Klein-Krössin] in daily morning prayer…during which, as well as while reading the Bible, I think of you and your work a great deal. Such well-organized days make work and prayer as well as my interactions with people easy for me and spare me the spiritual, physical, and mental hardships resulting from disorder.

[6] These lines come right after his reminder to Eberhard, in the midst of overwork and stress, of the need for “selfless self-love.” Thus order, discipline, prayer – and leisure – are forms of that self-love that is neither sin nor indulgence but pure spiritual necessity in a chaotic world. [7]

[6] This need for order is not confined to those with relative freedom to order their lives. In the war, Confessing Church clergy had no exemption from the draft, no way out, and most of them ended up on the front. Some of the most moving documents in volume 16 are the circular letters Bonhoeffer sends them as even – or especially – on the front lines of war these young pastors were struggling to find ways to abide in the reality of God. He writes, The silent daily reflection on the Word of God as it applies to me — even if only for a few minutes — tends to become for me the crystallization point of all that elicits inner and outer order in my life. With the interruption and dissolving of our previously ordered life, as has become unavoidable in this age; with the danger of losing our inner order through the profusion of events, through the restless claims of work and service, through doubts and temptations, battle and unrest of all kinds, meditation gives our life something like constancy. It preserves the connection with our former life…; it is a spark of that hearth-fire which the congregations at home desire to tend for you; it is a fountain of peace, of patience, and of joy; it is like a magnet directing all the available powers for ordering our life toward its pole; it is like pure deep water in which the heavens are radiantly mirrored with their clouds and sun. But it also serves the Most High, in that it opens for God a space of discipline and quiet, of healing order and contentment. Do we not all have a deep longing for such a gift, however unacknowledged? [8]

[7] And even in prison, with regular hours of prayer and Bible study, walking and writing and reading from a variety of sources, Bonhoeffer creates for himself a rhythm of life, a quasi-monastic structure and order for his day through which he can sense and live out his life’s deeper alignment with the true Lord of all – even while imprisoned under the control of the Gestapo. II. LIMIT:

[8] Where is the firm ground on which we stand? What gives our lives order and coherence? Who is God? And where is God leading? This is not always clear, even to Bonhoeffer. For there were times when what was at best the overwhelming challenge of living a Christian life at the heart of Hitler’s Germany moved past Challenge and became Limit: the huge echoing NO to life itself. Bonhoeffer was a resilient and strong and clear-headed personality, able to help others through fogs that might suffocate ordinary souls, but there were times even he was floored by the stupidity and waste of it all. Time and time again he is forced to begin circular letters with lists of those from the Finkenwalde circle who have died, heart-breaking little paragraphs about each of them: their faith and humor, their humanity shining through in some quirk or other, their favorite hymns or Scripture passages, the things their congregations loved about them. Month after month the list of these slaughtered clergy grows, icons of the inconceivable devastation metastasizing in all directions.

[9] At times he simply grieves this staggering waste; at times he says it’s not God’s will; at times he tries to trace in the monumental suffering visited on this Nazified nation some glimpse of God’s purging redemption, God’s “harsh will” and rebuke by which the people enamored of death-dealing idols may wake up to reality… And at times the suffering God is the only one he has left. In the very last circular letter before his arrest, he writes these words, the words of someone who is reaching the end of his capacity to keep carrying all this grief: Some among us suffer greatly from the fact that they are internally dulling themselves against so much suffering, such as these war years bring in their wake. One person said to me recently, “I pray every day that I may not become numb.” That is…a good prayer. And yet we must guard ourselves against confusing ourselves with Christ…. Christ was able to suffer along with others because he was simultaneously able to redeem from suffering. Out of his love and power to redeem people came his power to suffer with them. We are not called to take upon ourselves the suffering of all the world…, because we are not able to redeem…. We are called only to gaze full of joy at the One who in reality suffered with us and became the Redeemer. Full of joy, we are granted to believe that there was and is One to whom no human suffering or sin is foreign and who in deepest love accomplished our redemption. Only in such joy in Christ the Redeemer will we be preserved from hardening ourselves where human suffering encounters us, and from becoming resigned under the experience of suffering. [9]

[10] He reaches a limit, falls to his knees and into the arms of the only One who can truly suffer with us, whose love alone can redeem all this loss and our devastated grief-stricken hearts. Throughout volume 16 and the prison letters Bonhoeffer is running up against the experience of limit – most graphically of course from 1943 on in the four walls of his cell: Limit closing in on him, bearing down on him. As British bombs rain down on the city in autumn 1943, locked up far from those he loves, that madman Adolf Hitler drawing terror and death upon the world, Bonhoeffer reflects on the experience of limit. On September 13, 1943, he writes to his parents, The stormy events of the world brought by recent days

[10] of course race through one’s body here like electricity, and one wishes to be able to accomplish something useful someplace; but at the moment that place can only be the prison cell, and what a person can do here plays itself out in the realm of the invisible, and there of all places the expression “doing” is quite inappropriate. I sometimes think of Schubert’s Mönch [monk] and his crusade.

[11] The monastic impulse had drawn him to create Finkenwalde to help foster a deeper sense of the divine ordering of things for himself and the communion of life-minded souls… and now he sees himself again in the image of the monk, standing alone in his cell as the world moves on outside without him… a “monk” imprisoned in a new cell not because of his monasticism (per se) but because of the worldliness and political investment of his profoundly monastic spirituality. He is locked up in this cell not by a freely chosen vow of stability but by the chains of Nazism itself.

[11] This seems hopeless – no way out. Yet even here he experiences the deeper level of receptivity to God the monastic cell at its most profound intends to symbolize; he writes a month later, “a prison cell like this is a very good analogy for the situation of Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that – ultimately negligible things – the door is closed and can only be opened from the outside.”

[12] Even in prison, he is living in Advent: the fullest dimensions of Limit, closing in on him, open him further to the One who alone can open our prison doors…

[12] And so we move full circle again… to the: III. TREASURE: The unending mercy of the almighty God comes to us, comes down to us in the form of a child, the Son of God. That this child, this Son, is born for us, that this human child, this divine Son belongs to me, that I know him, have him, love him, that I am his and he is mine – on this my life now depends. A child has our lives in his hand.

[13] Who is this child whom prophets foretell and at whose birth heaven and earth rejoice? Only with a stammer can one utter his name, can one attempt to paraphrase all that is contained in this name. Words pile up and pour out tumultuously when one is pressed to say who this child is. Indeed, strange and otherwise unheard-of verbal constructions arise where the name of this child is to be brought to human lips: “Wonder-Counselor,” “God-Might” “Everlasting-Father,” “Peace-Prince.” Every one of these words with its unending depth, and all of them together, are straining to express only one single name: Jesus. [14]

[13] I have been playing recently with the sense that fundamentally Bonhoeffer’s is not a passion spirituality, not a Lent/Easter spirituality, but a Christmas spirituality. He knows the world is lost (as the German Christmas carol reminds us); he knows the poverty of the manger and the depths of the darkness and pain of the world into which Jesus is born; he cherishes the richness and goodness of the world in all its complexity and miraculous beauty within which God has become incarnate. And he loves Christmas; he lights up when Advent arrives and dates his letters with the Advent Sundays in a way he doesn’t much at all the rest of the church year. He hardly mentions Easter devotionally at all though of course affirms it theologically; and he references the Passion at various key points. But Christmas is his feast, the feast of love and light and hope dawning, and some of his most graceful writings come from Advent, from Christmas – for he gets it, the utter absence of sentimentality and glitz, the radical poverty and miracle of the Incarnation: God for us, God with us.

[14] And in the midst of this Christmas spirituality – that ongoing kenotic worldly prayerful graceful difficult human journey that was his life – he is able to cherish the treasure at the heart of it all: the gift of Jesus Christ, the gift of love in the flesh. Through Gestapo surveillance and conspiracy plans and danger and bombings and deaths, he writes of “the experienced love of Jesus” in a reflection on the figure of John the Beloved Disciple; he writes a circular letter on the miracle of Christmas sent out with an Altdorfer art-card of a manger in the midst of rubble; he goes on and on in rapture on the paradox and grace and transforming vulnerability of God enfleshed in Jesus in his meditation on Isaiah 9:2-7 quoted above.

[15] In a world of such disorientation and darkness, Bonhoeffer knows how to cling to the One in whom alone our hope can rest.

[15] And he finds this treasure in continuing human connection as well. We saw at the outset some of the richness of the friendship Dietrich and Eberhard cherished, and we glimpse in other letters too the pricelessness of trust and mutual presence in the face of corrosive desolation.

[16] And as if that weren’t joy enough, right there in the middle of the gigantic disaster consuming Europe and devastating the church and annihilating the Jews and every “other” and poised to smash Dietrich himself, what does he do but fall in love. In an electrifying stroke of grace, he re-connects with the brilliant young Maria von Wedemeyer. And just as he’s reaching the end of his capacity for grief in the face of all this death, casting himself into the mercy of the One who suffers for us and with us, months before he himself will be imprisoned, in mid-January 1943, Maria writes, “Today I can say Yes to you from my entire, joyful heart.”

[17] And right there in the grimmest period of the winter of 1942-43, heaven opens. Dietrich writes, Now the letter is here… I thank you for it and thank you anew each new time I read it, indeed to me it is almost as if I were experiencing now for the first time in my life what it means to be thankful to another person, what a profoundly transforming power gratitude can be – it is this Yes – this word so difficult and so marvelous, appearing so seldom among mortals – from which all this springs – may God from whom every Yes comes grant that we may speak this Yes always thus and always more and more to one another throughout our entire life. [18]

[16] He hears in Maria God’s great and resounding Yes to him – and to the world, and to all things. That he ended up in a Nazi prison and on a Nazi gallows instead is an end of the story neither of them could know. Yet again by what can only seem a profoundly Christian mystery, at the point where Dietrich and those who love him do know his doom is certain – after the failure of the plot against Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944 – the love and joy seem only to open further. On August 21, 1944, a week before Eberhard’s birthday, Dietrich writes, The key to everything is the “in him.” All that we may rightly expect from God, and ask from God, is to be found in Jesus Christ. The God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with what God, as we imagine God, could do and ought to do. If we are to learn what God promises and fulfills, we must keep on simply immersing ourselves, patiently and without hurry, in the life, sayings, deeds, sufferings, and death of Jesus. It is certain that we may always live close to God and in the light of God’s presence, and that such living is an entirely new life for us; that nothing is then impossible for us, because all things are possible with God; that no earthly power can touch us without God’s will, and that danger and distress can only drive us closer to God. It is certain that we can claim nothing for ourselves, and may yet pray for everything; it is certain that our joy is hidden in suffering, and our life in death; it is certain that in all this we are in a communion that bears us. In Jesus God has said Yes and Amen to it all, and that Yes and Amen is the firm ground on which we stand…. [19]

[17] Falling in love with Maria in that terrible winter of 1942-43, this energy of life rising into excited hope for real, grounded life on earth, he hears God’s Yes to him and the world opening up through Maria’s joyful Yes. And even in prison, a death sentence hanging over his head, that Yes only deepens. It’s not an other-worldly spirituality; he means what he says about loving the world so much and God so much – from the Yes of God to us all and the world in Jesus Christ – as to cast himself entirely in the arms of God precisely in the life of the world, the sufferings of the world, the needs of the world, the gifts of the world. [20]

[18] And gratitude is the signature of it all; God’s Yes to him in Maria, in all those he loves, in Jesus Christ, opens this happy, grateful Yes in response. His is a grateful spirituality through and through, grateful to God and continuing to learn even further depths of what gratitude can mean in human life. To learn such a thing in the place and time he was living is a rare miracle of grace. In the mystery of God, then, even in the face of such radical human sin and evil, in awareness of his own failings and those of his people, he is able to write in 1940: …That for which I can thank God is good. That for which I cannot thank God is evil. But the determination whether I can thank God for something is discerned on the basis of Jesus Christ and his word. Jesus Christ is the limit [boundary] of gratitude. Jesus Christ is also the fullness of gratitude; in him gratitude knows no bounds. It encompasses all the gifts of the created world. It embraces even pain and suffering. It penetrates the deepest darkness until it has found within it the love of God in Jesus Christ. To be thankful means to say yes to all that God gives, “at all times and for everything” (Eph. 5:20). Gratitude is even able to encompass past sin and to say yes to it, because in it God’s grace is revealed – O felix culpa! [21]

[19] Somehow – by grace, gratia, gratitude – Bonhoeffer both probes for himself and helps open for the rest of us an almost unbearably incarnational spirituality, a Christmas spirituality, a Lutheran spirituality able indeed to trace in the deepest darkness the experienced love of God in Jesus Christ. For us too he might offer these words of hope: “Then it may be said of us as well as of those shepherds: not only ‘they returned again’ to all the old bitter distress, but also ‘they praised and rejoiced in God for all that they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them,’ in the midst of all personal anguish, in the midst of the world’s night, in the midst of war…” [22]

End Notes

[1] Letter from Eberhard Bethge to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works volume 16 (hereafter DBWE 16), ed. Mark S. Brocker, trans. Lisa E. Dahill ( Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 2006), 134).

[2] DBWE 16 (I/71): 138ff.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “After Ten Years,” in Letters and Papers from Prison (hereafter LPP), greatly enlarged edition, ed. E. Bethge, trans. R. Fuller et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 3.

[4] DBWE 16 (I/19): 72.

[5] In the mid-1930’s Bonhoeffer’s deepening perception of the need for personal and communal ordering of prayer for the sake of long-term Christian faith, life, and resistance under Hitler took form in the quasi-monastic seminary community at Finkenwalde through the rule of morning and evening prayer, silent meditation, meals and study and recreation and rest. Cf. Life Together, DBWE 5 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).

[6] DBWE 16 (I/23): 78.

[7] Cf. also DBWE 16 (I/15): 66, on leisure. This is a glimpse of Bonhoeffer’s teaching during a weekend Confessing Church retreat, fascinating not least in being viewed via a Gestapo surveillance report written by a participant who was a Nazi spy.

[8] DBWE 16 (I/144): 254f.

[9] DBWE 16 (I/212): 378.

[10] An editorial note at this point reads, “July 10: the Allies’ landing in Sicily ; July 25: the fall of Mussolini; September 3: surrender of Italy ; September 9: the Allies’ landing in south Italy (“Operation Overlord”).” Widerstand und Ergebung: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen aus der Haft, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, volume 8 (hereafter DBW 8), ed. Christian Gremmels, Eberhard Bethge, Renate Bethge (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1998), 158, my translation.

[11] DBW 8: 158 (#57), my translation. Editorial note 6 here reads, “From Franz Schubert’s song, “The Crusade” (Schubert Album, song no. 72, 232-233): ‘A monk

[using archaic spelling Münich] stands in his cell at the gray window grill, many knights with bright weapons riding through the meadow. They are singing pious songs in a lovely solemn choir, in their midst is flying in delicate silk the cross banner aloft, the cross banner aloft. And at the harbor they march aboard the tall ship. It moves away on its green path, is soon a faraway swan. The monk stands at the window still and gazes out to them: ‘I am, like you, a pilgrim too though I remain at home. One’s life’s journey through waves and tides and hot desert sand – it too is also a crusade into the promised land, into the promised land'” (my translation).

[12] DBW 8 (#73): 197, my translation.

[13] DBWE 16 (III/1 on Isaiah 9:2-7): 611.

[14] DBWE 16 (III/1): 613f. Bonhoeffer is referring to the original Hebrew which piles these nouns together, an effect lost in NRSV’s “cleaning up” of the language into adjective-noun constructions (“wonderful Counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, prince of Peace”).

[15] For “Reflection on John,” cf. DBWE 16 I/178; for Christmas circular letter with Altdorfer art card, cf. DBWE 16 (I/47): 105ff. and I/37, note 7.

[16] See, e.g., the 1942 letter from Bonhoeffer to Karl Barth reflecting on trust (DBWE 16 (I/161): 277ff.); his repeated expressions of warmth and connection in letters to loved ones in DBWE 16; and the almost unbearably poignant expressions of gratitude upon spending even brief moments together with his parents, siblings, Eberhard, or Maria in prison.

[17] DBWE 16 (I/214a, note 2): 383.

[18] DBWE 16 (I/215b): 387.

[19] LPP 391, translation edited for inclusivity (cf. DBW 8: 572f.). The “in him” refers to the New Testament text for Eberhard’s birthday, August 28, 1944 , namely 2 Cor. 1:20: “All God’s promises are ‘Yes’ in him.”

[20] The reference to casting himself “entirely into the arms of God, taking seriously…

[the sufferings] of God in the world…watching with Christ in Gethsemane” comes from one of the last letters to emerge from prison as his journey moves, with Jesus in Gethsemane, toward the realization of probable death. Letter to Eberhard Bethge, July 21, 1944 (LPP 370).

[21] DBWE 16 (II/5): 490. See also his letter to his mother for her birthday (I/53).

[22] DBWE 16 (I/47): 108.