Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (A Book for The 1951 Club This Week)

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I first remember hearing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from my grandmother, and my mother before her. They both spoke of him, and Henri Nouwen, with great admiration. So it was that when I stumbled upon the The 1951 Club hosted by Kaggsy and Simon, and further discovered that Letters and Papers from Prison was published during that year, I knew that I would have to lay down the Man Booker International Prize long list books for just a moment. For long enough to gain new insights from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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The letters begin in April, 1943, although the book was first published in 1951. Dietrich was imprisoned by the Nazis in Tegel Prison, Berlin. He had just become recently engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer, and his arrest was bewildering to him and his family. From the early letters, one gets the sense that they think this is all a mistake which can be sorted out. But his parents are denied visitation, and they get no reasonable response to their inquiries as to why their son has been arrested or when he will be released. In fact, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is executed on April 3, 1945 along with other key figures of the resistance.

It is timely to read this book now, not only because the letters begin (and end) in April. But, because this is Holy Week, I am reminded of the struggles, if not persecutions, encountered in life. I am only reading about fifty pages a day, more as a sort of devotional than novel, because Bonhoeffer’s thoughts are so profound to me. They remind me of the teachings I’ve had all my life; it is from him that I grew up with the mentality that if something wasn’t hard, it wasn’t good for you.

We smile to ourselves, the women in our family, as we say my grandmother’s oft repeated phrase, “Just keep marching on.” For she, too, knew how to be brave in the face of adversity and would not let evil gain any power even when it may have appeared otherwise.

A few meaningful quotes from my reading so far:

“…I’m sure that it is good for me personally to undergo all this, and I believe that no more is laid upon any man than he can receive the strength to bear.”

“For you must know that there is not even an atom of reproach or bitterness in me about what has befallen the two of us. Such things come from God and from him alone, and I know that I am one with you and Christel in believing that before him there can only be subjection, perseverance, patience and gratitude. So every question ‘Why?” falls silent, because it has found its answer.”

“The great thing is to stick to what one still has and can do – there is still plenty left – and not to be dominated by the thought of what one cannot do, and by feelings of resentment and discontent. I’m sure I never realized as clearly as I do here what the Bible and Luther mean by ‘temptation.’ Quite suddenly and for no apparent physical or psychological reason, the peace and composure that were supporting one are jarred, and the heart becomes, in Jeremiah’s expressive phrase, “deceitful above all things…” It feels like an invasion from outside as if by evil powers trying to rob one of what is most vital. But no doubt these experiences are good and necessary, as they teach one to understand human life better.”

“Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t find fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.”

Read in a steady stream, such as I have laid these quotes out here, they may seem as if he is only sermonizing. But, I believe that he is simply expressing what he feels in his heart, and in reading his thoughts I am encouraged. It is fascinating to read his thoughts, hopes, and disappointments underneath the trials he experiences in prison.

If only my faith was quite as unwavering.

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6 thoughts on “Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (A Book for The 1951 Club This Week)”

  1. I recall reading Mans Search for Meaning and meditations by Henri Nouwen in my psychology training. They both had a powerful impact on me and my thinking. Im definitely looking up these letters.

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  2. I have not read Man’s Search for Meaong by Nouwen, only Seeds For Hope. But they are two powerful theologians, although I see Henri Nouwen as somehow “gentler.” Bonhoeffer embodies everything admirable about the Germans, particularly stoicism. This book is readily available as an e-book, so you should have no trouble finding it.

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  3. It’s been a long time since I read any Bonhoeffer, and I never did try his letters. I think I might like those best! Thank you – I will look into this book right away. This thought especially for me is potent: “The great thing is to stick to what one still has and can do – there is still plenty left – and not to be dominated by the thought of what one cannot do, and by feelings of resentment and discontent.”

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    1. Dear Gretchen, I thought of you as I read this book, and I’m glad you are intrigued as I was (and am). It seems I am hardly reminded of these important truths anymore; people seem to feel that suffering should completely escape us rather than acknowledging its tendency to refine. I am strengthened by Bonhoeffer’s faith in the face of extreme adversity, and I’m glad you liked his thoughts as well.

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    1. I particularly remember hearing of The Cost of Discipleship, but that book itself I have not read. I read his biography by Eric Metaxas, which was wonderful, and this book which is a compilation of letters telling of his experience in prison with such courage. What a remarkable man he was, and I’m glad to hear that you also find him inspiring.

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