“God is day and night, bondage and freedom, prison cell and the whole world. … God is both the question and the answer …
The eve of Christmas is both a proclamation and a mission; a holy night and a night pregnant with promise …” Source
I am spending this Christmas with a new friend, Fr Alfred Delp S.J. Nowhere in a million years would I have thought I would be spending Christmas in small, cold prison cell. The last place on earth you would expect to find God, a bit like a stable in Bethlehem. God is good like that. Fr Delp wrote some beautiful reflections on our life with God and these are very inspiring to read.
Fr Delp lived in Germany during WW2 and was a member of the Kriesau Circle, a powerful underground resistance “think tank” who were aware of the need for Germany to rebuild a civilisation based on Christian principles once the Nazi regime ended. Wrongly convicted of being involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler, he was imprisoned and brutally tortured.
He was imprisoned in Tegel jail, with 700 others, including the perhaps more well-know Dietrich Bonhoeffer . The men were underfed and verbally harassed, and frequently the warden refused to turn the lights on, adding to the dark and depressive spirit of the place…often being kept awake at night by the clanking chains of the cots as the unsettled, condemned men tossed and turned. Source
Fr Delp was kept handcuffed day and night, so all he wrote was done with his hands constrained in these. He writes:
We may ask why God sends whirlwinds over the earth, why the chaos where all appears hopeless and dark, and why there seems to be no end to human suffering. Perhaps it is because we have been living on earth in an utterly false and counterfeit security. and now God strikes the earth till it resounds, now he shakes and shatters: not to pound us with fear, but to teach us one thing – the spirit’s innermost longing.
Many of the things that are happening today would never have happened if we had been living in that longing, that disquiet of heart which comes when we are faced with God, and when we look clearly at things as they really are. If we had done this, God would have withheld his hand from many of the things that now shake and crush our lives. We would have come to terms with and judged the limits of our own competence.
But we have lived in a false confidence, in a delusional security; in our spiritual insanity we really believe we can bring the stars down from heaven and kindle flames of eternity in the world. We believe that with our own forces we can avert the dangers and banish night, switch off and halt the internal quaking of the universe. We believe we can harness everything and fit it into an ultimate scheme that will last. Source
So much of this I can relate to, like my desire to control and conquer, and it is particularly relevant as I prepare my heart for the coming of Christ. Pope Francis has stated the same thing when he spoke a few weeks ago about Christmas this year:
“Today Jesus weeps as well: because we have chosen the way of war, the way of hatred, the way of enmities. We are close to Christmas: there will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war. The world has not understood the way of peace…It will do us well to ask the grace of tears for ourselves, for this world that does not recognize the path of peace, this world that lives for war, and cynically says not to make it. Let us pray for conversion of heart. Here before the door of this Jubilee of Mercy, let us ask that our joy, our jubilation, be this grace: that the world discover the ability to weep for its crimes, for what the world does with war.”Source
With his hands bound, Fr Delp scratched these words onto his prison cell wall:
Let us trust life, since we do not have to live it alone, for God lives it with us. Source
His writings were smuggled from prison, an amazing feat in itself. Being in prison over the Advent and Christmas period, there is much reflection on the Christmas message and its real meaning for us mere mortals.
Here is the message of Advent: faced with him who is the Last, the world will begin to shake. Only when we do not cling to false securities will our eyes be able to see this Last One and get to the bottom of things. Only then will we have the strength to overcome the terrors into which God has let the world sink. God uses these terrors to awaken us from sleep, as Paul says, and to show us that it is time to repent, time to change things. It is time to say, “all right, it was night; but let that be over now and let us get ready for the day.” We must do this with a decision that comes out of the very horrors we experience. Because of this our decision will be unshakable even in uncertainty. Source
Fr Delp also had much time to reflect on his own mortality as he awaited certain death kept an amazingly hopeful and joyous outlook despite this. And this is the clincher for me: no resolution or philosophy or worldview can really withstand this sort of suffering unless it is empowered by a Divine Presence that transcends the deep sorrow of the present moment.
It has become an odd sort of life I am leading. It is so easy to get used to existence again that one has to keep reminding oneself that death is round the corner. Condemned to death. The thought refuses to penetrate; it almost needs force to drive it home. The thing that makes this kind of death so singular is that one feels so vibrantly alive with the will to live unbroken and every nerve tingling with life. A malevolent external force is the only thing that can end it. The usual intimations of approaching death are therefore lacking. One of these days the door will open, the jailer will say, Pack up. The car will be here in half an hour. We have often heard this and know exactly what it is like. (After Jan. 11, 1945). Source
And so Fr Delp continues to find a greatly prophetic meaning to our lives, particularly in the context of this season:
If we want Advent to transform us – our homes and hearts, and even nations – then the great question for us is whether we will come out of the convulsions of our time with this determination: Yes, arise! It is time to awaken from sleep. a waking up must begin somewhere. It is time to put things back where God intended them. It is time for each of us to go to work – certain that the Lord will come – to set our life in God’s order wherever we can. Where God’s word is heard, he will not cheat us of the truth; where our life rebels he will reprimand it.
We need people who are moved by the horrific calamities and emerge from them with the knowledge that those who look to the Lord will be preserved by him, even if they are hounded from the earth.
Someone who knew Fr Delp before he went to prison became a priest himself after the war. Fr Kreuser was interviewed about his memories of Fr Delp. Fr Kreuser’s family was very close to the Delp family, actually taking in Fr Delp’s mother when he went to prison as she had no one else to care for her.
After Father Delp’s arrest, my parents took his mother into our home. It was a hard time for her, and they didn’t want her to go through it alone. At that time his two brothers were missing in action. Also, his father was in the hospital–because of injuries from World War I, his father had been a semi-invalid for a long time. So he was in the hospital. What’s more, the family’s home in Lampertheim had been bombed, so she couldn’t live there anymore. So Mother Delp came to us and became very close to our family. Source
Fr Kreuser was taught by Fr Delp when the Nazis closed down his school, and he shines a light on the very human side of Fr Delp:
As a teacher, Father Delp was very strict. He didn’t have a lot of patience, and would give me a rap on the head with his knuckles when frustrated by my lack of understanding. So he was human, with failings like everyone has. Source
I love that he would rap him on the head with his knuckles! Now I know I’m not the only impatient teacher. Prior to his imprisonment, he was already speaking boldly about the faith, and Fr Kreuser remembers how it felt to hear him preach:
It was thrilling. The church would be full…not everyone could get in. He really had something to say to the people living in that difficult time. And his words are prophetic. Looking through his writings, you find many statements that apply just as much to our lives today as they did when he first preached them over sixty years ago. He was prophetic, and we should pay more attention to what he said…His sermons gave us a solid foundation for our faith. We would go home with a great sense of hope. And we would even come back in the evening to hear him speak again. Source
Can you imagine that kind of hunger to hear a priest preach? He mentions one of Fr Delp’s homilies on Baptism was 17 pages long, and they couldn’t get enough of it… what kind of people are we now that constantly check our watches (or iPhones) to see when mass is going to end? I don’t think I could sit through something like that. Fr Delp continues with his reflections on Christmas with these words:
The Advent message comes out of our encounter with God, with the gospel. It is thus the message that shakes – so that in the end the entire world shall be shaken. The fact that the son of man shall come again is more than a historic prophecy; it is also a decree that God’s coming and the shaking up of humanity are somehow connected. If we are inwardly inert, incapable of being genuinely moved, if we become obstinate and hard and superficial and cheap, then God himself will intervene in world events. He will teach us what it means to be placed in turmoil and to be inwardly stirred. Then the great question to us is whether we are still capable of being truly shocked – or whether we will continue to see thousands of things that we know should not be and must not be and yet remain hardened to them. In how many ways have we become indifferent and used to things that ought not to be?
Being shocked, however, out of our pathetic complacency is only part of Advent. There is much more that belongs to it. Advent is blessed with God’s promises, which constitute the hidden happiness of this time. These promises kindle the light in our hearts. Being shattered, being awakened – these are necessary for Advent. In the bitterness of awakening, in the helplessness of “coming to,” in the wretchedness of realizing our limitations, the golden threads that pass between heaven and earth reach us. These threads give the world a taste of the abundance it can have.
We must not shy away from Advent thoughts of this kind. We must let our inner eye see and our hearts range far. Then we will encounter both the seriousness of Advent and its blessings in a different way. We will, if we would but listen, hear the message calling out to us to cheer us, to console us, and to uplift us. Source
Fr Kreuser remembers how the writings of Fr Delp found their way out of prison:
The secret messages Delp sent from prison often came first to us, and were sorted, and then secretly passed on to the various people they were addressed to. I tell you, we would read his messages to us over and over. It was something that really impressed us, that he–as a prisoner, with his hands in handcuffs–would write personal greetings to his friends, that he was remembering us in prayer and sending his blessing. Source
Fr Delp knew that he was going to be executed one day, and that day came on Feb 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation, 1945.
Condemned prisoners were kept in a large cell block building… directly adjacent to the execution building. They spent their final hours shackled in special cells on the ground floor, which was known as the ”house of the dead,” before being led across a small courtyard to the execution chamber which was located in a separate two roomed brick building… In late 1942, a steel gallows beam was erected in the existing execution chamber, and originally had five, later eight hooks, for attachment of nooses. The two execution areas were separated by curtains.
Between 1933 and 1945, some 2,891 people were decapitated or hanged in this building. Many of them were opponents of Hitler’s National Socialist government. They had been sentenced to death by the People’s Courts, having been found guilty of various offences against the regime. Some of them had belonged … to the Kreisau Circle. Initially Roettger, the executioner, normally came twice a week and carried out his work in the early evenings… Hangings were notably cruel, the prisoner was led in with their hands tied behind them and made to get up onto the two step step-up, the executioner following them and placing the thin cord slip knot around their neck. They were not hooded or blindfolded. The executioner got down and simply pulled the step-up from under them leaving them suspended with little or no drop. Source
This video shows the room in which Fr Alfred Delp was executed.
While reflecting on the life of this soul, it is important to remember the many whose names are no longer remembered but who suffered a similar fate.
In the immediate aftermath of the failed coup more than 7,000 people were arrested of whom 4,980 were executed. Source
I am very thankful to Fr Delp for his words which have lasted well beyond his earthly life and have been a great source of encouragement and consolation to many. Interestingly, he could have avoided execution if he had agreed to give up his membership of the Jesuits, which he adamantly refused to do.
One final thought from the great man himself as I sit on a cold, concrete floor listening to him on the eve of Christmas 2015:
We must aim at heaven with all our strength. Man will have to re-learn, much more positively and intensively than before, that life leads from the personal dialogue with God to the actual personal encounter and the experience of unity with God. He will have to learn that this is his heaven and his real, his only, home. Then he will learn to pray, not merely as a duty and in obedience, but with intense vitality and with all the driving force of his own free will. Source
Fr Alfred Delp, pray for us!