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St Johns Southgate

10 Sep 2019

An inspiring legacy

At dawn on April 9, 1945, after one-and-a-half years of imprisonment, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – the German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident – was hanged at Flossenbürg concentration camp.

Bonhoeffer has an enduring and inspiring legacy, but depending on who you ask, you might get a different answer as to what exactly that legacy is. One thing is for certain though; Bonhoeffer was intellectually and spiritually curious. In the letters he sent from prison, we can certainly see that curiosity, but also revealed in them was his beautifully ordinary humanity.

One of the things Bonhoeffer took to doing while in prison, he writes, was to memorise the hymns of Paul Gerhardt. Why, you might wonder? Well, why not!? After all, committing words to memory can do something profound to us. In my experience, learning something by heart almost changes one’s DNA, or at least adds some chromosomal definition or shading.

When I was a young man, I saw a certain film – the title of which I’ll keep to myself. Over and over again I watched it. It had such a profound impact on me (and still does), that I truly don’t know if the film means so much because it captured who I was, or because it made me who I would become. Every image, every note, is plastered like wallpaper on my mind’s room, providing a sort of gift-wrapping to my thoughts, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’d like to imagine that during his incarceration, the glorious hymns of Paul Gerhardt might have helped to frame Bonhoeffer’s darker days with some creeping light – even when, in his own words, he sometimes felt “restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird … too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work, weary and ready to take my leave of it all.”

We are complex and inevitably contradictory beings, but having some memorised touchstone truths that you can consciously, subconsciously, or even unconsciously draw upon, can help you to set the light-level in each moment’s room. Bonhoeffer himself wrote poetry that would be turned into hymns – some of which are still sung today, and would have been committed to the memories of many. The final stanza of one of his hymns, has the singer proclaim the following:

“By powers of good so wondrously protected, we wait with confidence, befall what may. God is with us at night and in the morning and oh, most certainly on each new day.”

Yes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at dawn on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before Flossenbürg concentration camp was liberated. I have no idea what would have comprised his thoughts that morning. But I hope that the wallpaper of Dietrich’s mind had some of his favourite Paul Gerhardt lyrics scrawled on it. Perhaps these words, in his task of memorisation, had marked the contours of his morning’s mind:

“Awake, my heart, with gladness, see what today is done; Now, after gloom and sadness, comes forth the glorious sun; My saviour there was laid, where our bed must be made; When to the realms of light, our spirit wings its flight.”

May we all be fortunate enough to have things of deep beauty written on our hearts when the time comes, so that we don’t need to think them, or say them – so that just by being who we are, a light might shine.

Tom Hoffmann - Pastor

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