“How Long O Lord?”: Prison Writing and the Pandemic

Sometimes the world changes and we are caught right in the middle of it. A year ago, was the beginning of that moment for us, and every day since is lived in light of a new world, with new habits, fears and hopes. In some ways it is easy to say what has changed. We live in a world of the virus, we are often alone, and we have learned all sorts of scientific language for which previously we had little use. Yet in other ways it is a struggle to say what has changed. There are so many unique stories of loss and grief, like the loss of an elderly friend or relative, or stories of courage like those of nurses and doctors risking their lives to treat the sick. These stories are part of this new world as well. But I have found, and perhaps you have too, that there are many stories of small grief, and daily hopes which have also changed. It is difficult to speak or make sense of all these stories. Yet at times, attending carefully to one story can shed light on our own, and offer new light which unveils God’s presence even in the midst of our struggle to have faith, and find hope and experience Christ’s love.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison is one of the most unlikely and heartrending classics of the twentieth century. It is unlikely because of its genre, a collection of Bonhoeffer’s letters written from his various prison cells and interspersed with poetry and sermons written for special occasions. It was also written just before the early and sudden death of its author. Indeed, Letters and Papers from Prison is no thoughtful work of literature, but the thoughts and hopes of a man who longed to be free of his small prison cell and watched, instead, as his world of non-Nazi Germans cascaded towards destruction without him. Bonhoeffer’s Letters is heartrending because it sketches out the daily thoughts and concerns of a man who believed he would be free almost until the end, only to be executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp in 1945. Bonhoeffer led one of the most interesting lives of the twentieth century. He was a theologian and pastor, a seminary director and a double-agent who plotted against Hitler in a circle of anti-Nazi Germans. In spite of this remarkable life, Bonhoeffer’s writing reflects the suffering of an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. He requests particular books or special foods, he receives very rare visits from friends and family, and he plans a wedding with his fiancée. This combination is what makes Bonhoeffer’s writing about Christ remarkable; it is a chronicle of a struggle to follow Christ in the midst of absolute uncertainty.

In this collection, Bonhoeffer points us to Christ within his small prison cell, or least gives us breadcrumbs to follow the presence of the one who often remains hidden from us. Bonhoeffer does not provide a cheap parlour trick, where Christ suddenly appears and suffering and pain are revealed to be a bad dream. He is no escapist. For many of us, myself included, it is a struggle to see how Christ is present here, in this loneliness, grief and even death, and we long for a great rescue.

Bonhoeffer points us away from escape to endurance when he writes

One of my predecessors here has scribbled over the cell door, ‘In 100 years it will all be over.’ That was his way of trying to counter the feeling that life spent here is a blank; but there is a great deal that might be said about that, and I should like to talk it over with father. ‘My time is in your hands’ (Ps. 31) is the Bible’s answer. But in the Bible, there is also the question that threatens to dominate everything here: ‘How long, O Lord?’” (Pg. 13).

We feel here the answer to the Jewish question of agony, “How long, O Lord?,” which captures the struggle to make sense of how our time is in God’s hands. Bonhoeffer reminds us that we are not the first to engage in this struggle. We are given permission, in the midst of days, weeks and months of the new reality we live in, to both trust God and ask “How long, O Lord?”

This question is no “wish fulfillment” for Bonhoeffer. As he reflected on the place of God in his own suffering he began to reflect on the meaning of God in his own life. In one letter he writes, “God is no stop-gap; he must be recognized as the centre of life, not when we are at the end of our resources; it is his will to be recognized in life, and not only when death comes; in health and vigour, and not only in suffering; in our activities, and not only in sin.” He points to a critical paradox in our life with Christ. Bonhoeffer’s life in the cell awakens him to the fundamental ways God had been a stop-gap, a crutch to lean on in times of trouble, but now he struggles to see Christ as a very effective “crutch.” He goes on to write, “[Christ] is the centre of life, and certainly didn’t ‘come’ to answer our unsolved problems. From the centre of life certain questions, and their answers, are seen to be wholly irrelevant.”

In prison, where Bonhoeffer sits and writes with diminishing hope in freedom, he grasps that the “stop-gap Christ” is not sufficient to the pain and grief of his life, but what is needed is the Christ who comes to restore all things in the fullness of time.

The Christ spoken of in the fullness of the Prophets, the Apostles, and the Prayer Book is no addendum to our lives, but is the centre of them. This is the Christ to whom we pray and to whom we have hope. Bonhoeffer asks “Who is Christ for us in this time? Is He a stop-gap only? Or is the Christ given to us in Word and Sacrament something much greater?

Bonhoeffer was no stranger to solitude; he considered it a significant and critical spiritual practice. Yet in prison he found solace in writing to those he loved, and we find that Bonhoeffer’s struggle is not suffered entirely alone, but is marked with letters to his friends, family and fiancée. The result is a chronicle of small sufferings and joys lived in a world of suffering, grief and death, which causes readers to slow down and see God in these small and often fleeting moments. For Bonhoeffer, the solitude of imprisonment reveals that “Christ is our hope” and this is the “strength of our lives.” In the solitude of a small cell in Tegel Prison, Bonhoeffer finds Christ not in the wishes of escape, but in the steady presence at the centre of all aspects of His life. This is true even as he cries out in the midst of his small prison cell, like so many of us in a time of pandemic, “How long O Lord?”

J. Ryan Smith is a former youth worker who loves exploring the hard questions about God and faith at Wycliffe College.  In his spare time, he loves to read old books and play board games with his family.

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