It is an awesome thought that the eighteen months or so that Bonhoeffer spent as a prisoner in Tegel Prison was spiritually the richest, and intellectually and artistically the most fertile, period of his life. All his circumstances prior to his imprisonment were conducive to him becoming a useful and enlightened citizen. Indeed, he had already become a pillar of the Confessional Church – a teacher, preacher and scholar of growing renown, inside Germany and abroad. All this (and I do not mean it disparagingly at all) was to be expected from so honorable and honest a product of a God-fearing, cultivated, upper-middle-class home.
In his cell, however, the theologian became a mystic, the pastor became a martyr, and the teacher produced, in his Letters and Papers from Prison, one of the great contemporary classics of Christian literature. It is very difficult indeed for a twentieth-century mind to accept, or even grasp, the notion of the blessedness of affliction. Bonhoeffer provides us with a perfect object lesson. His greatness grew directly out of his affliction, and through the very hopelessness of his earthly state, he was able to generate hope at a dark moment in history, when it was most sorely needed, comforting and heartening many.
When Bonhoeffer heard in prison that the plot of July 1944 had failed, he realized that Hitler, having miraculously survived the assassination attempt, would be merciless in liquidating the conspirators. Now he knew that, in human terms, their cause was lost. God had overruled their earthly purpose, and nothing remained for him but to come to terms, once and for all, with the Cross. In the plot’s failure lay his triumph, as in losing his life he would gain it. This is beautifully conveyed in his last writings in prison.
I have never regretted my decision in the summer of 1939 to return to Germany, for I’m firmly convinced – however strange it may seem – that my life has followed a straight and unbroken course, at any rate in its outward conduct. It has been an uninterrupted enrichment of experience, for which I can only be thankful. If I were to end my life here in these conditions, that would have a meaning that I think I could understand.
Do click here to read this classic piece on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.