From the infamous Tegel Prison in Berlin, Germany in 1944, Fr. Alfred Delp wrote a meditation for the 3rd Sunday of Advent entitled, “The Conditions for True Joy.”
After we posted “The Once and Future Catholic Church” in these pages recently, a number of readers asked me about the beautiful graphic at the end of that post which we are using again atop this one, It’s a 15th Century painting by Raphael Sanzio, known to the art world simply as “Raphael,” entitled “The Liberation of St Peter.” It depicts this scene from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles (12:5-8):
“While Peter was kept in prison, the Church prayed fervently to God for him. The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell from his wrists… The angel said to him, ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.”
There was a time not so long ago when my prison cell became a place that all the prisoners around me came to visit on Christmas Eve. I would receive so many Christmas cards that those who had few, or none, would come by to marvel at them stretching across the cell to completely fill and transform an otherwise gray and empty concrete wall. “Wow” they would often say as they stopped at the door of our cell “How do you know so many people?”
Your cards became like the prison version of a neighborhood tour of Christmas lights. I often wondered about how some of the nicer cards mysteriously migrated to Pornchai Moontri’s side of the wall. When I asked him this one day, he just looked innocently at the cards and said, “All those angels do have wings, you know.”’ Because I could never reciprocate for the cards, we posted “A TSW Christmas Card: Lead Kindly Light.”
Such a display on our cell wall was against the rules, of course. Each prisoner has a 2-by-4 foot painted area on the wall for posting family photos and other meaningful items. Posting beyond that area was forbidden, but at Christmas, most of the prison guards pretended not to notice. “You know you have to take them down after Christmas,” the rare nitpicker would say.
A few years ago, this small snippet of humanity at Christmas also slipped away. For security reasons – to thwart prisoners who used greeting cards to smuggle drugs – this prison banned all cards of any type back in 2014. Now, all we can receive is a letter, and even that must be on plain, undecorated white paper in standard blue or black ballpoint pen. The Christmas lights are gone now. Bah, Humbug! Advent is evident now only in the heart.
At just around the time Christmas cards and all other cards were banned, a light of a different sort entered my cell, and not just at Christmas. Each week, Mrs. LaVern West brings some light and hope to my prison when she prints the comments posted at These Stone Walls and mails them to me in prison She dutifully types a nice long letter to accompany each set of your comments. At age 86, Mrs. West awakens each day to a sort of prison of her own. Widowed and wracked with arthritis, she nonetheless faces each day with a sort of heroic optimism about what the day might bring.
She says that reading your comments and sending them to me is a high point in her week. What she may not know, because I have failed to tell her, often enough, is that her small Corporal Work of Mercy is a high point in my week as well. Over time, she has come to know some of the more frequent commenters and feels a certain communal connection with them. She can also spot new or infrequent commenters right away, and often mentions them in her cover letter that accompanies the week’s comments.
A SUMMONS FROM CARDINAL AVERY DULLES
Sometimes I marvel at what readers write in comments, but some of your comments I find to be shocking. One such that I struggled about sharing with you shocked me to the core. Against my better judgment, I’ll share it with you here, but it needs a little background first. Back in 2008, just before his death, Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote his last of several letters to me after I published an article for Catalyst, the journal of The Catholic League entitled “Sex Abuse & Signs of Fraud.” Cardinal Dulles wrote:
“Your article is an important one, and hopefully will be followed by many others. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound, will be a monument to your trials. One day you may add a new chapter to the anthology of spiritual writings from those unjustly in prison, a continuation of the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Fr. Walter Ciszek, and Fr. Alfred Delp.”
As much as I admired and respected Cardinal Dulles, I scoffed at his suggestion. How could I possibly add anything to what these great spiritual writers have produced from their prisons? But over the next year, in 2009, These Stone Walls came into being. As described on our “ABOUT” page, this was mostly due to the encouragement of Cardinal Dulles and Father Richard John Neuhaus, good friends who passed away within weeks of each other in December of 2008 and January of 2009.
More than nine years have passed since then, and close to 500 posts have been written from prison and published in these pages. I never gave any further thought to what Cardinal Dulles wrote to me in 2008, but in 2018, exactly ten years later, Deacon David Jones posted this comment on my post, “Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Guilty for Being Accused.”
“Re: Father Gordon MacRae, there are a few authentic prophetic voices among us, guiding truth-seekers along the right path. He will cringe from the comparison, but among those is his mighty voice in the prison tradition of John the Baptist, Alfred Delp, SJ, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”
I just don’t see it, but Deacon Jones was right about one thing: I did cringe at the comparison. But then I remembered that letter of Cardinal Dulles and I was awestruck by it. I do not feel as though I have a mighty voice. When I type a post and mail it, I often walk away feeling that it is not very good and no one will want to read it. I am always amazed when someone does. And when I became aware that there are thousands of someones reading, I simply could not imagine why.
What struck me most about the comparison – which I still cringe at – is that none of those real “mighty voices” had any idea that their words would ever penetrate prison walls to have any impact in the world beyond. Father Alfred Delp is the best example.
THE PRISON WRITINGS OF FR ALFRED DELP
Father Alfred Delp was a German Jesuit priest who was imprisoned at the infamous Tegel prison by the Third Reich, and martyred at a Nazi death camp at age 38 on February 2, the Feast of the Presentation, in 1945. At the time of his arrest in 1944 he was Rector of Saint George Church in Munich where he had a reputation as a dynamic preacher and an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime. He was also a leader in the German anti-Nazi resistance movement, a fact that eventually got him arrested.
While in prison, Father Delp secretly wrote a series of Advent meditations that circulated to give hope to some of the other prisoners. Eventually they were smuggled out of the prison, and sixty years later were published in the book, Advent of the Heart (Ignatius 2006). After seeing the comment by Deacon David Jones about the writings of Father Delp, I looked up Advent of the Heart in the prison library database. To my surprise, the library had a copy, but it had been listed as “missing” since 2013.
I was disappointed and just forgot about it. Then, just as I began typing this post, I was at work in the library looking for another book when I suddenly spotted the “missing” copy of Father Delp’s Advent of the Heart hiding behind the book I was searching for. Yes, that’s weird – but it’s weirdness that I see a lot of behind these stone walls.
It has now become my Advent reading, and I am especially transfixed by a meditation Father Delp wrote from his bleak cell in Tegel Prison for the Third Sunday of Advent entitled, “The Conditions for True Joy.” It is difficult to imagine that he could give such a title to a text that contains this passage:
“We often use the word, imprisonment, but you need to have endured it yourself to know what it says about the inner being. You need to have sat in a small room with your hands in irons and have seen the shredded flag of freedom standing in the corner in a thousand images of melancholy. The heart flies from these images again and again, and the mind strives to lift itself free, only to awaken ever more sharply to reality the next guard’s footsteps sounding in the hall and the next clinking of keys.
“This is the condition of human beings today… Just as I know that only the Lord God can loose my fetters and open my door, exactly the same thing applies to man. But for him to have the right insight into these circumstances, he needs to call upon our redeeming God persistently and to wait in openness” (Advent of the Heart, p 112-113).
For Father Delp in Tegel prison awaiting his death sentence, this is what Advent is Calling on God persistently and waiting in openness Father Delp called this his “Advent of the Heart,” proposing this Advent not just as a spiritual preparation for Christmas, but as a way of life. He wrote that our personal, social and historical circumstances, even our suffering, offer us an entry into the true Advent, the truth and mystery of the Incarnation:
“It is the incomprehensible fact of God entering into history, that He stepped into our law, into our space, into our existence – and not only like one of us, but as one of us. That is the thrill and the incomprehensibility of the event. History now becomes the Son’s mode of existence, historical destiny becomes His destiny… in the darkest cellars and the loneliest prisons of life, we will meet him.” (p 164)
A MIGHTY VOICE FROM THE WILDERNESS
Only one thing will help, says Father Alfred Delp from the shadows of his prison to enlightening the sorrows of our time and connect us to the Christmas Encounter. That one thing is “to hear the call of John the Baptist” to prepare within our wounded hearts the way of the Lord:
“The great conversion will consecrate and transform the wilderness. It will open new perspectives and unseal the ancient springs to us. Man should lift himself up to God.” (p 106)
Father Delp’s faith gave him the courage to draw closer to God even from his prison cell, and to witness to the truth even at the cost of his life. On August 15, 1944, the Solemnity of the Assumption, he was subjected to a full day of torture for his insistence on denouncing the Nazi regime. Shortly after this, he began to secretly offer Mass in his cell.
From January 9-11, 1945, Father Delp stood trial for his resistance to the Third Reich and was declared to be guilty by Judge Roland Freisler who sentenced him to death by hanging. On January 30, his last writings were smuggled out of Tegel Prison while he was transferred to the Plotzensee Prison to await execution. On February 2, the Feast of the Presentation of Mary, Father Alfred Delp was hanged along with two other prisoners.
The very next day, massive Allied bombing destroyed the Peoples’ Court where Father Delp was condemned. The bombing also killed the judge who condemned him. Two months later, on April 9 (my birthday!), the great Lutheran pastor, spiritual writer, and Nazi resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also hanged upon the personal orders of Adolf Hitler while Allied troops advanced just five miles away. Days later, American and Russian Allied forces under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower surrounded Berlin. On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler took his own life in a Berlin bunker.
In the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent, the crowds ask John what they should do to heed his call to prepare the way of the Lord. His answers are simple: Whoever has much should share with others. Do not take from others more than your share. Do not practice extortion; do not falsely accuse anyone; be satisfied with the gifts you have. Then, in the end, comes the Great Exhortation:
“‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ Exhorting them in many other ways, [John the Baptist] preached good news to the people.” Luke 3:16-18)
John the Baptist went to prison for his words. As history unfolded, Father Walter Ciszek, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Father Alfred Delp joined him there. Their mighty voices long surpassed the length of their lives.
As for the notion that my voice now blends with theirs, I can only paraphrase John the Baptist: I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of their sandals, let alone walk in them.
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