Bonhoeffer at Ettal: Advent 1940
By Timothy George
For three months during the early years of World War II, from November 1940 through February 1941, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) lived at Ettal, in a historic Benedictine monastery that is still a tourist attraction today. Nestled in the picturesque Bavarian Alps, Ettal became a sanctuary for Bonhoeffer as he found himself zwischen den Zeiten—still officially a pastor of the Confessing Church charged with training ordinands for ministry, yet drawn inexorably into a conspiracy against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.
At Ettal, Bonhoeffer experienced firsthand the gracious hospitality of the Benedictine life in which every guest is treated like Christ. He took meals with the brothers in the refectory, he was given access to the monastic library where he worked on his book Ethics, and he walked and skied on the snow-covered hills. In the company of his friend Eberhard Bethge, who came from Berlin for a long visit, he sang and made music. He bought Christmas presents for his family and friends back home, including the wife of Martin Niemöller, a fellow Confessing Church pastor being held in a concentration camp. He spent time with local school children, including his nephew, whom he personally nursed during a bout with influenza. In the midst of all this, he made ready for yet another season of Advent.
Bonhoeffer loved Advent and saw in this holy season of waiting and hope a metaphor for the entire Christian life. During the Advent of 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote a circular letter to some of his friends and former students:
The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye but finds life precisely within it.
Following his arrest, Bonhoeffer would find a good analogy for Advent in the confinement and waiting all prisoners know. Advent reminds us, he wrote, that
Misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment; that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—a prisoner grasps this better than others. And for them, this is truly good news.
The monastery was not a prison. Bonhoeffer could come and go as he liked, but never before had his future seemed more uncertain. Recent years had brought a tightening of the noose, with one major loss following another. In 1936, his right to teach at the University of Berlin was revoked. The next year, the underground seminary he had run for the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde was closed by the Gestapo. In September 1940, he was forbidden to speak publicly anywhere within the Reich because of his alleged “activity in subverting the people.” Bonhoeffer wrote a strong letter of protest but never received a response.
In 1939, after a brief three-week stint in New York, he took one of the last ships back to his home country before Hitler’s invasion of Poland. He gave Reinhold Niebuhr the reason for his precipitous departure: “I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” His brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, had recruited him for the resistance as an agent of the Military Intelligence. But as yet there was no assurance that Bonhoeffer would not be drafted and sent to the front lines, as many dissident pastors had. Until these matters could be clarified, Bonhoeffer needed a place of shelter, a haven from the ever-watchful eye of the Gestapo. His “nomadic existence” was becoming less tenable. “[I need] to plant myself somewhere a little more permanently,” he wrote to his parents. Ettal was first suggested by Paula Bonhoeffer, Dietrich’s mother, who was familiar with the area from vacations she and her husband had spent in the nearby village of Oberammergau. In this way, the Protestant theologian found himself living in a Catholic community.
Since his student days in Berlin, Bonhoeffer had been deeply involved in the emerging ecumenical movement, especially through the group called the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship Through the Churches. With some exceptions (the great Dominican Yves Congar being one), most Roman Catholics stood aloof from such movements. Bonhoeffer had been attracted to aspects of the Catholic Church since his first visit to St. Peter’s in Rome in 1924. He was also familiar with the Una Sancta movement, an effort to overcome confessional divisions through the renewal of faith among both German Protestants and Catholics, to establish “fraternity in Christ across all barriers.” While Bonhoeffer appreciated this effort, he had reservations about it. His main concern was not the goal, which he shared, but the lack of theological clarity. Without such clarity, he believed, no enduring unity could be built. These issues came alive for Bonhoeffer at one of the major crossroads in his life, during his three months with the Benedictines in the winter of 1940-41.
Bonhoeffer found spiritual nourishment at Ettal in the daily rhythms of Scripture, prayer, silence, and song. This pattern resembled, in some respects, Bonhoeffer’s organization of community life at Finkenwalde, with its antiphonal reading of the Psalms, stated hours of prayer, hymn singing, and silence. This form of spiritual life was dubbed by some of his critics as “a new kind of monasticism.” Now ensconced in a rather “old” form of monasticism based on the Rule of St. Benedict, Bonhoeffer reflected on the inherent value of monastic life for the entire church: “It would certainly be a loss (and was indeed a loss in the Reformation!) if this form of communal life preserved for 1500 years were destroyed, something those here consider entirely possible.” Bonhoeffer was all the more pleased when he discovered that the abbot and several priests in the community were reading his book Life Together and wanted to discuss it with him. Later, he wrote to a former student that at the Christmas celebration in the monastery, part of his book Discipleship had been read aloud. “That is quite pleasing, is it not?”
Bonhoeffer was clearly charmed by the place, but as a Protestant pastor he was not completely at ease with everything he saw and experienced. “The Catholic Advent seems somewhat strange to me,” he wrote to Bethge. At Finkenwalde, the Lord’s Supper had been celebrated once each week. At Ettal, Bonhoeffer could go to Mass and share in the prayers and readings, but, as he was not a member of the Catholic Church, he could not partake of the bread and wine at communion. “I am longing for the Lord’s Supper,” he said. Still, Bonhoeffer’s presence at what he called “quite a wonderful Mass” did bear witness to a kind of broken unity, a sanctorum communio not yet fully realized in the visible church of the undivided Christ here and now. Several weeks before Bonhoeffer arrived in Ettal, as war raged across Europe, Pope Pius XII had issued a Motu Proprio calling for a “crusade of prayer,” inviting Catholics around the globe to join in a prayer for world peace. In a letter to Bethge, Bonhoeffer referred to the Pope’s decree: “Today the pope has ordered a prayer for peace in the whole church. Could we not also have prayed along with them? I did.”
On February 24, 1941, Bonhoeffer left Ettal en route to Zurich. This was the first of several trips abroad that he would make on behalf of the resistance, prior to his arrest and imprisonment. In the previous year, as Advent gave way to Epiphany, Bonhoeffer had preached a sermon on Matthew 2:13-23. The words he spoke then had shaped his experience of Christ at Ettal in the Advent of 1940, and they would pursue him along the uneven path he trod toward freedom.
We are entering a new year. Many human plans and mistakes, much animosity and misery will determine our path. Yet as long as we remain with Jesus and walk with him, we may be assured that nothing can happen to us that God has not foreseen, willed, and promised beforehand. The consolation of a life that is lived with Jesus is that of this life, too, it will be said: It was fulfilled what the Lord has spoken. Amen.
Published at First Things, 12.12.16
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.